Sisolak plans to reconstitute mining oversight board that stopped meeting in 2015

Trucks at mine site.

Gov. Steve Sisolak plans to revive a mining oversight board — with the power to request audits, review regulations, call witnesses and subpoena documents — after state officials let the commission quietly wither in the six years since it held its last recorded meeting. 

In 2011, the Legislature approved the Mining Oversight and Accountability Commission with a bipartisan vote. But the board, meant to function similarly to the Gaming Commission, never fully got off the ground, even when it had a quorum. The board, housed in the Department of Taxation, lacked resources, former board members told The Nevada Independent last year. 

Sisolak’s office confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the governor plans to make five appointments to the seven-member panel with the intention of restarting meetings. 

Under the statute governing the commission, legislative leaders from both parties are required to submit recommendations for members to the governor’s office. The governor must choose five members from among those selections, and he can appoint two members of his own choosing. Only two members of the commission are allowed to have a connection to the mining industry. 

Sisolak plans to appoint Jerry Pfarr, a former vice president with Newmont, and Anthony Ruiz, a  senior adviser of government relations and community affairs for Nevada State College. 

Based on recommendations from Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), Sisolak also plans to appoint Jose Witt, executive director of the Southern Nevada Conservancy, and Pam Harrington, a field coordinator with Trout Unlimited who is based in northeastern Nevada, where the state’s largest mining entity, Nevada Gold Mines, operates large mines and ranches.

Sisolak’s fifth appointment, recommended by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), will be Melissa Clary, the office confirmed. Former Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed Clary to the commission in January 2018, but her term expired without her attending a single meeting.

The governor’s office is still working with legislative leaders on the final two appointments.

It is unclear how the still relatively new commission will function and what oversight it will provide an industry that carries significant influence throughout state government. Legislators have discussed, on several occasions, doing away with the board, but mining watchdog groups have long argued that there is still a role for the commission to discuss issues with the industry. 

Most of the state’s mines operate outside of Nevada’s large metropolitan areas, but they have a significant influence in the state’s rural economy, workforce and natural resources. Reviving the commission comes as state policymakers from both parties are actively pushing for Nevada to become a key destination for mining the critical metals, including lithium, needed in the supply chain for electric vehicles and other technologies that could help address climate change. 

In 2021, the Fraser Institute, a Canadian public policy organization, ranked Nevada as the most attractive place in the world for mining investment. The report ranked nearly 80 jurisdictions based on their geologic potential and whether government policies encourage investment.

Lawmakers approve $700 million in federal aid for schools, unemployment; special session may be needed

Lawmakers began appropriating the state’s share of $2.7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) general aid on Wednesday, approving disbursements totaling more than $600 million to pay back unemployment loans, bolster K-12 education funding and upgrade the state’s unemployment system.

They also learned that an additional $1.1 billion of unallocated ARP funds will need to be appropriated by the Legislature in the regular legislative session in 2023 or a special session.

During a Wednesday meeting of the Interim Finance Committee, representatives of the Governor’s Office of Finance told legislators that the state transferred more than $1 billion in ARP funds — roughly 16 percent of the ARP dollars received by Nevada — to the state general fund last week to backfill revenue lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prompted by a question from Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno), budget analyst Tiffany Greenameyer confirmed that any allocations of those funds will have to be approved by the full Legislature and cannot be approved by the interim committee alone, because the money is unappropriated within the state’s general fund.

That means any spending of those $1.1 billion in general fund dollars will need to happen through a special session or in the next regular legislative session in 2023. In June, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) told The Nevada Independent he was “not entirely sure” lawmakers would be able to spend the federal relief dollars without a special session. Lawmakers already expect a special session this fall to complete the redistricting process ahead of the 2022 elections. 

The money from the ARP transfer to the general fund is less restricted than the roughly $900 million to $1 billion remaining in the coffers of the governor’s office. However, the money has restrictions that other general fund dollars do not, including that it cannot be placed into the state’s so-called Rainy Day Fund, according to guidance from the U.S. Treasury.

