As in sessions past, The Nevada Independent is publishing a series of profiles featuring all the new lawmakers in the state. This is the second installment of more than a dozen. Check back in coming days for additional stories on new legislators' backgrounds, interests and policy positions.
ASSEMBLYWOMAN CECELIA GONZÁLEZ
Freshman Democrat who succeeds Democratic Assemblywoman Heidi Swank.
Represents District 16, which is located in the central Las Vegas Valley and includes portions of downtown and areas around McCarran International Airport.
District 16 leans Democratic (45 percent Democratic, 18 percent Republican and 28 percent nonpartisan in the 2020 election).
González defeated three other candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary, with 50.1 percent of the vote.
She then defeated Republican Alex Sajdak in the general election by a margin of 30.6 percentage points.
She will sit on the Judiciary, Natural Resources and Legislative Operations and Elections committees.
FAMILY AND EDUCATION
Born in Whittier in Southern California in 1991, González grew up in Las Vegas. She graduated from the law program at Canyon Springs High School’s Leadership and Law Preparatory Academy in North Las Vegas.
She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UNLV, and is studying for her Ph.D. in multicultural education from UNLV.
González has worked as a substitute teacher and charter school teacher, in addition to stints with For Our Future and the 2020 Elizabeth Warren campaign.
When Cecelia González talks to her constituents, she sometimes gets surprised reactions when she tells them she can relate.
González, 29, has struggled with the state’s beleaguered unemployment system. She’s watched a younger brother navigate the challenges of remote learning in the Clark County School District. And she’s multiracial, the daughter of an immigrant mother from Thailand and a father who’s of Mexican descent.
“That's also why I'm here, is to be a voice for a lot of communities that have been disenfranchised, a lot of communities that get left [out] in conversation, and just are always an afterthought,” the Las Vegas Democrat said.
González’s path to politics started when, as a student at UNLV, she became an advocate for victims of domestic violence and stalking, helping start a 24-hour hotline for peer-to-peer support. She had been in an abusive relationship before, she said, and a class on women who get involved in the criminal justice system got her thinking about where policymakers are getting their information about the topic.
After learning that it was through lobbyists and other advocates, “I just was so moved by that, that I said that I really wanted to impact policy,” she said.
González went on to work with a variety of organizations, including NARAL, Planned Parenthood and the Mass Liberation Project. She kept at it when she learned that Republican Adam Laxalt was going to run for governor in 2018 — she opposed his moves to sue the Obama administration on immigration policy.
“I knew that this man could not become our governor, at least for my communities, and people that look like me,” she said.
That launched her into work for the organization For Our Future in 2018 and the Elizabeth Warren campaign in 2020, with stints as a substitute teacher and charter school educator, all the while staying involved in groups such as the Asian Democratic Caucus.
So when Democratic Assemblywoman Heidi Swank announced that she would not seek reelection, González threw her hat in the ring and triumphed in a four-way primary in the heavily Democratic district. She went on to defeat her Republican opponent by a 2-to-1 margin.
González is balancing her legislative duties with studying for her Ph.D., which is focused on exploring the factors that contribute to the “school to prison pipeline.” The fact that the pandemic has nixed so many social events has been a blessing in disguise as she buckles down on her academic work.
She’s still trying to figure out what her ultimate career goal is, but policy research is one possibility.
In her downtime, she enjoys hiking, traveling and reading. Spirituality is also important for her: She is a priestess of Lucumí, a faith tradition that derives from Santeria.
“I think healing is also important, as we're watching just unprecedented times with a pandemic and the transfer of power,” she said.
She’s proud to be able to bring in Asian American and Latino representation to the Legislature, with hopes that her participation can help build a diverse pipeline of future leaders.
“It's an honor, it's a privilege, and it's just amazing to be part of, hopefully, moving our community forward,” she said.
ON THE ISSUES
González said she “absolutely” thinks that Nevada can do better on administering elections, but thinks the state needs to celebrate the “phenomenal job” that was done by poll workers during the pandemic. She believes the election was carried out fairly and securely, and noted that Republicans flipped three legislative seats from Democrats in the most recent cycle.
“Other folks, they undermine the process, because they don't like the outcome … if our vote didn't matter as much as it did, they would not be going the lengths to suppress it,” she said. “It's interesting — they claim that the election was stolen, but they picked up three seats here in Nevada. And so if you want to give those three seats back to us, you can gladly do so.”
Criminal justice reform
González’s life has been personally affected by the justice system — her father has been incarcerated for practically her entire life.
“As young as five years old, [I] can remember going to and from prison visitations,” she said. “And so that's [had] real, long-lasting impacts.”
She wants to see the Legislature work on increasing services to address the mental health and substance abuse issues of people behind bars.
“I think that the overall narrative is that people who deal with these are not part of our society or are not deserving of health and services and wellness,” she said. “And they are, and so how do we make integration into society easier?”
González is undecided on key tax measures, such as whether to vote in favor of two teacher union-backed ballot initiatives that would raise the sales and gaming taxes.
“I'm definitely interested in learning more about the ballot initiatives. Taxes is definitely not my wheelhouse,” she said. “That would be something that I would definitely have to work with my caucus, state leadership, to hear more about and navigate during session.”
González said she spends as much time as possible hiking and enjoying the outdoors and wants to find ways to protect the earth.
She’ll have the opportunity to do so as a member of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, although she said she’s not sure how specifically to reach that goal.
“Anything that we can do as an overall state to provide clean energy and to Nevadans is definitely going to be on the forefront,” she said. “I have a lot of excitement to learn about that in this committee.”
González said her top priorities this session are protecting the physical and economic health of all Nevadans. She’s seen the experience of her stepfather and grandmother, who worked on the Strip, and the tension of wanting to work but also wanting to avoid contracting the coronavirus.
She said she still needs to learn exactly how the state budget works and where money can be saved, but she believes federal support will be key.
“Nevadans need federal assistance, right? We are one of the states hit hardest by the COVID pandemic,” she said. “I don't believe that any revenue proposal should be on the backs of Nevada and families or small businesses and working families. And so I'm interested in how we can diversify our economy, how we can have more clean energy, how we can save our small businesses.”
Safety of the building
After the riot at the U.S. Capitol in January, González said she has mixed feelings about the safety of the building. She trusts legislative staff but hopes to have a conversation as session kicks off about how to stay safe if the unexpected happens.
“As a biracial woman of color who has overcome living in impoverished areas, I think this kind of violence is not new,” she said. “Being that the building is already closed to the public, I don't foresee there to be any safety concerns.”
A key plank of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s plan to balance the budget by freezing merit pay and implementing once-a-month furloughs for state employees was sharply panned by many state workers during the proposal’s first public hearing.
As proposed, implementing furloughs and merit pay freezes for the state’s 18,000 employees would save the state a combined $66 million ($51.7 million from state workers and $14.3 million from merit pay freezes), which would help address the $1.2 billion shortfall in the state budget.
But more than a dozen state workers, who testified against the bill (AB1) during a hearing in the Assembly on Saturday, said the state should not balance its budget through cuts to its workforce.
Paige Menicucci, one of the workers who testified, said that she’s putting in more hours during the COVID-19 pandemic while working from home. She previously lost her job working for a local regional quasi-governmental agency during the Great Recession and said the furloughs and pay freezes would cause hardship for her and other state workers.
“We’re working families. I drive from Reno to Carson to go to work because I’m passionate about what I do,” Menicucci said. “I want to do something for our state and to do something that’s right and this bill is not right for our state and it’s not right for our employees.”
AB1 would require state employees to take the equivalent of one unpaid furlough day a month, with a sliding scale requiring part-time workers employed by the state to take a proportional amount of unpaid time off.
The bill creates an equivalent “premium holiday” for state agencies paying into the Public Employees’ Benefits Program (PEBP). That means state agencies for one month of the fiscal year will pay their normally set aside state subsidy share of the health insurance program into the state's general fund, rather than into PEBP.
The bill does create some exemptions to the furlough requirement. Any agency with employees in a field of “critical need,” including public health, safety or welfare, can opt to not require employees take the furlough days, but instead requires them to reduce their salary by a proportional amount (4.6 percent) as if they had taken furlough days.
The bill will also exempt employees of the state Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. That agency, which is funded by hotel room taxes, has already cut weekly hours of division employees to 32 hours a week, which is equivalent to a once-a-week furlough.
