Follow the Money: Campaign finance reports show GOP edges in key Assembly races, tight contests in State Senate

Front of the Nevada Legislature building at night

A year after legislative Republicans became close to an endangered species after widespread 2018 electoral defeats, the party’s attempted comeback was boosted by candidates in several key races outraising incumbent Democratic lawmakers during the last year.

Details from the 2019 contribution and expenses reports, due on Jan. 15, detailed how much legislative incumbents and candidates raised over the last calendar year and painted a more hopeful picture for Republicans in several “swing” Assembly races, with a more mixed view in competitive state Senate seats.

Although there are 63 seats in the Legislature — 42 Assembly members and 21 senators — actual control of the body, or more likely whether or not Democrats have a two-thirds majority (required for passing any increase in taxes) in either body, will likely come down to just a handful of competitive seats up in 2020. 

Changing the balance of the state Assembly, where Democrats enjoy a 29-13 seat advantage, could be the best ticket for Assembly Republicans. In at least three races — Assembly Districts 4, 29 and 37 — Republican candidates reported raising at least six figures and each substantially outraised the Democratic incumbent in the seat.

Only 10 seats are up for election in the Senate, with members serving staggered four-year terms. Democrats control 13 seats — one shy of a super-majority — but have not endorsed candidates in the two most likely pick-up districts; Heidi Gansert in Senate District 15 and Scott Hammond in Senate District 18. And those incumbents will start with a significant financial advantage — Gansert raised $245,000 in 2019, and Hammond also pulled in $107,800.

Senate Democrats will also have to work to defend two competitive seats — Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s Senate District 6 and the open Senate District 5, vacated by termed-out Sen Joyce Woodhouse. They’ll also have to deal with a competitive, three-way primary in safely Democratic Senate District 7 between caucus-backed Roberta Lange and two long-time Assembly members, Richard Carrillo and Ellen Spiegel.

And with no major statewide or federal races (beyond congressional seats and the presidential election) on the ballot, it’s likely that more attention and funds will make their way to down-ticket legislative races, especially ahead of an expected redistricting after the 2020 Census that could determine the political trajectory of the state over the next decade.

Fundraising reports, especially those filed nearly a year before an election, aren’t a perfect barometer of the success of any particular candidate, but offer a helpful context in determining which races that individual parties determine to be the most winnable and whether or not individual candidates have the resources to compete in a down-ballot race. (It’s also worth noting that incumbents are disadvantaged in fundraising because of a legally required “blackout” period before, during and shortly after the 120-day legislative session).

On the flip-side, a close examination of major contributors can pull back the veil on which businesses or industries are trying to curry favor with lawmakers ahead of the 2021 legislative session. 

Here’s a look at the financial status of major legislative races:

Major state Senate races

Although 10 state Senate races will be on the 2020 ballot, only a handful of races are likely to be competitive and shift the current 13-8 seat advantage currently held by Democrats.

A key battleground will be in Senate District 6, which is held by Cannizzaro, who narrowly beat former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman in the 2016 election. Senate Republicans have endorsed April Becker, a Las Vegas-based attorney. Democrats make up 40 percent of registered voters in the district, and Republicans make up roughly 32.8 percent of registered voters.

Cannizzaro, who also beat back a politically motivated recall attempt in 2017, starts the race with a significant financial advantage after raising more than $326,000 throughout 2019, spending just $22,000 and ending the reporting period with $531,000 in the bank. Her top donors include $30,000 from properties affiliated with the Las Vegas Sands and $10,000 checks each from the Mirage, Switch and the Home Building Industry PAC, as well as nearly $10,000 from Woodhouse’s campaign.

But Becker’s first campaign finance report isn’t shabby; she reported raising nearly $313,000 over the fundraising period (including a “written commitment” from herself for $125,000) and ended the period with $152,000 in her campaign account.

Top donors to Becker included several Republican senators ($10,000 each from James Settelmeyer and the Senate Republican Leadership Conference, $5,000 each from Ben Kieckhefer, Joe Hardy and former state Sen. Michael Roberson and $2,000 from Keith Pickard), as well as $10,000 each from Abbey Dental Center owner Sanjeeta Khurana, the law firm of Gerald Gillock & Associates and Nevsur, Inc. (owned by Bruce and Barry Becker ).

Another highly competitive seat is Senate District 5, where Woodhouse narrowly beat Republican candidate and charter school principal Carrie Buck by less than one percentage point in the 2016 election. Democrats make up 38.4 percent of registered voters in the district compared to 32.6 percent for registered Republicans.

Buck, who is running again and has been endorsed by Senate Republicans, reported raising nearly $63,000 and ended the fundraising period with nearly $58,000 in the bank. Her top donors were fellow Republican senators; $10,000 each from the caucus itself and Settelmeyer, $5,000 each from Kieckhefer, Roberson and Hardy and $2,000 from Pickard.

But Buck’s fundraising total was eclipsed by Democrat Kristee Watson, a literacy nonprofit program facilitator endorsed by Senate Democrats in October.

Watson, who ran unsuccessfully for a Henderson-area Assembly seat in 2018, reported raising nearly $87,000 through the fundraising period, with a significant chunk coming from transfers from other candidates and office-holders. She received $10,000 contributions each from a PAC affiliated with Cannizzaro and the campaigns of Sens. Woodhouse, Chris Brooks, Marilyn Dondero Loop, and $5,000 from the campaigns of Sens. Melanie Scheible, Julia Ratti and Yvanna Cancela.

Other potentially competitive state Senate races feature a lopsided fundraising advantage for the incumbent. Democratic Sen. Dallas Harris in Senate District 11 was appointed to fill the term of now-Attorney General Aaron Ford, and reported raising nearly $46,000 over the fundraising period ($65,000 cash on hand). Her Republican opponents, Edgar Miron Galindo and Joshua Dowden, raised only $7,250 and $ 11,500 respectively over the fundraising period.

Two Republican incumbents up for re-election also posted impressive fundraising numbers that far outstripped potential opponents. Gansert in Senate District 15 raised nearly $246,000 and has nearly $237,000 in cash on hand; potential Democratic opponent Lindsy Judd did not file a 2019 campaign finance report.

In Senate District 18, incumbent Hammond raised nearly $108,000 and has more than $91,000 left in his campaign account; potential Democratic opponent Liz Becker raised $21,700 in comparison and has just $11,200 in cash on hand.

Primary battles

One of the most intriguing legislative races could come in the three-way Democratic primary to replace longtime Sen. David Parks, who is termed out of his Senate District 7 seat. Two Assembly members — Ellen Spiegel and Richard Carrillo — are running for the seat, but state Senate Democrats have thrown their weight behind another candidate, former state party head Roberta Lange.

Lange — who only made her bid for the seat official in mid-December — reported raising more than $64,000 for the seat, essentially during only the last two weeks of December. Her major donors included $10,000 from Cannizzaro’s political action committee, and $5,000 each from six incumbent senators — Ratti, Brooks, Scheible, Woodhouse, Cancela and Dondero Loop. She also received $2,500 from Parks, $1,000 from former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s Searchlight Leadership PAC and $5,000 each from UNLV professor and former gaming executive Tom Gallagher and his wife, Mary Kay Gallagher.

But she faces a potentially tough primary fight from Spiegel, who raised $63,000 throughout 2019 and has nearly $213,000 in available cash on hand. Her top contributor was Cox Communications ($10,000 cumulative) but other top givers included the Nevada REALTORS PAC, pharmaceutical company trade group PhRMA, health insurance giant Centene and AT&T ($3,000 from each). 

Carrillo lagged behind both Lange and Spiegel in initial fundraising reports. He reported raising $29,500 throughout the fundraising period, spending $37,600 and having just $17,000 left in available cash. His biggest contributor was the Laborers Union Local 872, which donated $12,500 through contributions by five affiliated political action committees. Other top contributors include tobacco company Altria and the political arm of the Teamsters Union ($5,000 each), and $3,000 each from Nevada REALTORS PAC and the Nevada Trucking Association.

Another major primary election is brewing between Republican candidates Andy Matthews (a former campaign spokesman for former Attorney General Adam Laxalt) and Michelle Mortensen (former television host and congressional candidate) in a primary for the right to challenge Assemblywoman Shea Backus in Assembly District 37.

Matthews raised a massive $154,000 over the fundraising period, the highest amount of any Republican Assembly candidate and the second most of any Assembly candidate behind only Speaker Jason Frierson.

He reported spending $23,800 and ending the period with more than $130,000 in available cash. His top donors included $10,000 combined from manufacturer EE Technologies and founder Sonny Newman, and $5,000 each from Las Vegas-based businesses Vegas Heavy Haul and InCorp Services, Inc. 

Mortensen also posted a substantial fundraising total; more than $102,000 raised, $9,500 spent and more than $93,000 in cash on hand. Her major donors included primarily family members; her husband Robert Marshall and his company Marshall & Associates ($20,000 total), her father-in-law James Marshall ($10,000) and maximum $10,000 donations from several family members including Betty Mortensen, Tom Mortensen, Ryan Mortensen and Mila Mortensen.

Both Republican candidates outraised incumbent Backus, who raised nearly $25,000 during the reporting period and has nearly $64,000 left in cash on hand. Her top donor was Wynn Resorts, which gave her $5,000. Backus narrowly defeated then-Republican Assemblyman Jim Marchant in the 2018 election, the first time a Democrat won the district in four election cycles.

Another competitive primary is happening in Assembly District 36, where appointed Assembly Republican Gregory Hafen II is facing off against Joseph Bradley, who ran for the seat last cycle against former Assemblyman James Oscarson and famed brothel owner Dennis Hof, who won the primary but died before the election.

Hafen reported raising $62,000 over the fundraising period (including a $9,500 loan) and has nearly $47,000 in cash on hand. Bradley reported raising $54,000 and has $38,500 left in his campaign account.

Key Assembly races

Nevada’s Assembly Democrats hit a potential high-water mark in 2018, winning control of 29 seats for the first time since 1992 and gaining enough seats to relegate Assembly Republicans to a super-minority (fewer than two-thirds of members).

But in a handful of competitive Assembly seats currently held by Democrats, Republican candidates posted substantial fundraising totals that not only eclipsed but often lapped the amount raised by incumbent Democrats, giving Republicans a financial leg up in some of the state’s most competitive legislative districts.

In Assembly District 4, first-term lawmaker Connie Munk reported raising $18,600 throughout 2019 and ended the period with just over $30,000 in cash on hand. Her biggest donors were PhRMA and trial attorneys-affiliated Citizens for Justice, Trust.