The news came as members of the committee approved the first major spending of the state’s $2.7 billion in ARP general aid, including allocating $66.3 million for job restorations, more than $300 million to repay federal loans tapped to sustain unemployment benefits, $200 million to address learning loss in K-12 schools and $54 million to modernize the state unemployment system. Most of those spending decisions were approved by legislators at the end of the 120-day legislative session, which adjourned in June.

Initial spending of the federal dollars comes after the group accepted the state’s full $2.7 billion share of ARP funds at its last meeting in June. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Joe Biden in March actually allocated $6.7 billion to Nevada, but set aside some of those dollars for the state and large municipalities for broader use. 

Other dollars coming to the state have more restrictive purposes, such as a $164,000 allocation for paratransit, which is a public transit service for people who have disabilities, and those dollars are granted to specific agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services.

State leaders, including Treasurer Zach Conine and Gov. Steve Sisolak, are embarking on a listening tour over the next two months to gather input on spending the state’s share of funding. Lawmakers nonetheless allocated roughly a quarter of that money at Wednesday’s meeting.

Members of the committee also approved a nearly $800,000 contract with Las Vegas-based public relations firm Purdue Marion, which is helping gather information and assist with community engagement on the state’s listening tour.

As the state continues to receive ideas for spending federal relief dollars, Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), who chairs the interim committee, said lawmakers will be closely following the conversations that happen on the tour.

“This committee is going to be very, very interested in keeping an eye on and understanding and participating in that process as we move forward,” Brooks said.

During Wednesday’s meeting, lawmakers also moved to fulfill several spending requirements established by bills passed during the 2021 legislative session.

The committee approved $373 million in spending to address the priorities listed in SB461, including:

  • $335 million to repay loans borrowed from the federal government to sustain the state’s unemployment fund
  • $15.8 million to address the COVID-19 public health emergency, including bolstering mental health and substance abuse treatment services
  • $7.6 million to combat food insecurity
  • $6 million to augment health care services
  • $5 million for the Nevada ABLE Savings Program
  • $4 million for a statewide expansion of the Dean’s Future Scholars Program at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The bill listed backfilling lost revenue as the first priority for spending general aid dollars from the ARP, a condition that was addressed through last week’s transfer.

The committee also allocated funds to fulfill the provisions of AB495, which called for $200 million in ARP funds for the Department of Education to address learning loss in K-12 schools and $15 million to support charter schools, and AB484, which authorizes the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) to use $54 million in federal ARP funds to modernize the state’s outdated unemployment insurance system.

The group of lawmakers also approved a series of other allocations and federal grant applications that total roughly $350 million in ARP funds, including $222 million in ARP Child Care Stabilization grant funds to support families and child care providers and more than $17 million in block grant funds to address the effects of the pandemic on mental illness and substance abuse disorders.

Funding for education

Members of the committee approved several allocations of ARP funds for K-12 education totaling nearly $300 million, including $200 million in state general aid dollars for the Department of Education to address learning loss experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in accordance with AB495.

Other approved allocations provide the department with ARP funds directly from the federal government, including $18.6 million to support the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

“These funds are intended to support early intervention and special education services for infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities and their families,” Nevada Superintendent Jhone Ebert told lawmakers on Wednesday.

The committee also held extended discussions on an allocation of $8 million in ARP Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to support teacher projects submitted through the DonorsChoose website. DonorsChoose is a nonprofit that allows people to donate directly to classroom projects that are requested by public school teachers.

After multiple members of the committee asked questions about how the department will ensure teachers are aware of the program, Ebert noted some of the ongoing discussions around the program and said that nine Nevada school districts already have staff that support DonorsChoose by helping teachers create their project requests.

“All of [the] 17 superintendents, as well as the State Public Charter School Authority, are well aware of this program,” Ebert said. “We were talking about this project and … getting these funds directly to classroom teachers who have endured so much with this shift. And they know what their students need. They're the ones that are closest to our students.”

The state charter school authority also received a significant boost from Wednesday’s meeting. As part of AB495, the agency was allocated $15 million to address learning loss from the pandemic, a provision that was requested by Republican lawmakers, and the agency will receive an additional $53.5 million to address pandemic-related learning disruptions, through a transfer of ARP funds from the Department of Education.