But several Democratic legislators appeared hesitant to apply an across-the-board furlough policy for state employees, asking if it would be possible to limit furloughs for those on the lower end of the salary scale,
Department of Administration Director Laura Freed said the majority of state workers (more than 10,700) make less than $60,000 a year, with the rest broken down as follows:
3,173 employees making between $60,000 and $69,999 annually
1,784 employees making between $70,000 and $79,999 annually
832 employees making between $80,000 and $89,999 annually
1,602 employees making more than $90,000 annually
Democratic Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe Moreno said her biggest concern with the legislation is that the furlough and subsequent decrease in salary for state workers on the lower end of the salary spectrum would in turn may need to use social or medical programs offered by the state but are at risk of having their budgets slashed to address Nevada’s budget shortfall.
“If they take that one day of furlough, 12 days in total, has a greater impact on the income coming into their home,” she said. “They would have to use, as my colleague mentioned, some of those services that we are also being faced with cutting.”
Fellow Democratic Assemblywoman Heidi Swank suggested that state workers on the higher end of the pay scale be required to take additional furlough days, which would “(spread) the pain out in ways that don't overly burden folks that are not making as much money as people who are at the upper levels.”
Freed said that it would take the department several days to run the analysis to estimate savings if certain categories of state workers had to take additional furlough days.
Republican Assemblyman Greg Hafen III suggested during the hearing that lawmakers, who are currently not affected by the bill given constitutional prohibitions on changing legislative salaries during their terms of office, should donate or give up a portion of their salary in solidarity with state workers.
Legislators, who are normally paid $160 a day for the first 60 day of normal legislative sessions, opted to voluntarily reduce their salary by 4.6 percent in the 2011 session to match similar furloughs asked of state workers, a move that returned a combined $25,000 back to the state.
More than a dozen public employees testified against the legislation, which they said unfairly placed the burden of balancing the state’s budget on the backs of workers.
Ken Edmonds, another state employee, suggested that lawmakers were taking the easy way out by proposing the furloughs and pay freezes instead of raising taxes on corporations.
“State workers and the communities we serve are always asked to make sacrifices while corporations enjoy low tax rates, subsidies and deductions,” Edmonds said. “It’s time for corporations to share in this sacrifice.”
The state workers have been supported by AFSCME Local 4041, which represents several categories of state workers granted rights in 2019 to collectively bargain with the state for pay and benefits. The union has sharply criticized Sisolak’s plan for furloughs, filing an Unfair Labor Practices complaint against his administration last month.
No one testified in favor of or neutral on the legislation.
Correction at 6:11 p.m. on Saturday, July 11, to correct information on how the bill affects the state's Public Employees' Benefits System.
From a large teacher union demonstration outside the Legislative Building to a long list of advocates weighing in through public comment phone lines, frustration over hundreds of millions of dollars of planned cuts to education was a prominent theme on the first day of a special session.
The proposed cuts play out like a reversal of the past three sessions, when a state recovering from the recession added and expanded a long list of “categorical” programs meant to provide extra support to students with extra needs. But on Wednesday, legislators spoke of cutting $70 million in hard-fought “weights” for disadvantaged students, eliminating $31 million in literacy specialists in a Read by Grade 3 program and slashing millions from anti-bullying and school safety initiatives.
The "story of our response to COVID-19 could easily be about what we sacrificed and what went wrong,” state Superintendent Jhone Ebert said in opening remarks as she described in broad strokes the state’s attempt to make the best of the pandemic’s fallout. “At the same time, this is a turning point in education, and time to focus on what is suddenly possible for the future."
The cuts amount to $166 million for K-12 education and $110 million for the Nevada System of Higher Education. Still, lawmakers tried to look for a bright side.
Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson pointed out that basic per-pupil support would not be cut and had been increased in 2019 by $300 per student. Categorical programs have long been her least-favorite funding arrangement because they work like grant programs and don’t give employees within them long-term job security.
But legislators also picked apart the budget proposal and highlighted the ways it could harm students. Yvette Williams of the Clark County Black Caucus said in public comment that she was pleading with lawmakers to view cuts through an equity lens because eliminating the “weights” would disproportionately affect Black students.
Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara said that cuts of the program, authorized through SB178 in 2017, would be tough because of the sheer size of the reduction. But he said the overall strategy, which preserves unrestricted per-pupil funding while slashing restricted funding, allows the most flexibility.
“Any cuts will negatively impact our children,” he said. “However, the overall plan presented to you this afternoon is the least damaging option.”
Some Democratic lawmakers, including Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, lamented the end of the Teach Nevada Scholarship, which provided up to $24,000 for aspiring teachers and was created in 2015 to stave off a teacher shortage.
Republican Lisa Krasner wondered aloud about the consequences of axing school safety and anti-bullying initiatives built up over the last five years, including $3 million allocated for “social emotional learning” and social workers. Also on the chopping block: More than $10 million set aside in 2019 to help reinforce campuses against school shooters and add school resource officers to police them.
Washoe County School District Superintendent Kristen McNeill said federal funds through Title IV and programs such as Safe Voice — an anonymous tip line for bullying and school safety issues — could maintain the focus on student mental health.
"We feel very confident that we will still be able to continue a very robust program in anti-bullying,” she said.
Others took a more pointed approach with their questioning. Democratic Assemblywoman Heidi Swank asked what steps upper management personnel in the education system were taking to share the pain of the budget cuts.
Ebert said she was taking 12 furlough days like all state employees, while McNeill said she was giving back $30,000 of her salary, or about 10 percent. Jara said the district had frozen hiring in the central office but the situation was complicated because some administrators are bound by collective bargaining agreements — an answer that Swank later said did not give her much clarity.
She asked the question again when higher education officials took the stand to describe budget plans that included 12 furlough days for all staff and per-credit surcharges of $3 for community colleges and $6 for universities. University president and chancellor base salaries, in some cases, top $400,000.
Chancellor Thom Reilly said presidents and himself were taking 18 furlough days. Swank pointed out that she made $50,000 a year when she started as an assistant professor at UNLV in 2005.
"I just think the difference, to have six more furlough days when your salary is much higher than those new assistant professors, maybe needs another look,” she said.
Democratic Assemblywoman Selena Torres, who is a teacher, asked whether the cuts would affect Nevada’s goals to improve its low-ranking public education system under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Some initiatives facing imminent depletion, such as the Read by Grade 3 literacy program, focus on giving students the foundation they need to succeed in the rest of their academic careers.
"Our goals have not shifted,” Ebert said. “How we're going to meet those goals definitely will shift."
One lawmaker lost his re-election bid, while several caucus-backed candidates eked out narrow victories when the final results from the June 9 primary election trickled in on Thursday.
Final but still unofficial results updated Thursday morning show that Democratic caucus-backed Senate candidate Roberta Lange and Assembly candidates David Orentlicher and Venicia Considine won narrow victories after initially trailing in the early results. Lange and Orentlicher are guaranteed victories in November because they face no opponents in the general election, while Considine is all but guaranteed a victory in her overwhelmingly Democratic district.
The results also show Republican Assemblyman Chris Edwards has lost his seat to Mesquite Councilwoman Annie Black. An incumbent losing in a legislative primary is relatively rare; only three incumbent legislators have lost their seats in a primary over the last two election cycles.
The results will become official when they are certified on Friday. Until then, here’s a look at who prevailed in each legislative primary.
State Senate District 7
Former Nevada State Democratic Party Chair Roberta Lange defeated Democratic Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel by a narrow 131-vote margin in this eastern Las Vegas and Henderson Senate district. Lange faces no challengers in the general election.
Lange won 38.3 percent of the vote, with Spiegel at 36.9 percent and Assemblyman Richard Carrillo with 24.9 percent. More than 9,500 votes were cast in the race.
Lange's victory represents a win for the Nevada Senate Democratic Caucus, which had endorsed her. Spiegel significantly outraised both Lange and Carrillo in the race in the first quarter and had a massive war chest on hand.
Assembly District 2
Former Nevada REALTORS president Heidi Kasama won this crowded Republican primary to replace termed-out Republican Assemblyman John Hambrick with 47.9 percent of the vote. Erik Sexton, who works in commercial real estate, secured 27 percent of the vote, followed by Jim Small, a retired member of the U.S. Senior Executive Service, with 19 percent.
Kasama ran with the backing of the Assembly Republican Caucus, while Sexton was endorsed by Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore and former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon. Small had the support of former congressional candidate and businessman Danny Tarkanian and conservative commentator Wayne Allyn Root, among others.
