With approval of consumption lounges, state ushers in next expansion of cannabis industry

After a tumultuous round of dispensary licensing in 2018 brought uncertainty and infighting to the state’s nascent cannabis industry, the Cannabis Compliance Board (CCB) assumed the marijuana regulatory reins in 2020, cracking down on bad actors and providing specialized regulation that brought stability to the industry ahead of the 2021 legislative session.

From that baseline, lawmakers took a major step this session to expand and diversify the industry’s disproportionately white and male ownership and also provide tourists with a place to legally consume marijuana by creating a new license type for cannabis consumption lounges. They also approved a slew of other changes — including allowing permanent curbside pickup, revising how law enforcement determines whether someone is driving under the influence of marijuana and changing product labeling — built from lessons learned in the eight years since the state first authorized marijuana dispensaries.

“It's been a long journey from where we started, really, in the 2013 session and then launching dispensaries, so it's really nice to see how the industry has matured,” said Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas). “The legislation that we see this session is really in recognition that we've primarily done things right and to try to take that next step.”

After the compliance board began its work governing the state’s marijuana industry in July 2020, the 2021 legislative session presented the agency with an important opportunity to hold conversations with lawmakers, said Tyler Klimas, the board’s executive director.

“We’re very pleased with how the CCB came out in this session … So much of this particular legislative session was about education for the CCB,” Klimas said. “In 2021, this was really our first chance to come back in front of the Legislature and update them on the progress of the CCB … I think the Legislature was very receptive to our message.”

The session saw a wide variety of cannabis-related legislation passed that Yeager emphasized was largely aimed at implementing best practices and making selective tweaks to existing regulations. He also noted that many of those changes came as the pandemic saw more people get comfortable with marijuana use.

“I think the stigma is definitely going to lessen. I think it did during the pandemic … I think we have a lot of new customers in the cannabis industry because of the pandemic,” Yeager said. “The more we sort of move forward as an industry, consumers will become more comfortable with it.”

Here’s a look at the bills that passed during the session related to the state’s marijuana industry and the work of the CCB, all of which have been signed into law by Gov. Steve Sisolak:

AB341: Authorizing cannabis consumption lounges

The biggest change for the marijuana industry from the 2021 legislative session comes by way of AB341, a bill that provides for the licensing and regulation of cannabis consumption lounges by the CCB.

The measure, introduced by Yeager, has been heralded as a major step by many in and around the industry as a way to increase diversity in the state’s disproportionately white group of cannabis business owners. Throughout the session, the Las Vegas-based assemblyman also described the consumption lounges as a way for the state to solve tourists’ dilemma of having no legal place to consume cannabis.

“I see that only as a plus from the tourism aspect,” Yeager told The Nevada Independent in an interview. “But then on the local side, right, being able to bring in new players into the business, having that create jobs — that's really important coming out of the pandemic.”

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

Though a cannabis consumption lounge does already exist near Las Vegas in the form of NuWu Cannabis Marketplace, which sits on the land of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, Yeager’s bill allows for the first state-licensed and regulated locations where Nevadans will be able to consume cannabis outside of their homes — and where tourists will be able to legally use marijuana products. 

Lounges will be restricted to people 21 and over, and venues will be able sell ready-to-consume or single-use products, although not in quantities that would make them de facto retail cannabis dispensaries.

Scot Rutledge, a lobbyist who serves on the advisory board of the Chamber of Cannabis, a nonprofit organization whose members include individuals and businesses within the marijuana industry, said that many members have expressed enthusiasm about the lounges.

“There’s a tremendous amount of excitement because this is the first time in Nevada we're providing for a new license type,” Rutledge said. “The intent is to allow folks who aren’t in the industry to have as much of a chance, if not more, to participate.”

The bill allows for the initial licensing of up to 20 independent consumption lounges and 20 retail consumption lounges that will be attached to existing dispensaries, with the possibility of additional independent licenses if the CCB approves more than 20 retail lounge licenses before June 30, 2022.

Those new licenses open up the possibility of expanding diversity within the ownership of the industry, which has been limited in the past. A demographic report on the state’s cannabis industry released by the CCB in February showed that marijuana business owners and board members in Nevada are disproportionately white and male, compared to the industry workforce, which is made up of a greater proportion of people of color.

The bill explicitly prioritizes expanding diversity within the industry by requiring at least 10 of the first 20 independent lounge licenses to be issued to social equity applicants.

“Those 10 licenses are reserved for social equity applicants, and if there aren't any, they stay there until there is. They don't get redistributed among other people,” Yeager said. “We're purposely holding some back, which I'm hoping is going to help us achieve the purpose.”

However, the definition of a social equity applicant is left up to the discretion of the CCB. Klimas said that definition will be established with the help of an equity, inclusion and diversity subcommittee formed under the Cannabis Advisory Commission.

“We'll need to define what a social equity applicant is. That's really the start of it,” Klimas said. “What does it mean to be an individual that has been harmed by the War on Drugs and how can we help get those individuals into this industry.”

The measure also allows the CCB to give more financial leeway to social equity applicants. An application for a retail consumption lounge costs $100,000, but an application for an independent consumption lounge costs $10,000, and the license issuance and renewal fees are each $10,000 for both types of lounges. But the bill also allows the board to reduce all fees by up to 75 percent for a social equity applicant.

Outside of social equity, the bill leaves much of the regulatory work to the board, with the ability for local governments to provide additional regulations through ordinances.

“We just didn't believe that 120 days was really enough time to sort of figure out some of the details around how these venues might be operated or all of the things that need to be considered in licensing those businesses,” Rutledge said. “So I think we did it the right way by deferring a lot of those decisions to the CCB.”

Klimas said that prior to the licensing of lounges, the board will spend the next several months developing the regulations for the new cannabis establishments, through workshops, board meetings and advisory commission meetings.

The 2018 licensing round, conducted by the Department of Taxation, was marred by accusations that state officials played favorites and unevenly distributed key information about application scoring.

“Given some of the past licensing processes, this process is going to be about openness and transparency and thoroughness to ensure everybody's on the same page and the board is very public in how we're going to do things,” Klimas said.

Even though the CCB will complete most of the regulatory work, Rutledge emphasized that there is a certain framework he and other cannabis advocates hope to establish for the lounges. One aspect of that came from law enforcement, which did not want to see marijuana and alcohol sold in the same place. Another is focused on ensuring that businesses have more freedom in operating their lounges, because the bring-your-own-marijuana model has been ineffective for such businesses outside of Nevada.

“We also understood that what they had done in Denver originally … that didn't allow these lounges to sell cannabis — it was a bring your own cannabis model — and those did not work very well, either.” Rutledge said. “The idea of having just a place where patrons who purchase cannabis of your dispensary could walk in and consume and leave with really no entertainment or food or beverage. That wasn't what we wanted to get to.”

Layke Martin, executive director of the Nevada Dispensary Association, said both the retail and independent lounges could foster new ideas within the industry.

“I think there's a lot of opportunity for creativity and entrepreneurship,” Martin said. “I think a lot of these can become a destination, in and of themselves. And so it could be a video game thing where you can also consume cannabis. Or it could be like a tasting room situation where you can also consume cannabis, and you have the opportunity to get educated and try new products, kind of like a tasting room in a winery.”

Martin also noted that several existing dispensaries, including Planet 13 and The Apothecary Shoppe, have been planning for the possibility of lounges since the idea was brought forward and then axed during previous legislative sessions. She said that “some already have the space ready to go.”

Dispensary with casinos in background
Planet 13 Cannabis Dispensary located near the Las Vegas Strip is seen Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

While Klimas said that it likely won’t be until the beginning of next year or even mid-2022 when the new licenses “come on board,” Yeager sees the lounges as a way to help boost the return of the state’s economy.

“I can tell you without a doubt that Vegas is back in a really big way, and I think the addition of consumption lounges is only going to add to that,” Yeager said. “I actually think it's going to put Las Vegas on the map, to the extent that it isn't already, to be the cannabis destination, especially if we're able to open up some really interesting, innovative concepts.”

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill 29-12 and 17-3, respectively, with the Senate passing the bill on the last day of the session, as Sens. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) and Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas) were the only members of their party to oppose the measure.

Customers gather inside NuWu Cannabis Marketplace at 1235 Paiute Circle on Thursday, March 14, 2019. The dispensary is owned by the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

AB149: Increasing transparency of cannabis testing

This bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno), requires the board to develop, implement and maintain an online database where the public can find information about cannabis products tested by laboratories in the state.

The CCB still needs to receive approval from the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee in order to fund the database, which is projected to cost nearly $250,000 over the next two years, but Klimas expressed enthusiasm about offering the feature to consumers.

“It's just another level of transparency that we can bring out. I would do it tomorrow if I had the capacity to do it,” he said. “This data should be available for everybody to use. Right now, you can go to a dispensary, and if you purchase a product, you can ask for the certificate of analysis. So you can see that kind of information, [but] some people don't know they can ask for it.”

Some of the state’s independent labs have in the past voiced concerns about transparency. In 2019, an association of four marijuana testing labs rebuked certain unidentified labs over allegations that the labs were inflating THC content readings and giving fewer samples a failing grade in an attempt to attract more business.

The measure builds off of existing law that requires the CCB to establish standards for independent cannabis testing labs, which test cannabis and cannabis products for a variety of factors, including for microbial substances (bacteria, molds, and yeasts), potency of the product (cannabinoid and terpenoid profiling), heavy metals and pesticides.

The information available online will be based off of the seed-to-sale tracking that the board uses to track cannabis products as they are grown and sold throughout the state, and the database also will be required to contain the final results of all testing performed on cannabis products by an independent lab.

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill with no opposition. Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas) did not vote on the measure because his wife, Riana Durrett, is a member of the CCB.

A cannabis bud in a gloved hand
Priscilla Vilchis, CEO of Premium Produce, inspects a cannabis bud at her grow facility in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

SB168: Curbside pickup for cannabis products

Sponsored by Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas), this bill authorizes and allows dispensaries to offer curbside pickup in accordance with regulations adopted by the CCB. The measure legalizes a practice first allowed last year when the state was still in a coronavirus-related stay-at-home order.

Some of the present-day features of curbside pickup include designated parking spaces for pickup, security cameras with a direct line of sight to those spaces and a prohibition on people less than 21 years of age being in the vehicle. 

Proponents of the measure have touted the service as beneficial to businesses and a way for customers to more conveniently obtain their products.

“Customers really liked it, actually,” Martin said. “If you go through reviews of dispensaries, you'll often see curbside pickup positively viewed as a feature.”

The measure additionally allows local governments to adopt ordinances regulating curbside pickup beyond the rules adopted by the board.

The bill was approved in a 35-6 vote in the Assembly and a 19-1 vote in the Senate, and the governor signed the measure on May 27.

Parking space marked for Thrive Dispensary
A parking space outside the future Thrive dispensary in Reno on Sept. 27, 2019. Photo by David Calvert.

SB122: Extra health and safety training for cannabis employees

This bill, sponsored by Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), requires employees of cannabis establishments, including cultivation and production facilities and dispensaries, to complete a health and safety course developed by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within one year of being hired.

Employers are required to cover the cost of the training and are required to fire an employee who has not completed the training within one year. Employees hired before July 1, 2021 are required to complete the OHSA training program by July 1, 2022, and certain employees not involved in the day-to-day operations of an establishment, as well as communications and legal employees, are excluded from the requirement.

The required training includes a 30-hour course for supervisory employees and a 10-hour course for other employees, which must be conducted by an authorized outreach trainer and may be online or in person.

Though there are other training requirements already in place for employees of cannabis businesses, Martin emphasized the importance of such training.

“It's a highly regulated industry. Safety and security [are] paramount,” she said.

The bill passed 31-11 in the Assembly and 14-7 in the Senate, with some Republican lawmakers voting against the measure. During a committee vote on the bill in March, a few Republican senators expressed concerns that the bill would be onerous and unnecessary for retail employees in the industry.