But her fundraising total was overwhelmed by Republican candidate Donnie Gibson, who reported raising $115,000 and has $87,000 left in his campaign account. Gibson, who runs a grading and paving company called Civil Werx, received maximum contributions from home builders and developers: $10,000 each from Associated Builders & Contractors, Associated General Contractors, the Nevada Contractors Association and the Home Industry Building PAC.

A similar disparity in fundraising totals was also present in Assembly District 29, where incumbent Democrat Lesley Cohen reported raising $16,000 over the fundraising period and has just under $50,000 in available cash.

Steven Delisle, a dentist and former state Senate candidate who announced his intention to run for the Assembly seat on Thursday, reported raising more than $134,000 for the race against Cohen, including a $125,000 loan to his campaign account.

But Democrats may have caught a break in Assembly District 31, where incumbent Skip Daly has won multiple races despite representing a district that went for President Donald Trump in 2016. Daly raised $46,425 through 2019 and has $75,800 left in his campaign account.

Assembly Republicans initially rallied behind Jake Wiskerchen, a marriage and family therapist who reported raising $27,700 for the race and had $19,000 in cash on hand at the end of 2019. But Wiskerchen opted to publicly drop out of the race in early January, leaving Republicans without an endorsed candidate for the time being. Daly’s 2018, 2016 and 2014 opponent, Jill Dickman, reported raising $8,800 in 2019 and has nearly $104,000 in leftover campaign cash.

Legislative leaders

Democratic Assembly Speaker Frierson reported raising more than $233,000 through the fundraising period, spending $174,000 and ended the period with just under $475,000 in cash on hand. His top contributors included a wide swath of Nevada businesses, including $10,000 each from Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, the campaign account of former Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, Home Building Industry PAC, MGM Resorts and UFC parent company Zuffa, LLC. He also received $5,000 from the Vegas Golden Knights.

Republican Assembly Leader Robin Titus, who took over the caucus leadership position after the 2019 legislature, raised just over $38,000 during the fundraising period, spending more than $16,000 and ending the period with $72,000 in cash on hand. Top contributors to Titus included PhRMA and the Nevada REALTOR PAC ($5,000 each).

Her Republican counterpart in the state Senate, Settelmeyer, reported raising nearly $95,000 over the reporting period, with top contributors including UFC parent company Zuffa ($7,500), TitleMax, Nevada Credit Union League PAC, Grand Sierra Resort and Storey County businessman Lance Gilman ($5,000 from each). Settelmeyer ended the reporting period with $137,000 in cash on hand.

Sisolak

Although he isn’t up for re-election until 2022, Gov. Steve Sisolak broke fundraising records for Nevada governors in their first year in office after raising more than $1.6 million for his campaign and another $1.7 million for two closely affiliated political action committees. 

Sisolak reported having more than $2.3 million in available cash on hand at the end of 2019, and only reported spending $164,000 throughout the year. The governor also raised $1.7 million between the Sisolak Inaugural Committee and the Home Means Nevada PAC, which were initially set up to manage Sisolak’s inaugural events but have since been used for pro-Sisolak advertising. Political action committees in Nevada are allowed to accept unlimited donations.

Updated at 12:55 p.m. on Saturday, January 18th to include fundraising totals from Senate Republican candidate Joshua Dowden.

Betting on cannabis: Gaming heavyweights shape marijuana industry, even as regulators hold the two worlds apart

Planet 13 Cannabis Dispensary at night

When Anthony Marnell III initially sought to be majority owner of a Nevada medical marijuana company in 2014, he came with an impressive résumé — he was the CEO of the billion-dollar M Resort, his family had built and run the Rio for its illustrious first decade and his father’s construction company had a hand in some of the most iconic casinos on the Strip, including the Wynn, Bellagio and Mirage. 

But the Nevada Gaming Control Board put the kibosh on his plan on May 6, 2014, issuing an edict that gaming licensees must have no investment or involvement in the nascent cannabis industry. It was somewhat puzzling for executives in Nevada’s largest industry, who argued that they live and breathe compliance measures to retain the privilege of working in gaming — an industry that has overcome its unsavory past and moved to the respected mainstream in large part because of the rigor of state regulation. 

Casinos must ensure minors and card cheats stay out and report any suspected money laundering to the federal government. Prospective licensees go through a vetting process that might best be described as invasive — it includes online and in-person background checks, meetings with gaming regulators in other jurisdictions and a review of all investments, bankruptcies, real estate and even flight logs.

“There is nobody that I can think of that is more qualified to operate what I see as a very highly regulated industry other than a gaming licensee,” Marnell told the Nevada Gaming Commission in 2014. “We are the most investigated, vetted people in the state of Nevada. I have held several security clearances at the federal level … and none of them were as strenuous or as difficult or as thorough as the Nevada Gaming Control Board's process.”

In the end, Marnell withdrew his marijuana plans to stay in gaming, and regulators have not budged on their bright line. But the casino sector has still left its mark on the cannabis industry — its veterans are filling out the leadership teams of marijuana companies, and its regulatory regime is the model that the state hopes to emulate for cannabis.

State records released this spring through SB32 show several former casino executives, casino developers and restaurateurs with a presence inside of casinos as marijuana company owners and board members, along with some who appear to be currently employed by gaming companies. It speaks to the cash and business acumen required to succeed in the marijuana world, where the lack of traditional banking infrastructure has limited access into the industry, and the appeal of a new industry to entrepreneurs and risk-takers who want to get in on the ground floor.

“It has all kinds of upward possibilities. Gaming has become very white shoe,” said Tisha Black, an attorney and president of the Nevada Dispensary Association whose father, developer and former casino executive Randy Black, took over at the Clear River marijuana company when Marnell stepped back. 

But the presence of gaming-affiliated players is also indicative of their success in staying on the good side of a strict regulatory structure.

In 2014, when Gov. Steve Sisolak was making zoning and licensing decisions as then-chair of the Clark County Commission, he said he “put a silver star on every one of the people applying for medical marijuana license who have a Nevada gaming license because they have been vetted.”

Relative to out-of-state applicants, he said, those in the Nevada gaming business are less likely to be fly-by-night characters or flight risks should trouble arise. Black agrees. 

“Where you see those guys that were pillars of the community — in my mind it makes sense that they were some of the original licenses, because they’re a known commodity, they have roots here,” she said.

Veterans of gaming are also attractive additions to ownership teams because of their experience in a more mature industry. 

“You see the people who used to be in gaming bring their influence, and pretty much when they say this is how you do it in gaming, everyone listens,” said Riana Durrett, executive director of the Nevada Dispensary Association. “If they were previously in gaming or they had gaming clients, that’s very influential.”

Early morning photo of the I-15 near the Las Vegas Strip

The Las Vegas Strip as seen Monday, April 10, 2017 while traffic travels near Interstate 15 and Russell Road. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

The great divide

Since the 2014 edict, there have been little more than baby steps in allowing overlap between gaming interests and pot.

Early on, regulators cracked down on people who straddle both industries, blocking slot route operator Nevada Gaming Partners from serving a restaurant in 2014 because the wife of the owner had a minority stake in a medical marijuana company GB Sciences. Regulators said that even if the couple’s businesses were separate enough to satisfy legal requirements, it wasn’t enough to satisfy "the spirit of the notice."

“When the notice was sent out to the industry in 2014 that said you can’t play in both sandboxes, most everyone took that to heart,” said Jennifer Roberts, former associate director of UNLV’s International Center for Gaming Regulation and a lawyer for Nevada Gaming Partners at the time. 

Other gaming licensees acknowledged that they needed to choose between one industry or the other. 

  • Troy Herbst had a 10 percent stake in The Clinic, a marijuana company, and was also a partner in slot route operator JETT gaming. The slot route was a gaming venture for Jerry Herbst, who had already grown the gas station empire Terrible Herbst. Troy’s brother, Tim Herbst, told gaming regulators in 2014 that he would divest from gaming if he won a license, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We’re not going to do anything to disappoint this commission,” Tim Herbst said. Troy Herbst does not have a stake in the industry as of August 2019.
  • Brian Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, gave up his interests in Greenspun Gaming LLC and G.C. Investments — which are partial owners of casinos — to family members as he took an ownership role in Integral Associates, the parent company of Essence dispensaries. He has also recently withdrawn from the marijuana industry and is no longer listed as an owner.

The bright line between the two industries was reinforced through the work of the Nevada Gaming Policy Committee, a group that included then-Gov. Brian Sandoval. The panel’s 2017 workshop on the topic outlined myriad reasons why casinos can’t be landlords for cannabis businesses, accept marijuana money, or in any way be affiliated with the substance.

Because marijuana is still considered a Schedule I controlled substance by the federal government, even basic actions by a financial institution — a category that includes casinos — can run afoul of federal law. Potential crimes include possessing any kind of equipment needed to produce or sell marijuana, using a phone or email to facilitate any operation of a marijuana business, leasing or otherwise controlling the property where marijuana is cultivated or sold; reinvesting the proceeds of a marijuana business into any other business, and any financial transaction at all that involves more than $10,000 in proceeds from a marijuana business.

Interacting with an illegal industry could mean steep fines, asset forfeiture and prison sentences. Those risks have kept casinos out of cannabis, and regulators holding a line. 

“I think that gaming, because they’re now big corporate companies — they can’t. It’s brackish water for them,” Black said. “I understand the state’s concerns and its desires to protect gaming because that’s billions of dollars for the state, not only in jobs but in taxes.”

Gaming provides about three quarters of a billion dollars in tax revenue to Nevada’s general fund each year, about ten times the amount that cannabis does. The tourism industry overall — including direct, indirect and induced jobs — is responsible for about 450,000 jobs in the state.

Multinational casinos must get national and international funding that runs through the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Black said, so dabbling in the marijuana world “could put me in direct opposition with the regulators who regulate me and the institutions that capitalize me.” 

Regulators have made some efforts to clear up ambiguities. In 2018, they moved to allow the development of a tavern on property owned by a landlord who also had contracts with players in the marijuana industry. In 2017, they approved plans for an applicant who is a card-carrying medical marijuana user to expand a gaming business, and members have called for a “balanced approach” as new areas of conflict emerge.

“A regulatory framework that balances the myriad interests by carefully examining whether and to what degree gaming regulatory policy objectives are actually implicated would inure to the benefit of all involved,” Gaming Control Board member Terry Johnson wrote last fall in Nevada Gaming Lawyer magazine. “And protecting the crucial role of gaming to the Nevada economy while respecting the expressed will of Nevada voters need not be mutually exclusive.”