Kasama significantly outraised her opponents in the first quarter, and the Alliance for Property Protection Rights PAC, which is funded by the National Association of REALTORS Fund, inserted itself into the GOP primary in support of her bid.
On the Democratic side, Radhika “RPK” Kunnel, a law school student and former cancer biology professor, won the primary over Jennie Sherwood, a journeywoman electrician. Kunnel secured 35.8 percent of the vote while Sherwood won 31.5 percent. A third candidate, Eva Littman, won 23.7 percent.
Republicans have a good shot of keeping control of this seat come November, given the 2.3 percentage point voter registration advantage they hold in this district. The Assembly Democratic Caucus did not endorse a candidate in the primary.
Assembly District 4
Former Assemblyman Richard McArthur won the Republican primary in this northwest Las Vegas Assembly district with a narrow, 2.3 percentage point victory over Donnie Gibson, the owner of a construction and equipment rental company. McArthur secured 51.2 percent of votes to Gibson's 48.9 percent, a 130-vote margin.
McArthur, a former FBI special agent, has served three non-consecutive terms in the Assembly, two terms between 2008 and 2012 and one term from 2016 to 2018. Gibson, a political newcomer, was endorsed by the Assembly Republican Caucus in the primary.
McArthur will go on to a rematch against Democratic Assemblywoman Connie Munk, who did not draw a primary challenger. She narrowly defeated McArthur in 2018 with a 120-vote margin out of nearly 30,000 votes cast.
Assembly District 16
Community activist Cecelia González won this four-way Democratic primary to replace Democratic Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, who has represented the district since 2012 and opted not to run for re-election.
González secured 50.1 percent of the vote, followed by Joe Sacco, a union trade show and conventions worker with IATSE Local 720 and a REALTOR, with 23.9 percent of the vote. Russell Davis, a two-decade Clark County employee and SEIU member, trailed with 13.7 percent of the vote, and online finance professor Geoffrey VanderPal had secured 12.4 percent of votes cast.
González and Davis had split the endorsement from major Democratic-aligned groups in the race. Both candidates were endorsed by the Nevada State AFL-CIO, while González was also endorsed by the Nevada State Education Association, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League, and Davis was endorsed by SEIU Local 110. The Assembly Democratic Caucus did not endorse in the primary.
González is likely to win the general election against the one Republican in the race, Reyna “Alex” Sajdak, because of the overwhelming voter registration advantage Democrats have in the district.
Assembly District 18
Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada attorney Venicia Considine eked out a victory over Lisa Ortega, a master arborist and owner of Great Basin Sage Consulting, in this four-way Democratic primary to replace Assemblyman Richard Carrillo, who lost a primary for state Senate.
Considine won with 39.4 percent of the vote, while Ortega secured 37.4 percent and Char Frost, a former campaign manager and legislative staffer for Carrillo, secured 15.4 percent.
Considine ran with not only with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus but SEIU Local 1107, Nevada State Education Association, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League. Considine had also raised nearly one and a half times as much as Ortega during the first quarter of the year.
Assembly District 19
Assemblyman Chris Edwards won't be returning to Carson City next year after he was defeated in the primary by Mesquite City Councilwoman Annie Black. Black won with 61 percent of the vote to Edwards' 39 percent.
Black ran to the right of the already conservative Edwards, who has served in the Assembly for the last three terms. Black's victory represents a significant upset in the race as incumbents rarely lose their primaries.
Black is essentially guaranteed to go on to win the general election in November, as there are no Democrats or third-party candidates in the race.
Assembly District 20
UNLV law professor David Orentlicher, who was running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus, won this Democratic primary with 46.5 percent of the vote, defeating Emily Smith, the CEO of the Nevada Blind Children’s Foundation, by 7.7 percentage points. The seat is currently occupied by Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel, who lost her primary for state Senate.
Orentlicher ran with the backing of almost all of the major Democratic-aligned organizations, including the Nevada State AFL-CIO, SEIU Local 1107, the Culinary Union, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, NARAL Pro-Choice Nevada and the Nevada Conservation League. Orentlicher raised about $5,000 in the first quarter of the year and had about $23,000 in cash on hand, while Smith raised only about $1,000 and had only $700 in the bank.
No Republican candidates filed to run in this Paradise-area seat, meaning Orentlicher will be essentially guaranteed a spot in the Legislature.
Assembly District 21
Attorney Elaine Marzola won the two-way Democratic primary in this race to replace replace Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, who is running for Nevada Supreme Court.
Marzola received most of the Democratic-aligned endorsement in the primary, including from the Assembly Democratic Caucus, the Nevada State AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League.
Her opponent, David Bagley, is the director of operations for the stem cell diagnostics company Pluripotent Diagnostics and was also Marianne Williamson’s Nevada state director for her presidential campaign last year. He ran with the support of the Nevada State Education Association.
Marzola won 70.6 percent of votes cast, with Bagley at 29.4 percent.
Marzola will go on to face Republican Cherlyn Arrington in the general election, though Democrats hold a significant voter registration advantage in the district. Fumo defeated Arrington by 12.6 percentage points in 2018.
Assembly District 26
Republican Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner successfully fended off a primary challenge from Dale Conner, obtaining more than 83.7 percent of the vote in the Republican primary for this Reno-area district.
Krasner will advance to the general election to face off against Democrat Vance Alm.
Assembly District 31
Former Assemblywoman Jill Dickman won this three-way Republican primary to represent this Sparks-area Assembly district. Dickman secured 51 percent of the vote, followed by Washoe County Republican Party treasurer Sandra Linares with 34.1 percent of the vote and businessman David Espinosa with 14.9 percent of the vote.
Dickman is hoping to reclaim the seat she held for one term and lost by fewer than 50 votes to Democratic Assemblyman Skip Daly in 2016 and again in 2018. Daly did not face any primary challengers in the race.
Assembly District 36
Assemblyman Greg Hafen defeated challenger Dr. Joseph Bradley in the Republican primary in this rural Nevada Assembly district, which covers portions of Nye, Clark and Lincoln counties. Hafen was appointed to the seat after brothel owner Dennis Hof died weeks before the election but still won the seat.
Hafen, a fifth generation Nevadan and general manager of a Pahrump water utility company, won with 54.9 percent of the vote, while Bradley earned 45.1 percent.
Hafen is essentially guaranteed to go on to win the general election as no Democrats or candidates from other parties filed to run for the seat.
Assembly District 37
Andy Matthews, former president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, has won the Republican primary in his swingy Summerlin Assembly district. Matthews secured 49 percent of the vote, while former television reporter and congressional candidate Michelle Mortensen won 26.3 percent.
Matthews secured a long list of endorsements in the primary, including from former Attorney General Adam Laxalt, several Trump campaign officials including Corey Lewandowski, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore and several current and former state lawmakers. He also was a top legislative fundraiser in the primary, outraising all other Republican Assembly candidates, including current office holders.
Matthews will go on to challenge the incumbent, Democrat Shea Backus, who won the seat from Republican Assemblyman Jim Marchant by 135 votes in 2018. Democrats hold a narrow 2.2 percentage point voter registration advantage in the district, making it one of the swingiest Assembly seats this election cycle.
Assembly District 40
Former law enforcement officer and one-term Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill appears to be heading back to the Legislature in this heavily-Republican Assembly district after defeating his lone Republican primary opponent, attorney Day Williams.
O’Neill filed to run for the Carson City-area seat on the last day of filing, after incumbent Al Kramer announced he would not run again due to family reasons. O’Neill served one term in the Assembly between 2014 and 2016, but lost to Kramer amid a backlash against Republican candidates who supported former Gov. Brian Sandoval’s large K-12 focused tax increase in 2015.
O’Neill won 54.2 percent of the vote, while Williams won 45.8 percent. O'Neill will go onto face Democrat Sena Loyd in the general election.
Updated 6-10-20 at 6:52 p.m. to correct that Assembly District 20 is primarily in Paradise, not Henderson.
With less than six weeks until Nevada’s Democratic presidential caucus, campaigns are kicking into high gear on the ground here in the Silver State, the third in the country to host its presidential nominating contest.
By the time Feb. 22 rolls around, several candidates will have been campaigning for a full year and some of their staffers on the ground will have been here nearly as long. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s team landed earliest in Nevada, in January 2019, and she was one of the first candidates to visit the state. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has built up, by far, the largest staff on the ground in the last year, with a team double the size of those assembled by his closest competitors.