Criminal justice changes

AB400: Marijuana DUIs

This Yeager-sponsored measure, which went into effect on July 1, removes specific “per se” limits for cannabis metabolites that if found in a person’s blood would trigger a DUI — except for in cases where the DUI is punishable as a felony, including those that caused someone’s death or substantial bodily harm. Cannabis metabolites are the substances that form when THC is broken down in the body.

Under this law, drivers generally will be considered to be under the influence of marijuana if the substance has impaired their ability to safely operate their vehicle, instead of having impairment determined by a test for a specific amount of marijuana in their blood or urine.

“There's no scientific basis toward ‘per se’ limits,” Rutledge said. “That's problematic for anyone who consumes cannabis, certainly. It's especially cruel to patients who theoretically consume larger amounts of THC than the average recreational consumer and may not actually be under the influence while operating a vehicle.”

Yeager explained that the science has shown for years that the “per se” limits are not an accurate reflection of impairment because cannabis is metabolized differently in different people’s bodies.

“I was up at the session in 2013 and 2015 as a lobbyist,” he said. “And I remember talking back then to folks in the Legislature about the DUI laws because cannabis is this weird ... space because it's federally illegal but legal in the state. And our state laws around DUI really contemplate its federal illegality, and we're almost zero tolerance.”

Yeager said that it took a long time for other people to get comfortable with the idea behind the bill and realize that impairment for cannabis cannot be treated the same as alcohol, which ultimately led to his measure passing during the 2021 session.

The bill was passed along party lines in the Assembly with Republicans opposed and passed out of the Senate on a 15-6 vote, with some Republican senators opposed.

AB158: Lessening penalties for minors possessing marijuana

This bill from Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) significantly lightens penalties for minors who purchase or possess alcohol or cannabis, including prohibiting jail time and fees for first and second offenses.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Monroe-Moreno framed the measure as a way of being constructive with children who make mistakes, rather than strictly punitive. Proponents of the measure have described the bill as another way to help the communities most negatively affected by the War on Drugs.

For people under the age of 21 who are found guilty of a misdemeanor for possessing, consuming or purchasing alcohol or possessing less than one ounce of cannabis, the bill replaces misdemeanor penalties of up to six months jail time and up to a $1,000 fine with penalties of up to 24 hours of community service and a requirement to attend a meeting of a panel of victims injured by a person who was driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance.

The bill also revises the penalties for a second violation to require up to 100 hours of counseling or participation in an educational program, support group or treatment program.

The measure was approved unanimously in the Assembly and Senate and was signed into law by the governor on May 28.

AB326: Cracking down on the illicit market

Sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas), who previously worked for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, this bill aims to curb the state’s illegal cannabis market by authorizing a district or city attorney to bring a civil action — with a penalty of up to $50,000 — against any person who engages in a cannabis business activity, including cultivating and selling cannabis, without a license. Someone who commits such a violation could still be subject to a criminal prosecution.

The bill also seeks to bring more transparency to existing businesses, while restricting illegal marijuana delivery services, by requiring all advertising for a cannabis establishment to contain the establishment’s name and license number.

“It's really intended to keep the black market, the illicit market, from operating within the shadow of the legal market,” Martin said.

The bill received no opposition in votes in the Assembly and Senate, with Ohrenschall recusing himself from the vote when it passed out of the Senate on May 21.

Regulatory changes

SB168: Granting the CCB regulatory power over packaging and labeling

In addition to making curbside pickup a permanent feature for cannabis businesses, this measure authorizes the board to adopt regulations for the packaging and labeling of cannabis and cannabis products.

“We have really extensive packaging and labeling regulations on the books right now,” Klimas said. “What this bill allows and recognizes is that this is an ever-evolving industry, so let's make sure the board has the power to … host workshops and get stakeholder feedback both from the public and the industry. And if we need to make changes on packaging and labeling, then we can do that and we don't have to wait every two years.”

Klimas added that the board will regularly host workshops focused on labeling and packaging, so that the agency can “constantly stay ahead” on regulations.

The bill was approved in a 35-6 vote in the Assembly and a 19-1 vote in the Senate.

A customer and retailer exchanging money at a cannabis retailer
A medical marijuana patient, right, pays for cannabis at Reef Dispensaries at 3400 Western Ave. on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

SB49: Changes to CCB disciplinary hearings

This bill, brought forward on behalf of the CCB, makes a number of changes to disciplinary hearings conducted by the board — including authorizing the CCB to employ support staff for conducting such hearings, authorizing the chair of the board to grant extensions to the 45-day requirement within which hearings must be held and removing an authorization for the board to take the testimony of a witness by deposition because of the intensive time and resources typically required for depositions.

The measure also removes a barrier for minor stakeholders in cannabis businesses, allowing the board to adopt policies for waiving the registration requirements for people who have an ownership interest of less than 5 percent in the establishment. That provision is meant to lighten the burden for publicly traded companies.

David Staley, an audit investigator for the board, said during a February hearing for the bill that the background check and registration requirements can be restrictive for publicly traded companies with thousands of shareholders that have shares traded on a daily basis.

Under this bill, the labeling of cannabis products offered for sale is required to include the words “THIS PRODUCT CONTAINS CANNABIS,” rather than “THIS IS A MEDICAL CANNABIS PRODUCT” or “THIS IS A CANNABIS PRODUCT.”

No lawmakers voted against this bill; the measure passed 41-0 and 20-0 in the Assembly and Senate, respectively.

SB278: Clarifies the cannabis wholesale tax

Sponsored by Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden), this bill clarifies the definition of “wholesale sale” for the purpose of the marijuana excise tax.

“It just clarifies [that] facilities that are owned by the same individuals can move product back and forth if one facility is more capable of performing a function than the other one,” Klimas said. “That just clarifies … when that is actually taxed.”

The bill passed through both chambers with no opposition and was approved by the governor on June 3.

SB404: Authorizes regulations for cannabis weighing and measuring equipment

Brought forward on behalf of the Governor’s Office of Finance, this bill authorizes the State Sealer of Consumer Equitability to adopt regulations for cannabis weighing and measuring equipment. The bill is meant to update existing law, which did not previously include references to cannabis-specific equipment.

The measure passed 20-0 out of the Senate, while members of the Assembly voted to pass the bill 33-8, with some Republican lawmakers opposed.

Cannabis on display at Reef Dispensaries, 3400 Western Ave., on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

Other bills

AB101: Authorizes veterinarians to administer CBD products to animals

This measure, sponsored by Yeager, authorizes licensed veterinarians to administer products containing CBD or hemp in the treatment of an animal and to recommend use of such products to pet owners. It also prohibits the state Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners from taking disciplinary action against veterinarians who administer or use such products.

As Yeager notes, this bill — nicknamed the “pot for pets” bill — does not actually deal with marijuana, as do several other measures he sponsored. Cannabis contains more THC and less CBD, while hemp products (authorized for use by this bill), contain more CBD and less THC. The two compounds are both found in plants of the Cannabis genus.

“It was surprisingly easy to get through, this time,” Yeager said of the measure, which has been considered but rejected in past legislative sessions. “And maybe that's just the comfort level that we have, Nevadans have, not just with the cannabis industry but certainly with CBD. I think a lot of people have experience with CBD at this point.”

The bill was approved 40-0 in the Assembly and 20-0 in the Senate, before being signed into law by the governor on May 28.

SB58: Investigations into cannabis offenses

Brought forward on behalf of the Investigation Division of the Department of Public Safety, this measure is aimed at improving coordination between state agencies during cannabis-related investigations by requiring the division to provide investigative services to help carry out criminal investigations relating to cannabis when requested by the CCB, Department of Taxation or Division of Public and Behavioral Health.

This legislation passed with no opposition in the Assembly or Senate.

Failed licensing efforts

While lawmakers authorized the licensure of 40-plus new cannabis establishments through consumption lounges, discussions of adding other new license types stalled during the session.

SB235: Dual licensing

This measure, sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), would have allowed the CCB to issue cannabis establishment licenses in excess of the caps set by the state when the licensing of adult-use cannabis dispensaries began. The new licensing procedure, intended to prioritize social equity applicants and increase the number of new licenses, would be determined by a study conducted by the board every two years.

However, the bill was met with significant backlash, even sparking internal conflict within the Nevada Dispensary Association that resulted in some members leaving the group. Some smaller operators within the association favored an amendment that sought to give those who lost out during a 2018 round of licensing a chance to receive a license.

The amendment, which would have established a path for adding a significant number of new licenses for those who lost out in 2018, reignited arguments from a yearslong legal battle over the previous licensing round and disputes about whether the market can support a large number of new marijuana stores.

As of June, there were 85 active dispensaries licensed by the CCB, with the possibility for roughly 40 more dispensaries approved during the 2018 licensing process. Unlike other business types, the number of retail cannabis stores in the state is strictly capped. 

Nevada law allows counties to have a certain number of dispensary licenses based on population, with current numbers allowing for up to 80 licenses in Clark County, 20 licenses in Washoe County, four licenses in Carson City and Lyon County, and two licenses in all other counties. However, local regulations can further restrict the number of licenses allowed in a county.

Though Yeager never heard the measure in the committee he chaired, he said there was a lot of controversy surrounding the idea. 

“The industry itself was so conflicted on that concept, and it just kind of blew up,” he said.

The legislation never received a vote on the Senate floor.

Medical marijuana and retail customers stand in line to check out at The+Source dispensary in Henderson on Thursday, November 9, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

AB322: Licensing cannabis events

Sponsored by Assemblyman C.H. Miller (D-North Las Vegas), this bill aimed to establish a form of “micro-licensing” by allowing the CCB to issue a new license type for cannabis events where products could be sold and consumed. Events could be similar to food festivals, for example, where different vendors sell marijuana products at the event and attendees are able to consume the products at the event.

With a financial impact estimated to be in the millions by the CCB, the measure never received a hearing in the Assembly’s money committee but was touted as a positive next step by proponents of other cannabis legislation.

“I think it's a good concept,” Yeager said. “I think we were just very wary of doing too much at one time, given how long it's taken us to get cannabis lounges up … Probably, [the] next step is cannabis events and licensing of larger events because the truth is people are consuming those events anyway. We know that, so we probably should regulate it in some fashion.”

Even though the CCB will only have two new types of licenses to work on over the next two years with the addition of retail and independent consumption lounges, Klimas said the board is still thinking about future rounds of licensing.

“Obviously lounges will be a licensing round, but when we're talking about the traditional establishments, like cultivation, production and retail, we're going to open up those licensing rounds at some point,” Klimas said. “But we want to make sure that those decisions on how many to award, how many to open up are driven by data.”

Though an effort to establish a cannabis market study failed with SB235, Klimas said that the board is still planning to perform a comprehensive study of the industry, likely conducted by a third party that Klimas hopes will provide an unbiased look at the market.

“We want to know what is the health of the market in the state of Nevada, what's our supply, what's our demand, what are our needs,” Klimas said. “That's going to be something exciting over the next year or two to get those results and see where this industry needs to continue to mature towards and how the CCB is going to facilitate that. That'll likely end up and result in new legislation that we’ll bring forth in the 2023 legislative session.”

New law raising Medicaid reimbursement rate gives hope for better autism services in Nevada

For years, lawmakers and autism advocates have been working to improve treatment and therapy services and their accessibility to people with autism, including trying to eliminate the long waiting lists to receive such treatment — especially because early intervention is key. 

This spring, the Legislature took a major step that advocates hope will bring big changes to the situation.

Parents such as Las Vegas resident Yesenia Serrato Gonzales have spent months, even years, on waitlists so their children can receive Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, a customized one-on-one therapy focused on positive reinforcement of socially appropriate behaviors. Serrato Gonzales was waitlisted for three years because of a shortage of ABA providers that accept Medicaid, the government health insurance for people with low incomes. 

