Analysis: Which legislators had the most (and fewest) bills passed in the 2021 session?

Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature during the 2021 session, and hundreds of high-profile Democratic measures sailed through the Assembly and Senate while a vast majority of Republican-backed measures failed to make much headway in the legislative process.

Out of 605 bills introduced and sponsored by a lawmaker this session, Democratic legislators had 63 percent of their bills and resolutions pass out of the Legislature, compared to just 18 percent for Republicans. Those in the majority party were able to pass priority measures, including bills establishing the “Right to Return,” a public health insurance option and permanent expanded mail voting, while many priorities for Republicans, such as a voter ID law, were killed without so much as a hearing.

Which lawmakers had the most success passing their bills? Which lawmakers were least successful? How did Assembly members fare compared to senators?

The Nevada Independent analyzed all bills and resolutions that were both introduced and primarily sponsored by a lawmaker and examined which of those bills passed out of the Legislature and which ones died. Of those 605 bills, 267 (44 percent) were approved by members of the Assembly and Senate, while the remaining 338 (56 percent) were left in the graveyard of the legislative session.

Those 605 measures make up only a portion of the 1,035 bills and resolutions introduced during the session — others were sponsored by committees, constitutional officers such as the secretary of state or governor, or helped implement the state budget. The 2021 session also saw fewer measures introduced than previous sessions, as the 2019 and 2017 sessions each saw closer to 1,200 bills and resolutions introduced.

State law limits the number of bills that can be introduced by any individual lawmaker — incumbent senators and Assembly members can request 20 and 10 bill draft requests, respectively, while newly-elected legislators are limited to six bills in the Assembly and 12 in the Senate. Legislative leadership for both the majority and minority parties are also allowed to introduce additional bills beyond the normal limits.

The analysis revealed that Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) and Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) led their caucuses with the highest rate of bill passage, while Assembly members Jill Tolles (R-Reno) and P.K. O'Neill (R-Carson City) were the only Republicans who had more than half of their bills passed out of the Legislature. Eight Republican legislators ended the session with zero bills passed.

A previous analysis of votes during the 2021 session revealed that most bills passed with bipartisan support, as more than half of all votes included no opposition. But that trend was largely driven by Democrats in the majority passing their priorities while not advancing nearly as many Republican bills, with 175 more Democrat-backed measures passing out of the Legislature than measures introduced by Republicans.

The guide below explores the results of our analysis, examining the successes and failures of both parties and of individual lawmakers this session.

We’ve double-checked our work to make sure we’ve counted every vote and hearing, but if you spot something off or think a bill was missed or improperly noted, feel free to email sgolonka@thenvindy.com.

How did Democrat-sponsored legislation fare? Did any Republican lawmakers find success?

Though hundreds of the more than 1,000 bills and resolutions introduced during the session were sponsored by Democrat-controlled committees, there were only 350 measures specifically sponsored and introduced by a lawmaker from the majority party.

Many were headline-grabbing progressive bills that drew staunch Republican opposition, including expanding permanent mail-in voting (AB321) and setting up Nevada to become one of the first states to have a public health insurance option starting in 2026 (SB420).

Of the 350 bills from Democratic lawmakers, 221 (63.1 percent) passed out of both houses. However, Assembly Democrats fared slightly better than their Senate counterparts, with 65 percent of their bills passing compared with 60 percent for those in the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The success rate of bills introduced by Republican lawmakers was dismal in comparison.

Members of the Assembly Republican caucus had 27 of their 126 introduced measures (21 percent) pass out of both houses, while Senate Republicans had 19 of their 129 (15 percent) pass out of the Legislature. The majority of Republican-backed measures were not even given a chance by the majority party, as 56 percent of 255 bills and resolutions introduced by Republican legislators never received an initial committee hearing.

Failed Republican-backed bills included an effort to create a bipartisan redistricting commission (SB462), a measure requiring voters to provide proof of identity (SB225) and a bill that aimed to limit the number of legislative actions allowed per session (AB98).

Among the 46 Republican-sponsored measures that passed out of the Legislature were a variety of health care-related bills, including legislation from Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City) that appropriated state funds to the Nevada Health Service Corps for encouraging certain medical and dental practitioners to practice in underserved areas (SB233). Lawmakers also approved a measure from Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) authorizing the Board of Regents to waive fees for family members of National Guard members who reenlist (AB156).

Senate Minority Leader James A. Settelmeyer, left, and Senator Joe Hardy on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

While Republicans fared far worse, Democratic lawmakers still had more than a third of their bills fall victim to the legislative process.

Some bills were overwhelmed by backlash, such as SB452, a bill that aimed to grant casino resorts greater authority to ban firearms on their premises but was opposed by a broad coalition of Republicans, gun right advocates and criminal justice reform organizations and failed to advance out of the Assembly. 

Other bills were watered down or axed after lawmakers deemed there was not enough time to consider the effects of a measure. Such was the case for AB161, a bill that started as a ban on the state’s “summary eviction” process, then was amended into a legislative study on the process but still never received a floor vote. Some measures fell just shy of the support they needed, including AB387, an attempt to license midwives that fell one vote shy of a two-thirds majority in the Senate on the final day of the session.

Which lawmakers were most prolific? Which lawmakers introduced the fewest bills?

Although Democratic lawmakers significantly outpaced Republican lawmakers in getting their bills passed out of both houses of the Legislature, the number of bills introduced by each legislator remained similar between the two parties.

On average, lawmakers from the majority party introduced 9.2 measures during the 2021 session, compared to 10.2 for lawmakers in the minority party. 

Those who led their parties in introductions were typically house leaders or more experienced lawmakers.

In the Assembly, Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) topped the rest of his party with 18 bills introduced and sponsored, while Minority Floor Leader Titus had the most bills introduced and sponsored of anyone in the Assembly Republican caucus with 14.

Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus speaks to Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson inside the Legislature on Monday, March 15, 2021 in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) introduced and sponsored 25 bills, which was the most of any legislator during the session.

Four other Senators also stood above the pack: Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) led Democrats with 23 introductions, while Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) and two Republican senators, Hardy and Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), rounded out the top with 20 bills each.

Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas), who was appointed by the Clark County Commission on Feb. 2, 2021 to fill the seat of Democratic former Assemblyman Alex Assefa, who resigned amid an investigation into whether he met residency requirements, was the only lawmaker who did not introduce a single piece of legislation this session.

The others at the bottom of the list — Assembly members Elaine Marzola (D-Henderson), Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) and Richard McArthur (R-Las Vegas), and Sens. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas) and Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) — introduced three bills each. Doñate was appointed to fill the seat of former Sen. Yvanna Cancela (D-Las Vegas), and introduced three of her bill draft requests submitted prior to the start of the session.

Which legislators had the most success with their bills?

Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) had more success getting her bills passed than any Nevada lawmaker during the 2021 session, as all eight bills that she introduced and sponsored passed out of both houses of the Legislature.

Jauregui had one bill that was passed only with the support of her own party members in both houses. AB286, which bans so-called “ghost guns” and other firearm assembly kits that don’t come equipped with serial numbers, passed through the Assembly and Senate along party lines. 

Other bills Jauregui introduced included measures focused on the environment and residential properties, as well as AB123, which increases fees on special Vegas Golden Knights license plates to help give more funds to charities.

Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui arrives on the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Five other Assembly Democrats, all based out of Southern Nevada, had at least 80 percent of their measures pass out of both houses, including Assembly Speaker Frierson. Frierson, who saw 15 of his 18 sponsored measures pass, introduced several high-profile Democratic measures, including a pair of big election bills: AB126, which moves the state to a presidential primary system instead of a caucus-based system, and AB321, which permanently expands mail-in voting. 

Other bills introduced by the Assembly leader that passed out of the Legislature included a measure requiring a three-day grace period before landlords can charge late fees for overdue rent (AB308) and a bill allowing college athletes to profit off of their name and likeness (AB254). Frierson was also the primary sponsor of AB484, which authorizes the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) to use $54 million in federal funds to modernize the state’s outdated unemployment insurance system.

Frierson had only three bills that did not pass out of the Legislature, including a controversial measure that would have allowed for the Washoe and Clark County school boards to be partially appointed (AB255).

Other lawmakers to have at least 80 percent of their measures pass out of both houses were Assembly members Venicia Considine (D-Las Vegas), Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) and Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas).

Considine had five of her six introduced measures pass both houses with significant bipartisan support, including a measure that replaces the gendered language for crimes of sexual assault with gender-neutral language (AB214). 

Yeager saw eight of ten introduced bills pass, including AB341, which authorizes the licensing of cannabis consumption lounges, though he also presented several other, sometimes controversial, measures as chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. He presented AB400, a bill that removes “per se” limits on non-felony DUIs involving marijuana and that passed along party lines out of the Assembly. And he presented AB395, the death penalty bill that was scrapped by Democratic lawmakers in the Senate.

Though Monroe-Moreno had four of her five introduced bills pass out of both houses, including a measure that reduces the criminal penalties for minors found in possession of alcohol or small amounts of marijuana (AB158), she was also the sponsor of one of the few measures to fail to advance out of the Legislature because it failed to achieve a needed two-thirds majority. Her bill AB387, which would have established a midwifery licensure board, fell one vote shy of the two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Watts, a second-term assemblyman, sparked a variety of partisan disagreements throughout the session, as six of his ten introduced bills passed out of the Assembly with zero Republican support (Watts had eight bills pass out of both chambers). Those measures ranged broadly from a pair of environment-focused measures to a bill that bans offensive or racially discriminatory language and imagery, names, logos or mascots in Nevada schools (AB88).

In the Senate, only three legislators had more than two-thirds of their introduced measures pass out of both houses: Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas) and Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas).

Sen. Chris Brooks on the final day of the 81st session of the Legislature on Monday, May 31, 2021, in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Brooks was the most successful of the bunch, getting five of his six introduced bills passed, including SB448, an omnibus energy bill expanding the state’s transmission infrastructure that was passed out of the Assembly on the final day of the session. With a larger number of introductions (13), Lange had twice as many bills passed as Brooks (10), covering a wide range of topics from health care to employment to a bill permanently authorizing curbside pickup at dispensaries (SB168).

The majority leader also succeeded in passing a higher percentage of her bills than most of her Senate colleagues, as 12 different Cannizzaro-sponsored bills made their way to the governor’s office. Those measures were met with varying degrees of bipartisan support, as a bill requiring data brokers to allow consumers to make requests to not sell their information passed with no opposition (SB260), while a bill barring the suspension of driver’s licenses for the nonpayment of fees received mixed support from Republicans in both chambers (SB219). Another bill, SB420, which enacts a state-managed public health insurance option, passed along party lines in both the Senate and Assembly.

A few Assembly Republicans stood above the pack, as Assembly members Jill Tolles (R-Reno), P.K. O’Neill (R-Carson City), Lisa Krasner (R-Reno) and Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) were the only members of their party to have at least half of their bills pass out of both houses.