But gray areas persist. A review of state records by The Nevada Independent shows at least four people newly listed as owners and board members of marijuana companies as of August who appear to be current employees of gaming companies or married to licensees, but the Gaming Control Board declined to comment on whether those people are running afoul of the bright line.

“As Nevada statutes and circumstances regarding marijuana change and evolve, the Board often engages in discussions with licensees to identify solutions that will ensure they are in compliance with our gaming laws and regulations and those would be confidential under NRS 463.120,” the board said in a statement. 

Another argument regulators made against mixing gaming and cannabis is that it would reflect discredit on the industry. But even five years ago, lawyers were calling that idea outdated, pointing to polls that showed a vast swath of the public in favor of at least medical marijuana if not recreational (that number is now 91 percent, according to the Pew Research Center).

“All of what we are seeing now is the public opinion is pretty clearly in favor of medical marijuana,” Reno attorney Matthew Woodhead, who was listed as a minority owner on Clear River’s original medical marijuana application, told regulators in 2014. “So the concept of reflecting discredit, to the extent it does involve public opinion, seems public opinion is on our side.”

Buyers outside marijuana dispensary

Hundreds of people line up to purchase recreational marijuana in Nevada at Reef Dispensaries on Saturday, July 1, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

Physical divide

In spite of growing public support for marijuana, Nevada is arguably becoming even more conservative in separating marijuana and gaming. This legislative session, lawmakers passed a law banning marijuana dispensaries within 1,500 feet of a gaming establishment — a buffer larger than the one voters approved between schools and dispensaries.

It was an outgrowth of a dispensary ban the Las Vegas Strip resort corridor already had, and the number mirrors the distance that Clark County escort and outcall entertainment services must be from homes, schools and places of worship. The distance also reflects the separation that pawn shops must have from the resort corridor. 

In testimony to lawmakers this May, casino companies with locations in outlying areas separate from the Las Vegas Strip argued for the same buffer on the basis that it “would level the playing field, and would protect Nevada's largest industry.”

“It exacerbates guest and employee issues that we have,” Erin McMullen, a lobbyist for Boyd Gaming, said about dispensaries and casinos being in close proximity. “We have children at a number of our properties. A lot of our properties have movie theaters, bowling alleys, and we host many student sporting events.” 

It had the support of the Nevada Resort Association, the influential lobbying group representing many of the largest casinos.

“We supported the 1,500 foot buffer because it separates an incompatible land use to nonrestricted [gaming licensees],” said Virginia Valentine, head of the association. “It gives us the protection we need to comply with the federal law.”

The advent of the policy has forced at least one marijuana company — Essence, coincidentally owned by former casino executives — to stand down, scrap plans to build on a lot they had already purchased across from the Peppermill casino in Reno and look for property elsewhere.

Although the approval of the buffer seemed to suggest that the marijuana industry got pushed around by its older brother gaming, Durrett notes that her association wasn’t fighting the measure, and nor were schools or other classes of buildings fighting for a larger buffer than they already had. 

“We had no position on it because it impacted members differently,” she said.

The measure potentially foiled the plans of those who wanted to move closer to casinos or sell their license to a company that did, but those who were grandfathered into the zone or would be unable to move may have been happy to keep the competition out of that zone. 

“I don’t think there should be a mass migration anywhere, whether it’s the gaming corridor or not," Durrett said.

But questions remain about the rationale for the buffer. Longtime Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani , who served on Sisolak’s advisory panel for the future Cannabis Compliance Board, contended there hasn’t been enough explanation for it.

“There may be some very legitimate reasons,” she said. “Let’s have that discussion out in the open. What was it tied to?”

She suspects that future business considerations are at play. If federal prohibitions on marijuana go away, casinos could eventually house dispensaries, and it would be problematic to have competition too close.

“In politics, for people that say they’re free enterprise individual, it’s always about how to stop your competition,” she said. “I’ve never found an ordinance or regulation or state law that hasn’t been advanced in order to accomplish that.”

Buyers outside marijuana dispensary

Customers play baccarat at the Lucky Dragon hotel-casino on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. The 203-room, Asian-themed property opened last November. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

The future

The marijuana industry is continuing to take cues from the gaming industry, which faced the same specter of a federal crackdown decades ago before building what it calls the “gold standard” of gaming regulation.

“We were under threat of federal government basically raiding our casinos and shutting them down because of organized crimes. We had to take regulation to prevent that,” Roberts said.

The state is specifically modeling its forthcoming Cannabis Compliance Board off the Gaming Control Board. Dispensaries also hope to implement some of gaming's best practices.

One of the things cannabis companies want to emulate is a policy called “minimum internal control standards.” That’s an effort to standardize certain staffing levels for accountants, recordkeeping software and other procedures to make it easier for auditors and inspectors to spot deficiencies. 

“I think from the beginning it was always viewed as an aspirational goal,” Durrett said. “Not everything is analogous and comparable between the industry so some things you can’t follow the gaming model, but anywhere you can … It’s the best way to avoid federal interference.”

In spite of the divides on the books, observers say it’s also time to be honest about the fact that with marijuana use legal in Nevada, there's undoubtedly overlap such as tourists partaking in casinos. Giunchigliani said that for the safety of consumers, and to prepare for the future, there should be open conversation about how the two industries should coexist.

“I think everybody is playing a big game if they think that people are not smoking in their hotel rooms,” she said. “It’s legal, it’s not going away, they’re not going away, so how do you make it work for the customer as well as for their concerns in regard to the feds.”

Buyers outside marijuana dispensary

Pedestrians pass Essence Cannabis Dispensary on Las Vegas Blvd. on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

The players

The list of owners and board members in Nevada’s marijuana industry is checkered with the names of former casino executives and others in the hospitality and entertainment sector, including strip club owners and restaurateurs. Below are some of the most notable.

Armen Yemenidjian is the co-owner of Integral Associates, widely known as Essence Cannabis Dispensary. He gave up his gaming license and roles as a former executive at the Tropicana casino in Las Vegas when he decided to transition into the cannabis market. 

Beyond the three open dispensaries it has in Nevada, Essence had the highest-scoring application in all eight of the competitive jurisdictions to which it applied in 2018, winning eight additional dispensary licenses. The company’s sale to multistate operator Green Thumb Industries for $290 million closed this year.

Arguably one of the most successful players in the Nevada cannabis industry, Armen was joined by his father Alejandro “Alex” Yemenidjian, who served as president of MGM Resorts from 1995 to 1999, CEO of the company from 1999 to 2005, and CEO of the Tropicana from 2009 to 2015. He joined the Green Thumb Industries board this summer. 

Tony Marnell II owns the Marnell Companies that did construction on some of the biggest resort properties in Las Vegas, and he also served as CEO of the Rio casino for its first few years. He and his son, Tony Marnell III, initially appeared on medical marijuana license applications in 2014 as owners but then dropped off.

Strip club owners have a presence in the form of Jamal Keshmiri, whose Reno-area strip club empire included the flagship Wild Orchid Gentleman’s Club that’s been a target for the city. Keshmiri also owns Ben’s Fine Wine and Spirits, which has six liquor store locations in Reno and Carson City, and is an owner with HSH Lyon LLC and High Sierra Holistics LLC. He has coached track at Reno High School and was a former track star himself.

In Southern Nevada, Peter Feinstein, a partner at Sapphire Las Vegas strip club, was a board member at Nevada Group Wellness for purposes of an unsuccessful license application. Feinstein said he thinks he was sought out to be on the board because, as holder of a privileged license for the strip club and alcohol permits, “I have a long history of being in a regulated industry.” 

Several members of the bar and culinary industry are marijuana company owners. Howard Starr, an owner at Las Vegas Natural Caregivers LLC, is has been a co-owner of the Numb bar and frozen cocktail lounges at Caesars Palace and Harrah’s casino, as well as Chil’m at the Tropicana casino. He said he has since left the industry.

Michael Frey is an owner with BBMC LLC and Naturex LLC, but has owned cigar venues including Casa Fuente at The Forum Shops of Caesars Palace, the Montecristo Cigar Bar and a kiosk store at New York New York casino. He is the stepson of Las Vegas developer Irwin Molasky.

His brother, Robert Frey, is an owner at Caliente Development Company, BBMC LLC, and Naturex. He was CEO and co-founder or Pure Management Group, which at one time owned a large portfolio of nightclubs including the famous but since-closed Pure and the Pussycat Dolls Lounge at Caesars Palace, as well as Coyote Ugly in New York-New York. Earlier this year, the Frey brothers sued their partners in the marijuana business for $125 million, alleging they filed applications for dispensary licenses without them and ended up winning 11 licenses — more than any other applicant.

Restaurateurs Michael Morton and Jenna Morton is an owner with Acres cannabis, but is also the co-founder of Morton Group, which operates La Cave Wine & Food Hideaway inside Wynn Las Vegas, CRUSH inside MGM Grand and La Comida in Downtown Las Vegas. 

Robert “Randy” Black, the real estate developer and owner of Black Gaming, is an owner with Clear River LLC. He divested his gaming interests, which included three resorts in Mesquite, after they were hard-hit by the recession. His daughter, Tisha Black, is the president of the Nevada Dispensary Association.

Steven Nightingale, an owner at WSCC Inc., is a former operator of the Cal-Nevada Club in Reno and also an author and philanthropist. He told the Reno Gazette-Journal he went into the marijuana business because his late friend Joe Crowley, former president of UNR, was so persuasive.

Gary Primm is an owner at Deep Roots Medical but made his fortune from the Prima Donna Resorts, which was sold to MGM Grand Inc. in 1998 for $612 million. His stepbrother Roger Primm is also involved in the same marijuana company, which has at least one dispensary open in Nevada already and won five additional licenses in 2018.

Former president of Grand Sierra Resort Steven Rosen is an owner at THC Nevada LLC and THC Productions LLC. 

“I was a casino executive for over thirty-five years, which is a highly regulated industry,” he told members of the Nevada Tax Commission in January 2018. “I appreciate regulations and I understand they are there to protect the industry.”

Clark County, former SLS casino head to court over property tax dispute

The multi-million dollar sale of the Sahara Las Vegas last year has had a ripple effect beyond a major renovation and the renaming of a Las Vegas Strip property — it also has spurred a six-figure property tax dispute between the resort’s new owners and Clark County officials.

After receiving approval from the Clark County Commission last month, officials with the county’s assessor's office have appealed a decision by a state tax board to reduce personal property taxes owed by the former SLS Las Vegas last year to $0, under regulations allowing property taxes to be reduced if the assessed value is less than the actual cash value paid for the property.

But county officials are seeking to reverse that decision through an appeal filed earlier this month in Clark County District Court, with attorneys for the assessor’s office accusing the state’s Board of Equalization of granting the casino resort an “unlawful tax reduction” worth $374,000 that resulted in a “substantial” loss for the county.