“Unfortunately, it's like that everywhere… [The UNLV Ackerman Autism Center] gave us a list of providers, and every one of them had a very long wait time for Medicaid patients,” said Serrato Gonzales, who also has autism and is assistant to the executive director at AzulBlue United by Autism, a Nevada-based nonprofit organization that supports and advocates for individuals with autism and their families. 

“But I have friends that have a higher income, and the same thing was happening to them,” she added. “They could not get ABA for their children, even though they had the money. So this was something that did not discriminate against those of low income. It affected everyone.”

Lawmakers passed SB96, a bill sponsored by Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas), that increases Medicaid reimbursement rates for ABA therapy and for the services of Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs) who provide the intensive therapy that some children with autism receive for up to 40 hours a week. The previous $31-an-hour rate was one of the lowest in the nation. SB96 increases the rate — which includes both the wage for the therapist and the overhead costs for providers and supervisors — to $52 an hour.

The change took three legislative sessions to pass, or six years. During the 2019 session, SB174 called for increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rate to $48 an hour and conducting an audit to gather data on services provided and community needs. The measure was approved, but then was amended to only include the audit because of budgetary concerns. 

The audit, conducted from July 2019 to December 2020, noted that of the $31 an hour that Medicaid reimbursed its providers for services, about $19 made it to the RBT, with the rest going to supervision and other overhead costs. Because of the low margins, some providers chose not to accept Medicaid recipients, which caused a disadvantage in service access.

Advocates hope the increased reimbursement rate will address shortages in treatment accessibility by encouraging therapists and providers to come to or stay in Nevada — and to accept Medicaid as a form of insurance.

“It was a six-year battle … I’m elated and exhausted,” said Julie Ostrovsky, an advocate who serves on the Nevada Commission on Autism Spectrum Disorders. “Businesses who served a Medicaid client were losing between $2 to $5 every hour they worked on a child on Medicaid. Now they will make money, and businesses are allowed to make money. And if our kids are getting outstanding services because we are paying providers as we should, that's amazing for our community – that's amazing for our state, and it will change lives.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak signed SB96 into law on June 4, but it will not go into effect until January 2022. 

Lenise Kryk, site director at the Lovaas Center, an ABA treatment provider, said she hopes the increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates will not only decrease waiting times and open doors to services, but also will allow children with autism to receive the quantity of therapy they need to make progress. In Nevada, about 1 in 55 children was classified as having autism by their school in the 2019-2020 school year; nationally it is estimated that about 1 in 54 children have autism.

“Even when they are getting services, it's typically not even remotely close to what would be medically necessary … children are receiving about an average of four direct hours per week, and base levels can range anywhere from 25 to 40 [hours a week] depending on the age and skill set. Four hours per week is significantly lower,” Kryk said. “Hopefully the waitlist will decrease and the amount of services will be closer to what's medically necessary. We're hoping that with the increased rates, providers will potentially start taking more Medicaid.” 

Luz Elena Garcia is a mother of two children with autism. She decided to learn ABA therapy techniques to use at home after seeing that her children were not receiving sufficient therapy time, and it came in handy during the pandemic when therapy hours were reduced and school was online. 

Garcia said that like many children with autism, her two boys regressed in their progress while learning from home. She said she had to put in double the work to guide them through the eight-hour school day in front of the computer and then also implement the exercises after school. 

“We haven’t worked 100 percent, I always say we’ve worked at 200 percent,” Garcia said in Spanish. “We just want the best for our children and for them to be independent because we’re not always going to be there for them.” 

One limitation of SB96 is that it applies only to those 19 years of age and younger. Serrato Gonzales and Garcia hope that another similar bill will be passed for adults with autism to continue with treatment and therapy.

“The only thing that makes me very sad about this bill that passed is that it's not available for adults, and people need to realize that autism — it's not just children. There are adults that grow up to need continuation of these services,” Serrato Gonzales said. “You have those that have severe autism, people who are nonverbal. And from experience as a person who was nonverbal as a child, it gets very frustrating when you want to communicate something, and you can't.” 

Advocates say it was thanks to the legislative auditor’s findings that they had the evidence to show that an increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates was necessary. 

“The audit ended up being the magic wand, so to speak. The audit ended up being exactly what we needed to see what was happening in the autism community. I would have loved the rate increase as well [in 2019] but the audit justified even further why we need it and where else we're lacking,” Ostrovsky said. “It basically gave us a roadmap of what we need to do, to do better. So that was a goldmine of information.”

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.

Legislature live blog: Lawmakers pass bills expanding mail voting, authorizing cannabis lounges, short-term rental taxes

The clock struck midnight, and Nevada lawmakers finally adjourned the 2021 Legislature after a frantic final few hours that saw the passage of major election, budget, tax and other big-ticket bills.

By the end of Monday evening, lawmakers had advanced bills decriminalizing traffic tickets, moving the state to a presidential primary, authorizing cannabis consumption lounges and permanently expanding mail voting. Legislators also approved a major transmission and clean energy bill, approved a new tax structure for short-term rentals and set spending priorities for the state’s coming windfall of $2.7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds.

The final hours of the Legislature traditionally see a host of last-minute amendments, compromises and changes to legislation — something already readily apparent on Monday, with lawmakers authorizing nearly $8 million in funding to pay back DMV fees recently declared unconstitutional, and an amendment keeping special tax districts in play for Clark County but without the ability to use them for a potential major league baseball stadium.

The Nevada Independent is covering all the final moves, votes and maneuvers of the 2021 Legislature. Here’s a look at some of the major votes and last-minute developments on the final day of session:

$15 million earmarks on American Rescue Plan funds

One last-minute addition was $15 million in earmarks for federal COVID-19 relief money. An amendment added to SB461 in the Assembly includes:

  • $6 million to the Collaboration Center Foundation for services for people with disabilities. Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) had proposed a bill to support the foundation, but it never got a hearing.
  • $5 million to the state treasurer’s office for the Nevada ABLE Savings Program. The program provides seed money in tax-advantaged accounts for people with disabilities; a bill passed this session to enable the program but did not fund it.
  • $4 million for a statewide program modeled after UNR’s Dean’s Future Scholars Program, which provides mentoring, tutoring and other support for prospective first-generation college students. Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) had a bill that supported first-generation students, but it died. She crossed over and supported a mining tax along with Democrats before the amendment was revealed.

— Michelle Rindels

Requiring public buildings/accommodations to have inclusive single-stall restrooms 

On a 15-6 vote, members of the Senate voted to approve Assemblywoman Sarah Peters’s AB280 — a bill requiring any single-stall restroom in the state to be designated as gender neutral.

The bill, which wouldn’t affect existing bathrooms but would govern future construction, was amended before passage to more narrowly define the types of bathrooms affected by the bill, and removed language allowing for civil litigation if people felt they were denied access to or punished for using a single-stall restroom.

— Riley Snyder

Closing ‘classic car’ loophole

An effort to close the ‘classic car’ loophole by limiting the types of older vehicles exempted from smog checks has passed out of the Senate on a party-line 12-9 vote.

The bill, AB349, is sponsored by Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) and seeks to fix a loophole created by a 2011 law that redefined a “classic car” to include any vehicle over a certain age that drove less than 5,000 miles. It resulted in a sharp increase in the number of classic cars registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles. 

— Riley Snyder

Permanent expanded mail voting and ballot initiative withdrawals

Nevada will move to permanently expand mail voting and send all active registered voters a mail ballot starting in the 2022 election, after members of the state Senate voted along party-lines to approve AB321 on Sunday evening.

The bill will make Nevada the sixth state to adopt a largely mail voting system, though voters will be allowed to opt out and vote in person if they choose. Sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, the legislation has been embraced by Democrats as a way to enshire expanded voter access to elections, but pilloried by Republicans as not having enough safeguards to prevent fraud while making what they say are unnecessary changes to the state election structure.

Though amendments to the bill still need to be agreed to by the Assembly, passage of the bill will largely cement the pandemic-induced temporary election changes used in the 2020 election as a permanent fixture of elections moving forward.

The bill does modify aspects of the rules in place for the 2020 election, including shortening the deadlines for fixing issues with signatures on mail ballots and for when a mail ballot can be counted after Election Day from seven to six days.

It also explicitly authorizes election clerks to use electronic devices in signature verification, require more training on signature verification and adopt a handful of other provisions aimed at beefing up election security measures. 

Prior to the vote in the Senate, however, lawmakers adopted an amendment explicitly authorizing the withdrawal of initiative petitions 90 days prior to an election. That law change is intended to address a lack of clarity in existing law about when a ballot initiative can be withdrawn and is intended to give the Clark County Education Association a chance to pull back two initiatives raising the sales and gaming taxes.

Another amendment, sponsored by Senate Republican Leader James Settelmeyer, sought to require statewide elected offices including the attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and controller to follow the same fundraising blackout rules that members of the Legislature, governor and lieutenant governor are required to follow during legislative sessions. But the amendment failed on a 10-11 vote, with all Democrats save Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas) voting against the measure.

The bill appropriates about $12.1 million to the secretary of state’s office over the budget cycle to help with costs of the legislation.

— Riley Snyder

Authorizing cannabis consumption lounges

Senators voted 17-3, with one abstention, to authorize cannabis consumption lounges where people can legally consume marijuana after a similar effort failed in the last session.

AB341, sponsored by Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), aims to resolve the conundrum that recreational cannabis is legal in Nevada, but consumers are technically not allowed to partake of it anywhere outside of a private residence. It also has been framed as a way to diversify the ownership of Nevada’s relatively homogenous cannabis industry by offering certain incentives to applicants who were adversely affected by the War on Drugs.

Before passing the measure, senators added an amendment that allows local governments to establish rules for the businesses that are stricter than the statewide regulations.

Republican Sen. Ira Hansen and two Democrats — Sen. Dina Neal and Sen. Fabian Donate — voted against the measure. Donate said that while he supports the concept, he had public health-related concerns including about how employees would be protected from secondhand smoke.

Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas) abstained because his wife is a member of the Cannabis Compliance Board.

— Michelle Rindels

Taxing and regulating short-term rentals

Senators voted 15-6 for a bill from Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) that subjects short-term rentals such as Airbnb to the taxes that hotels face and other regulations.

Opponents of AB363 were all Republicans, including Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), who said that while he wants to combat the nuisance of illicit “party houses,” he thinks land use planning “is fundamentally a local issue.”

“I certainly understand the impetus to do this,” Pickard said. “The reason, however, that I can't go far enough to support this bill is because I believe that it's an intrusion into the proper operation of local government.”

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) has pointed to taxation of vacation rentals as a route for bringing more revenue to schools.

— Michelle Rindels

Bill removing citizenship requirement for higher education scholarships revived

An amendment added to a bill sponsored by Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) during an Assembly Ways and Means Committee meeting Monday evening proved that nothing is truly dead until the clock strikes midnight on sine die.

The amendment, attached to SB347, revives AB213, a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) that died before it received a vote on the Assembly floor because of a concern over a 5 percent allocation from a grant program for creating an alternative to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The bill passed out of the Assembly on a 28-14 vote.

Flores told The Nevada Independent during a short interview that the proposed amendment removed the 5 percent allocation, stipulating instead that an alternative to the FAFSA program could be established as money is available.

"I'm excited that we at least have accomplished the step of getting it to the floor," Flores said. "The bill is sending a very clear message that regardless of status, so long as you graduate you're going to get in-state tuition."

The amendment would remove de facto citizenship requirements for higher education scholarship programs and secure access to in-state tuition for any graduate of a Nevada high school.

It also addresses other higher education inequities by:

  • Removing the requirement to complete the FAFSA, which requires a Social Security number, in order to receive a Silver State Opportunity Grant (a state-support financial aid program for low-income students attending community or state colleges within the Nevada System of Higher Education)
  • Guaranteeing that any graduate from a high school in the state can receive a Silver State Opportunity Grant or a Nevada Promise Scholarship (a scholarship for Nevada high school graduates attending community college)
  • Eliminating a rule that the Board of Regents must distribute scholarships first to students who complete the FAFSA
  • Prohibiting a prepaid tuition program or college savings program from excluding a person or his or her family from participating in the program based solely on immigration status.