Tolles, who was more likely to side with Democrats on close votes during the session than any other Republican lawmaker, found the most success of the group, as four of the six bills she introduced and sponsored were sent to the governor. Those bills that passed were met with broad bipartisan support, such as AB374 — that measure, which establishes a statewide working group in the attorney general’s office aimed at preventing and reducing substance use, passed unanimously out of both houses. The third-term legislator did introduce some bills that were killed by Democrats, such as AB248, which sought to allow "partisan observers" to watch over elections at polling places.

Assemblywoman Jill Tolles on the final day of the 81st session of the Legislature on Monday, May 31, 2021, in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Four of O’Neill’s seven bills were sent to the governor. One allows the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum to designate certain buildings and grounds of the former boarding school for Native children for special events and authorizes the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages at such events (AB270). O’Neill was the only Republican present at a bill signing event for Native-focused legislation, after many of those bills passed with bipartisan support.

Half of Krasner and Roberts’ bills passed out of the Legislature, with each lawmaker introducing and sponsoring eight measures during the session.   

Nearly all four of Krasner’s bills that made it out of both chambers attracted unanimous votes, including AB143, which creates a statewide human trafficking task force and a plan for resources and services delivered to victims. Another well-received bill, AB251, seals juvenile criminal records automatically at age 18 and allows offenders to petition the court for the expungement or destruction of their juvenile records for misdemeanors. Both AB143 and AB251 have been signed by the governor.

Roberts, who was among the Republicans most likely to cross party lines and vote contrary to the majority of his caucus, had several bills sent to the governor with strong bipartisan support, including AB319, which establishes a pilot program for high school students to take dual credit courses at the College of Southern Nevada. Another of his four successful bills was AB326, which is aimed at curbing the illicit cannabis market.

Success for Republican senators in passing bills was more rare.

Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) had one bill sent to the governor and two bills killed without a hearing, giving him a higher percentage of bills passed (33 percent) than any other member of his caucus. Hansen’s one successful measure, SB112, aligns Nevada law with federal law regarding the administration of certain products for livestock. One of Hansen’s failed bills included an attempt to prohibit police officers from using surveillance devices without a warrant, unless there were pressing circumstances that presented danger to someone’s safety (SB213).

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) was the second most successful member of his caucus in terms of getting bills passed, as three of the 14 measures (21 percent) he introduced passed out of both houses, including a measure establishing an esports advisory committee within the Gaming Control Board (SB165). But many of the measures introduced by Kieckhefer still failed, including a resolution to create an independent redistricting commission to conduct the reapportionment of districts (SJR9).

Only three other members of the Senate Republican caucus, including Minority Leader Settelmeyer, Hardy and Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka), had at least 20 percent of their introduced measures pass fully out of the Legislature.

Which legislators had the least success with their bills?

Despite Democrats controlling both legislative chambers, a handful of Democratic lawmakers still had less than half of their sponsored measures sent off to the governor’s office.

In the Assembly, five members of the Democratic caucus failed to have 50 percent of their bills advance out of both houses, including Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas), who rounded out the bottom of the list as just one of her eight introduced bills passing out of the Legislature. Though that one successful bill — AB189, which establishes presumptive eligibility for pregnant women for Medicaid — garnered bipartisan support, many of Gorelow’s introduced measures failed to even receive an initial committee vote. Those failed bills included multiple more health care-focused measures, including an effort to require certain health plans to cover fertility preservation services (AB274).

The others in the caucus to have more than half of their bills fail were Assembly members Bea Duran (D-Las Vegas), David Orentlicher (D-Las Vegas), Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) and Cecelia Gonzalez (D-Las Vegas), who each had between 33 and 43 percent of their bills passed.

Duran found mixed success with her bills, getting three of her seven introduced measures passed, including a bill that requires all public middle schools, junior high schools and high schools to offer free menstrual products in bathrooms (AB224), but seeing four others fail, including one requiring public schools implement a survey about sexual misconduct (AB353).

One of Orentlicher’s five bills was among a small group that failed to advance at a mid-May deadline for second committee passage. The measure, AB243, would have required courts to consider whether a defendant is younger than 21 when deciding a sentence and failed to clear the deadline after previously passing out of the Assembly along party lines. Orentlicher introduced five bills, but only two passed out of both chambers.

While Flores introduced several measures that received broad unanimous support throughout the session, such as a measure that established a new, simpler Miranda warning for children (AB132), he also proposed several controversial measures that failed to advance out of the Assembly. One of those bills, AB351, would have allowed terminally ill patients to self-administer life-ending medication, and another, AB131, would have required all uniformed police officers to wear body cameras when interacting with the public. Only four of Flores’s ten introduced bills passed out of both legislative chambers.

Assemblymen Edgar Flores, center, and Glen Leavitt, left, speak inside the Legislature on Tuesday, March 9, 2021 in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Gonzalez, a freshman, had four of her six introduced bills die at different times over the course of the session. Two of her bills died without ever being heard. Another bill she introduced (AB151) was never voted on by the Assembly because a Cannizzaro-sponsored bill took almost the same approach in barring the suspension of driver’s licenses for the nonpayment of fees. 

Gonzalez even had one piece of legislation, AB201, fail in its second house. That bill, which would have required more tracking and reporting on use of criminal informants, failed to advance out of a Senate committee after passing out of the Assembly along party lines.

Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas) was the only member of his caucus to have more than half of his bills fail. Though seven of his sponsored measures passed out of the Legislature, eleven other bills and resolutions from Ohrenschall failed to advance. Those bills often focused on the criminal justice system, including a measure that aimed to eliminate the death penalty for people who are convicted of first degree murder (SB228), though some stretched beyond that scope, such as an attempt to make Nevada the first state with an opt-out organ donation system (SB134) that failed to be voted out of committee.

Across the Senate and Assembly, eight Republican lawmakers had zero bills pass out of the Legislature. Those eight were Assembly members Alexis Hansen (R-Sparks), Annie Black (R-Mesquite), Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas), Jill Dickman (R-Sparks), Jim Wheeler (R-Minden) and Richard McArthur (R-Las Vegas) and Sens. Carrie Buck (R-Henderson) and Pickard.

All eight of those Republicans were also among the least likely in their party to break from the majority of their caucus and vote with Democrats on legislation.

State Senator Keith Pickard on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Those eight legislators introduced 70 measures combined, of which 58 died without ever receiving a committee hearing. Pickard was particularly unsuccessful, as he introduced 20 bills, and only one received a committee hearing before failing to advance past the first committee passage deadline in early April. The Henderson-based senator was previously derided by Democratic lawmakers, after backing out of a deal with Senate Democrats centered on a mining tax during one of the 2020 special sessions.

When were bills heard and when did they pass?

Throughout the session, lawmakers often waited until the latest possible days to complete the work needed for certain legislative deadlines.

In the week leading up to the first major deadline — bills and resolutions without an exemption were required to have passed out of their first committee by April 9 — lawmakers voted 336 bills out of committee. In the roughly nine weeks prior to that, only 236 bills were passed out of their first committee.

The other deadlines of the legislative session followed a similar pattern.

In the week leading up to and the week including the first house passage deadline (April 20), 340 bills received a vote in their first house, while just 71 bills were voted out of their first house in the 10 previous weeks.

The busiest week of the session was the week ending May 21, which included the second house passage deadline (May 20). During that week, 337 bills and resolutions were voted out of their second house, while a couple hundred more measures were acted on in some other way, including committee hearings, committee votes and first house votes.

The final shortened weekend of the session, stretching from May 29 through May 31, was also chock-full of legislative action, as lawmakers passed more than 150 bills out of their second house during those three final days.

Analysis: Which lawmakers were least likely to toe the party line?

From permanent expanded mail voting to the state public health option, the 2021 legislative session saw no shortage of headline-grabbing partisan disagreements — but a look at actual vote totals reveals that the vast majority of bills were passed with at least some bipartisan buy-in.

Out of nearly 1,200 votes on bills and resolutions during the 120-day session, 625 (53 percent) were passed with no lawmakers in opposition, and a small minority of 52 votes (4 percent) included just one “nay” vote. Meanwhile, roughly 100 votes (8 percent) happened strictly along party lines. 

But there was a fourth, significant group of votes: on more than 150 votes, a minority of Republican lawmakers broke with their caucus and voted with Democrats, helping to pass bills ranging from marijuana DUI reform to expanded environmental protections.

So which Republicans were the most likely to side with Democrats?

The Nevada Independent analyzed and tallied every bill that received a recorded vote in at least one house where less than half of Republican caucus members supported the measure — a tally that includes 49 votes in the Senate and 104 in the Assembly. The analysis included any bill that received four or fewer votes from the nine-member Senate Republican Caucus and any bill that received seven or fewer votes from the 16-member Assembly Republican Caucus.

Instead of looking more broadly at all votes taken during the legislative session, focusing the analysis on the roughly 150 votes where less than half of Republican caucus members voted in favor of a particular bill offers a better view of which individual Republican lawmakers were most likely to cross party lines. 

Because Democrats control both the Assembly and state Senate, no Republican-sponsored bills with even a whiff of partisanship made it to a full floor vote, though a handful of Democratic lawmakers proved willing to buck their party on a smaller number of votes.

The analysis reveals that Sens. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) and Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) were the most likely to break with their caucus and vote with Democrats in the state Senate. On the Assembly side, Jill Tolles (R-Reno), Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) and Melissa Hardy (R-Henderson) most often broke with the rest of their caucus and sided with Democrats.

The guide below aims to take a look at what kinds of issues were at play when Republicans chose to break with the majority of their caucus on a particular issue — including high-profile votes on a new mining tax and a Democrat-backed effort to change Nevada to a presidential primary state.

We’ve double-checked our work to make sure we’ve counted every vote, but if you spot something off or think a vote wasn’t counted, feel free to email sgolonka@thenvindy.com.

SENATE

Ben Kieckhefer: 36

Heidi Seevers Gansert: 33

Kieckhefer and Seevers Gansert voted with Democrats and against the majority of the Republican caucus 30 times, including eight times as the only two Republicans joining Democrats in support of a measure. Kieckhefer is termed out after the 2021 session and cannot run for re-election, and Seevers Gansert will not face voters until 2024 after winning her re-election race last year.

Both lawmakers broke party lines to join all Democrats in favor of AB115, allowing multiple parents to adopt a child, and AB181, a bill aimed at improving mental health parity and reporting on cases of attempted suicide.

Kieckhefer and Seevers Gansert were also among four Republican senators who voted with Democrats in favor of AB495, a bill that creates a new excise tax on the gross revenues of gold and silver companies, estimated to bring in an extra $150 million to $170 million a biennium for education. As the measure passed in the waning days of the session, Kieckhefer said the benefits of the bill outweighed the drawbacks, and Seevers Gansert pointed to the enhanced education funding as reason for voting in favor. The bill required a two-thirds majority to pass, as it created a new tax.