Funding for child care

As Nevada child care providers deal with staffing shortages and a lack of child care options remains a barrier to economic recovery, lawmakers approved an allocation of $222.4 million in ARP Child Care Stabilization grant funds to provide help to families and care providers in Nevada, by expanding the state’s child care capacity and supporting the industry’s workforce.

“One of the biggest roadblocks to recovery and expansion of our economy is child care,” Brooks said. “I do not see how we make a recovery, unless we really look at child care, and what that does to Nevada working families.”

The majority of the funds (roughly $201 million) will be administered through grants directly given to care providers, such as The Children’s Cabinet, a nonprofit based in Northern Nevada that provides free services to children and youth. Solicitation of applications for those grants will begin within the next couple of months.

“We're utilizing our child care resource and referral partners, The Children's Cabinet and the Urban League, to disseminate the funds directly to eligible child care providers,” Social Services Chief Christell Askew told lawmakers. “As we continue to develop our capacity building projects, our plan is to target underserved populations and childcare deserts.”

The grant funds also include nearly $13 million for workforce recruitment and retention and more than $4 million for family support resources. During the meeting, Brooks noted that the recruitment and retention strategies will involve direct payments to registered child care staff as an incentive for their work.

With the program set to send hundreds of millions out the door to aid the state’s child care providers, Brooks raised questions about ensuring there is accountability and transparency with the program’s spending.

And though discussions about transparency were limited, the funding allocation was passed with a requirement for the welfare division to provide quarterly status reports to the committee on the expenditures of the grant funds.

Poll: Majority of Nevada voters in favor of moving from caucuses to primary elections

A recent poll of roughly 800 registered Nevada voters found that a majority of respondents are in favor of political parties using primary elections, rather than caucuses, to select a presidential nominee.

The results of the Nevada Public Opinion Pulse poll conducted by OH Predictive Insights, which recently polled Nevada voters about Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, comes less than two months after state lawmakers passed AB126. The bill transitions the state to a presidential primary system and moves Nevada into first place in the presidential primary calendar, pending approval from the national parties.

The results of the poll, conducted through an online survey from July 6 to July 11, show that 52 percent of the 783 respondents believe Nevada should “use primaries when selecting a nominee for president.” Only 16 percent of people polled supported the continued use of caucuses, while 32 percent had no opinion. The poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

Primaries are run by state and local governments, and voting happens through secret ballot, often using voting machines. Caucuses, which are typically private meetings run by political parties, are more freewheeling, sometimes hours-long events wherein voters physically gather into groups in rooms to express their support for a candidate and often try to persuade other participants to choose their candidate.

In 2020, Nevada was one of only five states to hold either a Democratic or Republican caucus.

“We saw that … most Nevadans are ready to move away from caucuses and to primaries,” Mike Noble, the chief pollster for OH Predictive Insights, said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “And it's all cross-party support, which is interesting given the hyper-polarization that's going on between the two parties.”

The poll shows that support for primaries was concentrated among voters registered with a major party. Fifty-nine percent of those registered as Republicans and 53 percent of those registered as Democrats supported the use of primaries, while 43 percent of the respondents registered as independents expressed support for primaries. Forty-one percent of independent voters, who do not participate in party-specific caucuses and primaries, had no opinion.

The bill switching Nevada to a primary system passed out of the Assembly on a 30-11 vote and out of the Senate on a 15-6 vote, with all Democrats and a few Republican lawmakers supporting the measure in each house. 

In the poll from OH Predictive Insights, which conducts public opinion surveys in Arizona and Nevada and received a “B/C” grade in FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings, nearly half of respondents showed a misunderstanding or lack of understanding of the electoral systems.

Registered Nevada voters were first asked: “Thinking about how parties select their nominees for president, what do the terms ‘caucus’ and ‘primary’ mean?” Fifty-five percent of respondents selected the correct definitions of caucus and primary, while 45 percent were incorrect or unsure about the differences between the two terms.

The second poll question defined the terms for respondents, describing a caucus as “a system of local gatherings where voters decide which candidate to support” and a primary as “a statewide voting process in which voters cast secret ballots for their preferred candidates.” The poll then asked: “Should Nevada continue to use caucuses or should it use primaries when selecting a nominee for President?”