Access is at the heart of the amendment, Flores said, adding that the measure will lower barriers to higher education and address fears brought about by the college application process and having to share information regarding immigration status.

“An undocumented student has these added layers to be able to pay for college that ... a lot of other students don't have to go through,” Flores said. “So that it's often a deterrent for a lot of very highly talented,qualified students.”

— Tabitha Mueller

Deportation defense funds

A bill that will allocate half a million to the UNLV Immigration Clinic’s work defending people against deportation got a party-line vote in the Senate, with Republicans opposed.

AB376, sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), would create a “Keeping Nevada Working Task Force” to support immigrant entrepreneurship as well as making the appropriation.

But Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) said he opposed a provision that requires the attorney general to develop model policies that seek to limit the collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. Agencies must report back whether they adopt the policies.

“The standards that are to be developed by the attorney general and then imposed upon ... all other areas of the state, I think, are inappropriate,” he said.

The bill was significantly watered down from its original form, which directly called for limiting collaboration between police and federal immigration enforcement officials.

— Michelle Rindels

Transmission build-out, electric vehicle charging infrastructure bill passes

State lawmakers advanced the Legislature’s marquee clean energy bill, SB448, on a 32-10 vote on Monday.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), will clear the way for completion of a major intrastate transmission line sought by NV Energy as part of the utility company’s planned $2 billion transmission infrastructure upgrade project. It will also require the utility to invest $100 million in electric vehicle charging stations, and makes a host of other energy policy changes aimed at boosting carbon reduction efforts in the state.

The measure previously passed unanimously out of the Senate. 

— Riley Snyder

Minimum energy efficiency levels for appliances

Members of the Senate passed out an energy efficiency measure, AB383, on a party-line vote on Monday.

The measure, sponsored by Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas), sets minimum energy efficiency levels for certain residential and commercial appliances and products, ranging from water coolers and air purifiers, to commercial fryers and ovens.

During a bill hearing in April, Watts said that less energy expended would result in less pollution and that using more efficient appliances and devices could also mean lower utility bills. The standards set in the bill would not apply to appliances sold after the bills goes into effect until July 2023, giving manufacturers time to adjust to the new regulations.

Previously, the bill passed out of the Assembly on a 26-13 party-line vote, with Republicans in opposition.

— Tabitha Mueller

Overhauling interim legislative structure

Members of the Senate voted 18-3 to approve a bill from Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) overhauling the interim structure of the Legislature to match the committee structure used during 120-day sessions.

Rather than the current slew of more than a dozen interim committees, AB448 would repeal and replace almost all of them with interim joint standing committees, a change aimed at increasing continuity and policy expertise between legislative sessions.

Not all of the old interim committees are going away — the bill was amended on Friday, shortly before passing out of the Assembly, to revive an existing Legislative Committee on Public Lands to now serve under a joint interim subcommittee on natural resources.

— Riley Snyder

Fifth time’s the charm to decriminalize traffic tickets 

After four failed attempts in prior sessions, AB116, a bill decriminalizing traffic tickets, cleared the Legislature with a 20-1 vote in the Senate. 

The bill would make traffic violations civil infractions and not punishable by jail time. It adjusts current practice where, if unpaid, minor traffic offenses become warrants that can lead to arrests and are punishable by up to six months in jail. 

Although Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) said he is in support of the policy behind the bill, he was the only senator to vote against the measure for certain concerns regarding rural counties’ ability to implement it. 

“This is the fifth session that I can think of where we've attempted to do this, so it's definitely a step in the right direction,” Hansen said. “But we need to keep in mind there's some very small counties with very limited budgets and for them to be able to implement this is going to be very, very difficult.”

— Jannelle Calderon

Nevada joins and leapfrogs primary states

The Senate voted 15-6 to pass AB126, which would end Nevada’s presidential caucus and replace it with a primary election, and also aims to make the state first in the presidential primary calendar — ahead of New Hampshire and Iowa

Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), who voted against the measure, had introduced a similar bill, SB130, this session to convert Nevada from caucus to primary but it died in April. During the Senate vote on Monday, Pickard said that as he was preparing his bill, constituents said that they would not be happy with moving the primary to the beginning of the year as campaigning efforts during December holidays may be “intrusive.”

“I was told pretty consistently by my constituents that they did not like the idea of moving the primary up to the beginning of the year because it meant that we'd be campaigning, we'd be knocking on their doors and we'd be disturbing them during the holidays,” he said. 

Six of the nine Republican senators voted against the bill, which had previously received a 30-11 vote in the Assembly.

— Jannelle Calderon

Allocating federal COVID aid

With time up in the session, the Assembly Ways and Means Committee on Monday advanced SB461, a so-called “waterfall” bill that sets priorities for spending billions in American Rescue Plan funds. 

Many of those goals — which include backfilling the general fund to compensate for revenue loss and shoring up health care and education — were laid out months ago in a framework document released by the governor and legislative leadership.

“It's day 120, those dollars are not here, but we still know that we have priorities in the state that we want to make sure that can be addressed and that the legislature doesn't slow the process down,” said Assembly Ways and Means Chairwoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas). “We don't necessarily need to come back and come together for a day or two to do, that there is a process by which we can set this up to set our priorities to allow these dollars to hit the ground running as soon as they're here.”

Carlton’s comments suggest at least some of the work of distributing the federal dollars will take place through work programs that come through the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee, as opposed to a special session.

“It doesn't mean we have to do it that way. Nothing stops us from coming in and doing a special session,” she said in a subsequent interview. “But ... getting 63 of us together and queuing up this building is not a small feat ... so this is just a way to make sure that those issues are dealt with.”

In the meantime, the bill allocates $335 million of the state’s $2.7 billion allocation through the American Rescue Plan to the unemployment trust fund. That was depleted after the pandemic-related shutdowns pushed Nevada’s unemployment rate to around 30 percent.

The amount will bring the trust fund essentially to the point where it is not taking out a loan, fiscal analysts said. Following the Great Recession, employers had to pay higher tax rates for years to pay back a debt to the federal government; the allotment will ensure tax rates won’t be going up for debt service.

“This will be one of the small things that we can do to not have that one more thing added on to that bill, as everyone is trying to climb out of the pandemic and get back to square one in the future,” Carlton said. “This will be one way to lessen those impacts of the pandemic on everyone who pays into this month.”

The Treasury allows states to use American Rescue Plan money to pay back their unemployment trust funds back to pre-pandemic levels, but Nevada’s trust fund was nearly $2 billion before the pandemic — meaning the state could potentially use nearly all of its federal allocation for that purpose.

But, Carlton said, “this is a balancing act and there was a lot of harm done across the state and all different sectors and we're trying to make an impact on all of the different sectors.”

— Michelle Rindels

DMV repayment

A feisty debate about how to repay $1-per-transaction DMV technology fees that were found to be enacted unconstitutionally has finally been resolved in the form of an amendment to another bill.

Members of the Ways and Means Committee over the weekend sparred over whether allocating $7.8 million to pay back $5 million in fees to Nevada motorists needed to be done immediately or could wait until something more cost-efficient could be worked out. Lawmakers are seeking to refund the money after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that an extension of the fee in 2019 needed to be passed on a two-thirds majority (it was one vote shy of that threshold).

They opted to add an amendment with the allocation to SB457, a bill that otherwise allows more of the state Highway Fund to be used for administrative costs and has now passed both houses.

“Last night, with time constraints and with the people digging their heels in on stuff it was like, ‘we can't wait, we have to pay for this,’” Carlton said. “This is not a political discussion. You can't make hay out of this anymore. We just need to move on and get our jobs done.”

— Michelle Rindels

Clark County gets STAR bonds exemption; A’s stadium talks nearly derail

An effort to finally phase out oft-criticized special tax districts that use a portion of sales tax for bond repayments received a last minute amendment sought by Southern Nevada governments — though lawmakers took steps to ensure that they can’t be used for a potential major league baseball stadium.

AB368, sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno), would require the Department of Taxation to report information on existing Tourism Improvement Districts — geographical areas where a public-private partnership is created using a portion of sales tax dollars to help finance construction and bond payments.

Those agreements, financed through Sales Tax Anticipation Revenue (STAR) bonds, were used in the mid-2000s to help finance construction of several Northern Nevada developments including Cabela's and Outlets at Legends — agreements later criticized, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal, for not building in enough accountability measures into the projects.

Benitez-Thompson — who said her mother was laid off by the City of Reno after the municipality was forced to use general fund dollars to make bond payments on a STAR bonds project — submitted a conceptual amendment to the bill phasing out all language for STAR Bond tax financing, in effect sunsetting the program.

But that raised concerns from representatives of Southern Nevada local governments, who on Monday morning held an unusual back-and-forth with the six members of the conference committee on a request to exempt Clark County from the bill. Conference committees are appointed when the Assembly and Senate disagree over an amendment, but often are also used to push last-minute changes to legislation on the final day of the session.

Lobbyist Warren Hardy, representing a consortium of Southern Nevada governments, said there was interest in allowing STAR Bonds and tourism improvement districts as a potential “tool in the toolbox” for developers — including potentially the Oakland A’s, who have publicly floated moving the professional baseball team to Las Vegas.

But the idea of using STAR Bonds for a stadium rankled lawmakers on the conference committee.

“I’ve been very clear on how these things need to be done … if we’re going to do Huntridge (Theater), small nonprofit, things along that line, I think that’s where these funds really could possibly work,” Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said. “But if we’re talking about a stadium and trying to pay for that, I have a lot of concerns about moving forward at that level.”

After a small amount of debate, the conference committee (with the implicit blessing of Southern Nevada lobbyists) agreed to move forward on the bill with an amendment only allowing STAR Bonds to be extended in Clark County, and striking existing language that allows the bond proceeds to help pay for a professional sports stadium.

— Riley Snyder

False alarm fees, urban composting among few casualties from legislative deadline day

Nevada lawmakers worked late into Friday to pass 175 resolutions and bills by the one of the final major deadlines of the legislative session, but not every bill made it past the finish line before the clock struck midnight.

According to a tally by the Legislative Counsel Bureau, only four bills failed to pass out and died by Friday’s deadline — largely under-the-radar measures affecting composting, rules on school suspensions and expulsions, alarm systems and special assessments by local governments.

The bills fell just short of the final legislative finish line — lawmakers are scheduled to finish their 120-day session on Monday, May 31, with legislators scheduling most of the final week to finish budget details and finish the long list of last-minute major policy bills that need to be resolved before the Legislature adjourns.

Here’s a look at the bills that failed to advance on Friday:

AB67: This bill, sponsored on behalf of the state Department of Education, would have expanded and clarified school discipline procedures, including definitions for suspension, significant suspension, expulsion and permanent expulsion, as well as updating circumstances in which those punishments could be appalled. The bill passed on a 40-0 vote in the Assembly on April 16, but was placed on the secretary’s desk in the Senate on Friday. However, lawmakers granted the bill a late exemption on Monday from the normal legislative rules.

SB57: Sponsored on behalf of Clark County, SB57 would have authorized a board of county commissioners or city government to recover any unpaid property fines or fees by treating them as a special assessment, which can be collected in the same manner as normal county taxes. Clark County officials said the measure was aimed at giving code enforcement more tools to go after abandoned property and short-term rentals; the measure passed out of the Senate on 12-9 vote on April 20, but the bill was placed on the Chief Clerk’s desk on May 19 in the Assembly and died by the deadline.

SB253: This bill from Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Gardnerville) would have prohibited any local government from imposing fees, fines or penalties on alarm system contractors or monitoring companies for any false alarm that cannot be attributed to the improper installation of the alarm system or other error. The bill was aimed at avoiding punishing alarm companies for false alarms — a lobbyist for ADT Security Services described it as “sending an individual’s speeding ticket to General Motors.” The bill passed the Senate on an 18-3 vote on April 20, but died in the Assembly after being placed on the chief clerk’s desk on Friday.