Seevers Gansert and Kieckhefer rarely broke from each other when crossing party lines to vote with Democrats. In one instance, Seevers Gansert was the lone Republican who sided with Democrats on SB237, a bill aimed at giving more support to LGBTQ-owned businesses, while no other Republicans did so. Kieckhefer had no such votes.

State Senators Ben Kieckhefer and Heidi Seevers Gansert during the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Pete Goicoechea: 20

Goicoechea joined Democrats as the lone Republican in support of AB148, which revises the application requirements for obtaining a permit to engage in an exploration project or mining operation.

He joined Kieckhefer and Seevers Gansert as the only members of their caucus to vote in support of AB126, which eliminates Nevada’s presidential caucus and replaces it with a primary election, and also aims to make the state first in the presidential primary calendar — ahead of New Hampshire and Iowa.

Goicoechea also broke from the majority of the Republican caucus to vote with Democrats in support of a few environment-related measures, including AB146, which expands efforts to mitigate water pollution, and AB71, which makes rare plant and animal locations confidential. The Eureka Republican is in his final term of office after winning re-election in 2020, and cannot run again in 2024.

Joe Hardy: 17

Hardy, who is termed out after this session, voted as the lone Republican in support of bills in the Senate more often than any other member of his caucus.

The Boulder City-based lawmaker joined Democrats as the only Republican in favor of SB61, which creates the Nevada Committee of Vendors Who Are Blind, as well as three other Democrat-sponsored bills — including a measure backed by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), AB308, which requires a three-day grace period before landlords can charge late fees for overdue rent.

Hardy was one of three Republicans in the Senate who voted in favor of AB400, which removes “per se” limits on the amount of marijuana metabolite that can be in a person’s blood to trigger a DUI, though the limits remain when someone is facing a felony charge. He was also one of two Republicans in the caucus to back another marijuana-related bill, SB122, which requires occupational training for employees of cannabis establishments.

State Senator Joe Hardy on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Scott Hammond: 14

The northwest Las Vegas Valley lawmaker was one of four Republican senators who voted in support of a new tax on the mining industry. Hammond previously said he would vote in support of the bill, AB495, “for all of our state’s students.”

Hammond also joined Democrats in voting in favor of AB296, which allows victims of ‘doxing’ to bring a civil action to recover damages, and SB450, which allows school districts to use excess revenue from existing tax rates to fund “pay as you go” capital improvement projects, such as remodels and needed facility upgrades.

Keith Pickard: 6

Along with Kieckhefer, Seevers Gansert and Hammond, Pickard voted in favor of the new excise tax on the mining industry through AB495, also citing increased education funding as reason for his support.

Pickard was also one of three Republican senators who voted in favor of removing “per se” limits on non-felony DUIs involving marijuana (AB400), and the Henderson-based legislator joined Kieckhefer and Seevers Gansert in voting in favor of raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21, in line with federal law (AB59).

Ira Hansen: 5

Hansen was one of two Republican senators (along with Hardy) to record votes as the sole GOP member siding with Democrats on multiple votes.

Hansen was the only Republican who voted in favor of protecting the Spring Valley population of Rocky Mountain junipers, known as “swamp cedars” (AB171). Prior to the vote, Hansen had angered some Native advocates when he rebutted the historical accuracy of testimony shared by tribal leaders and elders.

He also was also the only member of his caucus to support SB349, which would have allowed unpackaged produce to be sold in farmers markets, but the legislation failed to advance in the Assembly.

Carrie Buck: 3

The freshman legislator rarely broke from the majority of the Republican caucus, only doing so to support an extension on school use of excess revenue for facility upgrades (SB450), cage-free eggs (AB399) and a clarification on registration requirements for lobbyists (AB110).

James Settelmeyer: 2

The Senate minority leader broke from the majority of his party less than any other Republican senator, only joining Democrats in support of two measures.

Settelmeyer joined Hardy and Pickard in support of removing “per se” limits on non-felony DUIs involving marijuana (AB400) and voted with Kieckhefer, Pickard and Seevers Gansert in support of a measure revising the issuance of orders for protection against high-risk behavior (SB6).

ASSEMBLY

Jill Tolles: 92

Tom Roberts: 90

Among Assembly Republicans, Tolles and Roberts were the most likely to cross party lines and vote contrary to the majority of their caucus.

Out of the 104 votes in which a minority of the 16 Republican Assembly members joined Democrats in support, Tolles and Roberts voted together with Democrats 85 times, though only six of those votes featured no other Republicans in support.

Tolles and Roberts were the only two Republicans in the Assembly to vote in favor of the new mining tax (AB495) — giving the bill enough Republican votes to overcome the required two-thirds majority needed for a tax increase. Prior to the vote, both lawmakers spoke with The Nevada Independent about their rationale for the votes, stressing that they had gained concessions in exchange for their support and had an opportunity to improve education funding.

They were additionally the only members of their party to support other education-related measures, including an expansion of the core subjects contained within social studies in K-12 education (AB19) and a Democrat-sponsored bill to create the Task Force on Sexual Misconduct at Institutions of Higher Education (SB347).

Tolles and Roberts supported a wide range of Democrat-backed legislation, including measures focused on the economy, state government and criminal justice. The duo voted in support of a ban on race-based discrimination against certain hairstyles (SB327), a Frierson-backed effort to establish the Office of Small Business Advocacy (AB184) and a measure that doubles the fee on marriage licenses from $25 to $50 to better support sexual violence and domestic violence victim services in all counties (SB177).

Tolles has a history of voting more moderately than others in the Assembly Republican Caucus, and she was the only caucus member to join Democrats in support of legislation on multiple occasions. She was the only Assembly Republican to vote in favor of AB47, which gives the attorney general greater powers over mergers within the health care industry, and for AB382, an effort to license student loan servicers (that failed to receive a two-thirds majority). 

Though he was not joined by Tolles, Roberts (who has said he plans to run for Clark County sheriff in 2022) voted with several other Republicans in favor of bills authorizing the licensing of cannabis consumption lounges (AB341) and a resolution to remove the Board of Regents’ constitutional protection (SJR7).

Assemblywoman Jill Tolles on the final day of the 81st session of the Legislature on Monday, May 31, 2021, in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Melissa Hardy: 82

The Henderson-based assemblywoman was the lone member of the Republican caucus who voted in favor of AB85, which authorizes the State Quarantine Officer to declare any weed to be noxious by regulation.

Hardy also backed a wide range of Democrat-backed efforts, including a variety of bills sponsored by Frierson including a bill that eliminates Nevada’s presidential caucus and replaces it with a primary election (AB126).

In dissenting from the majority of the Assembly Republican Caucus, Hardy voted the same as both Tolles and Roberts 46 times, including when all three — along with Assemblyman Glen Leavitt (R-Boulder City) — joined Democrats in support of AB486, which is meant to ensure more tenants are connected with rental assistance as eviction protections expire.

Glen Leavitt: 55

Though Leavitt sided with Democrats more frequently than most other Assembly Republicans, he rarely did so without support from several other caucus members. There was only one instance in which Leavitt joined Democrats without at least three other Republicans in support of the measure.

In that case, just two other Republicans joined Leavitt and Assembly Democrats in favor of a bill allowing the State Board of Cosmetology to license a new group of people designated as “advanced estheticians” (SB291).

Additionally, Leavitt was among a minority group of seven Republicans who supported a pair of education measures from Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas), including SB173, also referred to as the “Back on Track Act,” which calls on districts to create learning loss prevention plans and set up summer school programs, and SB151, which is aimed at improving teacher-to-student ratios.

Heidi Kasama: 52

The freshman assemblywoman from Las Vegas was the only Republican in either house who voted in support of a Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation-backed measure, SB75, that makes technical changes to the regular unemployment system, such as allowing more flexibility on when claimants are eligible for benefit extensions. Other Republicans voiced concerns that the bill did not go far enough in addressing issues with the system. 

Along with Hardy, Leavitt and Tolles, Kasama also voted with Democrats to pass AB356, which prohibits water-intensive decorative turf within medians, along roads and in business parks in Clark County.

Kasama and Hardy were also the only Republicans who voted in favor of banning the declawing of cats, though the measure, AB209, failed to advance through the Senate.

From left, Assemblywomen Cecelia González, Heidi Kasama and Melissa Hardy on the final day of the 81st session of the Legislature on Monday, May 31, 2021, in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Lisa Krasner: 36

Krasner voted with a minority of her Republican colleagues on mostly Democrat-supported measures on three dozen occasions, including joining Tolles and Roberts in support of measures protecting swamp cedars in Spring Valley, AB171 and AJR4.

The Reno-based lawmaker also joined Tolles, Roberts, Hardy, Leavitt and Kasama in supporting SB448, an omnibus energy bill expanding the state’s transmission infrastructure that was passed out of the Assembly on the final day of the session.

Gregory Hafen: 30

The second-term legislator representing portions of Clark, Lincoln and Nye counties was one of only three Assembly Republicans who voted in favor of massively increasing fines for violating certain regulations from the Public Utilities Commission (SB18).

Hafen was also part of a limited group of Republicans who supported a change to the Live Entertainment Tax to exclude events held on behalf of a governmental entity (SB367) and a ban on race-based discrimination against certain hairstyles (SB327).

Alexis Hansen: 18

When Assemblywoman Alexis Hansen broke from her party majority and sided with Democrats, the Sparks-based lawmaker supported a wide range of measures, covering topics from health care to criminal justice to state government. Although she rarely joined fewer than four other party members in her dissent from the caucus, she was one of only two Republicans in the Assembly who voted to pass SB77, which exempts certain environmental impact reviews and discussions from the state’s open meeting law.

Robin Titus: 5

The minority floor leader rarely voted against the majority of her caucus, but Titus did join Democrats and several of her Republican colleagues in support of five bills, including a bill requiring state Medicaid plan coverage for doula services (AB256) and an appropriation of $5.4 million for upgrades to the Gaming Control Board’s IT systems (SB413).

Assembly members Robin Titus, Danielle Monroe Moreno and Steve Yeager return to the Assembly chamber after letting the Senate know they have adjourned sine die on the final day of the 81st session, Monday, May 31, 2021, in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Annie Black: 3

Though she was absent or not voting for more than 100 votes after being censured by other members of the Assembly for violating COVID-19 protocols, Black was one of the least likely to side with Democrats on a bill. She was, however, one of four Republicans in the Assembly who voted in favor of authorizing the licensing of cannabis consumption lounges (AB341).

The Nevada Legislative Freedom Caucus

At the beginning of the session, six Republican Assembly members announced the formation of the Nevada Legislative Freedom Caucus, a coalition of state legislators dedicated to the values of constitutional conservatism. Those six lawmakers — Jill Dickman, John Ellison, Andy Matthews, Richard McArthur, P.K. O’Neill and Jim Wheeler — rarely sided with Democrats.

P.K. O’Neill: 19

One member of the Freedom Caucus sided with Democrats significantly more often than any other, as O’Neill was one of just four Assembly Republicans who supported a measure requiring employers to allow people to use sick leave to care for ill family members (AB190).