Respondents ages 55 and older most commonly supported a transition to the primary system, as 64 percent of that group favored a switch, compared to 42 percent of respondents in the ages 18 to 54 group.

Though Nevada’s Republican Party held a presidential primary election in March 1996, the last presidential preference primary elections held statewide in Nevada were conducted in 1980 — years before those in the 18 to 54 age group were born or old enough to vote.

Sisolak signed AB126 into law on June 11, and the measure sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) is set to take effect in 2022. In 2024, Nevada will hold its first statewide presidential primaries in more than 40 years.

“It seems like they're … going in the right direction with moving away from caucuses to primaries because clearly the Nevada electorate agrees with that across party lines,” Noble said.

Mining oversight board still without members one year after Sisolak said he planned to make appointments

Throughout the year, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office sends out press releases that include a long list of recent appointments to state boards, commissions and agencies. In June, the Democratic governor made 78 appointments. The month before, he made 31 appointments. 

Missing from those lists: The Mining Oversight and Accountability Commission.

The mining oversight board, set up by the Legislature in 2011 and modeled after the Gaming Commission, held its last recorded meeting in December 2015. Since then, it has struggled to maintain a quorum, and today, all seven board seats on the commission are vacant.

In February 2020, a Sisolak spokesperson told The Nevada Independent that the governor was working on making appointments, a responsibility shared with legislative leaders. But more than one year later, Sisolak has not made any new appointments to a commission that progressive members of his party have advocated for and the Legislature approved in a bipartisan vote. 

It’s unclear why Sisolak has not made appointments, but in a statement, the governor’s office appeared to attribute the slow process to the pandemic and delays from legislative leaders. 

As the board has withered with no members, lawmakers and state officials have grappled with what to do. Some have questioned whether the commission, housed under the Department of Taxation, should be dissolved or restructured. Mining watchdog groups argue that there is still a role for a broad mining oversight board that could serve as a forum to discuss issues involving the industry. 

Despite being housed in the state’s tax department, the oversight board had a broader statutory reach than a narrow focus on fiscal policy. The law gives the board the authority to probe many aspects of mining, reviewing regulations for operations, safety and environmental impacts. The commission further has the power to request audits, call witnesses and subpoena documents. 

The law also required state agencies responsible for regulating mining, including the Division of Industrial Relations and the Division of Environmental Protection, to submit reports to the board. 

But unlike the Gaming Commission, the board did not have the authority to levy penalties. And in reality, even when the commission had a quorum, it lacked the resources and staffing to do much more than take testimony and register public comment, former board members have said. 

The governor’s office did not respond to a written question about whether Sisolak supports efforts to overhaul the board’s structure. The office also did not elaborate on its timeline for appointments or whether Sisolak is concerned about having vacancies on the commission.

Gov. Steve Sisolak speaks at a roundtable discussion with reporters about the 2021 session in Carson City on June 1, 2021. Photo by David Calvert.

A spokesperson for the governor, Meghin Delaney, said Sisolak plans to make appointments to the board, and she suggested that COVID-19 pandemic was partially responsible for the delay.

She said “the office was actively working to get the remainder of recommendations and confer with legislative leaders in February and early March of 2020. The global COVID-19 pandemic shifted all focus of this office to address the unprecedented and historic crisis facing our state.”

Sisolak appointed more than 200 people to commissions, boards and agencies between August and December, at the height of the pandemic, according to a review of public announcements.

Questions about the board’s future come as Nevada mining companies are looking to capitalize on efforts to expand domestic mining for critical minerals, the metals necessary to build electric cars and lithium batteries, both important technologies for transitioning away from fossil fuels.

Sisolak touted Nevada’s lithium potential in his State of the State speech earlier this year, and his administration gave tax breaks to a high-profile lithium project near Winnemucca that has prompted concerns from local residents and Native American tribes in the Great Basin. 

“Policies to rapidly deploy new technologies are currently calling for increased mining in a big way,” said John Hadder, who directs Great Basin Resource Watch, a mining watchdog group that supports the oversight board. “And I think we need to be prepared for that. What kind of permitting do we want to have in place to deal with what is, in some ways, almost a gold rush?"