SB349: Sponsored by Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas), this bill would have authorized cities and counties to establish urban composting zones for use by the community by ordinance, including potential inclusion in a county or city’s master plan. It also would have authorized the state or a local board of health to adopt regulations on the sale of unpackaged produce at a farmers’ market. The bill passed on a 13-8 vote in the Senate on April 20, but was placed on the Chief Clerk’s desk on Friday and died on the deadline.

Lawmakers and advocates seek to keep youth offenders from adult criminal system through juvenile justice reforms

A wide variety of state and federal laws and policies treat minors differently from adults.

People must be 21 to buy alcohol. The youngest someone can be to enlist in the military is 17. In Nevada, a person must be 16 to apply for a full driver’s license. 

The differences have been perpetuated by case law, as well. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for minors, and in Graham v. Florida (2010), the court held that life-without-parole for non-homicide crimes is an unconstitutional punishment for minors.

Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas), a juvenile public defender in Clark County, notes that scientific evidence about child brain development substantiates these differences in treatment.

“I think there's more realization now that children aren't able to make decisions the way adults do,” Ohrenschall said. “And trying to hold children accountable to the same standards we hold adults is not fair.”

Lawmakers this session are seeking to further separate the juvenile justice system from the adult criminal justice system at nearly every level, with legislation aimed at reducing referrals into the system, promoting rehabilitation programs and housing young offenders separately.

“I think the big effort on our part was to try to either keep kids from getting in the system if we can,” Ohrenschall said. “And if they are in the system, to try to see if there can be programs that can keep them closer to home, closer to their community.”

The efforts of Ohrenschall, who chaired the Legislative Committee on Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice during the interim, and others have made the 2021 legislative session a particularly active one for the subject. More juvenile justice bills were introduced this year than in each of the 2019 and 2017 sessions.

Though the 2017 session featured sweeping legislation such as a bill that established the Juvenile Justice Oversight Commission and another that enacted the Juvenile Justice Bill of Rights, Holly Welborn, policy director for the ACLU of Nevada, said juvenile justice issues are often overlooked — adult criminal justice bills on the death penalty and police reform have been at the forefront of the Legislature this session.

“The issue of juvenile justice really gets pushed down in the broader conversation … amongst the very controversial adult criminal justice reform topics,” Welborn said.

Many of this year’s juvenile-focused bills have received broad support. Bills aimed at easing penalties for youth cannabis or alcohol possession, expanding record sealing for youth offenders and creating a new Miranda warning for minors all passed unanimously out of the Assembly.

“I think that a lot of my colleagues are concerned about the school to prison pipeline,” Ohrenschall said. “They want to try to see reform and see as much done as possible that can divert children from getting caught up in the system.”

Below is a roundup of the ongoing efforts to reform the juvenile justice system this session.

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

Reducing points of contact and racial disparities

Nevada’s Juvenile Justice Oversight Commission — a body of 20-plus juvenile justice experts and stakeholders — has found that “African American youth are overrepresented at almost every contact point” in the juvenile justice system.

The commission’s racial and ethnic disparities report for the 2020 federal fiscal year, which ended September 30, 2020, found that while less than 15 percent of the state’s youth population was African American that year, the group made up more than 32 percent of the youth arrests. As the commission and the Division of Child and Family Services actively engage in efforts to reduce those disparities, lawmakers have introduced multiple bills aimed at helping children of color.

AB158, a bill from Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas), would significantly lighten penalties for minors who purchase or possess alcohol or cannabis, including prohibiting jail time and fees for first and second offenses.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Monroe-Moreno said she brought the bill forward on behalf of A’Esha Goins, an advocate in the cannabis industry and the mother of a young Black man, who “had seen how other young kids of color have been charged with possession of marijuana and or alcohol.”

Monroe-Moreno discussed the importance of being constructive with children who make mistakes, rather than strictly punitive, and recalled her own experiences growing up.

“In our household growing up, you got three chances,” she said. “If you were stupid enough to do something that third time, then you really got in trouble, but the first time was my mom explaining why this behavior was wrong.”

Assemblywoman Danielle Monroe-Moreno on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 during the fifth day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

For people under the age of 21 found guilty of a misdemeanor for possessing, consuming or purchasing alcohol or possessing less than one ounce of cannabis, the bill would replace misdemeanor penalties of up to six months jail time and up to a $1,000 fine with penalties of up to 24 hours of community service and a requirement to attend a meeting of a panel of victims injured by a person who was driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance.

The bill would also revise the penalties for a second violation to require up to 100 hours of counseling or participation in an educational program, support group or treatment program.

The measure is intended to reduce the number of minors who enter into the state’s criminal justice system.

In 2019, more than 8,000 youth were arrested in Nevada, with possession of marijuana being the second most common charge. In 2020, the number of youth arrests declined by more than 2,000, and possession, sale, or use of an illegal drug dropped to the fourth most common charge.

“I do think this bill will help a lot of kids not get caught up in the system,” Ohrenschall said during the hearing. “And possibly just get the guidance they need without having to either be in court or in a detention facility.”

AB158 STATUS: The bill passed unanimously out of the Assembly on April 20 and awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

***

In the oversight commission’s racial disparities report, the group highlighted specific types of race-focused training for officers and dispatchers as a way to reduce disparities at the front end of the justice system. Though the report found that “police officers statewide generally receive training in racial profiling and implicit bias,” a bill this session is aimed at expanding that training.

SB108, created by the Nevada Youth Legislature, a program that allows a group of high school students to present one bill to the Legislature each session, would require all employees who interact with children in the juvenile justice system in the state to complete implicit bias and cultural competency training once every two years.

“It is urgent more so now than ever to address the inequality faced by minority youth within the Nevada juvenile justice system,” youth legislator Julianna Melendez said during an April 23 hearing. “I personally have friends who have been targeted by school police and treated differently compared to our white counterparts, specifically because of the color of their skin.”

Another youth legislator, Melekte Hailemeskel, shared how her worldview changed following the death of Trayvon Martin.

“From that day on, I began to see the world for what it truly was. My heart filled with fear every time my father stepped outside the house. I transitioned to fearing the police rather than feeling protected by them,” Hailemeskel said. “This bill gives the youth the opportunity to live life without fear of being victimized by implicit bias.”

The original version of the bill from the Youth Legislature would have mandated the training for all people employed in the criminal justice system; however, the amended version applies only to those employed in the juvenile justice system, such as juvenile public defenders, youth parole officers and school police officers.

The training would include explanations of the negative effects of implicit bias and the importance of understanding implicit bias, as well as cultural competency information focused on sexual orientation, gender, race, ethnicity and religion.

Kathryn Roose, a deputy administrator at the Division of Child and Family Services, said that the bill is aligned with the division’s goal of addressing racial disparities and noted that the agency would already have a process in place for implementing the required training.

SB108 STATUS: The bill passed 20-1 out of the Senate in mid-April and faces a possible vote in the Assembly.

New Miranda warning for minors

As other ongoing juvenile justice efforts attempt to limit entries into the system, Assemblyman Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) has introduced a bill that he hopes will help youth offenders better understand their rights when they are facing arrest.

AB132 would establish a plain-language Miranda warning system for minors. In the expanded list of disclosures, a police officer would have to say the following to a minor, before starting an interrogation:

  • You have the right to remain silent, which means you do not have to say anything to me unless you want to. It is your choice.
  • If you choose to talk to me, whatever you tell me I can tell a judge in court.
  • You have the right to have your parent with you while you talk to me.
  • You have the right to have a lawyer with you while you talk to me. If your family cannot pay for a lawyer, you will get a free lawyer. That lawyer is your lawyer and can help you if you decide that you want to talk to me.
  • These are your rights. Do you understand what I have told you?
  • Do you want to talk to me?
A Clark County School District Police officer monitors Western High School students after class on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The original Miranda warning was established through the U.S. Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona (1966). The case held that police cannot question defendants in custody until they are made aware of their rights. Once those rights have been explained, defendants can voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently waive their rights and agree to answer questions or make a statement.

During a hearing of the bill in early May, Flores said the bill came from the idea that children typically do not knowingly and intelligently waive their rights because they do not have a full understanding of what rights they are entitled to.

Flores explained that he tested the new warning language used in the bill by giving it to teachers at Manuel J. Cortez Elementary School and the K-12 school, West Preparatory Academy, both located in Las Vegas, and having those teachers read both the current and proposed language to children.  

“This language that is in Assembly Bill 132 seemed to really go further into the understanding and comprehension of a child,” Flores said during the hearing.

Flores also said that the case law established by Miranda v. Arizona only set the bare minimum and that the state can go beyond that minimum by creating a new set of warnings that is easier for children to understand.

John Piro, a public defender in Clark County, explained that many police officers carry cards that have the Miranda warning language on them, so officers would not need to memorize all of the revised wording.

Piro also said that even if officers are unsure whether the person being taken into custody is an adult or minor, they could recite the new Miranda warning for minors because the revised language fulfills the legal requirements for all people.

AB132 STATUS: The bill passed unanimously out of the Assembly on April 19 and awaits a possible vote on the Senate floor.

Limiting direct file

Juvenile justice advocates have long sought to keep youth offenders within the juvenile system and out of the adult criminal justice system — for certain crimes, a prosecutor may override the jurisdiction of a juvenile court by filing charges against a minor in an adult criminal court in a process known as “direct file.”

AB230, sponsored by Assemblyman C.H. Miller (D-North Las Vegas), would prohibit the mandatory direct file process for children — aged 16 and up at the time of the offense —  who were charged with sexual assault involving violence or an offense or attempted offense involving the use or threatened use of a firearm.

During a hearing of the bill in April, Miller called the measure “another big step forward in giving some of our most troubled youth a chance to live a productive life.”

The bill would still permit jurisdiction of the adult court for cases that do not involve “delinquent” acts, such as murder or attempted murder (if the offender was at least 16 years old), some felonies and any offense committed after the person had been convicted of a previous criminal offense.

Miller said that direct file laws were originally created as a response to narratives about heightened youth crime in the 1990s, and he called on other lawmakers to “right the wrongs” created by those laws.

“Much of this legislation stemmed from the devastating narrative that a monstrous wave of mythical creatures known as ‘super predators’ — impulsive, remorseless, elementary school youngsters who packed guns instead of lunches would take over,” he said at a March hearing. “Today, we all know that narrative wasn't true. And it led to more problems than it could have ever solved.”

Kelly Jones, a public defender in Clark County, said that youth sent to adult facilities are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse and to commit suicide and have higher rates of recidivism.

Jagada Chambers, a rights restoration coordinator with a civic engagement advocacy group called Silver State Voices, also pointed out the disparate impact of direct file. Chambers said that of the 219 youths directly filed to the adult system in Clark County since 2013, roughly 200 were children of color.

However, the bill still faces an uphill battle because of its associated costs. A fiscal note from the Department of Health and Human Services states that more resources would be needed to house the increased number of minors that would no longer go to the Department of Corrections. The corrections department estimates the bill would save the agency close to $300,000 over the upcoming biennium.

The estimated cost to Clark County, the only county in the state to have direct files recorded in the past five years, though, would be more than $6.5 million over the next two years — that cost would come from a combination of increased staffing, mental health resources, food and nursing.

The bill also would require the Legislature’s interim juvenile justice committee to conduct a study on the need for and cost of housing young offenders awaiting certification for criminal proceedings as an adult. Miller said the study is necessary because the infrastructure and resources necessary to completely eliminate direct files are not currently available in the state.

AB230 STATUS: Though the measure is exempt from legislative deadlines because of its fiscal impact, the bill has not been discussed since its April 21 hearing. There has been broad support for the measure, however, as 30 lawmakers have signed onto the bill as primary sponsors or co-sponsors.