“The decision is arbitrary and capricious as there is substantial evidence in the record that the 2018/2019 personal property has substantial value,” Deputy District Attorney Lisa Logsdon wrote in a Nov. 8 court filing.

Although somewhat complex, the property tax issue dovetails with the sale in 2018 of the casino resort to a company operated by billionaire investor Alex Meruelo, who also operates the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno. Meruelo publicly promised to invest up to $100 million in the 1,616-room casino and hotel, which operated for decades as the Sahara (the name was officially changed back to Sahara Las Vegas in April). 

According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the former SLS finally turned profitable in 2018 after years in the red, helped by ending a relationship with a separate management company that operated one of the property’s three towers. The property, which operated as the Sahara between 1952 and 2011, has faced difficulty in attracting business given its relative remoteness to other open casino resorts in the Strip corridor. 

Although Meruelo declined to state the price of the casino after announcing its purchase, the casino company disclosed to the state board that it purchased the property for $230.27 million — substantially less than the overall assessed taxable value of the land and its property ($321 million) estimated by the Clark County assessor’s office.

The dispute is not about the property tax value of the 17-acre site, but instead revolves around the assessed value of improvements on the property actually on the site — estimated to be $36 million in the 2018/2019 tax year, according to documents filed with the State Board of Equalization.

According to a state regulation put in place in 1983, if the initially determined taxable value for a piece of property is found to exceed the actual cash value, the assessor or person determining the taxable value “shall appropriately reduce” the assessed taxes placed on improvements and any pertinent personal property.

In other words, the state allows for property tax bills to be slashed if there’s a significant difference between the actual sale price and estimated tax set by the assessor.

Although the Sahara paid the personal property tax in October, the new owners filed an appeal with the Clark County Board of Equalization in February 2019 to dispute the taxable value figure. The county board denied the petition, but an appeal to the State Board of Equalization in October reversed the lower decision, wiping out the personal property tax owed.

Dennis Meservy, the then-chair of the state’s Board of Equalization, said he didn’t remember exact details of the casino’s appeal, but said that the case, in spite of the larger tax amount at stake, was similar to others that the board deals with.

“I’m not sure that this anything unique,” he said. “People have a right to appeal their evaluation.”

But the state board’s decision is far from final — a spokeswoman for the Clark County assessor’s office, Stacey Welling, said the office still believed the state board’s decision was “incorrect.” In the filing submitted to District Court, an attorney for the assessor’s office wrote that the board was incorrectly relying on a closed prior year secured roll value (assessed on the value of property, not improvements) to determine the cash value of personal property. 

Although the case is proceeding — a court hearing is set for Dec. 10 — neither side has resorted to making strong public statements on the tax dispute. A spokeswoman for the Sahara said in an email that it appealed the decision to “accurately reflect the purchase price,” but hoped to have the issue sorted out soon.

“This is an ongoing process that we hope to resolve soon with the State and the County,” Sahara spokeswoman Emily Wofford said in an email.

From the Bellagio to Lotus of Siam, here’s how Democratic presidential hopefuls are spending campaign cash in Nevada

Presidential campaign expenditure reports aren’t known for being glitzy. There are trips to Office Depot and Costco for supplies, furniture from IKEA, quick lunches at Panera Bread, rental cars, flights, staff salaries and office rent. 

But when your campaign comes to Las Vegas, those reports suddenly get a lot more interesting.

Democratic presidential hopefuls have spent more than $2.1 million in the Silver State since the beginning of the year, according to a review of campaign finance reports covering the first nine months of the year filed with the Federal Election Commission. Among that spending? Tens of thousands of dollars in hotel nights on the Las Vegas Strip and event catering by some of the city’s most loved restaurants.

The candidates have also shelled out thousands of dollars on event rental spaces, permits and security to local government entities, including the cities of Henderson, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas and the Clark and Washoe school districts. (Those sums are, however, unlikely to solve any funding woes.)

Another major beneficiary of campaign spending in the Silver State is the Nevada State Democratic Party, which has taken in nearly $500,000 from Democratic presidential hopefuls in voter file access and event tickets or sponsorships. Those funds will go toward helping the party run Nevada’s Feb. 22 first-in-the-West caucus.

Read below for some of the highlights of where candidates are choosing to spend their hard-earned campaign cash in Nevada.

Hotel and travel

Democratic presidential hopefuls have, collectively, spent the most on lodging at the Vdara, owned by MGM Resorts and tucked behind the Bellagio and across the street from the Aria. Former Vice President Joe Biden has spent the most there by far, about $14,400, though California Sen. Kamala Harris, billionaire Tom Steyer and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg also each dropped significant cash on lodging and travel there.

Another top grossing property was the SLS, which was recently renamed the Sahara. That was mostly thanks to Harris, who spent $17,200 there, while Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders each spent a couple hundred dollars there.

Spending patterns also hint at how the campaigns’ financial constraints of lack thereof may play into decisions about where to stay in Las Vegas. 

Steyer, who has pumped at least $47 million of his own money into his campaign, spent $3,000 at the Aria, one of the newer hotels on the Strip with its glossy curved towers and modern interior decor and another MGM property, in the month of September while former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who has struggled to raise money, spent $2,400 between January and September at the Flamingo, which opened in 1946.

But not all campaigns are spending their entire hotel budgets on the Strip. Sanders spent $7,100 at the Skyline Hotel and Casino on Boulder Highway in Henderson in March. Other campaigns spent smaller amounts of cash at Downtown Las Vegas hotels, including the Downtown Grand, Golden Nugget and the Plaza.

In the north, the Grand Sierra Resort was the most popular hotel for campaigns. Steyer by far outspent his fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls, dropping $10,100 on stays there at the end of September.

Totals spent on lodging can include stays by candidates or their staff. Most of the following amounts were described specifically as “lodging,” though some were described generically as “travel,” which could include non-lodging related expenses.

On the Strip:

  • Vdara: $21,900 // Biden spent $14,400 in early May. Harris spent $3,700 in mid-August. Buttigieg spent $1,600 in early May. Steyer spent $2,200 in July, August and September.
  • SLS/Sahara: $18,600 // Sanders spent $600 in May and June. Harris spent $17,200 between March and August. Warren spent $800 between March and August.
  • Park MGM: $5,600 // Sanders spent $500 in May. Biden spent $5,100 in May.
  • MGM Resorts: $4,600 // Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar spent $4,600 on travel in May and August, though her campaign finance report does not specify which MGM Resorts property she stayed at.
  • Mandalay Bay: $3,300 // Buttigieg spent $2,500 in May. Warren spent $900 in June and August.
  • Aria: $3,000 // Steyer spent $3,000 in September.
  • Flamingo Hotel and Casino: $2,400 // Castro spent $2,400 in January, March, May, June and September.
  • Bellagio: $1,500 // Gabbard spent $300 in mid-May. Warren spent $1,200 on travel in April, July and August.
  • Stratosphere: $700 // Biden spent $300 in August and September. Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang spent $300 in September
  • The Linq: $500 // Warren spent $500 in February and March.
  • Caesars Palace: $300 // Harris spent $300 in July.
  • MGM Grand: $200 // Self-help author Marianne Williamson spent $50 on campaign travel on July 8. Warren spent $150 in August.
  • Wynn Las Vegas: $100 // Harris spent a little less than $100 in July and August.

Off the Strip and Downtown Las Vegas:

  • Westin Las Vegas: $7,300 // Williamson spent $6,200 in April, June, July and August. Buttigieg spent $1,100 in April.
  • Skyline Hotel and Casino: $7,100 // Sanders spent $7,100 in March.
  • Hard Rock Hotel and Casino: $1,600 // Sanders spent $1,600 between July and September.
  • Downtown Grand Hotel: $1,400 // Castro spent $600 in September. Harris spent $800 in July.
  • Palms Place: $1,400 // Williamson spent $900 on in mid-May. Warren spent $500 on travel in May, June and July. (Warren apologized in August for her staffers staying at the Palms and crossing the Culinary Union’s picket line to do so; Williamson cited “travel and scheduling restrictions” for saying at the hotel, according to CBS News.)
  • Silver Sevens Hotel: $700 // Buttigieg spent $700 in late July and early August.
  • The Carriage House: $400 // Klobuchar spent $400 in early April.
  • Golden Nugget: $300 // Gabbard spent $300 in early April.
  • Plaza Hotel and Casino: $200 // New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker spent $200 in early April.

In the north:

  • Grand Sierra Resort: $15,800 // Steyer spent $10,100 at the end of September. Harris spent $2,800 in May. Warren spent $1,600 on travel in April, May, July and August. Booker spent $400 in May and September. Sanders spent $300 in June. Biden spent $300 in August. Williamson spent $300 in April. 
  • Peppermill: $600 // Williamson spent $600 in April, May and July.
  • Circus Circus: $400 // Booker spent $400 in March.

Food and catering

Fundraisers, debate watch parties and other campaign events are all fine and well on their own. But there’s one surefire way to get people to show up to your events — and that’s food.

To that end, campaigns have learned on some of the most popular restaurants in Las Vegas to cater or host events around town.

The biggest spend by an individual candidate at an individual location on catering, food and beverage was Biden, who spent $38,600 on catering, food and beverage at NoMad between May and September. Two-thirds of that was dropped on a major fundraiser that Biden held at NoMad in early May.

Other campaign spending on food and beverage was less flashy but no less classically Las Vegas. Both Booker and Williamson leaned on the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, a training school for hospitality workers, for food, beverage and catering for their campaigns.

Several candidates also held community events specifically focused on reaching out to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community at or catered by Chinese, Filipino and Indian restaurants around town, including Harbor Palace Seafood Restaurant, Hong Kong Garden Seafood, Bropards, Chang’s, and Pure Indian Cuisine.

Here’s a sampling of some of the more interesting food and catering purchases made by campaigns.