The Carson City-based assemblyman also backed several Democrat-sponsored bills, including SB166, which clarifies that a crime does not need to be committed by someone with different characteristics than the victim to be considered a hate crime, and SB177, which doubles the fee on marriage licenses from $25 to $50 to better support sexual violence and domestic violence victim services in all the counties.

Jim Wheeler: 6

Jill Dickman: 6

Andy Matthews: 5

John Ellison: 3

Richard McArthur: 3

Almost every member of the Freedom Caucus was among the list of Republicans least likely to side with Democrats, though some threw support behind a few high-profile measures.

Dickman and Matthews were among four Assembly Republicans who voted in favor of authorizing the licensing of cannabis consumption lounges (AB341). McArthur supported a bill aimed at increasing the availability of peer support counseling for emergency response employees (AB96). Wheeler voted to pass a measure that increases fees on special Vegas Golden Knights license plates to help give more funds to charities (AB123).

Which Republicans broke up unanimous votes?

While votes throughout the legislative session were dominated by unanimous vote counts and instances of mixed support and opposition from Republicans, nearly 5 percent of all votes included just one lawmaker in opposition.

In the Senate, Hansen stood above the pack, providing the only “nay” vote 15 times out of 26 such votes in that chamber. Hansen was the lone opponent in the Senate against measures authorizing curbside pickup at dispensaries (SB168), banning race-based discrimination against certain hairstyles (SB327), decriminalizing traffic tickets (AB116) and requiring employees within the juvenile justice system to complete implicit bias training (SB108).

State Senator Ira Hansen inside the Legislature on Friday, May 14, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The other Senate Republicans who provided the only vote against a bill were Buck, who did so six times, Pickard, who did so twice, and Kieckhefer, who did so once. Buck was the only member of the caucus to not support a bill authorizing the sealing of someone’s criminal record after an unconditional pardon (AB219), and Pickard was the only Senate Republican to vote against an appropriation of $25 million for the UNLV Medical School (SB434). 

In the Assembly, there were 26 votes that included a single “nay” vote. Ellison led the Republican caucus with 10, including votes against bills requiring the Board of Regents to waive tuition and fees for Native students attending Nevada public colleges and universities (AB262), prohibiting law enforcement agencies from having arrest or ticket quotas (AB186) and expanding the continuing education courses that law enforcement officers are required to take to include crisis intervention (AB304).

Other Assembly Republicans who stood alone in their opposition included Black, who provided the only “nay” vote on a bill five times, and McArthur, who did so twice. Hafen and Kasama were each the lone Assembly opponent to a bill once.

Which Democrats dissented from their party?

While disagreement among Republicans was far more common in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, a few Democrats in both houses were more likely to depart from the caucus consensus than their colleagues from the same party.

Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas) was more likely to vote differently from the rest of the Senate Democrats than any other member of her party. Neal was the lone opposition vote to AB435, which expands a Commerce Tax exemption to include trade shows, and SB150, which requires local governments to authorize tiny houses in certain zoning districts. She previously expressed concerns that tiny homes might depreciate housing values or exacerbate zoning disparities.

Neal also dissented from the Senate Democratic Caucus to vote with her Republican colleagues at least three times, including voting against a bill that would have granted casino resorts greater authority to ban firearms on their premises (SB452).

Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas) speaks with Assembly members Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) and Rochelle Nguyen on the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Sens. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) and Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) each disagreed with their fellow caucus members at least once. Spearman was the only Democrat who voted against a bill raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 (AB59), and Denis was the lone member of his party to not support an effort to license midwives (AB387). With Denis voting no, the bill fell one vote shy of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass.

In the Assembly, Brittney Miller (D-Las Vegas) was among the Democrats most likely to dissent from the majority position of the caucus. Miller was the lone opponent to a bill during two votes, including voting against SB172, which requires school districts and charter schools to develop programs for dual credits. Miller also joined a majority of Assembly Republicans in opposing a bill that prohibits homeowner associations from circumventing local ordinances when determining when construction can start in residential areas (AB249).

Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) was the only Assembly member to oppose AB258, which clarifies existing law by requiring the trustees of the Clark County Library District to appoint an executive director, and AB477, which abolishes the DMV’s Revolving Account for the Assistance of the Department. She also joined the majority of the Assembly Republican Caucus in voting against SB190, which allows women to receive birth control through a pharmacy without a doctor’s visit.

Assembly Majority Floor Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) additionally dissented from her caucus on more than one occasion, as she provided the lone “nay” vote to AB435, which expands a Commerce Tax exemption to include trade shows. She was also joined by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas) in voting with a majority of Assembly Republicans against SB287, which formally recognizes UNLV and the Desert Research Institute (DRI) as land-grant institutions alongside UNR.

Behind the Bar: How the mining tax compromise deal came to be

Since The Nevada Independent sprung into existence in 2017, we’ve covered three legislative sessions and fights over major tax policies pushed to the very end of the 120 days.

In 2017, a 10 percent excise tax on marijuana was defeated after negotiations broke down over a bill funding Education Savings Accounts, but was eventually resurrected in a compromise that saw another “school choice” program funded in exchange for votes from Republicans.

In 2019, Democrats pushed through a bill making permanent an expiring state payroll tax rate, relying in part on a legal opinion that the maneuver did not require a two-thirds majority vote (a move eventually struck down by the state Supreme Court.)

Even in the 2020 special session, a bill reducing mining tax deductions died, then appeared to gain a crucial Republican vote, then died again within 48 hours.

But even with diminished Democratic majorities, the mining tax bill of the 2021 session (AB495) appeared to glide to passage — introduced on Saturday eveningheard Sunday, and then passed out both legislative chambers on Monday with the needed two-thirds majority, even getting four of nine Republican senators in favor.

But the quick passage and (relatively brief) floor speeches are only the tip of the iceberg and don’t explain why a tax deal in 2021 worked out when many of the same players and issues were involved in past sessions. 

The final deal was sealed up in a Sunday morning meeting in the state Capitol — all four legislative leaders, budget committee chairs and top Republicans on those committees (Sen. Ben Kieckhefer and Assemblywoman Jill Tolles) met with Gov. Steve Sisolak and his staff, agreeing to the rough contours of the “deal” to pass the mining tax with enough Republican votes in tow. Negotiations on both the structure of the mining tax itself and the concessions made to Republicans were handled by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), the face of the deal in public and the prime legislative negotiator of the deal in private.

The deal wasn’t fully baked — negotiations and last minute requests continued until the final hours of session, including a hold up on voting out the capital improvements budget bill until the final 15 minutes of the session, just to ensure that all parts of the bargain were fulfilled.

Participants involved say that a tax compromise worked in 2021 (as opposed to all the previous examples) both because of political pressure — potential tax initiatives on sales and gaming revenue from the Clark County Education Association, as well as three legislatively driven mining tax question. All three of those could have not only major political ramifications, but serious ramifications for industry — many feared a mining tax, which would likely gin up rural turnout and hurt Democrats statewide, would still likely pass given how close a similar 2014 initiative came to passing.

But beyond the ballot questions, personalities and quirks of term limits also played a role. Three of the six Republican votes for the deal are either termed out, or planning to run for a nonpartisan race. 

The deal: Several portions of the “deal” closing the session and getting votes for the mining tax bill were readily apparent as of sine die.

Lawmakers moved to strip the straight-ticket voting language from Sen. Roberta Lange’s SB292, and other Republican asks were included right in the text of AB495. These include:

  • $15 million in federal COVID relief funds to help with learning loss at charter schools.
  • $4.745 million in tax credits in the coming fiscal year for the Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides private school tuition grants to eligible low-income children. The bill also loosens the rules and allows new students to apply for the program.
  • $600,000 per year to the need-based Silver State Opportunity Grant Program, restoring funding to levels approved in the last biennium.
  • Authorizing Medicaid reimbursement for personal care services, legislation long sought by Republican Senate Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Gardnerville).

Other sweeteners were added in a last-minute amendment to SB461, the “waterfall” funding bill directing allocations of the state’s expected $2.7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan dollars. The $15 million in appropriations include:

  • $6 million to the Collaboration Center Foundation to augment services and programs assisting people with disabilities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas), a yes vote on the mining tax bill, is an advisory board member at the foundation. 
  • $5 million to the Nevada ABLE Savings Program to be distributed as grants to persons with disabilities affected negatively by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • $4 million to UNR to establish a statewide “Dean’s Future Scholars Program” aimed at assisting prospective first-generation college students in the sixth grade or higher. Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) previously worked as an executive at UNR, and sponsored a bill this session (SB118) establishing a similar statewide program for first-generation college students.

Obviously, Republicans asked for more during the negotiations, but any concessions had to be weighed against whether their inclusion would peel off any votes from progressive Democrats and satisfy the Clark County Education Association (see the last-minute inclusion of a study on school board makeup and potentially appointing trustees). 

One of the bigger sticking points was a permanent funding source for Opportunity Scholarships. One of the biggest concerns is that families receiving the scholarships will run into the same issue in the 2023 legislative session and again have to advocate for funding amid strong pushback from public education advocates.

A Republican governor in 2023 would likely push for expansion of the program, but Sisolak was cagey when asked during a post-session press conference on Tuesday about whether he would include funding for the program in his recommended budget for the next biennium.

“This was an agreement that was made. I'm going to follow through with my side of the agreement, all the terms that were made,” he said.

Republicans also pushed for further election changes (removal of ballot collection or “ballot harvesting” from the expanded mail voting bill), and a partisan balance on an interim redistricting commission — both rejected by Democratic leaders. 

Other requests, less partisan and more focused on education, were easier to swallow, including money so charter schools were held harmless against financial losses in the switch to a new funding formula (SB463) and inclusion of the $15 million in federal dollars for learning loss programs at charter schools. Other Republican requests were deemed noncontroversial — including measures related to prescription HIV treatment drugs and enrolling recently released inmates in Medicaid (a Settelmeyer bill on both those topics failed to make it out of the Assembly, but the concepts were passed out in other legislation).

The politics: The six Republicans who voted for the mining tax deal had different rationales for voting for the compromise.

Kieckhefer is termed out after this session, and Hammond is termed out after the 2023 session. Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) is planning to run for Clark County sheriff in 2022, a nonpartisan race.

Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), who in a floor speech complained about special interests pushing the decision, all but committed in an April interview with the Associated Press that he would support a mining tax proposal if it came up in the session. The Henderson Republican said he was undecided on his vote walking into the floor session.

Tolles and Gansert — who represent Northern Nevada — have both staked out reputations as more moderate and willing to discuss enhanced education funding in the right circumstances.

In interviews with The Nevada Independent, Tolles and Roberts both said that having the mining industry in support of the measure was a necessary factor, as well as having the money specifically earmarked for education.  

“I'm not going to be in politics forever, but I'm always going to be a human being and a wife and a mom and a professional and a member of my community,” Tolles said. “And so every decision that I have to make can't be about whatever is going to happen in the future, it has to be about whether or not I feel good about what's right in front of me and how I feel about it when I'm looking back at my life.”