Even as more exploration companies eye lithium, gold remains a major player in Nevada. A political action committee affiliated with Sisolak received half a million dollars from the state’s largest mining operation, Nevada Gold Mines, a joint-venture between Barrick and Newmont.

Another factor potentially delaying the appointment process is consultation with legislative leadership. Sisolak is not the only one responsible for appointments to the mining board. The law that created the oversight board requires the governor to confer with legislative leaders.

Under the law, top legislative leaders from both political parties are required to submit a list of recommendations to the governor. The governor must then choose five members from those recommendations. The governor is allowed to select the remaining two members on his own. 

Before making a final decision, the law requires the governor to consult with legislative leaders to ensure that “not more than two of the members have a direct or indirect financial interest in the mining industry or are related by blood or marriage to a person who has such an interest.”

Trucks at mine site.
A loader and haul truck at a Northern Nevada mine in April 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Delaney said the office had received applications from 11 individuals, including one person who withdrew. The governor’s office is also waiting on legislative recommendations. The office, she said, “has received some, but not all recommendations from legislative leaders.” 

The statement from the governor’s office said that Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) sent recommendations.

Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) has also sent a recommendation to Sisolak’s office, a staffer for the Nevada Republican Senate Caucus confirmed.

Delaney said the office had not received recommendations from Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus and was working with Cannizzaro “to make sure her recommendations still stand.”

Titus, in a statement, said neither Sisolak nor his office had contacted her.

“I have not heard from the governor’s office nor the governor,” Titus said. “At my request, the [Legislative Counsel Bureau] Director is looking into it. Assembly Republicans stand ready for collaborative apolitical governance for the benefit of those who call Nevada home.”

Even if the vacancies are filled, questions remain about the board’s efficacy. Former members of the commission told The Nevada Independent last year that although there was potential for the board to provide oversight, it lacked resources and never fully lived up to its name. 

Hadder said that’s not a reason to give up on it altogether. Still, he would also like to see some big changes. For one, he said he would like the board moved out of the Department of Taxation. 

As for why no one has been appointed to the board, Hadder said it’s a valid question. 

“I don’t know the answer to that,” he added.

From health care transparency to a public option, lawmakers largely drilled into non-pandemic health care issues in 2021 session

When lawmakers kicked off their 120-day legislative session in February, the state was still recovering from a brutal winter surge of COVID-19, which saw a thousand new cases of the virus reported across the state each day.

Lawmakers early in the session came forward with some modest proposals to address the pandemic — including a bill to give workers paid time off to get vaccinated — but it was unclear at that point what COVID-19’s trajectory in the Silver State would be. With an influx of federal financial support boosting the state’s pandemic response, it wasn’t always easy to tell where lawmakers could be of most help. With sessions slated for only 120 days every other year, it also wasn’t clear they could craft policy responsive enough to the ever-changing needs created by the pandemic.

Instead, lawmakers generally focused on a host of other important, but perhaps less high-profile, health care proposals, from legislation to support the provision of telehealth services in the state, which became all the more popular during the pandemic, to a bill that would provide for Medicaid coverage of community health workers. They also honed in on data transparency, hearing bills that would make changes to the state’s drug pricing transparency program and establish an all-payer claims database in an effort to better understand the health care landscape in the state.

Lawmakers also took up a last-minute bill to establish a state-managed public health insurance option in Nevada, the second-ever to be approved in the nation. Despite reservations from Republican lawmakers — and even from some Democrats — the Legislature introduced and approved the bill in just a little more than a month with some strong-arming by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), who spearheaded the legislation. 

Behind the scenes, there were frustrations, though, among health care lobbyists. Industry lobbyists, for instance, were caught off guard that Cannizzaro hadn’t involved them in the process of developing the public option bill and dropped the proposal on them in the final weeks of the session.

“I can tell you that when there are very challenging things that occur within health care, when you lock us all in a room, we tend to find solutions,” Tom Clark, lobbyist for the Nevada Association of Health Plans, said during the bill’s first hearing.

Bobbette Bond, policy director for the Culinary Health Fund, also said it was difficult to craft good policy in a legislative environment so heavily shaped by the pandemic. For much of the session, the legislative building was closed to the public and committee meetings were only able to be attended virtually.