Jurisdiction over juvenile cases

A bill introduced on behalf of the Nevada Supreme Court, SB7, would also contribute to transferring greater jurisdiction to the state’s juvenile courts.

The bill would ensure that a juvenile court has exclusive jurisdiction in cases in which it is alleged that a minor who is the adverse party to an order for protection has violated a condition of the order. A protective order is typically issued to protect a certain person or entity from harassment, abuse or sexual assault.

The juvenile court would only maintain jurisdiction for violations that involve delinquent acts, meaning some acts, such as murder, would not fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.

During the initial hearing of the bill in early February, John McCormick, an administrator for the state’s Supreme Court, said the legislation is meant to establish statutory clarity where none exists and create a uniform system for jurisdiction across the state.

SB7 STATUS: The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate in mid-April and next awaits a vote on the Assembly floor.

Juvenile Court Hearing Master Soonhee "Sunny" Bailey on the bench during autism specialty court on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Changes to juvenile housing

Youth offenders certified as adults are housed by the Department of Corrections at Lovelock Correctional Center, a policy that has long been a concern for youth justice advocates, such as Welborn.

“My very first day with the ACLU of Nevada, the first call that I took was a call with a national organization to talk about the boys who are housed in Lovelock and the conditions that they're living in, the inhumane conditions that they're living in, how inappropriate those conditions are for youth,” Welborn said.

Two different Department of Justice investigations announced this year have highlighted issues with the state’s methods of housing youth offenders. One investigation is examining whether staff at two state correctional facilities — Summit View Youth Center and Nevada Youth Training Center — use pepper spray in a manner that violates youth’s rights under the Constitution. The other investigation is examining whether the state unnecessarily institutionalized children with behavioral health conditions in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As youth advocates and lawmakers seek to improve housing conditions for youth offenders, several bills introduced on behalf of the juvenile justice committee this session would make significant changes to housing policies.

One bill, SB365, would require the state to develop a pilot program for housing youth offenders convicted as adults in a child and family services division facility, rather than in an adult correctional facility. 

Welborn said that legislation and other bills that address youth housing are important because of the differences between minors and adults and the time it takes for the youth brain to fully mature.

“Most of these young people will be released at some point in time,” she said. “So ensuring that they have the adequate therapeutic services, educational opportunities, exercise, etc. for their full healthy development, in order to ensure that they will be successful when they leave. And that has to be the right types of interventions and treatment that is age appropriate.”

In past years, there have been roughly 20 youth offenders, at any given time, held at the Lovelock Correctional Center because they were certified as adults in the criminal justice system. The pilot program would move eight of those offenders to the Summit View Youth Center, operated by the child and family services division.

The division estimates the financial impact of the pilot program to be more than $2.3 million over the 2021-23 biennium, with costs based on the projected need to add more beds and staff.

SB365 STATUS: With the costs attached to the bill, the measure next faces a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee; however, no action has been taken since the bill  was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 8. There are no future hearings scheduled for the legislation.

Two other bills would work collectively with SB365 to address housing for youthful offenders.

SB357, a bill from the juvenile justice committee, would require the Department of Corrections to track expenses related to housing youth offenders, meaning the department would need to report all costs associated with the minors living at Lovelock Correctional Center.

SB356, another bill from the interim committee, would require the oversight commission to study the feasibility of housing youthful offenders, who are between 18 and 24 years old and who will be released from prison before reaching 25 years of age, separately from offenders who will continue to be incarcerated past age 24.

“It's also tough to go from taking a kid from the juvenile system and then shocking them into this very hardened adult system, when there's really something in between that works better for those young offenders,” Welborn said. “So that's why all of these bills are a part of a lot larger, broader conversation.”

SB357 STATUS: The bill passed 20-0 out of the Senate on April 13 and faces a potential vote on the Assembly floor.

SB356 STATUS: Though the bill is exempt from legislative deadlines because of its small financial impact, the measure has not been picked up by the Senate Finance Committee since being passed by the Judiciary committee on April 8.

Treating youth found incompetent

One bill from the juvenile justice committee, SB366, would address housing for a narrow portion of youth offenders: those ruled incompetent.

Roose, from the child and family services division, explained that the state does not have in place a facility to help restore children to competency. In a note attached to the bill, Ross Armstrong, administrator of the division, wrote that the agency “does not have the qualified staffing to serve the population with developmental disabilities” — children ruled incompetent typically suffer from an untreated mental illness or developmental disability.

“This is a really complex bill on a complex service and system that would need to be developed in collaboration with sister agencies,” Roose said. “It's just a system that doesn't really exist in Nevada. But, again, we have the opportunity to study and maybe build a solution.”

The actual impact of the bill remains unclear because of differences between the latest version of the bill and comments from the division. However, in line with Roose’s comments, a fiscal note from the division indicates the bill would fund a study to determine the resources needed for rehabilitating incompetent youth offenders.

SB366 STATUS: Though a fiscal exemption has kept the bill alive, the measure has not been acted on since passing out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in early April.

Diverting more youth

One other bill from the juvenile justice committee in line with the efforts to improve housing, SB385, is meant to keep more youth offenders out of the deep end of the juvenile justice system and out of state-controlled correctional facilities.

Though the measure does not seek to directly divert more youth offenders away from state facilities, it would require that the division conduct a study during the interim on which activities and programs help reduce the number of minors committed to state facilities.

“The spirit of this bill is to take savings in our DCFS facility budget, through savings that we achieve through reducing the number of youth coming to us,” Roose said. “And take those funds and divert them to the counties to build up their service array, with the theory being that the more resources that the counties have to provide the services to youth that they need, the less likely they will ever come into a DCFS facility.”

SB385 STATUS: The bill was approved by the Senate Finance Committee on May 12 and next awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

Sealing records

As lawmakers continue to address the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a bill from Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner (R-Reno) would help some juvenile offenders avoid the repercussions of having a criminal record when they become an adult.

The bill, AB251, would establish provisions for a juvenile’s record to be automatically sealed at age 18 and allow those who are 18 or older to petition the court for the expungement or destruction of their juvenile record for any infraction, arrest or crime that was committed as a child that was equal to a misdemeanor or less.

“Young offenders may face serious consequences and obstacles as a result of their juvenile record,” Krasner said during a hearing of the bill on May 10. “A juvenile adjudication can prevent a young person from receiving financial aid for higher education, admissions to colleges, getting a job, joining the military or being admitted into certain licensed professions.”

Krasner called the measure a chance to provide young people with “a fresh start and a second chance,” pointing out that minors are unable to make logical, informed decisions in stressful situations because their brains are not yet fully developed.

AB251 STATUS: The bill passed unanimously out of the Assembly on April 20 and awaits a vote in the Senate.

Republican Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner holds a press conference on a human trafficking bill on March 2, 2021 at the Legislature in Carson City. (Michelle Rindels/The Nevada Independent)

Structural changes within the juvenile justice system

Though much of the juvenile justice legislation this session focuses on youth offenders themselves, lawmakers also have introduced a few bills that affect the greater justice system and the operations of the child and family services division.

AB448, a bill from the Governor’s Finance Office, would designate criminal investigators employed by the division as category II peace officers. Those investigators were not previously categorized as peace officers in statute. Other officers designated under category II include other criminal investigators, youth parole officers and school police officers.

AB448 STATUS: The measure is exempt from legislative deadlines; however, it has not yet received a formal hearing in any Assembly committee.

***

Another pair of bills would affect workers within the juvenile justice system. SB21, a bill introduced on behalf of the division, would create a uniform process for background checks for employee hiring across different juvenile agencies and facilities in the state. The other bill, SB317, introduced by Ohrenschall, would allow juvenile justice employees to receive back pay for unpaid leave administered during an investigation, if the employee is found not guilty or has their charges dismissed.

SB21 STATUS: The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate on April 20 and next faces a potential vote on the Assembly floor.

SB317 STATUS: After passing out of the Senate on 12-9 vote in mid-April, the bill awaits a vote in the full Assembly.

***

SB132, sponsored by Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), would appropriate $10 million from the General Fund to the Eighth Judicial District in Clark County for support services, including educational support services at The Harbor, a juvenile justice assessment center.

SB132 STATUS: The bill is exempt from legislative deadlines but has not yet received a hearing.

Future justice efforts

Four years ago, lawmakers passed AB472, which established the Juvenile Justice Oversight Commission (JJOC). This session, lawmakers are considering a bill that would, as Roose described the measure, “put a spotlight on the great work of the JJOC.”

SB398 would require the commission to submit a report to the Legislature with an update on the progress of its 5-year strategic plan. The report would include recommendations for any legislation related to both the plan and disparities in the juvenile justice system, such as racial disparities.

SB398 STATUS: The bill passed out of the Senate on a 20-0 vote in mid-April and next faces a possible vote in the Assembly.

While SB398 is meant to bring forward more legislation aimed at improving the juvenile justice system, another bill discussed this session could hamper reform efforts, according to Welborn.

AB443, an Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee bill, would overhaul the structure of interim legislative committees. The bill would, in part, eliminate the interim juvenile justice committee and instead establish a joint interim judiciary committee.

Welborn expressed concern that the initial version of the bill could draw attention away from the work being done to help young people. However, an amended version of the measure would require the interim judiciary committee to allocate five bill draft requests specifically for juvenile justice issues. 

“I fear that we lose that momentum, if we abolish that interim committee, or at minimum, don’t establish … some sort of subcommittee to handle juvenile justice issues,” she said. “If we don't, then they're not going to get the attention they need.”

AB443 STATUS: The measure is exempt from legislative deadlines and was last passed out of the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee on May 13.

As Welborn, among other advocates, fights to garner greater attention for youth justice issues, she noted that reform can take lots of time and work, and she recalls a quote from Ohrenschall, another youth advocate.

“We come to the Legislature wanting revolution, but what we get is evolution,” she said.

Republican-introduced bills decimated by committee passage deadline

The majority of bills introduced by Republican legislators this session failed to advance past last Friday’s first committee passage deadline, with nearly half of GOP-sponsored bills dying without a hearing.

Out of 249 bills and resolutions introduced by Republican legislators this year, 162 died at the deadline, including 121 bills that never received a committee hearing. Some of the top Republican-backed efforts that failed included election bills repealing expanded mail voting (AB134) and requiring proof of identity before voting (AB137, AB163) and attempts to curb the governor’s emergency powers (AB93, AB373).

A handful of Republican senators bore the brunt of that devastation, including Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden), Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) and Carrie Buck (R-Henderson), who combined to sponsor 34 bills that never received a hearing prior to the deadline.

Pickard, who backed out of a deal with Senate Democrats during 2020’s special session, led that group with 13 bills that died without a hearing. However, Pickard does have some bills left alive, as six of his 20 introduced bills were ruled exempt from the deadline.

Buck, a freshman lawmaker who does not have a single bill left alive and received a hearing for only one piece of legislation she introduced, said on Twitter during deadline week that she thinks the policy this session is “ALL bad.”

In this year’s Democrat-controlled Legislature, lawmakers in the majority fared better. Of 334 bills introduced by Democrats, 78 died at the deadline, with only 46 of those never receiving a hearing.

Some Democratic lawmakers even escaped the first deadline with no casualties. Assembly members Cameron “C.H.” Miller (D-North Las Vegas), Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas), Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) and Susie Martinez (D-Las Vegas) introduced a combined 26 bills this session, none of which died last Friday.

Several Democratic lawmakers were not as fortunate. Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas) and Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas) were the only lawmakers in their party to have more than half of their introduced bills killed at the deadline. Several of those failed bills were controversial, including an effort to curb use of the death penalty and a bill that would have established an opt-out organ donation system.

With the next major deadline less than a week away, Republican legislators are facing another potential wave of dead bills, as more than 90 percent of their remaining measures have yet to receive a floor vote.

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.

Deadline Day: Death penalty abolition, physician aid-in-dying and gun control bills advance

Friday marks the do-or-die moment for hundreds of legislative proposals — bills must pass out of their first committee unless they have a special exemption.