  • MGM Resorts: Biden spent $25,400 on catering, food and beverage on May 7, the day he held a fundraiser at NoMad. He spent another $13,200 at NoMad on in July, August and September.
  • Harbor Palace Seafood Restaurant: Biden spent $2,250 on catering, food and beverage at this seafood and dim sum restaurant in Chinatown on Aug. 7, four days after he attended an AAPI community event there.
  • Culinary Academy of Las Vegas/Westside Bistro: Booker spent $1,200 on Feb. 25 and Williamson spent $900 in June and July on food, beverage and catering. The Culinary Academy provides training to hospitality industry workers, and the Westside Bistro is a restaurant on its campus where students can practice.
  • Bropards: Williamson spent $500 on June 19 and Buttigieg spent $1,500 in mid-May on food, beverage and catering at this Filipino restaurant, lounge and event space in Chinatown. (Buttigieg attended an Asian American Pacific Islander Democratic Caucus community dinner there on May 11.)
  • Chang’s: Yang spent $1,800 on catering and event space at this Chinese restaurant in Spring Valley on April 24.
  • Pure Indian Cuisine: Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard spent $1,800 on catering and facility fees on March 22 at this Indian cafe near McCarran International Airport. (She hosted an event with Las Vegas’s Indian community a few days prior.)
  • PublicUs: Booker spent $1,700 on catering at this popular Downtown Las Vegas cafe in July and August.
  • Hong Kong Garden Seafood: Booker spent $1,400 on May 8, a couple of weeks after Met with members of the AAPI community at a "Community Dinner with Cory” at this Chinatown restaurant.
  • Cafe de Manila: Warren spent $1,400 on meals on Sept. 14 at this Filipino restaurant in Spring Valley.
  • Doña Maria Tamales: Yang spent $300 on catering and event space on April 23 and Harris spent $1,000 on catering, facilities and meals in June and September at this popular Downtown Las Vegas tamale shop. (Harris’s campaign hosted a debate watch party at the restaurant in late June.)
  • TC’s Rib Crib: Yang spent $600 in April, and Williamson spent $300 in June on catering, food and beverage at this barbecue joint. (The restaurant has since closed after the sudden death of its owner.)
  • Ferraro’s Restaurant: Sanders spent $700 on catering from this upscale Italian restaurant in July.
  • DW Bistro: Harris spent $700 on meals on April 4 at this Southwest Las Vegas restaurant that serves a mix of New Mexican and Jamaican cuisines.
  • Shiraz: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock spent $600 on meals on Aug. 5 at this popular restaurant serving Indian and Mediterranean food.
  • 911 Taco Bar and Catering: Harris spent $600 on catering on July 26 from this mobile taco cart company.
  • Lotus of Siam: Klobuchar spent $500 on catering on May 22 at this favorite local Thai restaurant.
  • Triple George Grill: Sanders spent $500 on catering in July and September from this Downtown Las Vegas restaurant.
  • Tacos and Beer: Buttigieg spent $300 on catering on Aug. 3 and Warren spent $200 on meals on Aug. 27 at this speciality taco and craft beer shop near UNLV.

Event spaces, permits and security

As they travel through town, candidates often host events at local schools, community centers and parks. But doing so doesn’t come free — or cheap. Sanders, for instance, paid the Clark County Parks and Recreation Department nearly $10,000 on event, sound and staging costs in September, when he hosted a rally at the Cambridge Recreation Center. 

Three candidates — Sanders, Harris and Warren — have also paid the Clark County School District thousands of dollars to hold town halls and rallies at elementary, middle and high schools across Southern Nevada. Two candidates, Warren and Buttigieg, paid the Washoe County School District to host events at high schools up north as well.

Other times, candidates have paid to host events at private facilities, such as at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada or First Friday in Las Vegas’s Arts District.

Here’s a look at where some of those events have been and how much it cost the candidates.

Government entities

  • Clark County Parks and Recreation: $9,500 // Sanders spent $9,500 on event, sound and staging in September. He hosted a climate change and “college for all” rally in Sept. 14 at the Cambridge Recreation Center.
  • Clark County School District: $8,700 // Sanders spent $1,000 on event, sound and staging in May and September. Harris spent $3,700 on catering, event and facilities in March and August. Warren spent $4,000 on facilities and rentals on in April through September. Sanders hosted a town hall at Roy W. Martin Middle School on May 30; Harris hosted town halls at Canyon Springs High School on March 1 and Nate Mack Elementary School on Aug. 3; and Warren hosted rallies at Bonanza High School on April 27 and Green Valley High School on Aug. 2.
  • City of Las Vegas: $7,700 // Warren spent $2,700 on facilities and rentals on June 27. Harris spent $4,700 on event facilities and security in June and September. Booker spent $300 on venue rental on April 29. Warren hosted a community conversation at the East Las Vegas Community Center on July 2, Harris hosted a rally at Doolittle Community Center on June 15 and at the East Las Vegas Community Center on Oct. 2; and Booker hosted an event at Mirabelli Community Center on April 20.
  • UNR: $7,200 // Sanders spent $2,400 on event, sound and staging in mid-September, while Harris spent $4,800 on event facilities and parking in late September. Sanders and Harris hosted events on the campus on Sept. 13 and Oct. 3, respectively.
  • City of Henderson: $4,300 // Sanders spent $4,300 on event permits, sound and staging in March. The Vermont senator’s first rally in Nevada of his 2020 campaign was in Henderson’s Morrell Park.
  • Reno Police Department: Sanders spent $2,400 on event security in early June, after hosting a rally in Reno City Plaza on May 29.
  • Washoe County School District: Buttigieg spent $500 on a site rental in September, and Warren spent $800 on facilities and rental expenses in early April. Buttigieg hosted a rally at Sparks High School on Sept. 28, while Warren hosted a rally at Wooster High School on April 6.
  • Carson City Parks and Recreation: $1,000 // Sanders spent $1,000 for event planning fees on Sept. 13, the day he hosted a town hall at the Carson City Community Center Gymnasium.
  • North Las Vegas: Sanders spent $400 on event security in July.

Other rental spaces

  • Springs Preserve: Yang spent $5,800 on event space in April, and Warren spent $6,100 in February and March. Yang held a rally there in April, while Warren held one in February.
  • Victory Missionary Baptist Church: Sanders spent $7,000 on event, sound and staging for a town hall he held there on July 6.
  • The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada: Sanders spent $2,000 on event, sound and staging in August; Biden spent $2,000 on site rentals in June, July and August; and Williamson spent $300 on rental fees in April. Williamson and Sanders hosted events at the Center in April and August, respectively.
  • First Friday Foundation Las Vegas: Buttigieg spent $3,500 on event registration on Aug. 1. He spoke at First Friday in the Arts District the following day.
  • Blind Center of Nevada: Klobuchar spent $3,000 to rent space in April. She hosted a meet-and-greet with local voters there on April 7.
  • Desert Willow Golf Course: Biden spent $2,800 for a rally he held at Sun City MacDonald Ranch on Aug. 3.
  • Saint Simeon Orthodox Church: Sanders spent $2,000 on event, sound and staging in September. The Vermont senator was slated to hold a rally there with Assemblyman Alexander Assefa on Oct. 2 but was hospitalized following a heart attack the prior evening.

Other spending

Another significant expense for campaigns over the last nine months has been access to the Nevada State Democratic Party’s voter file. Four campaigns have paid the party $100,000 for access to the file, according to FEC reports, while others have made smaller payments toward the full cost of the voter file.

Other expenses include contributions to local organizations, such as Hispanics in Politics and Battle Born Progress, to attend or sponsor events and sign language interpretation services.

Here’s a look at some of those miscellaneous expenses.

Parties

  • Nevada State Democratic Party: Sanders, Biden, Harris and Buttigieg have all paid the party $100,000 each for access to its voter file. Yang has also spent $5,000 and Steyer has spent $75,000 for voter file access, something that the campaigns are allowed to pay in installments. The party has also raised money through event tickets and registration fees: Bullock paid the party a little less than $400 for event meals on Aug. 2; Booker spent $1,500 on event tickets on Sept. 25; Harris spent $3,100 on event tickets on Sept. 23; Buttigieg spent $2,500 on a registration fee on Sept. 25 and $1,500 on a site rental on Sept. 23; and Steyer spent $1,500 on an event sponsorship on Sept. 19.
  • Red Rock Democratic Club: Several campaigns paid the club for event tickets: Sanders spent $450, Biden spent $35 and Booker spent $550. 
  • Women’s Democratic Club of Clark County: Warren spent $2,500 on a contribution on Aug. 12.

Community group spending

  • Battle Born Progress: Sanders spent $1,500 on an event registration fee on Sept. 17, while Buttigieg spent $1,500 as an event sponsor on Sept. 23.
  • Hispanics in Politics: Booker spent about $900 on event tickets on Aug. 28, while Yang spent $500 on event space on April 30.
  • Armed Forces and Military Appreciation Inc.: Several candidates made contributions or purchased event tickets from this group, including $250 each from Biden, Booker and Harris. The group puts on an annual Armed Forces, Military Veterans and First Responders Appreciation Day at Craig Ranch Regional Park.

Other

  • American Sign Language Communication: Sanders spent $3,800 on interpretation services from March through September. Warren spent $500 in July and August.

IndyTalks: Washoe school district leaders on district challenges, Traci Davis firing

Interview with Kristen McNeil and Kathy Simon Holland

Despite rising graduation rates and other positive indicators, Washoe County School District leaders say the district has to “do better” on issues ranging from low ACT test scores to rebuilding trust after an acrimonious, public firing of the district’s former superintendent earlier this year.

At an IndyTalks forum hosted at the Grand Sierra Resort on Wednesday, Nevada Independent editor Jon Ralston questioned Washoe County School District Board of Trustees President Katy Simon Holland and interim Superintendent Kristen McNeil on issues facing the school district, from the termination of former superintendent Traci Davis last summer to plans to reduce class sizes and its relationship with local charter schools. McNeill also disclosed during the event that she plans to “throw her name in the ring” and seek the permanent superintendent position (the board plans to conduct a national search for superintendent candidates.)

Kathy Simon Holland answers question
Washoe County School District Board of Trustees president Kathy Simon Holland answers a question during an IndyTalks forum at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno on Oct. 30, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Simon Holland, elected to the school board in 2016 and made president in 2018, cited numerous examples of the district’s successes — an 84 percent high school graduation rate, high Advanced Placement test passage rates and favorable marks from outside educational ranking entities — but nonetheless acknowledged several areas of possible improvement, pointing to recently released data showing the district and state below the national averages on ACT scores.

McNeill, a former teacher, principal and deputy superintendent who took the interim role over summer, said the low college-readiness scores and other disappointing metrics — plus low teacher morale, an issue raised by teachers who attended the event — meant the district was starting to look beyond its goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 (a campaign dubbed “90 by 20”).

“We are not pleased with where that is,” she said. “We have to do better. We have to do better as a district. We have to do better as a state, we absolutely do. Our focus has been for quite a while, around a decade or so, on graduation. But there are other points that we need to put our emphasis and our resources in.”

Kristen McNeil
Washoe County School District interim Superintendent Kristen McNeil answers a question during an IndyTalks forum at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno on Oct. 30, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Here’s what else McNeill and Simon Holland had to say during the IndyTalks event. A video of the event is posted below this story.