“It was hard to get revisions made. It was hard to have good conversations about what could be done. It was hard to build stakeholders,” Bond said. “It was hard to communicate, and I think the policy suffered for that.”

Bond also expressed dismay in the two-thirds requirement for passing tax increases, on the grounds that it has prevented lawmakers from tackling more ambitious health care legislation. Because there isn’t more funding to go around, including to support health care, she said lawmakers have turned to putting mandates on industry.

“The mandates … end up substituting for actual public health policy,” Bond said.

The Culinary Health Fund, which is the health insurance arm of the politically powerful and Democratic-aligned Culinary Union, did, however, continue to play a significant role in shaping health care policy this session with Democrats remaining in control of both chambers of the Legislature. Other industry representatives, who often work collaboratively with Democratic lawmakers but more often align with Republicans on business priorities, had less of an upper hand.

Mike Hillerby, a longtime lobbyist on health care issues in the state, said Nevada loses “a lot of subtlety in the public policy debate” when the discussion is “driven by the relationship between a couple of unions and a couple of hospital chains.”

“That drives so much of what we do, and it's so contentious. Look at balance billing from 2019. Look at some of the stuff this time, and everything's driven by that. That's not indicative of the market and the rest of Nevada. That's not indicative of what's happening with providers and patients and payers in rural Nevada, in the Reno area, and yet so much of it is driven by that and that financial reality, that bargaining relationship, those contractual relationships,” Hillerby said. “We just lose a lot of the subtlety and the ability to make better decisions.”

Here’s a look at some of the health policies that passed this session and others that didn’t.

Gov. Steve Sisolak signed several pieces of public health-related legislation into law in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Public option

The highest-profile piece of health care legislation to pass this year, SB420 — Nevada’s public option bill — was introduced with just a little more than a month left in the legislative session by Cannizzaro, the Senate majority leader. Proponents were quiet about the legislation for the first couple of months of the session until Cannizzaro was asked by a reporter in mid-April about the proposal and health care lobbyists started receiving briefings from consultants on the concept.

The bill, which builds upon previous public option proposals introduced in Nevada in 2017 and 2019, aims to leverage the state’s purchasing power with Medicaid managed care organizations — private insurance companies that contract with the state to provide coverage to the state’s low-income population — to get insurers to also offer public option plans. The plans will resemble existing qualified health plans on the state’s health insurance exchange, though they will be required to be offered at a 5 percent markdown with the goal of reducing the plans’ premium costs by 15 percent over four years. The plans won’t be offered for sale on the exchange until 2026.

The proposal cleared both the Senate and Assembly on party line votes and was signed into law in early June by Gov. Steve Sisolak, making Nevada the second state in the nation after Washington to enact a state-based public health insurance option into law. Colorado became the third state to establish such a policy in mid-June.

Though the legislation was heavily opposed by the health insurance industry — with some groups running ads and sending mailers opposing the proposal — Cannizzaro muscled the bill through the Legislature as the clock counted down to the end of the 120-day session. The bill easily cleared the Senate — where Cannizzaro, as majority leader, controls which bills come to the floor — and Democratic leaders in the Assembly threw their support behind the bill shortly thereafter, setting aside concerns about whether the bill can accomplish its goals of improving health care access and affordability.

“It's not a secret I have been skeptical of this bill from the very beginning, but I've seen the amendments, and I have talked to a number of the different proponents of the bill and opponents of the bill on it,” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said in late May, shortly before allowing the bill to be voted out of her committee. “I feel much more comfortable knowing that, in the future, the people that are in this building now that do come back are well aware of what's going on, and I trust them to make the best decisions they can to protect the constituents of this state.”

In her remarks, Carlton was referring to the long runway the bill establishes before the public option actually goes into effect, leaving time for the state to conduct an actuarial study to figure out whether the bill actually accomplishes the goals it sets out to and two legislative session in 2023 and 2025 for lawmakers to make any tweaks to the policy as necessary.