At the same time, former Vice President Joe Biden has maintained an edge in the polls here, while former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been looking to introduce himself to voters and make inroads with Nevada’s communities of color as he tries to grow his support here to match what he has seen in Iowa.
Then there are the rest of the candidates who have invested time and money in Nevada — billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent millions on television ads in the state that may have earned him a recent and sudden surge in the race; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, whose mom lives here and who has been the most frequent visitor to the state; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is ramping up in Nevada as she has been gaining support elsewhere; tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has a moderately sized staff and has invested some time here; and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who has one staffer stationed here despite his late entry into the race.
Four other candidates have visited the state less frequently or skipped it altogether and have not yet placed staff on the ground here.
Read on for a look at how candidates have been campaigning in the Silver State over the last year and how it could position them for a possible victory here.
The former vice president is no stranger to Nevada. Not only was he a familiar presence on the campaign trail in 2008 and 2012 as Barack Obama’s running mate, the 77-year-old Democratic presidential hopeful has been campaigning in the state for decades.
“The first Nevada Democrat I ever campaigned for, I was a 31 or 32 year old kid, and I came out to campaign for a guy named Harry Reid,” Biden told a packed room at the Nevada State Democratic Party’s First In The West event at the Bellagio in November.
That familiarity has buoyed Biden — at least so far — in the Silver State. Recent polls have shown the former vice president with anywhere from a 6- to 10-point lead in the state over his Democratic opponents. He also leads, by far, in prominent endorsements here, with the support of Rep. Dina Titus, state Sen. Yvanna Cancela (now a senior adviser on the campaign), Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod, Assemblywoman Susie Martinez, former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, former Gov. Bob Miller, former Rep. Jim Bilbray, and former Rep. Shelley Berkley.
While his campaign didn’t officially announce its first hires here until May — he only officially launched his campaign in April — he’s since built up a team of about 50 people here, a similar sized operation to two of the other top-tier campaigns. The campaign has six offices in the Silver State, including one that just opened in Carson City.
Biden’s first visit of the campaign to the state was also in May. The former vice president hosted a rally at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades Local 159 in Henderson. He has since made eight more trips to the state, including, most recently, campaign stops in Sparks and Las Vegas this weekend. He also has toured the Techren Solar Project near Boulder City and spoken at a town hall hosted by the politically powerful Culinary Union. He is also one of two candidates still in the race to have campaigned in Elko.
The former vice president has run two ads in the state, backed by the campaign’s $6 million buy across the four early nominating states. Both have contrasted Biden’s vision for the future of the United States against President Donald Trump’s.
While in Nevada, Biden has weighed in on a number of state-specific issues — but it hasn’t always gone smoothly for him. He received significant pushback from supporters of recreational marijuana when he said at a November town hall that his position against legalizing the drug hadn’t changed and that there “hasn’t been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not (marijuana) is a gateway drug.” Later that month, Biden told The Nevada Independent that he doesn’t believe marijuana is a gateway drug and that there is “no evidence I’ve seen that suggests that.”
Biden has also promised to hold the Department of Energy responsible for its actions on nuclear waste in Nevada, including shipments of high-level radioactive waste the state discovered last year that were supposed to be low-level waste, and repeatedly stressed his opposition to the construction of a long-term, high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.
He said he believes that the federal Wire Act should only apply to sports betting, not to all forms of interstate gambling, as the Justice Department indicated in an opinion last year. He also opposes decriminalizing sex work nationally, though he has said he wouldn’t impinge on Nevada’s decision to allow prositution in certain jurisdictions.
Sanders needs little introduction in Nevada, where he came in only about 5 percentage points behind Hillary Clinton in the state’s Democratic caucus in 2016. Four years ago, his campaign was scrappy, grassroots and insurgent — and it came together last minute. This time, Sanders started early, hiring a team of experienced political operatives who have worked to focus the grassroots enthusiasm for the Vermont senator to try to propel him to victory.
Since announcing his first Nevada hires at the end of March, Sanders has brought on more than 100 staffers in the Silver State, which puts his team at nearly double the size of other top-polling candidates. The campaign also has opened 10 offices, with at least three more slated to open in the near future.
The Vermont senator’s first rally of his 2020 campaign, at Morrell Park in Henderson back in March, drew a crowd of more than a thousand. Since then, he has made 10 trips to the state, during which he has spoken at the LGBTQ Center of Las Vegas, hosted an event at the Washoe Tribe’s Stewart Community Center and attended a town hall with Culinary Union members. He is one of two candidates still in the race to have visited Elko, hosting a town hall at Elko High School in December.
Despite concerns about how a heart attack he suffered in Las Vegas in October would affect his presidential campaign, Sanders has continued to keep an aggressive campaign schedule and has remained near the top in Nevada polls, trailing Biden by anywhere from 6- to 10-points.
Sanders has received a number of grassroots level endorsements, though his biggest high-profile endorsements have come from Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, a longtime Sanders supporter, and Clark County School District Board of Trustees President Lola Brooks. He has not yet run any television ads in the state.
The Vermont senator has also weighed in on a number of issues of particular relevance to Nevada during his campaign. Early on, his campaign released a video highlighting tribal opposition to storing high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, a position Sanders also shares, and both he and his campaign have spent significant time and energy talking about Native American issues. He was also the first presidential candidate to come out against oil and gas drilling in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains.
Sanders has been less willing to take positions on some other niche issues affecting the state, demurring on the issue of sex work and declining to comment on a Justice Department opinion this year on online gambling.
Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts, probably wouldn’t even be running for president if it hadn’t been for a call from a Nevadan.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wanted to know if Warren, at the time a not very well known professor at Harvard Law, would join a new commission approved by Congress overseeing the Wall Street bailout. She said yes, and a month later found herself in Las Vegas chairing the first field hearing of the Congressional Oversight Panel. She went on to help set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, run for U.S. Senate, and now seek the office of president of the United States.
Warren’s first hires landed on the ground in Nevada in the spring, and her campaign now has about 50 staffers in the state and 10 offices. Her first trip to the state was in February to host a campaign rally at Springs Preserve, which was attended by about 500 people.
Since then, the Massachusetts senator has slowly climbed in the polls in Nevada, from 10 percent support in March to a high of 22 points at the end of October. Her average hovers in the high teens, behind Biden and Sanders.
Over the last year, Warren has traveled to the Silver State 10 times, marching in the Las Vegas Pride Parade in October, attending a “Westside Pride” Black Community Summit at Nevada Partners in November and participating in a town hall with Culinary Union members in December.
Warren’s top endorsers in the Silver State include Assemblyman Howard Watts, Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, Controller Catherine Byrne, DNC Committeeman Alex Goff and DNC Committeewoman Allison Stephens. She has not yet run any television ads in the state.
While in Nevada, Warren has promised that she would not fund the construction of a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain if elected president and expressed unease about the expansion of online gaming. She was also the first Democratic presidential hopeful to come out against the military’s proposed expansion into Nevada’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge, setting off a wave of similar declarations from other candidates.
A latecomer to the state, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana has rapidly expanded his campaign operation since his first hire this summer and now has 55 staffers, making his the second largest staff only behind Sanders’. He also has 12 offices across the state, the most of any other presidential campaign here.
Buttigieg’s first trip to the state was on April 8, less than a week before officially launching his presidential campaign. The former South Bend mayor attended a meet and greet at Madhouse Coffee and a roundtable discussion at Veterans Village. From that first visit, Buttigieg has acknowledged that his path is “admittedly not a traditional way to get into presidential politics.” But, as he has gained traction in other early states and nationally, he has won over supporters here as well, polling in the high single digits.
In his nine trips to the state, Buttigieg has joined UAW members in a picket at the GM Reno Parts Distribution Center, toured a grow house and a dispensary, spoke at the Human Rights Campaign’s Las Vegas dinner and attended a roundtable at UMC, one day after the second anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting. He also was only one of two candidates to attend the Nevada State Democratic Party’s Keep Nevada Blue event in Reno, where he became the first candidate to officially file to participate in the caucus.
Buttigieg has been making a particular effort to reach out to communities of color in recent trips to the Silver State. In December, he attended an APIA town hall, a Latino community leaders roundtable, and a “black empowerment” conversation, where he faced tough questions. He also met with members of the powerful Culinary Union on Saturday.