Traci Davis

After leading the district for five years, Davis took an “indefinite” leave of absence in mid-June, kicking off a public feud between the then-superintendent and school board members including Simon Holland. District officials alleged that Davis showed “recklessly negligent supervision” and “gross misconduct” in leaking confidential information, while Davis said that “racial issues” played a role in the ouster.

Ultimately, the school board voted 6-1 to terminate Davis at a special board meeting in July. In turn, she filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the district in late August, challenging the district’s reasons for firing her and saying no investigation occurred to prove that she leaked confidential information. 

Simon Holland said she had “no doubts” about her and the board’s decisions that led to the firing of Davis, saying that her only regret was in the balancing of the public’s right to know what was going on with personnel matters that, under law, had to be kept confidential. She brushed away questions of whether the board reached a preordained conclusion prior to its July meeting to fire Davis, saying that there were “no decisions made behind closed doors.”

“I certainly wish it could have been done differently—and I don't see a lot of ways it could have been done differently,” Simon Holland said.

For her part, McNeil said that she was focused on building a sense of trust, acknowledging that “it's not going to turn the corner in one year” but that a sustained effort of listening to teachers and district employees would over time help improve morale.

“I have, unfortunately, the reputation to be answering emails at midnight and a little bit later in the evening, but it's getting back to people,” she said. “It's making that courtesy that I may not be able to solve your issue, but at least I'm listening to your issue. And so establishing that trust was extremely important to me as an individual, and it was important to me as a superintendent.” 

Jon Ralston, Interim Superintendent Kristen McNeill and Board President Katy Simon Holland
Jon Ralston, Interim Superintendent Kristen McNeill and Board President Katy Simon Holland during IndyTalks Reno: The Future of the Washoe County School District on Oct. 30, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Education funding

Although Washoe County voted in 2016 to raise the county’s sales tax to provide an estimated $781 million in bonding capacity for new school construction, both Simon Holland and McNeil said that the answer to many of the district’s woes, from high student-to-teacher ratios to difficulties with English Language Learner populations, would come in the form of new funding.

Without discussing a specific tax proposal or plan, McNeil said that it was clear from her position that the state needs to get serious about education funding.

“We need to raise more dollars in the state of Nevada for education,” she said. “We're talking about our future. We're talking about the future of our state and by gosh, if we want to be the state that's going to take education head-on, then let's get the money in the room. Let's start doing it. Let's start having those talks. Let's start putting it out there on the table. We need to start making this a statewide issue.”

McNeil said she was looking forward to seeing the work of the technical committee guiding implementation of the state’s new funding formula, the latest attempt to overhaul the confusing and oft-criticized 52-year-old education funding formula. Under a bill approved in the waning moments of the 2019 Legislature, the committee is charged with implementing the new formula — which places all revenue in a single pot and moves toward a “weighted” system, where student groups with more needs receive extra money — in tandem with the existing formula, with instructions to have recommendations on implementing the new formula in place by 2020.

McNeil offered cautious praise for the funding formula committee, saying that its members were an “amazing team” but that the “proof is going to be in the pudding” in terms of its recommendations. Asked on what she was hoping for out of the committee, McNeil said she hoped the results would be “equitable” and take student diversity into the equation, but reiterated that real change would require additional funding.

“At the end of the day, we need more resources,” she said.

Gov. Steve Sisolak asks a question
Gov. Steve Sisolak asks a question during an IndyTalks event at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno on Oct. 30, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Charter Schools and unions

A burgeoning school choice movement and the rise of charter and other alternatives to public schools (seven public charter schools in Washoe County) doesn’t necessarily worry McNeil or Simon Holland, each of whom said they view charters as complementary to the district’s goals.

“We absolutely value choice and we also know that education is really hard work. It's really hard work for a charter school, it's really hard work for a private school and it's really hard work for a public school,” Simon Holland said. “Many of our charters lost ground this year in the state and actually were downgraded in their star rating and that's a huge blow for them. It's a huge blow for us when any of our schools are downgraded.”

Simon Holland also avoided any criticism of public school unions, saying that she and McNeil both had excellent relationships with union leaders and that they were not an “impediment” to their goals for the district.

“I think in our, in our situation, they are good for employees and they're good for the district,” she said.

Buttigieg makes first Northern Nevada swing, becomes first Democratic presidential hopeful to file caucus paperwork

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg tours the weekly motels in Downtown Reno

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg capped off a daylong swing through Northern Nevada on Saturday by becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to file paperwork to participate in Nevada’s caucuses.

Buttigieg, who has surged in the race from a little-known Midwest mayor to one of the top five contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, handed over his paperwork at the Nevada State Democratic Party’s Keep Nevada Blue Dinner at the Grand Sierra Resort, where he pitched his vision for representing the people of the United States and promised to end the drama in Washington D.C. The dinner was also attended by fellow presidential candidate Tom Steyer and U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen.

Though largely a symbolic gesture, the paperwork filing — coupled with Buttigieg’s decision to attend a Democratic Party dinner skipped by most other presidential hopefuls — telegraph his campaign’s recent and intense focus on Nevada, despite being the last of the top-tier candidates to arrive on the ground here. Since June, Buttigieg has brought on 35 staffers in the state and has plans to open 10 offices in the state by mid-October, including in Reno, Carson City, Fallon and Pahrump.

Saturday also marked Buttigieg’s first trip to Northern Nevada and his fourth trip to the Silver State since announcing his candidacy in April.

In the morning, Buttigieg walked around Fifth Street in downtown Reno, where he talked with people who have lived in weekly motels to avoid living on the street. Though often dirty and dilapidated, weekly motels are often the only housing that low-income residents can afford in an increasingly pricey city, and the demolition of many of them in recent years has only exacerbated the city’s housing crisis.

Northern Nevada HOPES, a community health center that offers affordable medical, behavioral, and support services, also hosted Buttigieg for a broader discussion of that housing crisis.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg meets with striking UAW members at the GM Distribution Center in Reno on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Buttigieg also met with roughly two dozen members of the United Auto Workers union on strike on Saturday at the GM Distribution Center in Northwest Reno to talk about better working conditions. UAW workers have been on strike nationwide since Sep. 16, when they stopped work at 31 GM factories and 21 other facilities across nine states as the union pushes for increases in pay for temporary and less-senior workers, reopen plants and focus production in the United States instead of Mexico.

After meeting with the striking workers, Buttigieg hosted a campaign rally at Sparks High School attended by about 750 people. During his speech, Buttigieg outlined the issues he would tackle as president. His speech was briefly derailed when the power went out because of a storm outside, but he finished speaking with the help of rallygoers who lit the room with their phones.

Buttigieg will return to Nevada on Oct. 2 to participate in a presidential gun safety forum hosted by Gifford and March for Our Lives and attend a roundtable discussion and tour at UMC. He also is slated to return to Las Vegas on Oct. 22 to keynote Battle Born Progress's annual Celebrate Progress fundraiser.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg hosts a rally at Sparks High School on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Business, education meetings dominated Sisolak's calendar amid legislative session

Governor-elect Steve Sisolak and his wife, Kathy, tour the Governor's Mansion in Carson City

In retrospect, May 21 was one of the most important days of the 2019 Legislature.

A bill getting rid of a scheduled reduction in the state’s payroll tax was introduced for the first time; lawmakers voted out bills adding Nevada to the National Popular Vote Compact (later vetoed) and decriminalizing abortion; and long-awaited hearings were finally held on bills creating a cannabis regulatory agency and substantially overhauling the state’s K-12 education formula.

Gov. Steve Sisolak was similarly busy on May 21, but for different reasons. Amid a packed schedule that saw him attend a wildfire status briefing and the cannabis bill hearing, the governor was also busy on the second-to-last Tuesday before the end of the Legislature calling several high-profile business and gaming executives — Eldorado Resorts’ Gary Carano, Peppermill Resorts President Billy Paganetti and Ultimate Fighting Championship COO Ike Lawrence Epstein.

Described by his office as general check-ins, the scheduled calls were part of a slew of calls made by Sisolak as the legislative session drew to a close, indicating that the governor kept open lines of communication with top business leaders even as lawmakers approved bills raising the minimum wage and requiring large private employers to offer paid sick leave — panned as anti-business by Republicans. 

Those meetings and others held between Sisolak with high-powered lobbyists, legislators with major pending bills, federal government officials and a slew of well-known business leaders were revealed in a public records request submitted by The Nevada Independent for the governor’s calendar through the legislative session.

Meetings scheduled in Sisolak’s calendar don’t necessarily confirm that they actually happened, and often provide few details as to the point or reason for them. But information on the scheduled meetings of the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades provides insight into the power structure and important relationships that define and influence what laws and policies are (or aren’t) adopted.

“The calendar provided to The Nevada Independent is the Governor's working calendar, maintained by staff,” Sisolak spokesman Ryan McInerney said in an email. “Some of the calendared appointments occurred as scheduled, others did not occur at all, or were managed entirely by staff. Moreover, travel schedules for the Governor, First Lady Kathy Sisolak, and the Governor's family were redacted to ensure the safety of the Governor and his family.”

Although he positioned himself as a natural successor to popular and moderate Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval on the campaign trail, meetings scheduled by Sisolak throughout the legislative session included comparatively more meetings with labor leaders and other constituencies of the Democratic Party. They also reveal details about which individual interests were able to secure time with the governor ahead of major decisions on bills affecting energy, collective bargaining for state workers and health care issues.

But like Sandoval, many of Sisolak’s scheduled meetings show the names of the same Carson City power brokers, lobbyists and business leaders who continue to wield the same influence and effect on the legislative process, regardless of the party in power.

Not all details of Sisolak’s calendar were made public — at least 67 events on the calendar provided to The Nevada Independent were redacted. Sisolak’s office said that in addition to travel, the office also redacted telephone numbers and personnel information such as start and end dates.

Here’s a look at the people, groups and constituencies Sisolak met with during the 2019 legislative session.

Legislative interactions

Sisolak made an effort to meet with all 63 members of the Legislature during the first few weeks of the legislative session — a hectic schedule reflected in the early February weeks of his calendar.

But meetings held with lawmakers outside of those initial meet and greets shine a light on Sisolak’s involvement in the legislative process beyond just signing bills.

The lawmaker who scheduled the most meetings with Sisolak was Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks, who previously served one term in the Assembly and is married to Sisolak’s chief of staff, Michelle White.