Heather Korbulic, who as head of the state’s health insurance exchange will have a key role in shaping the policy’s implementation, has said she plans to bring stakeholders together to “outline the actuarial study and conduct a meaningful analysis of the public option as it relates to every aspect of health care throughout the state.” 

Richard Whitley, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said in an interview earlier this month that the public option isn’t “a single solution” but “does definitely enhance the opportunity for individuals to gain access to health care.”

“I think of this as an option for coverage,” Whitley said. “It definitely enhances that overall framework of health care coverage.”

Nuclear medicine technologist Vanessa Martinez, views scans at Lou Ruvo Center of Brain Health, on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Transparency and data efforts

For the last two legislative sessions, lawmakers have focused on prescription drug cost transparency, passing a first-in-the-nation diabetes drug transparency law in 2017 and expanding that law to include asthma drugs in 2019. This year, lawmakers built upon those transparency efforts by passing legislation requiring transparency from more portions of the health care industry.

This year, lawmakers approved a bill, SB40, to establish what’s known as an all-payer claims database — a state database of claims of medical, dental and pharmacy services provided in the state. The law requires all public and private insurers regulated under state law to submit their claims to the database and authorizes insurers governed by federal law — such as the Culinary Health Fund — to submit their claims to the database. A similar bill proposed during the 2019 legislative session failed to move forward in the final minutes of that session, though the concept was revived by the Patient Protection Commission, which brought SB40 forward this session.

The bill, however, required extensive work when it got to the Legislature, with state Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) taking the bill under her wing as chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and working with industry advocates — including the Nevada Association of Health Plans, the Nevada State Medical Association and the Nevada Hospital Association — to finalize the legislation.

“We knew the bill was going to pass, at some level ... so we wanted to make sure that the information that was going to be collected was accurate, was consistent with what was required in other states that had all-payer claims databases and also to learn from what those other states had done so we wouldn’t make the same mistakes,” Clark, the Nevada Association of Health Plans lobbyist, said. “Fortunately, Senator Ratti and others were good to work with and we’re comfortable with the way the bill passed.”

The legislation additionally makes data contained in the all-payer claims database confidential, meaning that it is not a public record or subject to subpoena, and specifies how the information contained in it can be disclosed. It can be shared in de-aggregated form to state or federal government entities, including the Nevada System of Higher Education, and any entity that submits data to the database. Anyone else looking to obtain the data can only receive it in aggregated form by submitting a request to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Lawmakers also built upon the diabetes and asthma drug transparency bills passed in 2017 and 2019, respectively, by expanding the universe of drugs the state imposes transparency requirements on. SB380, which was proposed by an interim committee created during the 2019 session to study prescription drug costs, requires the state to compile a list of prescription drugs with a list price that is more than $40 for a course of therapy that has undergone a 10 percent price increase in the preceding year or a 20 percent increase in the two prior years.

The legislation requires drug manufacturers to submit a report to the state explaining the reason for the price increase and explaining the factors that contributed to the price increase. Meanwhile, pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, the middlemen in the drug pricing process, are required to submit their own reports with certain data about the drugs, including rebates negotiated with manufacturers and the amount of the rebates retained by the PBM.

The state’s drug transparency program will also, for the first time, have funding behind it, utilizing dollars that have been collected in the form of fines paid by companies for not complying with the state’s drug transparency law. The Department of Health and Human Services put a $780,000 fiscal note on the bill to allow state health officials to transfer the existing drug transparency database to the state’s Enterprise Information Technology Services Division and hire a pharmacist and management analyst to manage the drug transparency program.

SB380 was, however, only one of two bills put forward by the interim prescription drug committee to pass this session. The other was SB396, which allows the state to establish intra- and interstate drug purchasing coalitions with private entities. 

The three bills that did not pass were:

  • SB201, which would have licensed pharmaceutical sales representatives
  • SB378, which would have required at least half of the health plans offered in the state by private insurers to provide prescription drug coverage with no deductible and a fixed copayment and limit the total amount of copayments insured individuals are required to pay in a year 
  • SB392, which would have licensed PBMs and created additional rules for how PBMs can operate.

Nick McGee, senior director of public affairs for PhRMA, the drug industry advocacy organization, in an email expressed disappointment that lawmakers pursued SB380 this session while not advancing the other proposals out of the interim committee. PhRMA did, however, in the end testify in neutral on SB380.