Updated at 6:35 p.m. on Thursday, June 3, 2021 to include more details about the end of session negotiations.

Gun free zones in casinos, increasing justice court fees and licensing midwives among many casualties of legislative session

Lawmakers ended the 81st session of the Legislature on Monday night passing dozens of high-profile measures but many others, including an effort to license midwives and a bill allowing casinos to prohibit firearms, failed to advance.

Out of roughly 1,000 bills and resolutions introduced during the 120-day legislative session, more than 400 measures failed to pass through the Senate and Assembly and make it to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s desk. Many bills were left for dead at deadlines for committee or house passage, but some — including an effort to increase justice court filing fees — were in limbo until minutes before the clock struck midnight on Monday.

Other major bills that failed to advance included a measure aimed at transitioning Nevada residents away from natural gas use, several affordable housing bills and a bill that would have abolished the death penalty.

Here’s a look at some of the bills that died at the end of the session:

SB452: Prohibiting guns on casino properties

In the waning weeks of the session, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) revived discarded portions of the session’s other major gun bill in the form of MGM Resorts-backed AB452, which aimed to grant casino resorts greater authority to ban firearms on their premises.

When Cannizzaro presented the bill, which would have required non-restricted gaming license holders (defined as more than 15 slot machines on property) to opt in to the provisions and would have prohibited individuals from bringing firearms onto casino property with certain exemptions, she described the measure as a way for lawmakers to further protect workers on the Las Vegas Strip.

Supporters said that the bill would largely mirror prohibitions on firearm possession at schools and libraries, but opponents — a broad coalition of Republicans, gun right advocates and criminal justice reform organizations — argued it would create uncertainty for gun owners and have a disparate racial impact.

The measure narrowly passed through the Senate in a 11-10 vote on Wednesday, but failed to receive a vote in the Assembly before sine die. During the joint committee hearing on the bill, many Assembly Democrats questioned its merits and expressed concerns about how the measure would affect minority communities.

“We are going to have situations where Black folks and brown folks are going to be the ones who are going to be not asked to leave, but who are going to be the ones that the police are called on,” said Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong (D-Las Vegas) during the hearing.

AB387: Midwifery licensure board 

Nevada is the only state in the west that does not license midwives, but a proposed Board of Licensed Certified Professional Midwives nearly became a reality this session after falling just one vote short of a needed two-thirds majority late Monday evening.

During the last day of the legislative session, the Senate voted 13-8 on Democratic Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno’s AB387, with Sens. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) and Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) joining most Democrat senators in support. Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) joined the Republican senators against the measure, ensuring the bill fell short of the needed two-thirds majority (because the bill required fees for licensure). 

The Assembly had previously passed the bill and its amendments with a 28-14 vote on May 28.  

The board would have been responsible for establishing an optional licensure process for practicing midwives and also would have set training and education requirements. 

An emotional hearing in the Assembly Committee on Commerce and Labor took place in April, in which several mothers shared their experiences with midwives and desire to have birth freedom while also having certain regulations and protections in place for all parties. 

Opposition to the measure was just as passionate, with opponents arguing that the board would overly restrict birthing options and punish midwives who may not want to be licensed or who have learned through apprenticeships rather than in a formal environment. 

SB437: Increased fees for justice court actions

An effort to double administrative fees for actions within the state’s justice courts fell two votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass on the last day of the session.

SB437, which would have increased the fee from $1 to $2 on the commencement of any action in a justice court for which a fee is required, in order to help fund the work of the state demographer within the Department of Taxation, passed through the Senate in mid-May on a 14-7 vote, but only after Sens. Kieckhefer and Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) switched from nay to yea votes.

Members of the Assembly then voted 26-16 along party lines on the measure, falling two votes short of the 28 votes needed to pass with a two-thirds majority. Republicans opposed to the bill, which was sponsored by the Senate Finance Committee, expressed confusion and concerns that it would tax the wrong people by imposing funds on litigants within the justice courts to fund the state demographer within the executive branch.

AB161: Study on summary evictions

A severely watered-down measure that would have created a legislative committee to study the state’s “summary eviction” process during the interim was left dead at the end of the session after failing to receive a vote in the Assembly.

The initial version of AB161, sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), would have completely banned the “summary eviction” process, which involves possession of a rental unit and requires a tenant to either pay rent, vacate the property or respond to a notice through the courts within seven days. But the language in the bill was replaced with a study after lawmakers expressed concerns that there was not enough time to consider the consequences of upending the existing system in the midst of the eviction moratorium and amid staunch opposition from real estate groups.

The amended version of the bill, which received support from a slew of progressive groups, was passed out of its first committee in early April but never saw further action from lawmakers.

SB187: Limits on solitary confinement 

Sen. Pat Spearman’s (D-North Las Vegas) bill to limit the use of solitary confinement in Nevada prisons to 30 days never made it to an initial floor vote. 

SB187 also would have required regulations to limit solitary confinement to use only as a last resort. It also called for frequent mental health evaluations and giving inmates at least two hours of out-of-cell time daily, visitation and phone access.  

The Department of Corrections submitted a fiscal note stating that the measure would cost the department more than $40 million dollars for the biennium in order to modify policy at its seven major institutions and provide additional mental health support. 

“Even if they are guilty, they are still human beings, and we should treat them as such,” Spearman said of inmates during the bill’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 12. “If rehabilitation is the goal, then solitary confinement impinges upon that goal.” 

SB139: Prohibiting insurance companies from denying treatment for gender dysphoria

A bill that would have prohibited insurers from denying treatment for gender dysphoria – the psychological distress that results from an incongruence between sex assigned at birth and gender identity – did not survive after passing out of the first committee. 

Sen. Melanie Scheible’s (D-Las Vegas) SB139 aimed to require insurance companies, including Medicaid, to cover medically necessary treatment and surgeries for transgender Nevadans. 

The bill was meant to address instances of insurance companies denying coverage for treatment such as hormone replacement therapy and surgeries, despite existing laws and policies prohibiting the denial, exclusion or limitation of medically necessary health care services based on gender identity or expression. 

Advocates said that access to treatment should be considered medically necessary because without it, the mental health of people who have gender dysphoria suffers greatly. 

“When insurers fail to cover medically necessary care, people suffer anxiety, depression, social ostracism, and a higher risk of suicide,” transgender rights advocate Brooke Maylath said during the bill’s only hearing on March 12. “SB139 is designed to send a clear message to the greater healthcare community – discrimination is not acceptable in Nevada."

Although it received a deadline waiver, the measure did not advance after being referred to the Senate Committee on Finance on April 16. The state Public Employees' Benefits Program (PEBP) had submitted a fiscal note for $1 million for the biennium to extend the coverage for treatments. 

SB235: Additional marijuana licenses for unsuccessful applicants

A bill that became a lightning rod for marijuana industry criticism over a proposed amendment aimed at spurring the creation of scores of new dispensaries failed to make it to the legislative finish line.

The measure from Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), SB235, and a proposed amendment would have offered an alternative path to licensure for marijuana dispensary applicants who were unsuccessful in a 2018 licensing round. In that round, 61 dispensary licenses were issued to just 17 companies even though 127 potential businesses applied.

Those who lost out on the coveted permits pursued a massive lawsuit that ended with a judge saying there were flaws in the state’s process, but that the law did not permit her to order additional licenses as relief. An amendment to Harris’ bill that would have given unsuccessful candidates a path forward was forcefully criticized by the Nevada Dispensary Association, a statewide dispensary trade association whose representatives argued that it would threaten the strength and integrity of the industry.

Opponents also argued that the market could not support a large number of new stores without hurting existing ones; supporters countered with a competing analysis positing that the state could absorb nearly 1,300 new dispensaries.

The Cannabis Compliance Board submitted a fiscal note on the bill saying it would gain at least $610,000 over the biennium as a result of the increase in license renewal fees, and that it would cost an estimated $150,000 to complete a market study to determine demand for the issuance of additional cannabis licenses. 

The bill passed out of a Senate committee, was referred to the Senate Finance committee on April 20, and saw no further action before the end of session.

AB382: Regulating student loan servicers

A sweeping piece of student loan legislation that would have established new regulations on loan servicers in Nevada and would have granted more rights to borrowers was left for dead just a few days before the end of the session after falling one vote short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass.

The bill was primarily aimed at enacting broad consumer protections through a borrowers’ bill of rights, as well as the licensing and regulation of servicers by the state’s Commissioner of Financial Institutions. 

Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno) joined all Democratic Assembly members in voting in favor of the measure; however, some Republican lawmakers expressed concerns about the licensing fees that servicers would be required to pay. Student loan servicers Sallie Mae and Discover also opposed the bill, arguing that it could lead to greater costs for borrowers.

Bill sponsor Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) said he adopted an amendment before putting the bill up for a vote that was aimed at addressing the concerns brought up by opponents.

“But some of the student lender interests decided to dig in on it. And unfortunately, again, all members of the minority caucus decided to side with them except for Assemblywoman Tolles,” Watts said, “in my opinion, picking those interests over borrowers that are in our state.”

SB462: Republican-backed effort to change redistricting commission

With the state set to handle the redistricting process in a likely special session sometime later this year, Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) introduced an emergency measure, SB462, just two days before the end of the session that would have given Democrats and Republicans equal power in creating a redistricting commission.

That bill received zero action in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Instead, members of both the Senate and Assembly adopted SCR13, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), creating an interim reapportionment and redistricting committee composed of four Democrats and two Republicans.

Increasing awareness of mental health services

As the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in heightened mental health issues across the country, lawmakers in Nevada took steps to increase access to behavioral health care, typically through federal relief funds — but a pair of bills aimed at increasing awareness of mental health support services failed to advance out of the Legislature before the end of the session.

AB167, sponsored by Assemblyman Glen Leavitt (R-Boulder City), would have required K-12 schools and colleges to put information relating to mental health resources on student ID cards, including the phone number and text messaging option for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. After passing out of the Assembly on a 41-1 vote in late April, the bill did not receive a committee vote in the Senate.

AB315, which passed out of the Assembly unanimously a few days before the end of the session, would have required law enforcement agencies and fire departments to provide officers and firefighters with information about mental health awareness, prevention, mitigation and treatment, and provide two hours of mental health counseling within three months of retirement. The measure, sponsored by Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill (R-Carson City), passed out of a Senate committee on Sunday, but failed to receive a vote on the Senate floor during the final day of the session.

Lawmakers advance mining tax deal; Republicans who voted in favor explain why

State lawmakers voted Monday to advance a major mining tax package that will allocate a combined $500 million to public education through new and extended mining taxes and federal COVID relief dollars — pushing the compromise package through the legislative process quickly on the final day of session.

The Assembly vote on AB495 was 28-14, with all Assembly Democrats and two Assembly Republicans — Jill Tolles and Tom Roberts — in support. In the Senate, four Republicans — Ben Kieckhefer, Heidi Seevers Gansert, Scott Hammond and Keith Pickard — joined Democrats to pass the bill in a 16-5 vote, sending the bill to Gov. Steve Sisolak for approval.