Though the former South Bend mayor has received endorsements from a number of grassroots community leaders, he hasn’t secured much in the way of big-ticket supporters, with Wells Mayor Layla Walz and former state Sen. Patricia Farley two of his prominent endorsers.
In an effort to boost his name identification, Buttigieg went up with his first television ad in Nevada in December, a biographical spot highlighting his military service in Afghanistan and experience as mayor. He released a second TV ad last week focusing on his “Medicare for all who want it” health plan, a more conservative approach to the single-payer health care system some of his opponents favor.
While in Nevada, Buttigieg has made promises to not allocate funding to construct a high-level nuclear waste repository and said he would work to restore trust between Nevada and the Department of Energy. He hasn’t endorsed legalizing sex work nationaly, but said he wouldn’t as president stop Nevada from continuing to allow it.
Steyer, a billionaire who previously ran the progressive advocacy group NextGen, has taken a simple approach since launching his presidential campaign in July: Blanket the airwaves in the four early voting states with ads. He has spent $10.3 million on television and radio advertisements in Nevada, with an additional $270,000 booked, according to Politico.
Those ads have ranged from purely positive, biographical spots, in which Steyer introduces himself as a candidate, to contrast ads that have sought to position the billionaire as a viable alternative to President Donald Trump. He’s also run ads on a number of specific policy issues including climate change, the economy and term limits.
And those ads might just be working. A Fox Newspoll released Thursday showed Steyer surging to 12 percent support in Nevada, putting him 6 points ahead of Buttigieg, neck-and-neck with Warren, and only 5- and 11-points behind Sanders and Biden, respectively. That’s a significant leap from where Steyer was in the fall, when he was hovering in the mid to low single digits.
Steyer has visited the state six times since launching his campaign this summer. During those trips, he has joined UAW members in a picket at the GM Reno Parts Distribution Center and met with DREAMer moms. But he’s generally been a frequent visitor to the state as part of his work with NextGen and another group he founded, Need to Impeach. Since 2017, he has visited the state 13 times to host town halls, canvass kickoffs and other election-related events.
Steyer announced his first Nevada hire, state director Jocelyn Sida, at the end of August and his since hired 38 staffers and opened 4 offices, with more slated to open in the future. While he has received some community-level endorsements, Steyer has not yet received the support of any prominent Nevadans.
Steyer has taken a keen interest in Nevada issues, both prior to and during his candidacy. In 2018, he backed a ballot measure to put a requirement that Nevada raise its Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent by 2030 into the state’s constitution, which passed with 59 percent support.
He opposes the construction of a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain and has said that he would like to see the pot industry regulated through a combination of state and federal regulations, similar to the liquor industry. He has not weighed in on the issue of online gambling across state lines.
Though one of the earliest candidates to announce back in 2017, Yang didn’t begin staffing up in Nevada until mid-August last year. He now has a small team of 16 staffers — and plans to get to 20 by the end of the month — with three field offices, two in Las Vegas and one in Reno.
Yang’s first rally in the state was at Springs Preserve on April 23, part of his nationwide Humanity First tour. He also attended a meet-and-greet with SEIU Local 1107 the following day. Since launching his campaign, he’s been to Nevada four times and held rallies at the Rio, the Clark County Library and Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 525, among other locations. He was one of two candidates to attend the progressive People’s Forum in October.
Yang has not received any top-tier endorsements in the Silver State, nor has he run any television ads.
He has, however, developed some policies out of his visits to Nevada. After he was asked why MMA fighters aren’t allowed to unionize, Yang released a plan specifically to help them. He also released a plan to federally regulate online poker in response to a question about why online poker is state regulated and only legal in some states. (Some of Yang’s top donors from Nevada are professional gamblers.)
At the People’s Forum, Yang received some blowback for saying that he doesn’t have a “terrific answer” on Yucca Mountain. However, he toldThe Nevada Independent that he believes nuclear waste is a “national problem” and “should not be saddled with the people here in Nevada.”
Though she has been campaigning aggressively in Iowa — she just had 99 “day of action” events in each of the Hawkeye State’s 99 counties — Klobuchar has only recently begun to turn her attention to Nevada.
It’s not to say that she hasn’t visited the state. She has, both early and often. During her first visit to the state in early April, she hosted a meet-and-greet with voters, toured a local middle school and spoke at a labor conference. She was also one of the earliest candidates to visit Northern Nevada, attending a veterans roundtable at the Fox Brewpub in early May. This weekend she met with members of the Culinary Union, marking her 10th visit to the state.
But the Minnesota senator just started staffing up in Nevada, announcing her first two hires, a state director and political director, at the end of November. She has also opened a campaign headquarters in Las Vegas.
On the trail here, Klobuchar often talks about her friendships with the two women who represent Nevada in the U.S. Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, and peppers her speeches with other Nevada-specific references, talking often about Reid and electoral and legislative victories in the SIlver State. She has not received any major endorsements or run any television ads in Nevada.
Like many of her fellow Democratic presidential contenders, Klobuchar has stressed her opposition to building a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. She also supports legalizing marijuana.
Booker, the junior U.S. senator from New Jersey, wants to win Nevada’s Feb. 22 caucus. Of course he wants to be president. But he also wants to win the state where his mom, Carolyn, has lived since 2013.
“We are doing what we believe we need to do to win Nevada,” Booker told the Independent in a podcast interview last month. “It is very personal to me, the state where my mom will caucus.”
Booker’s first memory of Las Vegas is from a cross-country road trip with his grandparents, who became one of the first families to buy into one of the Del Webb communities here. His parents moved to Las Vegas seven years ago, shortly before his father passed away.
Since launching his presidential campaign at the beginning of February, Booker has been to Nevada 11 times, more than any other Democratic presidential hopeful still in the race. His first campaign stop, on Feb. 24, was to Nevada Partners where he hosted a “Conversation with Cory” event.
Booker was also in Las Vegas for the 4th of July — cooking pancakes and marching in the 71st Annual Boulder City Damboree Parade — and Rep. Steven Horsford’s Labor Day barbecue at Craig Ranch Regional Park. He’s the only candidate to have toured a correctional center, Florence McClure, in Nevada and one of a handful of candidates to have met with the Douglas County Democrats in person at their office in Minden in April.
Of the smaller campaigns, Booker has one of the bigger staffs, with more than 20 paid, full-time staffers, including some who were hired as early as March. The campaign has two offices in Nevada, in Reno and Las Vegas, and is in the process of opening an additional Las Vegas office and securing other office space by the end of the month.
Booker has a few notable Nevada endorsers, including Assemblywoman Selena Torres, North Las Vegas City Councilwoman Pamela Goynes-Brown and the Clark County Black Caucus. Torres had chosen former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro as her first pick, but realigned her support to Booker when Castro dropped out of the race.
The New Jersey senator released his first television ad in Nevada, as well as other markets across the nation, on the day of the December Democratic debate. In it, he made a pitch for his campaign, despite the fact that he did not qualify for the debate stage. Booker has been struggling in the polls in early states, including Nevada where he is hovering in the low single digits.
Booker supports decriminalizing marijuana nationwide and has said that he wants to help Nevada and other states that have already legalized marijuana on a state-by-state basis by passing legislation to increase marijuana businesses’ access to banks, allow veterans to access medical marijuana through the VA system and expunge pot convictions.
He supports online gambling and disagrees with the Justice Department opinion prohibiting all gambling across state lines. He favors decriminalizing sex work, though he believes the federal government should play a support role to the states and allow them to develop their own laws and regulations.
Booker has also promised not to fund a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain if elected president, calling it a “very personal” issue to him since his mom lives in the state.
When Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, launched his late-to-the-game candidacy in mid-November, his first official trip was to the Silver State.
“It’s a little strange to be in a hall where every other candidate but mine has a cheering section already organized,” Patrick said, to the few stragglers who had remained to hear him speak at the Nevada State Democratic Party’s First In The West event at the Bellagio.
During his second trip to the state in December, he toured Expertise Cosmetology Institute and the Vegas Roots Community Garden and grabbed lunch at Gritz Cafe, where he had to be introduced to patrons.
“This is Deval Patrick,” said William McCurdy, a political strategist and father of Nevada State Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy II. “He’s running for president of the United States.”
In December, Patrick brought on Matthew DeFalco as his state director. DeFalo, who worked on Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton’s presidential campaign earlier this year, is the sole member of Patrick’s team in Nevada, and the campaign does not have any offices in the state or prominent endorsements.