Lawmakers began Friday by holding marathon committee meetings throughout the day on Friday, working to process backlogged bills or cut last-minute deals on controversial legislation.

Proposals that advanced Friday morning include measures repealing the state’s death penalty, allowing operation of cannabis consumption lounges and banning so-called “ghost” guns.

But Friday doesn’t mark the end of all major pending issues — legislative leaders granted special exemptions to a handful of high-profile proposals, including the three mining tax constitutional changes first passed in the 2020 special session, a measure expanding automatic voter registration beyond the DMV and a bill draft request creating “Innovation Zones.”

Lawmakers haven’t crammed all pending bills into Friday meetings. Since Monday, lawmakers have already voted out 155 bills from committees, including major election changes, criminal justice modifications, adding additional marijuana licenses and even increasing fees on marriage licenses. 

But those measures and likely hundreds already passed face another daunting deadline — the first House passage deadline on April 20, just eleven days away.

Here’s a look at major policies that passed out of legislative committees on Thursday. The Nevada Independent will update this story as additional bills are passed out of committee on Friday.

Abolishing the death penalty 

With little comment, members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee voted 9-6 on party lines to advance a bill abolishing the death penalty. All Republicans on the committee opposed the bill.

Friday’s vote pushes the death penalty abolition cause further than ever — Nancy Hart of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty said such bills have been introduced in 2001, 2003, 2017, 2019, 2021, and sometimes got a committee hearing, but never a committee vote until Friday.

AB395 would turn all existing death sentences into sentences of life in prison without parole. Another death penalty abolition bill in the Senate is more modest, abolishing capital punishment for crimes committed after the law takes effect.

Nevada is one of 24 states that still has the death penalty, although nobody has been executed in Nevada since 2006. The most recent state to end the practice is Virginia, which outlawed capital punishment last month.

“This is a tremendous step forward for sure,” Public Defender Scott Coffee, who is pushing for abolition, told The Nevada Independent. “I think the committee vote today is recognition that Nevada's death penalty is broken beyond repair. A variety of recent events has given the repeal a new sense of urgency,  proving it is not an issue which can be ignored or placed on the back burner.”

Ghost guns and businesses banning guns

In a Friday surprise, members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee voted out AB286 on a party line vote, a hotly contested firearm regulation bill that would ban so-called “ghost guns” and make it easier for businesses to prohibit guns on their property.

The bill was amended to include more specifics on what kinds of signs have to be posted for a business deciding to opt-in to the provisions of the bill, and limits the provisions related to not allowing firearms on premises only to businesses with a non restricted gaming license (casinos).

Several Republican members of the committee asked to delay the vote on the bill, saying they received the amendment only a few minutes before the committee meeting. Several Democrats on the committee indicated that they’d like to see additional changes to the bill.

Physician-aid-in-dying

AB351, a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) that would allow terminally ill patients to self-administer life-ending medication passed out of the Assembly Committee on Health and Human Services without a recommendation.

According to legislative procedure, a committee may move a bill or resolution forward in the process "without recommendation” if members were unable to reach a conclusion on what they believe the action the Assembly at large should take.

Modeled after Oregon's 1997 Death with Dignity Act, AB351 would authorize a physician to prescribe medication designed to end a patient's life in instances where a patient is at least 18 years of age, has been diagnosed with a terminal illness by at least two doctors, has been given six months or less to live, is a Nevada resident, is making an informed and voluntary decision and is not requesting medication because of coercion.

The bill revived a debate that has emerged in the last three legislative sessions and advanced 7-5 along party lines, with Republicans in opposition.

Marijuana DUIs

Members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee passed a bill that will remove from state law specific numeric quantities of marijuana metabolites in the blood that trigger a DUI. 

While the bill still allows such measurements to be taken, it cannot be the sole evidence used to prove a DUI case. Prosecutors would have to use other indicators of impairment, such as visual observations or field sobriety tests, to make their case.

Proponents of the bill say that the “per se” limits in the law reflect the lowest detectable levels of marijuana in the blood, rather than indicating impairment, and could ensnare someone who consumed cannabis days or weeks earlier but it no longer high because of the way marijuana works through the body differently than alcohol.

The bill, AB400, was amended so that “per se” limits remain in portions of the law dealing with workman’s compensation. Opponents of the bill said that removing such limits could put an employer on the hook in a claim even if an employee who was high on the job caused an accident.

Cannabis consumption lounges

Nevada residents and visitors may soon have places where they can publicly consume marijuana legally after the Assembly Judiciary Committee passed AB341. The bill authorizes cannabis consumption lounges, which are akin to bars for marijuana use.

Supporters framed the bill as a way to bring a diverse new group of entrepreneurs into Nevada’s cannabis industry, whose upper echelons skew white and male, and which has high financial barriers to entry and a strictly capped number of stores.

An amendment brings more specificity to who qualifies as a “social equity applicant” — defined as someone who has been adversely affected by the previous criminalization of cannabis — and that licensing fees can be reduced by up to 75 percent.

It also bans consumption lounges in airports and calls for the lounges to serve “single-use” servings of cannabis rather than larger amounts that would make the lounges de facto dispensaries.

Tenants’ rights bill

Landlords could face more restrictions on the fees they can charge tenants under SB218, a bill sponsored by Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday.

A detailed amendment toned down several provisions from the original bill. While the measure initially prohibited landlords from charging any application fees to prospective tenants, the bill now allows landlords to charge one potential tenant or tenant group at a time — a provision aimed at preventing landlords from collecting fees from dozens of housing-hungry people who don’t have a realistic chance of landing the place.

The bill originally barred any add-on fees aside from those allowed in statute, based on testimony that some landlords tacked on microwave fees, refrigerator fees and other added expenses that were unknown to tenants until seeing they owed hundreds of dollars more than their base rent. As amended, the bill limits fees to those that are allowed under statute and those that are “actual and reasonable;” it also requires fees be listed on the first page of the lease before signing.

SB218 also limits landlords from dipping into the security deposit for cleaning if they have already charged a cleaning deposit.

Inmate account garnishment

The Nevada Department of Corrections would be limited in how much it can garnish from inmates’ personal funds under SB22, passed Friday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The original bill only changed the priority order of where garnished funds go, but an amendment adds language addressing recent heartburn from inmates’ families that the department was diverting up to 80 percent of inmate funds in an attempt to comply with Marsy’s Law — a voter-passed victims’ bill of rights.

Inmate families testified that they sacrifice to send their loved ones money each month to buy products such as lotion and supplemental food, and argued that heavy garnishment passes the burden of restitution to families.

As amended, the bill caps garnishments at 25 percent of contributions an inmate receives, or 50 percent of wages the inmate earns directly. It also calls on prisons to provide twice-yearly statements for free about how much money is in an inmate’s account and what deductions were made.

Committee Chairwoman Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) said the amendment was a compromise between the prisons and inmate advocacy groups. The committee’s attorney said the provisions of the amended bill remain in compliance with Marsy’s Law.

Requiring legislative approval for large regulations becomes study

A bill by Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas) requiring state lawmakers to approve any proposed regulations with a financial impact estimated north of $10 million was passed out of the Assembly Government Affairs committee on Friday, after it was amended to become an interim study.

The amended version of AB340 would require the interim Legislative Commission to appoint a six-legislator panel aimed at studying the number of regulations that the original bill would have captured and any potential cost associated with studying the economic impact of state regulations.

Annual behavioral health check-ups for police

Members of the Assembly Government Affairs Committee also voted out AB336 on Friday, a bill by Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) that requires the state’s police standards board to adopt regulations for annual behavioral health check-ins for law enforcement.

The bill was amended to change language requiring an annual behavioral “healthcare assessment” to an annual “wellness visit,” and changed the effective date of the bill to start in 2023.

Statewide grants office and matching grant funds

The Assembly Government Affairs committee voted along party lines to approve AB445, a bill making various structural changes to the state grants office and creating a new fund for matching grant programs.

The bill transfers the current Office of Grant Procurement, Coordination and Management in the Department of Administration to the governor’s office, and renames it the “Office of Federal Assistance.” It requires that the office create and maintain a state plan for maximizing federal grants and assistance, and creates a grant matching program funded by proceeds from the state’s Abandoned Property Trust Account.

Protecting wage and salary history

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee passed out a bill sponsored by Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) that would prohibit employers from inquiring about a job applicant’s wage or salary history.

Amendments attached to SB293 included a section allowing anyone who believes they were discriminated against by an inquiry into salary history to request a right-to-sue notice and a requirement for employers to disclose salary range or wage rate to an applicant. 

The amendment also removed a provision stipulating that applicants can voluntarily disclose their wage or salary history, and employers are not prohibited from using the information to determine pay rate.

Tobacco and vapor products

Members of the Assembly Revenue committee voted unanimously to approve Republican Assemblyman Greg Hafen’s AB360, which would require any seller of tobacco or vapor products “utilize age-verification technology at the point of sale” to ensure that any buyers are over the age of 21.

The bill, which was substantially amended from its original version, wouldn’t require age verification for anyone who appears to be over the age of 40 and would impose a $100 civil penalty for violators.

Bill banning declawing cats, requiring cage-free eggs advance

Members of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee voted to advance legislation on Friday that would ban the declawing of cats, and require all eggs sold in Nevada be cage-free starting in 2024.

AB209, sponsored by Assemblywoman Susie Martinez, would generally ban the practice of surgically removing a cat’s claws, unless deemed medically necessary. An amendment to the bill removes a requirement that a licensed veterinarian who declaws a cat provide a written statement to the state veterinary board and impose civil penalties for those that fail to do so.

Members of the committee voted along party lines to approve AB399, which requires any chicken eggs sold in the state come from chickens living in cage-free housing systems, with various civil penalties for farm owners found in violation.

Land grant institutions

The Senate Education Committee passed SB287, sponsored by Sen. Dallis Harris (D-Las Vegas), which would designate UNR, UNLV and the Desert Research Institute as land grant institutions. 

The bill was amended to require that the chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education develop a plan to manage the resources of the state land grant institutions and the Board of Regents to approve the plan. The amendment stipulates that the plan be submitted to the Legislative Counsel Bureau and the governor by Feb. 1, 2023. 

Supporters of the bill hailed it as a way to bring more federal dollars and investment to Nevada’s universities, but opponents worry that the bill would reduce UNR’s Cooperative Extension funding, which is a partnership between federal, state and county governments.

If passed, the bill would go into effect on July 1, 2021.

Addressing sexual misconduct in higher education

Democratic Sen. Melanie Scheible’s SB347, a bill aimed at helping victims of sexual misconduct and improving reporting requirements and prevention programming in higher education institutions, also passed out of the Senate Education Committee.

As amended, the bill would authorize the Board of Regents to conduct a sexual misconduct survey every two years. It would also allow the board to require institutions to include trauma-informed, LGBTQ and gender inclusive programming surrounding sexual misconduct and provide annual reporting of sexual misconduct incidents, among other changes.

The bill passed along party lines with Republicans voting in opposition, citing concerns over lack of clarity around terms such as sexual misconduct and sexual violence and advocating for sexual misconduct prevention efforts in early education.

Before he voted to pass the bill through committee, Sen. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas) said that though there are still some kinks to work out, reform is needed.

“Too many times have my friends and classmates been devastated from the treatment of student conduct officials when dealing with their sexual assault case,” he said. “I am supportive of this bill and I hope that any remaining issues [with the bill] can be solved through this process.” 

THURSDAY

Permanent expanded mail-in voting

In a contentious vote, members of the Assembly Legislative Operations and Election Committee voted Thursday to approve AB321, the bill from Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) making expanded mail-in voting similar to the 2020 election a permanent feature of Nevada elections going forward.

The measure included several proposed amendments that were previewed during the bill’s first hearing last week, including mandating a minimum number of in-person voting locations, setting deadlines on mail ballots for new voters and allowing for uninterrupted online voter registration all the way through election day.