Brooks and Sisolak met three times — once on March 13 (the day Sisolak announced the state would sign onto an agreement to follow the Paris Climate Agreement), again with legislative leaders on March 15 and a final meeting on April 2 (the day a hearing was held on SB358, which raises the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent by 2030). 

Brooks confirmed in an interview that the meetings were related to several bills related to energy that Sisolak had identified as priorities on both the campaign trail and in his State of the State address. He said early on that he and White had established a “firewall” and worked with other staff in the governor’s office to arrange meeting and discuss strategy.

“We were pretty adamant about making sure she wasn’t involved personally,” he said.

Other meetings held between Sisolak and individual lawmakers include:

  • A March 27 meeting with Republican Assembly Leader Jim Wheeler and Blockchains CEO Jeff Berns, described by the governor’s office as a meet and greet that veered into a discussion of issues with wild horses
  • An April 30 meeting with Democratic Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez Thompson, related to her bill AB400, which removed certain types of taxes from possible economic abatements. The bill was signed into law by Sisolak.
  • A May 17 meeting with Assembly Judiciary Chair Steve Yeager on AB553, the bill creating the Cannabis Compliance Board. Yeager presented the bill in committee about a week later; it was later signed into law by Sisolak.
  • A May 22 meeting with Senator Julia Ratti on her dental therapy bill, SB366. The bill was amended twice after the meeting and eventually signed into law by Sisolak.

Lobbyists

Sisolak’s meetings with lawmakers merely tap the surface of his involvement in the legislative process; the Democratic governor met with dozens of lobbyists or representatives for various interests groups throughout the entire 120-day session.

Notably, Sisolak recorded holding a short meeting with National Shooting Sports Foundation executive Larry Keane and the group’s state lobbyist, Patrick McNaught, on April 18. 

The meeting came nearly a week before lawmakers approved major changes to a major gun safety bill by Democratic Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui, AB291, that initially sought to allow local governments to pass more restrictive gun laws than those put in place by the state (a concept called pre-emption).

But the concerns of the NSSF, which holds the annual SHOT tradeshow in Las Vegas, helped almost sink the bill, and contributed to the removal of that language from the bill. Lawmakers instead added in provisions creating a “red flag” law process, which lets law enforcement and family members petition a court to temporarily seize a person’s firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others.

The NSSF itself issued several warnings about Sisolak in the run-up to the 2018 election, noting that he had promised to institute a long-stalled voter-approved gun background check initiative and to ban assault weapons. NSSF spokesman Mark Olivia said that the meeting was similar to ones the group had across the country and in Washington D.C. with other elected officials, and that the organization was grateful that Sisolak took the time to listen to their concerns.

“This is what any trade association is going to do to make sure their concerns are heard,” he said.

Other major lobbyists that Sisolak met with during the legislative session include:

  • Former Assembly Speaker turned lobbyist Richard Perkins and clients on February 19 in Las Vegas
  • Former state senator, current lobbyist Warren Hardy on February 19
  • A meet and greet with the Jewish Federation and former Rep. Shelley Berkley on March 5. Both supported a bill, AB257, that would have authorized creation of a Holocaust memorial museum in Nevada; the bill failed to pass
  • Former Rep. Dr. Joe Heck on March 8
  • Dwayne McClinton on behalf of Southwest Gas on March 19
  • Golden Entertainment, Dollar Loan Center and Republic Services lobbyist Sean Higgins on March 27
  • Barrick Gold Corporation executives Christina Erling and Rebecca Darling on April 17
  • Kolesar and Leatham lobbyist Joe Brown on May 6
  • Nevada’s Women Lobby lobbyist Marlene Lockard on May 15
  • Griffin Company lobbyist Josh Griffin (and “group”) on May 20 
  • Las Vegas Metro Chamber CEO Mary Beth Sewald on May 23, to discuss “legislation relating to Nevada employers,” a spokesperson for the Chamber said
  • Ferraro Group founder Greg Ferraro and former Fennemore Craig lobbyist Jim Wadhams on May 29, in a meeting regarding pending bills and the close of the legislative session. Wadhams also met with Sisolak on April 1.

Greg Smith

Within hours after Democratic Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle announced he was resigning from the state Legislature over multiple claims of sexual harassment, Gov. Steve Sisolak was already meeting with his eventual successor — though the governor’s office claims it was just a coincidence.

While reporters scurried and stalked the legislative building in attempts to find Sprinkle or get comments from other lawmakers on his resignation, Sisolak had scheduled a meeting with Greg Smith — the husband of former Democratic state Sen. Debbie Smith. The meeting on March 14 came two weeks before his appointment to the Assembly and over a 15-person field of candidates who filed to replace Sprinkle. 

But Sisolak’s office said the meeting was just a coincidence; Smith was brought in to advise the office on several pending bills related to apprenticeship programs (Smith is a retired union apprenticeship program administrator.) Smith did not return several calls seeking comment on the meeting.

Education

On the campaign trail, few organizations were more helpful to Sisolak than the Clark County Education Association, which endorsed the future governor early in the campaign and spent more than a million dollars in third-party campaign ads ahead of the 2018 election.

Once in office, Sisolak’s door was open to the teacher’s union and its polarizing leader, John Vellardita. The governor and Vellardita met or called at least twice (once on March 14 and again on April 8), and held a meet and greet with CCEA educators on April. In contrast, the Nevada State Education Association (which endorsed Sisolak’s primary opponent) held a scheduled meeting with Sisolak just once, on March 19. 

And in a legislative session defined by massive shifts to the state’s antiquated funding formula and calls for more funding, Sisolak also met with various school district and higher education leaders. He met with Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara twice (once on March 4 and again on March 26), Washoe County School District lobbyist Lindsay Anderson on April 4, Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly on February 27, and UNLV President Marta Meana on April 24.

Sisolak also met with State Board of Education chair Elaine Wynn on May 21, the same day as the first legislative hearing on the revamped K-12 education formula.

Business interests

Calls to major business and gambling company executives took up a sizable amount of Sisolak’s time, especially as the legislative session drew to a close.

Sisolak’s calendars show meetings with Anthony Marnell (CEO of Marnell Gaming, which operates the Sparks Nugget) on April 10, Golden Gaming CEO Blake Sartini on April 21 and Grand Sierra Resort and SLS Las Vegas owner Alex Muerelo on May 9. One of his last calls made before the legislative session ended on May 27 was to Virginia Valentine, the director of powerful casino trade group the Nevada Resorts Association. Valentine said the call was to relay the gaming industry’s support for AB533, the bill to create the Cannabis Compliance Board.

Other notable meetings or calls arranged between business executives and Sisolak include:

  • Eli Lilly executives on February 12
  • Beau Wrigley, the heir to the Wrigley chewing gum fortune and CEO of Suterra Wellness (a cannabis company that operates in Nevada and other states) on April 1
  • Fidelity National Financial executive Peter Sadowski on April 10. Fidelity is owned by Bill Foley, the owner of the Golden Knights hockey team.
  • Former Nevada Cattlemen's Association president Joe Guild and lobbyist Richard Perkins on April 23. Both lobbied for Union Pacific Railroad
  • Kaempfer Crowell attorney Jennifer Lazovich on April 26

2020 Candidates

At least four of the Democratic presidential candidates met with or calling Sisolak during the legislative session, including billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. Sisolak’s office also said he met with California Sen. Kamala Harris during her trip to Nevada, and that all candidate visits were accommodated based on the governor’s schedule and availability.

He also met with former New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg — who considered but ultimately decided against a presidential run — on February 26, after state lawmakers approved a bill implementing a long-stalled gun background check law. Bloomberg helped fund the group that backed the initial ballot question in the 2016 election.

Sisolak said during an AFSCME forum earlier this month that he wasn’t sure whether he would endorse any candidate before the state’s presidential caucus in February.

Federal government

Unlike his predecessor Sandoval, who in the 2017 legislative session scheduled calls or meetings with at least 17 Cabinet secretaries and other high ranking officials in Trump administration, Sisolak made relatively few calls to officials in the Trump administration during his first legislative session.

Sisolak arranged a call with former Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Feb. 5, and another call with former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on March 28, the same day Nevada joined a group of states intervening in a lawsuit defending the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

Sisolak also scheduled a call with Delaware Sen. Tom Carper on April 30, the same day he sent a publicized open letter to Carper and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso to reiterate the state’s “strong opposition to the Yucca Mountain project” (Barrasso and Carper serve on the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works).

Grants management lawsuit

Sisolak’s office also scheduled a meeting entitled “Streamlink Discussion” on April 15, a day after The Nevada Independent published a story detailing how litigation brought by Streamlink had gummed up a grants management software contract that state officials believed could help tap into millions of dollars worth of federal grants.

Although the state took no immediate action after the story was published, Carson City District Court Judge James Russell ruled against the state and in favor of Streamlink in May, leading the Department of Administration to announce it would drop future appeals and re-open bidding on the grants management software contract. 

The contract was reopened in July, and the office expects to have the system fully functional by 2021.

Celebrities

Sisolak’s calendar also shows meetings with higher-profile individuals than the normal slew of Carson City insiders.

The governor scheduled a meet and greet meeting with actress Patricia Arquette on March 8, the same day the actress attended a press conference with Democratic lawmakers on several equal pay bills. Sisolak’s office said the meeting was indeed scheduled but never actually happened.

On May 15, he scheduled a meeting with former football star Boomer Esiason on the topic of cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that Esiason has highlighted through creation of a foundation after his son was diagnosed with the disease.

Sisolak also met with legendary labor organizer Dolores Huerta on April 3, and presented her with a proclamation. Huerta came to Carson City to testify in favor of a bill that would allow for physician-assisted aid-in-dying. The bill, SB165, failed to advance out of the Legislature.

Snyder Production 6.24.19 by Riley Snyder on Scribd

SLS Las Vegas cleared to leave NV Energy, amid many applicants withdrawing from attempts to leave utility

The sign at NV Energy corporate headquarters

It took less than ten minutes for the three members of Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission to swat down a last-chance effort by NV Energy to raise the price of SLS Las Vegas’s ticket to depart the utility and purchase electric power from another provider.

The PUC’s quick discussion and 2-1 vote on Wednesday to deny NV Energy’s request to reconsider an earlier PUC order granting the casino’s request to depart the utility is perhaps the last nail in an effort by NV Energy to coax, delay or dispute efforts by nearly a dozen large companies to leave utility service.

Since mid-2018, 14 of Nevada’s largest businesses and government agencies have filed applications with the PUC under the so-called 704B process, which allows certain large businesses and government entities to leave utility electric service and purchase power on the open market, in return for a usually substantial “impact fee” calculated and charged by the commission to ensure other utility customers don’t face unexpected costs.