The four other Democratic presidential hopefuls remaining in the race have spent significantly less time and resources campaigning in the Silver State. None of the four candidates have staffers on the ground in Nevada.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet has made four trips to the state, participating in AFSCME’s 2020 Public Service Forum in August, swinging through Northern Nevada in August, speaking at the HLTH Conference in October and attending the state Democratic Party’s First In The West Event event in November.
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard visited Nevada early, in March, to host a town hall at the Asian Cultural Center and attend a meet-and-greet luau at United Way of Southern Nevada. In May, she toured Veterans Village, and her last visit to the state was in August for the AFSCME forum.
Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney has been to Nevada twice, for the AFSCME forum and the First In The West event.
Former New York City Michael Bloomberg has not visited the state and has said he is not campaigning in Nevada or any of the other three early voting states. He is also the only Democratic presidential hopeful whose name will not appear on Nevada’s presidential preference card.
Democratic Assemblywoman Heidi Swank announced Wednesday that she plans to leave the Legislature at the end of her term and will not seek re-election in her Las Vegas district.
Swank, who served four terms in the Legislature and chaired the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, Agriculture and Mining, works as the executive director of the Nevada Preservation Foundation. The nonprofit works to preserve the state’s history and historic buildings. As the foundation has grown, Swank said it has taken up more of her time.
Swank, who worked on legislation involving water, wildfire funding and payday lending, said that she would have likely stayed in the Legislature if it were a full-time position. She said the current set-up, a citizen Legislature that meets on a biennial basis, excludes many people from serving.
"It's a part-time Legislature,” Swank said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “Working a job-and-a-half, it gets to be too much after a while. If it was a full-time gig, I would be there."
“There are a lot of people who cannot run for office because it is not a full-time gig,” she added.
Swank, who announced her decision not to run on Facebook Wednesday, had been considering leaving the Legislature for some time. Last year, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced that Swank would lead its newly formed Division of Outdoor Recreation, only to later walk back the appointment after determining that a sitting legislator was ineligible.
Swank ran unopposed in 2018 in Assembly District 16, which leans heavily Democratic.
In early September last year, high-profile tech companies in the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center appeared before a legislative committee with a request — public financing to help defray the costs of a major pipeline project. Their goal was to obtain more water to help fuel growth at the Northern Nevada industrial park, one of the largest in the world and home to Tesla’s Gigafactory.
The lawmakers approved. Then the state financing fell apart.
Less than three weeks later, the industrial park’s largest landowner withdrew its support of the deal, notifying the companies in a letter obtained by The Nevada Independent that it did not want to be associated with a project that could be seen as providing “corporate welfare.”
An attorney for Blockchains, a little-known techno-utopia company that owns most of the park’s land, wrote in the letter that “the project has now transformed to focus primarily on the precise type of taxpayer-funded subsidiary that we were against when we first learned of the project.”
Blockchains’ letter and other documents obtained through two public records requests offer new insight into the relationship between business and government at an industrial park that lured companies with incentives and support from the state.
The letter comes amid new scrutiny of those practices. Last month, The Nevada Independent detailed how the industrial park’s public water district, which wants to use eminent domain to build the pipeline project, blurred the line between a government and private utility for decades.
The water district is operated by a developer-owned company, TRI Water and Sewer, with board members who all reside at a brothel that is owned by the main broker for the industrial park.
The state office that helped engineer the complicated public financing for the pipeline has also come under recent scrutiny. On Monday, Gov. Steve Sisolak criticized the Governor’s Office of Economic Development for the criteria it uses when deciding to approve tax incentives. Sisolak said he plans to move the office in a new direction. Major companies at the industrial park have benefited from state and local tax breaks in addition to Nevada’s already lenient tax structure.
In an email last week, a high-ranking Reno lawmaker criticized the proposed pipeline financing.
“This deal was rushed, lacked transparency and is the antithesis of public accountability,” said Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson, a Democrat who was on the Interim Finance Committee. “It begs the question of allowing such statutes to remain on the books.”
A request from the state
In 2015, the Legislature met for a special session to consider tax breaks for Faraday Future, an electric car company that planned to move to North Las Vegas. The cash-strapped car company abandoned its plans to build a factory, but the statutes from that session remained on the books.
Out of that special session, the economic development office gained bonding authority. By September 2018, the office was looking at using bonds to help finance the effluent pipeline.
The 16-mile pipeline will siphon treated effluent from a regional wastewater facility to the park. City officials consider it a win-win for the Reno area, helping ratepayers defer costly upgrades while bringing more water to an industrial park that has helped diversify the state’s economy.
The companies backing the effluent pipeline wanted to expand their existing operations or build on vacant land. One limiting factor for their growth plans was water. But the effluent project was expected to cost more than $100 million. To finance the off-site pipeline — stretching from the park to the regional wastewater facility along the Truckee River — they turned to the state.
The industrial park would be responsible for building the project.
Storey County would issue special assessment bonds up to $35 million.
The state would issue mirroring bonds to pay for the Storey County bonds.
The companies would reimburse the state by agreeing to pay periodic assessments.
Eventually, the companies could get paid for some of their costs too. The companies would be reimbursed through a Tax Increment Area (TIA), a special tax district where a portion of new tax revenue — tied to the area — is reimbursed to the companies that paid for the infrastructure.
The reimbursements would not dip into dedicated property taxes for schools but would tap into revenues for county fire services. It also taps into payroll tax and the modified business tax. The state justified the revenue loss by noting that the reimbursements would be a sliver of the $1.35 billion in tax revenue that it expected the area to generate with the new infrastructure. Officials also noted that the revenues would benefit infrastructure built outside of the industrial park.
On Sept. 5, the 23-member Interim Finance Committee approved of what came to be known as the SAD/TIA deal. The vote to approve the bonds was unanimous.
But six legislators voted against using the newly-generated tax revenue to reimburse the companies: Benitez-Thompson, Sen. Pete Goicoechea, Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel, Assembly Mike Sprinkle and Assemblywoman Heidi Swank.
Blockchains: ‘Corporate welfare’
Those bonds were never issued.
After months of negotiations, several companies decided to pre-pay about 75 percent of the periodic assessments, according to the letter Blockchains sent to project leaders on Sept. 24.
In the letter, Blockchains General Counsel Lee Weiss recounts learning the night before that several companies intended to pre-pay about $24 million of the project upfront, despite their request for bonds. It suggested that companies had the finances to pay for the project.
At the same time, the companies would still be reimbursed with the new revenue.
With the company’s official launch about one month away, he wrote Blockchains was “unwilling to assume the risk of being portrayed as an organization that promotes projects that provide corporate welfare to pay for improvements that we have already contractually agreed to fund.”
Blockchains announced that it was withdrawing from the public financing.
Bob Sader, a former legislator and an attorney for the industrial park’s developer, declined to comment on the letter.
Not everyone agreed with Blockchains’ view of the deal. Proponents argue that in addition to boosting the economy, the pipeline would help cities save on expensive facility upgrades.
“I was disappointed by [Blockchains’] characterization of the project,” Ben Kieckhefer said in an interview last week. “There were plenty of reasons to support it from a public perspective.”
By October, the companies had scrapped the financing deal. The park’s developer, Tahoe Reno Industrial Center LLC, will pay to construct the pipeline. It has entered into private agreements with companies to fund it. The companies could still be reimbursed with the new tax revenue that the project helps generate. The county could reimburse up to $28 million to the companies.
The companies are not reimbursed from existing revenue.
A new landowner
At the center of the pipeline project is the industrial park’s public water district. Once the project is constructed, the water district will operate the pipeline and oversee how the water is used.
But the water district is another place where government and business collide. Despite being a political subdivision with public powers, the water district is operated by the park’s developer.
It is operated by a developer-controlled company, TRI Water and Sewer, and its board members live at a brothel owned by Lance Gilman, responsible for marketing the industrial park. Gilman is also a Storey County commissioner and lists TRI Water and Sewer on his financial disclosure.
The board members also report income from at least one of Gilman’s companies.
Through a 2001 operating agreement, any board responsibilities that are not required by statute were delegated to an existing developer-owned private water company, TRI Water and Sewer.
For many years, the relationship, blessed by Storey County, reflected a financial arrangement. The master developer, Tahoe Reno Industrial Center LLC, paid for the infrastructure and gave it to the public water district free of charge. It acquired the water rights that the district controlled.
Until recently, the water district operated in the red. The master developer subsidized the water district for more than a decade to keep rates competitive for companies coming to the park.