The bill, introduced late Saturday and heard for the first time on Sunday, involved a complicated trade of bills — including commitments to kill certain bills and pass others — and some challenges reining in the multiplying requests of lawmakers being courted for votes. An amendment to Democrat-sponsored SB292 that eliminates provisions allowing for straight-ticket voting was one of the Republican-favored elements of the deal.

The bill, which creates a new excise tax on annual gold and silver mine gross revenue above $20 million, is expected to eventually direct up to $500 million to education — including $200 million in federal COVID relief dollars and the rest through new and redirected taxes on the mining industry. It also restores funding to Opportunity Scholarships, a private school scholarship program supported by private donations made in exchange for tax credits.

An amendment adopted shortly before the floor vote in the Assembly allocated an additional $15 million in federal funding for learning loss at charter schools; charters were previously set to be excluded from the pot of money. Groups such as the Nevada State Education Association teacher’s union have opposed more allocations for charter schools, which they say are exempted from too many accountability rules.

But Republicans have advocated for those schools, including in a bill, SB463, that will apply $3.8 million to hold a dozen charter schools harmless from funding drops they otherwise would have experienced in the transition to a new funding formula. Tolles also said some charters experienced similar closures of in-person learning during the pandemic.

“There was significant learning loss. They could utilize that help as well,” she said in an interview.

Passage of the bill out of both chambers was lauded by Nevada Mining Association President Tyre Gray, who said in a statement that the legislation “encapsulates what is possible when we stop worrying about north or south, urban or rural, teacher or miner, and remember our commonalities.” The Clark County Education Association — a key booster —  tweeted that a “bipartisan relationship made this possible.”

And in a joint statement with Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, Sisolak called the legislation “one of the most significant steps our State could take on our road to recovery.”

“Today's historic vote was only made possible thanks to the partnership of education leaders, business and industry, a bipartisan group of legislators, stakeholders and community members,” Sisolak said in a statement. “Our comeback will be strengthened by the continued collaboration and efforts of all Nevadans committed to working together for our families and a brighter future.”

Assembly vote

Prior to the vote, Tolles and Roberts spoke with The Nevada Independent about their rationale for the votes, stressing that they had not only gained concessions in exchange for their pledge to support the tax, but also had an opportunity to improve education funding without overly burdening one single industry.

“For the mining industry, the caveat was everybody that is impacted agrees to it. There are no loss of jobs, there's … no loss of revenue to counties. And so the industry says we want this, that's a condition for us,” Roberts said.

The Nevada Mining Association on Sunday night made it clear in a tweet that they were in support of the bill, and association President Tyre Gray sat at the presenter’s table with Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson during the hearing for the bill. 

Through the session, both lawmakers have struck a more moderate tone than others in the Assembly Republican caucus. Roberts, a former assistant sheriff with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, is planning to leave legislative service and run for Clark County sheriff in 2022.

For her part, Tolles said her entire rationale for getting involved in politics was to advocate for education — saying the combination of industry buy-in for the bill and the fact that proceeds would go to education checked all of her boxes.

“I'm not going to be in politics forever, but I'm always going to be a human being and a wife and a mom and a professional and a member of my community,” she said. “And so every decision that I have to make can't be about whatever is going to happen in the future, it has to be about whether or not I feel good about what's right in front of me and how I feel about it when I'm looking back at my life.”

Both lawmakers said that bill language adding back funding authorization to the Opportunity Scholarship program — a tax credit program offering private school tuition grants for low-income families — was a key element of negotiations, and said future discussions on the scholarship program have been promised.

Tolles wanted the scholarship program, which now counts only a little more than 1,000 enrollees and is at less than half its original size, not to be so restrictive and to ensure continuity of funding through budget cycles, so that parents with children enrolled in the program have more certainty year-over-year rather than having to face fears every two years about being dropped from the program.

“The way that the system, as I understand it works right now, is that every two years, it's a fight just to maintain,” she said. “And so that's very traumatic for those kids, and those families, to feel like it's essentially their version of an eviction moratorium like every two years.”

The bill does not guarantee that the scholarship lasts beyond the coming biennium, but does lift provisions from 2019 that did not allow new students to enroll.

Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas) said in a speech on the Assembly floor that his Republican colleagues’ decision to support a tax hike “in exchange for concessions so modest as to be insulting is simply astonishing to me.” 

“Spending more money without enacting any structural reforms or accountability measures has never solved our educational problems,” he said.

Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) said when evaluating good tax policy, one question she asks is “are the people who are going to be taxed understanding of that tax, and ... do they share those principles enough that they come in support?”

“We have that in Assembly Bill 495,” she said. “In this building, it is a rare thing to get consensus. It is even more rare when we get it around policies such as this. This is long overdue.”

Senate

Four Senate Republicans crossed party lines to support the bill on Sunday evening, easily clearing the required two-thirds majority just a few hours after the Assembly passed the bill.

Kieckhefer, who is termed out of office after this session, said in a floor speech that the bill represented the “art of legislating in a single bill,” representing a compromise of things he strongly supported and strongly opposed. 

“While there are plenty of reasons that I could point to to vote against this bill, I think the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks,” he said. “And when you get to this place, I think it's important to try to find a way to say yes to help people, and that's what this bill does.”

Seevers Gansert also pointed to the enhanced education funding in the bill, touching not only public education but also charter schools and Opportunity Scholarships, as the reason for her support. Pickard said he was troubled by “special interests” using the initiative petition process to “put pressure on us,” but said he would support the bill because of the additional funding for education.

Hammond said the process of getting to the vote “was a rocky one,” but said he ignored pressure from “outside interest groups and disaffected third parties” and voted to advance the policy because he agreed with the merits of the bill.

“While I don't expect the ... naysayers who don't even bother to read the legislation to keep their opinions to themselves, I will be voting yes, for all of our state’s students,” Hammond said. “I urge my colleagues to join me, because even if it's only one student, it’ll change their life without ever even knowing it and that's worth it.”

But five Republican senators voted against the bill, with several raising concerns with the rushed process that brought the legislation forward. Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) said he had wanted to see a credit offsetting any increased collection of the existing net proceeds tax on minerals against the new excise tax, and said it was “unfair to ask any one industry to come to the plate.”

“Education needs to be borne by all of us, not one single industry,” he said. “I think they were forced to be here, and forced to support this bill.”

Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) also raised similar concerns about the industry-specific tax, saying that the state’s gaming industry had long skated by without paying its fair share to education, saying it would “allow the very people that have not paid enough consistently to get away with it once again.”

“(For) all but a handful of us in this room, the people that are going to pay this tax, they are not our constituents. They are mine. It's very easy to tax people that actually are not even in your district.”

Reporter Tabitha Mueller contributed to this report. Updated at 4:34 p.m. on 5/31/21 to add comments from floor speeches. Updated again at 7:30 p.m. to include details from the Senate vote.

Lawmakers seek greater oversight of billions in opioid settlement funds projected for the state

Pills spilling from bottle

A few state lawmakers are hoping to establish greater legislative oversight over how the state spends billions of dollars in opioid settlement funds projected to be won by the attorney general in litigation throughout the next decade.

SB390, a bill presented by Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) and sponsored by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, would create a state fund to house proceeds from opioid settlements, such as the $45 million Nevada is set to receive from the settlement of a lawsuit against consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which provided services for opioid manufacturers.

Jessica Adair, chief of staff in the attorney general’s office, explained during a Wednesday hearing that the bill would give legislative authority to the Department of Health and Human Services to disburse the money in the fund. That spending would follow the guidance of an advisory committee that determines what substance abuse and behavioral issues in the state should be addressed.

Sens. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) and Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) expressed concern that the Legislature would be limited to only giving a yes or no vote on the expenditures proposed by the department.

“This could be a multibillion-dollar settlement fund,” Kieckhefer said. “And the idea that it sort of lies exclusively in the executive branch sounds a lot like this summer to me, where the Legislature ultimately rubber stamps a lot of expenditures.”

Lawmakers were critical of the process for allocating CARES Act dollars over the past year, which was heavily influenced by the executive branch with less legislative input than many lawmakers wanted.

Both senators referred to the Fund for a Healthy Nevada, which houses proceeds from a massive settlement with tobacco companies that was finalized in 1998, as a guidepost for what oversight of opioid funds could look like because that fund receives greater oversight from the Interim Finance Committee than SB390 proposes.

Ratti did not push back on the idea, saying she could work on an amendment to the bill to provide greater legislative input on expenditures while still ensuring that the advisory committee steers use of the settlement funds.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Implementation bill, budget votes lay groundwork for launching new education funding formula

The Senate Finance Committee took a step Tuesday night toward fully implementing the new K-12 education funding formula despite repeated concerns raised about the lack of additional revenue.

The committee held its first hearing on SB439 — a largely technical bill involving how money will be distributed through the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan — and heard more than an hour of public testimony before immediately moving into a work session. Ultimately, lawmakers voted to approve an amended version of the bill, moving it forward in the legislative process toward a vote of the full Senate.

State Superintendent Jhone Ebert lauded the legislation as a critical step in the journey toward improving per-pupil funding in Nevada, which consistently ranks near the bottom among states when it comes to school finance. The Pupil-Centered Funding Plan replaces the 54-year-old Nevada Plan, and will dramatically change how money flows to schools. It sweeps more than 80 revenue streams into one giant education funding pot and establishes “weights” that will direct money to students based on their needs.

“This work is difficult, but it couldn't be more important than at this moment where we are currently redesigning the future of education,” Ebert said.

In the waning hours of the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed SB543, which created the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. Since then, the 11-member Commission on School Funding has met nearly two dozen times to discuss how it should be implemented and funded. The advisory body recently issued funding recommendations, specifically targeting property and sales taxes as revenue generators that could help the state achieve per-pupil funding levels at least on par with the national average over the next decade.

But, as it stands now, no new revenue has been funneled toward education — a point that has frustrated the statewide teachers’ union and other education advocates. Multiple people affiliated with the Nevada State Education Association spoke in opposition to SB439 on Tuesday, describing it as legislation crafted behind closed doors that didn’t address the union’s concerns. 

For instance, the union wants Zoom and Victory schools, which receive more money to help students learning English as a second language or living in low-income households, grandfathered into state law rather than gradually phased out during the transition to weighted funding.

“Ever since the introduction of SB543 two years ago, NSEA has expressed policy concerns at every opportunity — the lack of educator voice, no new revenue, watering down Zoom and Victory schools, freezing and squeezing school district budgets .. a giveaway to charter schools and undoing the rules of collective bargaining,” NSEA’s executive director, Brian Lee, said during the hearing. “SB439 fails to adjust a single issue raised by educators showing its backers are unserious about developing and delivering a funding plan to benefit all Nevada students.”