Although Nevada lawmakers approved a wide-ranging bill in the 2019 Legislature that added more restrictions and limits on the 704B process, the legislation exempted all businesses with pending applications before the Commission from the new restrictions and requirements, meaning that they’re able to leave under the old, less restrictive set of rules.

That possibility has concerned NV Energy, which has moved to dispute or seek higher exit fees for companies applying to leave their service, including filing several motions for the commission to reconsider its orders granting the applications over fears that granting all pending applications would cripple future load growth and cost its other customers millions of dollars. 

But their arguments have yet to sway a majority of the Commission, which wrote in the order denying NV Energy’s reconsideration petition for the SLS that their arguments were not valid.  

“Considering the fact that [NV Energy’s] petition merely repeats the same arguments that it put forth in its testimony, the Commission finds that [NV Energy] has presented no basis for altering the determinations contained in the order, which are clearly delineated therein and which are clearly supported by the evidence presented in this docket,” members of the commission wrote in the order.

But the utility company has moved in other ways to reel its largest customers back into the fold, including entering into contracts with the LVCVA, City of Henderson and the Clark County School District that included direct incentive payments to the government agencies in return for a promise to not leave utility service. 

We believe we are the best energy partner for SLS Las Vegas, and we are committed to providing them with customized solutions that address their unique business needs and provide added value,” NV Energy spokeswoman Jennifer Schuricht said in an email. “This approach to meeting customer needs has been successful in helping us retain our customers, and we will continue to work hard to retain the opportunity to be the energy provider for SLS Las Vegas.”

Of the 14 entities that filed to leave utility service since June of 2018, six have withdrawn their applications, seven have been granted the right to leave by the PUC, and one (the under-construction The Drew resort) is still pending. Here’s how the exit application status of each business or entity that has filed to leave the utility is currently faring:

The Drew (exit application filed in April 2019)

The unfinished $3 billion, 67-story The Drew Las Vegas (formerly Fontainebleau) is still under construction and isn’t expected to open until the second fiscal quarter of 2022. Still, the hotel’s management company Two Blackbirds Hospitality Management LLC filed an application to preliminarily leave the utility in April 2019. 

The application is still pending, and a procedural order issued by the Commission set a hearing date for August 29.

Cosmopolitan (exit application filed in February 2019)

The Cosmopolitan withdrew its application to leave NV Energy’s service in late May, just three months after filing to leave the utility. No order was filed in the case, but an “impact analysis” by staff of the PUC estimated that the casino company would need to pay a $4.739 million impact fee over six years, or a $3.96 million fee up front.

LVCVA (exit application filed in February 2019)

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority — which operates Cashman Field and the Las Vegas Convention Center — withdrew its application to leave the utility in May amid announcing a five-year energy services agreement with NV Energy. That contract includes yearly payments of $650,000 and a requirement the authority enroll in the utility’s special Optional Pricing Program Rate program if and when it is approved by the Commission.

No order was drafted or approved by the commission, but according to PUC staff’s final impact analysis, the agency would have needed to pay either $6.36 million over six years or $5.098 million up front to officially leave the utility (slightly less if the LVCVA did not go forward with its planned expansion).

Air Liquide (exit application filed in February 2019) 

This company, which plans to build a liquid hydrogen facility in Clark County that will transform methane into liquid hydrogen, was granted approval for its exit application earlier this month with no impact fee included. 

Air Liquide, which plans to ship the liquid hydrogen to a California fuel cell facility for use in fuel cell vehicles powered by hydrogen, will still be required to pay legislatively-mandated “rate riders” such as the Economic Development Electric Rate Rider, an electric bill rebate program granted to Tesla and other large businesses that relocate to Nevada.

Commercial operation of the plant is scheduled to begin by the third or fourth fiscal quarter of 2021.

SLS Las Vegas (exit application filed in December 2018) 

Wednesday’s decision by the PUC means the runways are cleared for SLS Las Vegas to leave NV Energy’s electric service, after filing to do so last year and having an initial order approved in May.

The casino, which shares an owner (Meruelo Group) with the Grand Sierra Resort, will need to pay a $1.279 million up-front impact fee in order to depart NV Energy.

Grand Sierra Resort (exit application filed in December 2018)

The Grand Sierra Resort withdrew its application to leave NV Energy in April, citing concerns raised by NV Energy in previous filings about a lack of transmission capacity in Northern Nevada. 

Although no order was issued in the case, the casino would have had to pay $2.122 million up front or $2.2234 million over six years according to a PUC staff analysis.

South Point Casino (exit application filed in December 2018) 

After filing to leave the utility last year, the South Point Hotel and Casino withdrew its exit application and announced a partnership with NV Energy in May. 

The application was withdrawn before an order approving or not allowing the exit to proceed forward could be drafted, but a PUC staff final impact analysis estimated the casino resort would need to pay an impact fee of $3.229 million over six years or $2.605 million up front.

Boyd Gaming (exit application filed in November 2018) 

Of the 14 companies that have filed to leave NV Energy over the last 12 months, Boyd Gaming remains the largest current electric customer that still plans to leave the utility.

Boyd’s exit application was granted in June, and the casino company — which operates 12 Nevada properties including Aliante, Fremont Hotel and Casino and the Orleans — will be required to pay a $10.681 million up-front impact fee or $13.099 million fee paid over six years.

MSG Las Vegas (exit application filed in October 2018) 

The planned 18,000-seat MSG Sphere at the Venetian is one of several major under-construction projects that applied and received an order granting an exit application from NV Energy without having to pay an exit fee. 

The application by MSG Sphere, a joint venture between the Madison Square Garden Company and the Las Vegas Sands expected to be completed between 2020 and 2021, was approved by the Commission with no impact fee in April. A separate reconsideration petition by NV Energy was filed but rejected by the PUC in late April.

Georgia-Pacific Gypsum (exit application filed in September 2018) 

This gypsum wallboard and plastic manufacturing plant was granted permission to leave NV Energy as an electric customer in February. The company is required to pay an impact fee of either $1.567 million over six years, or 1.289 million as an upfront payment.

Raiders’ Stadium (exit application filed in September 2018) 

The future football home of the NFL’s Raiders was granted approval to leave NV Energy’s service sans exit fee in early February, after filing to leave the previous year.

But the team filed an unusual request to the PUC in May, essentially asking to temporarily hold off on compliance with entering into electric service agreement with a third-party provider amid a pending alternative offer by NV Energy to enroll in a similar pricing program provided by the utility. That motion was granted by the PUC, giving the team and NV Energy until September to come to an agreement.

Atlantis (exit application filed in August 2018)

Although their application to withdraw NV Energy was granted in February, the Reno-based Atlantis Casino Resort Spa reversed and withdrew their exit application in late April as part of an agreement with NV Energy. The original order would have required the casino to pay a $1.756 million up front impact fee, or $1.959 million fee spread out over six years.

Fulcrum Sierra BioFuels (exit application filed in June 2018) 

Fulcrum, which plans to open a waste-to-fuel biofuels plant in northern Nevada in early 2020, received permission from the PUC in November to leave NV Energy’s service without having to pay any impact fee, despite a request from the utility to tack on a $6.3 million impact fee.

Station Casinos (exit application filed in June 2018)

After being assessed a $15 million exit fee (or $18.091 million up front fee), Station Casinos withdrew its exit application and announced a long-term deal to stick with NV Energy.

The company, which owns multiple properties in the Las Vegas area including Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa and Green Valley Ranch, was granted its exit application in September 2018, but requested and received a delay in May to consider alternative options from NV Energy.

Station Casinos to drop exit application, stick with NV Energy for electric service

Yet another major Nevada business has backed away from efforts to leave NV Energy’s electric service and has announced it will stick with the state’s incumbent electric utility.

In a joint statement sent Tuesday, NV Energy and Station Casinos announced they had reached an agreement on fully bundled electric service and that the casino company — which owns multiple properties in the Las Vegas area including Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa, Palace Station and Green Valley Ranch — would withdraw its application before the state’s Public Utilities Commission to depart from utility electric service and purchase power from another provider.

The withdrawal comes amid numerous other large power users announcing decisions to stick with the utility after flirting with a departure from NV Energy; in recent weeks, the Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas Sands, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Grand Sierra Resort, the Atlantis, Golden Gaming and South Point have all announced plans to stay with NV Energy.

“The existing long-term relationship between our companies, together with our shared commitment to the Southern Nevada community, were important factors in making our decision,” Station Casinos executive Stephen Cootey said in a statement. “That, combined with NV Energy’s commitment to meet our evolving energy requirements in a price-effective way, created a partnership that is truly valuable and one that we want to continue in the future.”

The casino company initially filed its application to leave the utility in June 2018, and received a draft order in September with a roughly $15.2 million immediate impact fee if it wished to depart the utility. Such fees are required under Nevada’s 704B law, which allows large power customers to file applications to leave the utility in return for paying an “impact fee” designed to ensure higher costs are not fostered on other utility customers.

The company filed and was granted a request to delay compliance reporting with taking electric service from another provider in May of this year, citing a desire to consider NV Energy’s Optional Pricing Program Rate as an alternative option. The program, which still needs to be approved by the PUC, would offer a stable subsidized rate to a subset of utility customers eligible to depart the utility.

“We value their business and appreciate the opportunity they gave us to reach an agreement that retains Stations Casinos as an important fully-bundled electric service customer,” NV Energy CEO Doug Cannon said in a statement.

South Point agrees to stick with NV Energy, withdraw exit application

South Point Hotel Casino and Spa announced today that it will withdraw its application to leave NV Energy and instead will continue receiving electric service from the utility.

The two companies have agreed to a fully bundled energy service, leading South Point to withdraw its application with the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada that would have allowed the casino company to buy electric power from another provider.

“I’ve been in Las Vegas a long time and it is important to me that we continue to work with companies who are similarly invested in our community,” South Point Owner Michael Gaughan said in a statement.

This announcement comes a week after the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority announced that it would stay with NV Energy under a five year deal. Other companies that have reached similar deals with the utility in recent weeks include the Venetian, Atlantis Casino Resort, Grand Sierra Resort and Golden Entertainment.

“All of us at NV Energy take these 704B applications personally. Simply put, we do not want to lose any of our customers and we remain committed to finding solutions that satisfy our largest customers’ evolving business needs,” said Doug Cannon, NV Energy’s president and chief executive officer. “NV Energy is delighted to have reached an agreement with South Point and looks forward to continuing our partnership for many years to come.”

This deal is one of many in the wake of multiple companies threatening to or have already moved away from the energy giant, including Boyd Gaming, the Raiders Stadium, Station Casinos and the SLS.