But the relationship came with benefits too.
The unique structure, a combination of circumstances and loopholes in Nevada law, allowed the industrial center to effectively operate a private water utility while avoiding oversight from state regulators. Instead, its oversight came from a board that is closely tied to the park’s developer.
When the industrial park land was largely vacant, the arrangement flew under the radar.
Then in January, Blockchains scooped up about 67,000 acres of land at the 107,000 acre park. It comprised most of the remaining acreage at the park. At the time, a land play of that size by such a mysterious company raised eyebrows about how it planned to develop its land. Those questions have only amplified since the Trump administration made the area eligible for a new tax break that could boost Blockchains and others if they invest in the land or decide to sell it.
With the sale, what became clear was the need to change the water district’s structure, said Sader, the attorney for the park’s developer. Once the sale went through, the water district was still controlled by the park’s developer, but the developer no longer controlled most of the land.
In early 2018, Sader began discussing the issue with the park’s major customers.
Those involved in or advised of the talks included Google, Switch, Tesla and Blockchains, Sader said. All of the companies declined to comment or did not respond to multiple email requests.
‘Change of control'
By the time legislators reviewed the financing, the companies had not resolved the problem of the water district’s structure. But during that time, one possible solution was being discussed.
Some companies were looking into transferring the ownership of the water district’s operating company, TRI Water and Sewer, from the developer to the major companies at the park. That would have put major customers, such as Switch and Google, in control of the water district.
One email suggests that the structure of the water district had some bearing on the project. On Sept. 24, 2018, Sader emailed Switch that he needed a decision soon on whether the large companies would take over the water district’s operator, TRI Water and Sewer.
Sader writes “time has just about run out on effectuating the transfer...so as not to disrupt the [project] and on-site process water projects. If so, [the park] must plan for an alternative path.”
“If I do not hear from you with details on a proposed change of control this week, I will assume Switch has lost interest in the concept and proceed accordingly,” Sader writes in his email.
The companies opted against the takeover, and the park’s developer still controls the district.
Sader said that the water district turned to an alternative plan. Based on Nevada law, a county commission can serve as a public water district’s de facto board in certain circumstances.
In one email in October, the water district’s recently hired general manager wrote to a group of Storey County officials and consultants that at an upcoming meeting, they would consider “a method of protecting Storey County from liability associated with taking on the [the water district] as a component unit of Storey County in the event that the [commission] elects to do so.”
The commission has yet to vote on whether it wants to serve as the district’s trustees.
“That is only in discussion,” said Austin Osborne, the county manager.
He said the county was not interested in taking over the management of the water district.
In recent weeks, the public water district has rolled out reforms and is restructuring itself so that it can operate as an independent entity, separate from the master developer. The district plans to hire staff, and board members have started reading disclosure statements at meetings. TRI Water and Sewer plans to terminate its operating contract with the water district on June 30.
A power struggle
The documents also highlight a shifting power dynamic at the park. Blockchains now controls most of the park’s land — an amount larger than Reno — but it has little power over decisions.
“While we do not profess to be eminent domain experts, as attorneys, we are not convinced that the pipeline project constitutes a ‘public use,’ Weiss, the lawyer, wrote in an Oct. 24 letter.
“First, it is the Master Developer, a private entity, not the [water district], that has the obligation to construct the pipeline such that the [water district] may not have standing to pursue the action. Second, the beneficiaries of the pipeline... are all private companies,” he continued.
Weiss’ letter concluded that “even if the [water district] has standing, as the pipeline is being constructed by a private party for the benefit of private parties, we do not believe that there is any significant public purpose to justify an eminent domain action.”
Other companies have not commented publicly on how they view the water district’s use of eminent domain. The water district has said eminent domain is justified, noting that it was a last-resort move after it made numerous efforts to negotiate with the private property owner.
The public records show a continued effort to negotiate with the Menezes family, which owns a trucking company, a hay cubing operation and owns land above the pipeline’s proposed route.
In an emailed response to Weiss on Nov. 1, Sader noted that “our eminent domain attorney is strongly of the opinion that the legal analysis in your letter on the public use issue is flawed.”
During a board meeting on Friday, that eminent domain lawyer, John Gezelin, recommended using condemnation because the Menezes family declined the most recent settlement offer.
In an initial challenge to eminent domain, the Menezes family raised questions about who was behind the project and who was paying for it. They cited a 2008 constitutional amendment “that the transfer of property from one private party to another private party is not considered a public use.” Whether or not a project is for “public use” is a key standard for justifying eminent domain.
Some legal experts are unsure how the courts would rule on the provision.
Because many eminent domain cases end with settlements, there are few precedents. Reno attorney Steven Silva, who teaches property law at Truckee Meadows Community College, said the courts have traditionally weighed a project’s purpose more heavily than who is paying for it.
“The form of the actor has been less important,” he said “It is traditionally the use.”
A court dismissed the water district’s first attempt to use eminent domain over noticing issues.
On Friday, the water district voted to approve a new eminent domain action.
State officials have determined that Assemblywoman Heidi Swank is ineligible to lead Nevada’s newly formed outdoor recreation office, despite announcing the lawmaker’s appointment last month.
Days after the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced the appointment, a legislative attorney notified Swank that the Nevada Constitution bars legislators from being appointed to an office created during their term.
As a result, the department said in a statement that it would resume a search for someone to lead the office charged with promoting the recreation industry. The decision was first reported on Twitter by Review-Journal political editor Steve Sebelius.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the department said the agency “will be resuming its search for an Administrator for the newly established Division of Outdoor Recreation.”
The agency did not elaborate on how it had missed the issue during the initial vetting process. A spokesperson for the department said the agency became aware of the issue "during consultation with Assemblywoman Swank regarding a proposed start date and the process for transitioning from her current role to the role of administrator for the new Division."
After the appointment was announced in late November and spread across Twitter, Swank said she was notified by a Legislative Counsel Bureau attorney that the move could conflict with a provision in the Constitution.
That provision reads: “No Senator or member of Assembly shall, during the term for which he shall have been elected, nor for one year thereafter be appointed to any civil office of profit under this State which shall have been created, or the emoluments of which shall have been increased during such term, except such offices as may be filled by elections by the people."
Swank said she then notified Department of Conservation and Natural Resources director Brad Crowell, and everyone involved agreed the constitutional provision barred the appointment.
“Everyone had the same reaction,” Swank said in an interview. “This can’t happen.”
A Democrat representing Las Vegas, Swank chaired the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Mining committee during the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions. That committee is charged with filtering policies on contentious issues, from appropriating water to managing wildlife.
Swank did not comment about whether she planned to stay in the Legislature.
“I have to consider my options at this point,” said Swank, who has served four terms in the Assembly. “It seems like a good time to take a step back and think about things.”
Swank said that she applied for the position through a formal application process, seeing an opportunity to combine her passion for the outdoors with her work in conservation. Swank founded the Nevada Preservation Foundation, which aims to preserve historic buildings.
A spokesperson for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said the agency received dozens of applications and interviewed several candidates for the position.
The office will be charged with creating a state recreation plan, advocating for the industry — often left out of the economic development equation — and promoting conservation on public lands used for activities like hiking, skiing and hunting.
Although legislators have transitioned to civil service in the past, the issue presented by the new office and Swank’s appointment is more rare. The state constitutional provision in question does not prevent lawmakers from working in state government. Instead, it prevents them from appointments to unelected civil offices that were created during a legislator’s term.
Because of the rarity of the situation, Swank said she understood why it did not come up in the initial vetting process and was only discovered after the agency announced her appointment.
“I can’t blame anyone in this,” Swank said. “It was a bit of bad luck.”
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“Our voices are like a little squeak.” That is what a Yerington Paiute tribal elder told former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, the first presidential candidate to visit the Anaconda Copper Mine, during a roundtable on Monday.
Legacy practices at the mine polluted groundwater with arsenic and uranium, forming a plume that has travelled below homes and toward the Yerington Paiute Tribe’s reservation. It has taken years for state and federal regulators to start closing the mine and address the contamination.
Last year, the Trump administration shifted oversight of the clean up from the EPA to state regulators in a deal that deferred putting the site on a Superfund list. The state has argued that the deferral deal will allow it to conduct a faster and less expensive cleanup. But mining watchdogs and environmental groups have been concerned that the decision could short-cut the process while leaving the state with fewer legal and financial tools to fix the contamination.