Meanwhile, charter school leaders were pleased to hear charter schools would be added to the hold harmless clause of the new funding formula, but it didn’t ease all their concerns. 

Rebecca Feiden, executive director of the State Public Charter School Authority, testified in neutral and pointed out that charter schools would not be receiving district equity adjustments or auxiliary funding for transportation services under the new funding plan. She said that means charter schools would only bank approximately 93 percent of the funding the neighboring Clark County School District receives. In Washoe County, charter schools would receive 92 percent and, in Elko County, 76 percent.

The Washoe Education Association, Mi Familia Vota, the Charter School Association of Nevada and Battle Born Progress were among the organizations that opposed SB439.

Even those who voiced support, such as the Clark County Education Association, pushed for more education funding.

“No more excuses and no more delays. No more telling the nation that we enjoy a last place ranking on education,” said Karl Byrd, a social studies teacher at Knudson Middle School in Las Vegas. “It's time to fully fund our schools, and SB439 is a step in the right direction.”

Budget groundwork for transition

The SB439 hearing came hours after lawmakers took a preliminary vote to make a full transition to a new funding formula for schools for the next two years, instead of the phased approach the governor recommended — a move that opens up many more questions lawmakers will have to answer in the final three weeks of the session.

Gov. Steve Sisolak had recommended a phased implementation of the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan that would involve putting all state-level school funding ($2.7 billion) into the new formula in the coming biennium and not pulling locally generated funds into the formula until later.

But that arrangement drew legislative scrutiny because schools draw about 70 percent of their funding from local revenue sources. That means students in counties that have less ability to generate local funding would likely receive less funding than their counterparts in wealthier counties.

Members of a joint Senate-Assembly budget subcommittee also took another key step toward launching into the new paradigm when they voted to set the “average base per-pupil amount” the new formula will provide to $6,954 per student in the fiscal year 2022 and $7,090 in fiscal year 2023. Further adjustments, such as ones meant to account for variance in wages and the cost of living in state’s 17 counties, would stem from the base the Legislature sets.

Weights — which are extra allotments of funding to address students with extra needs — will be multipliers calculated off the base. They will go toward students learning English as a second language; students defined as “at-risk”; and students who are gifted and talented. 

On Tuesday, subcommittee members also gave their approval to many of the governor’s recommended education budget cuts and changes. While the votes help move the budget closing process along, lawmakers expect to revisit many of their decisions in coming days, likely to restore funding for programs using some of the $910 million more the state has to work with because of new, higher-than-expected revenue projections

Groups including Educate Nevada Now also want lawmakers to use some of the nearly $3 billion it will receive in flexible federal COVID relief funds to help boost funding to schools and facilitate the transition from the antiquated funding formula to a new model.

The subcommittee’s work will then move to the full Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means committees for further review. Those committees are set to take up the matter on Friday.

Cuts to class size reduction

Lawmakers on the subcommittee approved a recommendation in the governor’s budget that cuts class size reduction funding in the coming biennium, then transfers what is left to a general State Education Funding Account that will be redistributed through the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan.

Meeting class size requirements, which limit first and second grade classes to a 17:1 ratio and third grade classes to a 20:1 ratio, would cost an estimated $314 million over the biennium.

But Sisolak has called for cutting funding levels by $156 million in an effort to balance the budget and still maintain base per-pupil funding levels. The remaining money would be incorporated into the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan but would not be restricted to class size reduction and would be available for collective bargaining.

The state remains far from class size targets, with districts frequently requesting “variances” that allow them an exception to the rule. A state-commissioned study from Data Insight Partners found that 87 percent of students are in class sizes larger than the non-binding recommendations from the state, which called for a 15:1 student-teacher ratio for grades 1 through 3 and 25:1 in all other grades. Meeting that would require an additional 3,000 teachers in the state.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) said the cut would make it impossible for districts to meet class size goals, and he added that the cut needs to be reevaluated in the future.

“It's nonsensical to think that they would be able to meet those targets when we provide them less funding to do so,” Kieckhefer said. “And not having enough money is a perfectly adequate reason for not complying. So I would expect every school and every district to submit that form to the district to justify their inability to meet those targets.”

Zoom, Victory and Nevada Ready 21 programs moved

Lawmakers took the governor’s recommendation to fold $165.2 million designated to support English learners, at-risk students and those who need personal computers into the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. Instead of having Zoom Schools, Victory Schools and English learner grants, that money would be converted into a weight (an additional sum of money) that flows to students who have those special needs.

The goal is to serve a wider group of students with the kinds of services available through the programs — such as pre-K programs, professional development and wrap-around services. Victory School grants support 35 of the lowest-performing schools in the state and 21,730 students within them, but there are more than 247,000 students in the state who are considered “at-risk.”

Zoom Schools and the English Learner Grant program serve nearly 44,000 students in the state, although nearly 52,000 students are considered eligible for English learner weighted funding.

The Nevada Ready 21 program offered grants to help connect students to computing devices — a goal accelerated when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and districts used funds including federal aid to obtain devices for distance learning. State education officials said funds would still be needed to maintain and replace those devices as they reach the end of their life cycle.

The Nevada Ready 21 funding would be reshuffled into “base” per-pupil funding within the new formula.

Weights for underperforming students restored

Members of the budget subcommittees gave preliminary approval to transferring about $140 million from the New Nevada Education Funding Plan into the account funding the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. The program, authorized through SB178 of the 2017 session, allotted $1,200 for every low-income or English learner student who was scoring in the lowest quartile on proficiency tests and was not enrolled at a school receiving Zoom or Victory program funding. The program served more than 58,000 children.

Funding was eliminated in a round of budget cuts during the 2020 special session, but lawmakers on the subcommittee supported the governor’s recommendation to restore it and then transfer it this session to the larger pot of general education money. State officials acknowledged they missed a Feb. 1 deadline for getting an independent analysis of the programs’ effectiveness to the Legislature, saying they faced challenges choosing a vendor and following through with the assessment because of the pandemic.

Instead of funding $1,200 weights, the money would be redistributed, with 50 percent contributing to weights for English learners and 50 percent supporting weights for at-risk students.

Read by Grade 3 funding reduced

Lawmakers approved the governor’s recommended cut of $50 million over the biennium to a handful of education programs, primarily Read by Grade 3 and college (cut by $33 million) and career readiness initiatives (cut by $10 million).

Several lawmakers who voted for the cuts said they wanted to prioritize the accounts when the state decides later how to redistribute money gained because the Economic Forum has projected more tax revenue than previously expected in the coming biennium.

“This is a motion that I would prefer to vote against. But I will vote for because of the process that we're working through here,” Kieckhefer said. “I think these cuts need to be restored. And I sure have them on the tops of our list along with some others as we move forward in the session.”

Lawmakers voted to transfer the remaining funding for the initiatives to the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. Read by Grade 3 laws developed over the past six years would remain, including the requirements that schools submit a literacy plan for approval by the Department of Education and that schools designate a licensed teacher as the campus literacy specialist.

Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) opposed the transfer, saying that she likes the current arrangement through which the literacy money is budgeted separately and subject to separate accountability. She also floated the idea that in the future, there could be a new weight for students who cannot read at grade level.

GATE programs funded at higher level

Experts have differed on how much should be spent on the 2-4 percent of students identified as gifted, but the subcommittees ended up approving a more generous amount for GATE. The state’s Commission on School Funding recommended a target weight of 0.14, while the consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates recommended the more modest weight of 0.05.

Assembly Ways and Means Chairwoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said she was comfortable funding the services at a lower level.

“Even around that conversation of 0.05, we weren't talking about taking your money out of education and putting it someplace else,” she said. “All the money in the education universe that we have been talking about, for over 100 days now, is staying in the education universe. It's just how the pie is sliced.”

But she said members of the Senate wanted a weight of 0.12, which is what was ultimately approved, for $10.4 million over the biennium. Several members expressed thanks for that action.

“We don't have that many students. And I think that funding is critically important,” said Seevers Gansert.

Teacher incentives melded into general education account

Lawmakers on the subcommittees voted to restore a cut to a program that offered incentives to teachers in low-income and underperforming schools, but rolled the $5 million into the larger fund for paying for education.

The program allows bonuses that would increase a teacher’s base salary by up to $5,000 a year. But fiscal staff said the typical bonus was closer to $1,000 per teacher, and the Nevada Department of Education could not provide data about how effective the incentives were to recruit and retain teachers.

General fund spending reduced, marijuana revenue up

In the governor’s recommended budget, the amount of money the general fund is contributing to the “Nevada Plan” to support education is $1.5 billion in the coming biennium, down 2.2 percent from the levels in the current biennium. But the overall amount the state is contributing to the plan is up because of increases in non-general fund revenue sources in the state that support schools, such as an annual tax on slot machines and a 10 percent excise tax on retail sales of marijuana.

When local revenues are added into the mix, there will be about $9 billion directed toward education through the Nevada Plan in the coming biennium, which equates to average per-pupil spending of $9,149 in the fiscal year that starts in July and $9,292 in the following fiscal year. State support accounts for about 30 percent of that.

Part of that state support is ever-increasing revenue collections from a tax on marijuana. Although the state has the option to use marijuana money to “supplant” the general funds it contributes to education, lawmakers voted to add the $62 million in incremental marijuana money expected in the coming two years on top of what they have budgeted to give schools from the general fund.

In total, the state expects the marijuana tax will generate about $185 million for education over the next two years.

Budget committee passes surprise ‘premium holiday’ for public employee health plans

State employees are likely in for a much more favorable situation with their health plan than the doomsday scenario predicted before the session began. 

Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), chair of the Ways and Means Committee, announced a plan during a Friday joint budget meeting to give participants in the Public Employees Benefits’ Program (PEBP) a one-month “premium holiday” during which enrollees don’t have to pay their share of their health insurance costs. That would apply to about 44,000 active and retired public employees, according to legislative staff.

Carlton said the arrangement was intended “to do something for state employees who have gone through a lot this last year and a half” while not adjusting the rates for the health plans during an ongoing open enrollment period. The expense would be covered through general fund dollars and would cost about $12 million over the biennium.

“We know how important health care is to families, especially now, and what the cost of that health care can be to a family,” Carlton said. “I still find it quite sad that we still have state employees that are on Medicaid. That's another thing that we need to fix as we move forward. But this is one thing that we can do for state employees at this moment in time.”

Carlton also proposed restoring a budgeted cut in how much the state contributes each month to the Medicare plans of retirees through a “Health Reimbursement Arrangement” (HRA). The governor had proposed reducing the contribution to the equivalent of $165 a month for employees with 15 years of service; the committee is restoring it to $195. 

That change will cost $6.6 million over the biennium, paid for through expected excess reserve fees collected by PEBP.

The motions were approved unanimously by members of a joint Senate and Assembly budget committee.

Current and retired state employees cried foul in January when PEBP proposed a slew of benefits cuts and program reductions to try to meet an initial 6 percent budget reduction target. Proposed cuts included reducing life insurance benefits from $25,000 for an active employee to $15,000 and from $12,500 for a retiree to $7,500, eliminating a long-term disability insurance program and lowering Medicare HRA contributions from $13 to $11 a month per year of service.