Assemblyman Glen Leavitt (R-Boulder City) said he was appreciative that the amendment addressed some of the “concerns of constitutions,” but still planned to vote against the bill.

That irked Frierson, who said the amendment was crafted to address concerns from Republicans in the Assembly and that “until recent cycles, (it had) been customary to make concessions and make good bills better and make bills that you don't agree with less bad.”

“If someone's a no, then be a no, and don't list out things that are the problems, if those problems get addressed and it’s still a no,” he said. “I think that AB321 goes a long way in addressing both constituent concerns concerns we received via email and concerns expressed by members of this body.”

Police ticket quotas

Police agencies in Nevada generally maintain that they do not set quotas for tickets or arrests for their officers, although some people in a recent hearing on AB186 said there’s widespread suspicion that police are judged by departments on being prolific ticket-writers.

Democratic Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen’s (D-Las Vegas) bill banning quotas passed from the Assembly Government Affairs Committee on Tuesday. Although it still prohibits law enforcement agencies from ordering, requiring or mandating a specific number of citations or arrests, or from considering how much ticket revenue a police officer is generating in a performance revenue, the amended version of the bill now allows agencies to “suggest” a certain number of citations an officer should be making.

Proponents of the bill said police should be spending time on activities in the community that are not punitive. But law enforcement agencies cautioned that if the bill was too stringent, they may not have a way to address officers who are simply not doing their work and are slacking on the job. 

Additional marijuana licenses

Marijuana companies that did not win permits to open a dispensary in a contentious 2018 licensing round initially sought to double their licenses through Democratic Sen. Dallas Harris’ bill SB235. But groups including the Nevada Dispensary Association strongly opposed the concept, saying that the industry — which includes 81 dispensaries — would be destabilized if a proposed amendment took effect and added up to 110 new marijuana stores.

The bill that passed out of the Senate Revenue and Economic Development Committee on Tuesday no longer seeks to grant additional licenses to those who previously did not win them. Instead, it seeks to take steps such as creating a single, streamlined marijuana dispensary license rather than requiring stores to have both a recreational and medical store license.

But committee members raised the concern that creating a consolidated license for marijuana stores would halve the revenue that the state brings in from dispensary licenses. While the bill lives for another day, lawmakers said they had reservations about it and wanted to explore how to avoid a precipitous drop in revenue.

Tiger King bill

Nevadans will be banned from keeping, breeding, importing or selling a dangerous wild animal unless they fall in a certain category such as maintaining a zoo or being a veterinarian under Democratic Sen. James Ohrenschall’s SB344, which passed from the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.

The measure, nicknamed the “Tiger King bill” after the Netflix series about tiger collector Joe Exotic, grandfathers in people who already own the animals. People could keep any exotic pets they had as of July 1, 2021. 

An amendment also clarifies that casinos and the film industry would be exempt from the bill’s provisions. Las Vegas entertainers who use live animals in their shows were some of the most prominent opponents of the bill during an earlier hearing.

Marriage licenses

A fee on marriage licenses that supports services for victims of domestic and sexual violence would increase from $25 to $50 under a bill passed Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

SB177, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Julia Ratti, seeks to shore up funding for victim services that has suffered with the decline of marriages, especially during the pandemic.

Republican Sen. Ira Hansen forcefully opposed the bill, arguing that higher fees would discourage marriage, and cited a study drawing a correlation between marriage and a lower risk of domestic abuse. And Republican Sen. James Settelmeyer asked why federal aid funds are not being used to bolster the services.

Ratti said the marriage certificate funding stream is a stable way to address the issue, rather than the one-shot help that federal funding represents. She also said that putting fees on divorce certificates was not a workable alternative because there are significantly fewer divorces than marriages, and often people don’t have enough money to get a divorce.

Top down voter registration system

Members of the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee voted to approve AB422 on Thursday, which requires the secretary of state’s office to begin implementing a top-down voter registration system. The bill was amended to push the implementation date back to 2024, and require the secretary of state’s office to provide biannual updates on the project’s progress.

‘Tiger King’ bill draws criticism from exotic animal owners

Legislation banning possession of dangerous wild animals failed in 2017 and in 2019, but it’s back this session, and has a new nickname —  the “Tiger King” bill.

The Netflix series of the same name garnered viral success in portraying the life of Joe Exotic, a big cat collector based in Oklahoma who was convicted of killing five tigers and selling and trafficking other wild animal species.

“Although it wasn't the show's intent, it did raise awareness about the plight of captive big cats and expose the hidden suffering associated with a practice called cub petting,” Jeff Dixon, Nevada state director for the Humane Society, said during a Thursday hearing of the bill. “It also highlighted why SB344 is the least that Nevada can do to help address this issue.”

The bill, SB344, is sponsored by Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas) and would prohibit a person from importing, possessing, selling, transferring or breeding dangerous wild animals — a classification that includes elephants, non-human primates, bears, tigers and other big cats. Certain groups would be exempt from the ban, though, such as licensed veterinarians, law enforcement, animal control, the Department of Wildlife and entities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which is a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of zoos.

Proponents of the bill argued that it would help protect the community from the dangers of exotic animals, including both physical attacks and the spread of disease, as well as protect the animals themselves from potentially unsafe living conditions. And Ohrenschall noted that there are 20 other states with “comprehensive bans” on the ownership of dangerous wild animals.

But the bill received significant backlash from exotic pet owners and from entities accredited by a different wildlife management nonprofit, the Zoological Association of America. The Humane Society and other animal advocate groups have been critical of the ZAA’s more lenient policies in the past.

“This is a giant witch hunt to try to find an excuse to shut down the zoo, because this bill really isn't about protecting the public or protecting the animals,” said Tim Stoffel, of the Sierra Safari Zoo in Reno, which advertises itself as the state’s largest zoo with 50 different species. “It's about finding another way to eliminate these animals from the human population.”

The bill also received opposition from some Las Vegas entertainers who use animals in their shows, though one of the bill’s presenters, former Republican Sen. Warren Hardy, said he would be working with stakeholders in the state’s gaming and entertainment industries to ensure “good actors” from those groups are not affected by the bill.

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.

Nevada lawmakers discuss abolishing death penalty for first time since ill-fated 2017 effort

The Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City, Nevada

Four years after a proposal to abolish the death penalty in Nevada had its first and last hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, a similar bill — with similarly uncertain prospects — came before the same committee Wednesday for a lengthy and emotional discussion.

Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) presented AB395, which would abolish the death penalty in Nevada and convert all existing death sentences to life in prison without parole. Before speakers gave at-times graphic accounts of crimes committed by people sentenced to death, he urged lawmakers to weigh the drier aspects of the debate: how much the process costs, the likelihood of errors, and whether the law is applied unevenly across regions.

“This is going to be an emotional, difficult hearing. You may be brought to tears by some of the testimony,” Yeager said. “But even in the midst of sharing that pain, we need to come together as Nevadans to evaluate whether the death penalty is working, and whether it should remain as part of Nevada's justice system.”

New dynamics

Nevada is one of 24 states that have the death penalty — 23 states have abolished it and another three have governor-imposed moratoriums, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Last week, Virginia became the latest state to end the practice.

Two major variables for the bill’s future are whether a death penalty ban can survive in the Senate, where two prosecutors hold key leadership positions at the head of the entire Senate and the Senate Judiciary Committee and have the power to kill the bill, and whether Gov. Steve Sisolak would sign such a bill if it makes it to his desk.

“There are a lot of differing opinions on that. Personally, it’s something that I’m open [to] hearing and having a discussion,” Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), who is a prosecutor, recently told The Associated Press.

Sisolak has previously expressed opposition to the death penalty, but during his 2018 campaign, clarified that he would support it for extreme cases. Sisolak spokeswoman Meghin Delaney was noncommittal when asked about his position on the issue in early February.

“As is the case with all other bills or bill drafts going through the legislative process, the governor will review and evaluate any legislation that may come before him,” she said.

Since Nevada last had an open hearing on the issue in 2017 and that bill died in committee, the state came close to putting to death an inmate — Scott Dozier — but the execution was called off amid a legal battle over whether the state could use certain execution drugs. Dozier died by suicide in early 2019.

Although a 2017 poll showed most Nevadans firmly oppose the death penalty, a new poll released this year by anti-death penalty activists, which phrased its questions differently, showed Nevadans narrowly oppose the death penalty by a split within the margin of error. 

Another death row inmate is now heading toward a possible execution. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported last week that Clark County prosecutors are planning to seek a warrant of execution in coming weeks for Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people and injuring a fifth in a Las Vegas grocery store in 1999.

While Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said the development, just as lawmakers are mulling the issue, is “coincidental,” he added that “I think the timing is good.” 

“Our legislative leaders should recognize that there are some people who commit such heinous acts, whether it be the particular type of murder or the number of people killed, that this community has long felt should receive the death penalty,” he said, according to the newspaper.

Some critics have said the timing suggests prosecutors are using Floyd's life as part of a political play. Yeager said he doesn’t think the case playing out in the background will change the discussion in a meaningful way.

“It doesn't affect, sort of, my perspective on things … it's a policy decision, apart from any cases that might be out there, apart from any ongoing litigation,” he said. “Can't really control what else is going on.”

The death penalty debate

One of proponents’ main arguments is that in spite of the costs of pursuing the death penalty and following through with appeals that can span decades, the state rarely enacts the punishment. The most recent execution was 15 years ago, in 2006.

There have been 161 people sentenced to death in Nevada since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and only 12 executions — 11 of which were “volunteers” who chose to forego appeal rights.

“The point is, we don't execute anybody, even when a death sentence is imposed,” said Scott Coffee, a public defender. “But the money is spent.”

Tom Viloria, a Reno criminal defense attorney who was formerly a prosecutor, testified that he switched from supporting to opposing capital punishment after seeing how much knowledge of a case and decision-making power is concentrated in an individual lead prosecutor. He said decisions to seek the death penalty can be arbitrary and motivated by a prosecutor’s desire for “notoriety, or just a general reputation of being a hard-nosed, bulldog prosecutor as they advanced through their career.”

Family members affected by capital punishment also weighed in to support abolition, including Cynthia Portaro, whose son Brandon Hill was killed in 2011 in Las Vegas. She argued that the drawn-on proceedings of a death penalty case is “just too much on a family to have to handle,” and that families experience the same void and lack of closure whether the penalty is execution or life imprisonment.

But prosecutors held the line on keeping the death penalty an option. Wolfson said his stance has been reinforced by mass shootings, including the October 1 shooting in Las Vegas, in which the shooter killed himself shortly after firing on a concert and left 60 people dead.

"If the appropriate punishment for a single murder is life without parole, how do you punish a person who commits multiple murders?” he said. “Should we punish someone who kills one person the same as someone who kills two, 10, or 60? I say no."

Lawmakers also heard from Jennifer Otremba, who described the murder of her 15-year-old daughter Alyssa in 2011 near her Las Vegas home. Javier Righetti, who was 19 at the time of the killing, was given a death sentence in 2017.

“He did not consider Alyssa’s life. Why should his life be considered?” Jennifer Otremba said. “I waited five and a half years for justice for my daughter, and if I have to continue to fight politicians for the rest of my life to ensure that justice is served, then I will do that.”

Another death penalty abolition bill, Democratic Sen. James Ohrenschall’s SB228, takes a more moderate approach by banning capital punishment for crimes committed in the future, but letting previous death sentences stand. It has not yet had a hearing.

Above all, proponents are urging lawmakers to do away with an “eye for an eye” mentality. Jodi Hocking, founder of a group called Return Strong for families of people who are incarcerated, said she’s been more convinced that executions need to end because of conversations she has each Sunday with inmates who are waiting to be put to death. She quoted Sister Helen Prejean, and anti-death penalty advocate, in her testimony.

“If we believe that murder is wrong and not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just for individuals, but for governments as well,” she said.

Wednesday’s was the first hearing for the bill. The committee did not vote on the measure.