Castro’s visit on Monday highlighted an issue that few candidates have raised in a campaign season that has featured several environmental issues. In a roundtable with tribal elders and representatives of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, the former San Antonio mayor said as president, he would require consent from tribes on projects, including clean-ups, that affect culturally significant land. After the discussion, Castro toured the mine site near Yerington.
“It makes it real to come out here and see it,” Castro said after seeing where mining activity left abandoned materials. “The thing that has impressed itself most in my mind is the fact that these communities have to live with the consequences of contamination for thousands of years.”
The federal government has not always lived up to its “obligation” to tribes, Castro added. Now the tribes must work with the state as the lead agency charged with cleaning up the 3,600-acre mine site.
A new state law could give tribes a greater voice in government by codifying consultation with state agencies. The purpose of the bill was to ensure a greater voice for sovereign nations in state government, which does not have the same responsibility as the federal government.
In the past, state and federal governments have often overlooked tribes. That story does not end near Yerington — or in Nevada. In cases throughout the West, indigenous communities still face access barriers when it comes to water infrastructure that most Americans take for granted.
On the same day as Castro's visit, NPR reported that more than two million Americans go without running water or indoor plumbing, an issue disproportionately affecting indigenous communities. The finding, from a new report, found that “race is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access.”
Here’s what else I’m watching:
Coal goes offline: Southern Nevada is officially off of coal. On Monday, an Arizona utility shut down the West’s largest coal plant, partially owned by NV Energy. Shuttering the Navajo Generating Station was a long multi-year process with an unsavory history that has created a complicated future for the Navajo and Hopi tribes, which will now have to replace significant gaps in revenue, as the Arizona Republic reported earlier this week. Big questions about environmental justice, water rights and reclamation will persist at this plant for a long time, as explored more in this Twitter thread.
Recreation gets an office: Outdoor recreation in Nevada does not always get a lot of airtime, but industry estimates suggest that it accounts for 87,000 direct jobs with consumers spending about $12.6 billion here on everything from fishing and climbing to skiing and biking. Last year, the Legislature approved the creation of a state-led outdoor recreation office, following the lead of several other Western states. On Monday, it got its first leader. Assemblywoman Heidi Swank will leave the Legislature to run the Division of Outdoor Recreation, housed in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The office is also expected to advocate for conservation. Swank’s departure creates a vacancy for chairing the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, Agriculture and Mining.
Dixie Valley toad: The Center for Biological Diversity wants the Endangered Species Act to protect a newly-discovered Northern Nevada toad, endemic to an area targeted for geothermal power. The conservation group’s 60-day notice of intent to sue the Department of Interior also seeks to protect 20 springsnail species in Nevada and a threatened fish in Elko County.
Litigation matters: Last week, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and opponents of the Las Vegas pipeline met again before a familiar judge in Ely. The court battle — destined to go back to the Supreme Court — centered around the water authority’s controversial and long-deferred proposal to ship rural groundwater from Eastern Nevada to Las Vegas, supplementing its paltry Colorado River supply (thanks to the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act). Tribes, ranchers, two Utah counties and environmentalists have argued that the project would have a degrading effect on ecosystems, depleting underground water supplies that support springs, wildlife and grazing. The Reno Gazette Journal did a powerful story on protecting sacred swamp cedars. The water authority, looking at an increasing population, has touted a mitigation plan and said that it wants to keep its options open, noting that it could be decades before the water project is needed. Its board will vote Thursday on a 50-year water resource plan that includes the pipeline project.
Why it matters: The case, an appeal of the state’s most recent regulatory ruling, is before the same District Court judge who heard the matter six years ago. The Supreme Court, at some point, will likely have to make the final call on the project. But the fundamental questions at play — about what constitutes appropriate water use and mitigation — have significant implications for other projects (and there are several) throughout the state. Colton Lochhead, for the Review-Journal,did a great job of capturing that. Quotes from lawyers on both sides could apply in many ongoing water cases.
To build or not to build: All of this gets to a million-dollar question (quite literally) that does not have a clear-cut answer (sorry). What does the future of Western water management look like in a region where climate change is expected to make precipitation more variable? Is it a future like the 20th Century, with the construction of diversions and conveyances to support cities and agriculture? Or is it negotiated with less tangible tools (ex. conservation) within the existing system? Or both? In basins such as the Colorado River, negotiation and conservation have proven to be useful tools for creating flexibility that can be achieved on a quick timeline. It takes much longer to entitle and build large-scale infrastructure, which can have significant environmental effects on broad ecosystems.
But the optics: Given that, spending $30 million on water conservation over a decade might not be all that crazy. From a water management perspective, studies suggest that talking about water can help reduce use (see: this study, which justifies my job). Reducing water use can save money over time. But when paying that money to the Raiders (whose stadium is partially funded by $750 million in hotel room taxes), there’s more to unpack. Last week, my colleague Riley Snyder reported that the water authority’s board planned to vote today on a 10-year, $30 million marketing contract with the Raiders in an effort to boost conservation. But the optics of paying the team ratepayer funds after the state’s subsidy to the team and the water authority recently extending a sales tax… are pretty awful. On Tuesday, the water authority told Riley that it would punt (no pun intended), asking its Citizen Advisory Board to first weigh in on the issue.
Change in Clark’s land bill: Amid concerns that a proposed Clark County Lands Bill could enable the pipeline, the county revised a draft bill to explicitly exclude the project. Environmental groups still have concerns about the proposed legislation, arguing that it does not have enough conservation and species protections to offset new sprawl.
Coming up: The Washoe County Lands Bill is back.
After renewable standards: Our energy reporter, Riley Snyder, wrote about how stronger clean energy requirements for utilities might fall short of the state’s emission reduction goals under a plan to match the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Those findings, from a draft report presented in a meeting last Friday, is another signal that state officials plan to focus on emissions in other sectors, not just electricity generation. Read his story for more details.
Public water district, private company: Last week, we published a follow-up to our story about the web of private conflicts at the public water district charged with serving the high-profile companies at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. The district is operated by a developer-controlled company. All three members on the public water district’s Board of Trustees report income from a developer’s companies and live at his brothel.
In the new story, we looked at a 2001 document. It details, among other things, how the public board (with different members at the time) delegated non-statutory responsibilities to the private developer-controlled company.
The water district is taking steps to reform its governance, but the arrangement still raises questions about the blurring of government and business. We’ll have more on that soon.
Clips from the news:
Nevada leaders trying to stay ahead of wildfire destruction. (Las Vegas Sun)
Reno autumn driest in decades, but it doesn’t necessarily mean dry winter. (RGJ)
What’s in the water? A look at groundwater contamination. (KUNR)
New analysis spells out serious legal risk to Colorado River water users. (KUNC)
Democratic Assemblywoman Heidi Swank will end her legislative career after being appointed to serve as the inaugural administrator of the state’s new outdoor recreation division.
Swank, a four-term legislator who chaired the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Mining committee in the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions, was announced on Monday as the new administrator of the state’s Division of Outdoor Recreation, created in the 2019 legislative session as a way to promote recreation businesses and promote conservation efforts.
In a statement, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (which houses the division) called Swank “uniquely qualified” to take on the role, citing her founding of a cultural and historic preservation nonprofit and her multiple conservation and preservation bills throughout her four terms as a state lawmaker.
“Heidi’s extensive professional and legislative experience combined with her vision for the new Division are the perfect match to ensure outdoor recreational opportunities reach every corner of and every community in Nevada,” DCNR Director Bradley Crowell said in a statement.
Under the bill creating the outdoor recreation division (AB486), the office was allocated $657,000 over the two-year budget cycle to hire an administrator and deputy position, with wide latitude to promote and coordinate outdoor recreation businesses as well as conservation efforts. Other duties of the office include creating a state recreation plan, advocating for federal conservation funding and collecting data on the industry.
The legislation also creates an outdoor recreation advisory board, composed of various state agency heads and chaired by the lieutenant governor or a designee.
“Nevada has so many amazing outdoor opportunities and a variety of agencies and organizations doing work in this arena,” Swank said in a statement. “I look forward to bringing all of these entities together to further Nevada’s outdoor recreation economy and get more Nevadans outdoors.”Swank’s appointment will mean the 63-member Legislature will have at least 12 open seats in 2020, amid term limits, retirements and lawmakers running for other offices. Swank ran unopposed in the 2018 general election; her Assembly District 16 has a heavy Democratic voter registration advantage.