PEBP Executive Officer Laura Rich said in an interview that the idea of a “premium holiday” came about as a way for lawmakers and the system to mitigate some of the proposed cuts even though the system’s open enrollment period had opened last month — making it difficult to change things such as plan design, deductibles and copays for the current plan year.

“The new options that were presented were last minute options, based on the fact that there appears to be more funding available, and something that the legislators had a desire to fund,” she said.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) said he thought any discussion about a state-funded PEBP rate holiday paid through general fund dollars should come as part of a broader conversation in coming weeks on how the state should spend the extra $586 million the state expects beyond what was predicted in a December forecast

“PEBP has had significant cuts, and I'm supportive of restoring a lot of that,” Kieckhefer said. “I just think that if it's going to be through the general fund, that it might be more appropriate for that more global discussion.”

Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert, R-Reno, added that “I'm struggling in part because this is inconsistent with how we've looked at a lot of the other budgets.” In the budget for the Nevada System of Higher Education, for example, accounts were being finalized this week with significant cuts but with the understanding that many will be backfilled at a later date thanks to higher-than-anticipated general fund revenue projections and an influx of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Carlton said she understood the concern and desire to “hold very firm” to not restoring previously approved budget cuts until a “global discussion” could be held, but said she made a commitment to PEBP that she would give the system as much of a heads up as possible ahead of the start of the fiscal year in July.

“I feel very strongly that we need to be able to give guidance to PEBP moving forward on what the next two years look like so that they can plan for this, and they can account for it, and they can get the information out to the state employees as we move forward,” she said.

Several state employee representatives called into the meeting to thank lawmakers for proposing the premium holiday, but said they hoped lawmakers would take further action to reverse other benefits cuts proposed in the PEBP budget.

“The high out-of-pocket maximums in plan designs especially affect the sickest state employees, who, ironically, are bearing the most cost from the budget necessities of the pandemic economy,” said Nevada Faculty Alliance representative Doug Unger. “A global conversation is suggested by members of this committee and we believe this is needed. We hope state employee representatives can be at the table for that conversation.”

Legislative panel approves higher education budget cuts with coming federal aid, additional state funds in limbo

The Legislature on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session in Carson City.

Despite revised state tax revenue projections amounting to more than $586 million over the biennium and expected billions in federal coronavirus relief, lawmakers nonetheless moved forward with approving $169 million in cuts to the state’s higher education system on Thursday.

Legislators said the cuts were a necessary step at this point, given the realities and schedule of the state budgeting process — noting that multiple paths for reversing the cuts still exist.

The seemingly contradictory moves of cutting higher education budgets while enjoying better-than-expected tax forecasts highlights a central conundrum facing state lawmakers over the last month of session — what proposed budget cuts to add back, and which add-backs should be prioritized given the coming influx of federal COVID relief dollars.

“In order for us to be able to button up Pupil-Centered funding, K-12, the big five (budget) bills that we've got to do, we have to keep that path moving forward,” Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said in an interview. “We cannot take an off ramp, we've got to keep going forward on that, and work on the other stuff parallel to that. And then at the end, figure out how we can merge them all together. It’s going to be a zipper move.”

The cuts given preliminary approval on Thursday mark the latest round of budget reductions for the state’s higher education system. In the worst days of the pandemic-triggered economic crisis last spring and summer, NSHE cut 4 percent of its fiscal year 2020 budget before cutting an additional 19.8 percent at the close of last year’s special legislative session. If approved by the full committee, this most recent cut would represent an additional 12 percent reduction in both 2022 and 2023, or $84.5 million per year.

Though deep, the cuts made over the last year have spared existing jobs, unlike the curricular review process of the Great Recession that gutted entire programs. 

Instead, institutions have so far absorbed the losses largely through widespread operational cuts and hiring freezes that have kept vacant at least 373 professional and classified positions across the system’s eight institutions. That includes roughly 100 jobs at UNLV and another 98 at UNR, according to figures shared with the subcommittee

Those budgets have also been buoyed by millions in federal relief dollars through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). Originally included as part of the federal CARES Act and later boosted through additional congressional relief measures, HEERF money was distributed directly to NSHE institutions as a means to patch over both lost state money and millions in reduced revenues triggered by campus closures.

But nearly half of HEERF dollars — including about $160 million of Nevada’s estimated $369 million allocation — are reserved solely for student aid and cannot be directed toward institutional operational costs or lost revenues. 

As legislators assess extra revenue and mull which depleted budgets to refill first, it remains unclear where NSHE will fit into the broader budget picture. Lawmakers on budget committees stressed that the subcommittee’s vote on Thursday isn’t the end of the story — legislators could choose to revisit those cuts when the action moves to full committee, or lawmakers could include funding restorations in a budget amendment passed closer to the end of the session.

Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) — a member of the budget committee who stepped down from her position at the University of Nevada, Reno in December — said lawmakers should look to prioritize restoring proposed cuts to higher education, K-12 education and the Health and Human Services budget using general fund dollars and not the coming federal COVID relief dollars.

“I think we need to treat them differently, because the state money is something where it potentially can be spent for ongoing uses, but when you look at the federal funds, those definitely need to be one shot dollars,” she said. “So I think we need to look at both sets of funds and see where we can best appropriate them.”

Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), who chairs the Finance committee, said lawmakers need to take a “deliberative approach” on where to restore proposed budget cuts so as to not overlap with any incoming federal dollars. As for restoring the proposed NSHE system cuts, Brooks said it was too soon to comment.

“I don't know that me and Chair Carlton have had a meaningful conversation about that just yet,” he said. “The world changed about Tuesday.”

Still, higher education advocates and lobbyists told The Nevada Independent Thursday that the limitation of subcommittee-approved cuts to the governor-recommended 12 percent level — and not more — was something of a win, especially as lawmakers probed higher education officials on the nature of an increase in so-called “caseload growth” funding provided through the system’s funding formula. 

Based on the number of weighted student credit hours across every institution, funding formula calculations draw from trends over two year periods. With the number of weighted student credit hours up nearly 5 percent across the board in fiscal year 2020 — the most recent year taken into account by the formula — it meant formula-based funding was set to grow by more than $24 million, even as enrollments dipped because of the pandemic.  

“We were expecting these cuts all along, because they're in the governor's budget, and that's what usually happens in a normal session,” Kent Ervin, vice president and lobbyist for the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said. “This is hardly a normal session, and we're just happy at this point in time that there weren't any deeper cuts or revisions to the formulas or caseload growth without more study about those issues.”

Similarly, UNR lobbyist Michael Flores said the university was “glad” that Thursday’s budget closed without additional cuts, and that he remains hopeful that federal guidance for money provided through the American Rescue Plan can spur a “conversation about restoration.” 

But concerns remain over the long term impact of such cuts, as well as worries they could become permanent reductions if they are not ultimately backfilled either during the remainder of the regular session or through an increasingly likely special session. 

“The colleges and universities can't refill the positions that have been held vacant, according to this budget today,” Ervin said. “We can't, without authorization, refill a permanent position with one-time funding, you have to have legislative authorization to do that.”

Those concerns are especially acute for professional teaching staff, which often takes a full search committee and an entire academic year to complete. With dozens of vacancies at both research universities, Ervin said permanent cuts could eventually endanger accreditation for the worst-hit programs.

Also hanging over Thursday’s meeting was the broader question of legislative oversight over higher education spending. Two budget items included the addition of a letter of intent by the system or institutions to provide lawmakers with specific metrics through the Interim Finance Committee.

Of particular interest to the committee was the University Research Space Operation and Maintenance budget, often shorthanded as O&M. After lawmakers asked both UNLV and UNR for a breakdown of expenditures and revenues for their O&M budgets, neither university could fulfill the request because, they told the committee, those research budgets were not associated with a revenue source. 

Under the proposed letter of intent approved by the committee, each university would now be required to “use a uniform methodology” to track and report O&M expenses on a yearly basis, as well as “identify benefits resulting from O&M funding.”

The requirements come as the Legislature has sought to increase its powers of accountability over NSHE through additional oversight measures. Most notable among them is SJR7, a legislative re-do of a proposed constitutional amendment from last year, Question 1, that would remove the Board of Regents from the Constitution and place them under statute, much like other state agencies. 

Legislators have for years argued that the regents have used their Constitutional status as a legal shield from accountability. Opponents, namely the regents themselves, have argued that the Legislature’s power of the purse already serves as the ultimate oversight tool, and that the measure would do little to address higher education needs in the state. 

In the meantime, the higher education system and individual institutions will remain in a limbo as lawmakers wait for U.S. Treasury guidance on the incoming federal COVID dollars and any potential restoration of proposed cuts. 

“NSHE would be a perfect example of something we really have to get a good understanding of where the federal funding will be coming and how they'll use it,” Brooks said. “We're having those conversations with them right now.”

Lawmakers approve doubling size of state pension plan’s investment team to two

In a memorable 2016 profile, the Wall Street Journal described the average workday and daily trading strategy of Nevada Public Employee Retirement System’s Chief Investment Officer Steve Edmundson: “Do as little as possible, usually nothing.”

“Steve Edmundson has no co-workers, rarely takes meetings and often eats leftovers at his desk,” the story read. “With that dynamic workday, the investment chief for the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System is out-earning pension funds that have hundreds on staff.”

Five years later, Edmundson may finally get a co-worker.

Members of a joint budget committee on Monday approved closing the state employee pension system’s budget with the addition of a new investment officer alongside Edmundson to help manage PERS’s $54 billion in assets. The new position comes with a base annual salary of $189,222 along with benefits, paid for by PERS administration fees.

PERS told legislative budget staff that the median public pension fund employs one investment professional for every $2.2 billion in assets, and that adding a second position would “reduce    the risks associated with a single employee structure” while also helping the agency develop a succession plan to “help ensure that the underlying investment process and philosophies are maintained.”

Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) cited another PERS budget-closing decision by lawmakers to spend more than $19 million in administration fees for continued implementation of an administration system upgrade — saying the agency needed to be fully prepared for any future issues.

“We want to make sure that we have the right people in place to deal with this, because this is the financial security for people who are going to be leaving state service in the future,” Carlton said. “And we want to make sure it's solid, and not end up in a state where we have a bunch of retirees that can't afford to live.”

Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus was the lone no vote on the motion, saying she would prefer a “real breakdown” on the need for the position. Other Republicans on the committee supported the motion — Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) said it was needed because the “plan has grown substantially, and I think it's got to be pretty overwhelming with the minimal staff that they have right now.”

The governors’ executive budget calls for a 0.5 percent increase in premiums for the vast majority of PERS’s nearly 120,000 members and 70,000 beneficiaries, up to a rate of 29.75 percent (costs for state employees are typically split between employees and employers). The premium rate for police and fire employees is recommended to rise by 1.5 percent to 44 percent.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.