“We are disappointed that the legislature overlooked this opportunity to address patients’ concerns related to their ability to afford and access the medicines they need,” McGee said. “Instead, lawmakers pursued onerous reporting and unnecessary registration requirements that won’t do anything to help patients afford their medicines and fail to provide transparency into why insurers are shifting more and more costs on to patients.”

Bond, the policy director for the Culinary Health Fund, which played a key role in bringing the 2017 bill to fruition, described SB380 as a “step forward,” though she said the bill didn’t end up “as strong as we would have liked.”

“It’s incremental, and it’s progress,” she said.

Lawmakers did not advance SB171, sponsored by state Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City), which would have barred most insurance companies from implementing copayment accumulator programs for any drug for which there is not a less expensive alternative or generic drug. Such programs prevent drug manufacturer coupons from applying toward patients’ deductibles and maximum out-of-pocket costs.

The Legislature additionally made a budgetary change to boost transparency, approving a request from the Department of Health and Human Services to centralize its data analysis efforts within the office of Data Analytics within the Director’s Office, while the Patient Protection Commission, which is focusing on health care spending and costs, was transferred from the governor’s office to Director’s Office as well.

Whitley, the department’s director, framed the reshuffling as an effort to bring together disparate health data collection and analysis efforts, adding that the pandemic showed the kind of real-time data the department could provide, as in the case of its COVID-19 dashboard, among other dashboards it now maintains.

“Usually people go, ‘We need more money.” Well, in government sometimes what you need is organizational structure,” Whitley said. “Putting data analytics all in one unit in my office … was really because of seeing all of the benefits that were coming out of monitoring the pandemic. That really served to inform what we could be doing.”

The Legislature also made a significant change to the Patient Protection Commission this session, transforming it from a largely industry-focused body to one instead made up largely of non-profit health industry representatives and patient advocates. AB348, sponsored by Carlton, requires the commission be made up of:

  • two patient advocates
  • one for-profit health care provider
  • one registered nurse who practices as a nonprofit hospital
  • one physician or registered nurse who practices at a federally qualified health center 
  • one pharmacist not affiliated with any retail chain pharmacy, or a patient advocate
  • one public nonprofit hospital representative
  • one private nonprofit health insurer representative
  • one member with expertise advocating for the uninsured
  • one member with expertise advocating for people with special health care needs
  • one member who has expertise in health information technology and works with the Department of Health and Human Services
  • one representative of the general public.

The bill also makes the Patient Protection Commission the sole state agency responsible for administering and coordinating the state’s involvement in the Peterson-Milbank Program for Sustainable Health Care Costs, a program that provides technical assistance to states developing targets for statewide health care spending trends. 

Health care industry representatives have, however, chafed at the reduction — or in the case of the drug industry, removal — of their representation on the commission. McGee, from PhRMA, said the change “[undermines] the ability of the commission to provide a comprehensive perspective.”

But Bond, a commission member whose ability to serve will be unaffected by the policy shift, said the change would give patients and consumers more of a voice.

“I understand the concerns about losing representation from the industry, but I also believe that industry has other places where they get represented,” Bond said. “They have the Nevada Hospital Association, the pharmaceutical industry has PhRMA. They get well represented in their core arena. Patients really don't have a core arena they can go to.”

The Patient Protection Commission’s other bill this session, SB5, also was approved by lawmakers, making a number of changes to telehealth in the state. That bill also contains a data transparency component, requiring the Department of Health and Human Services, to the extent money is available, to establish a data dashboard allowing for the analysis of data relating to telehealth access.

Another big bill that tried to tackle health care costs this session, AB347, sponsored by Assemblyman David Orentlicher (D-Las Vegas), died without receiving a vote. The ambitious bill, among other provisions, proposed establishing a rate-setting commission “to cover reasonable costs of providing health care services” while ensuring providers “earn a fair and reasonable profit.” The bill also would have raised Medicaid payments to Medicare levels via a provider tax.

Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital staff gather in the emergency room area in Elko
Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital staff gather in the emergency room area in Elko on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Antitrust in health care

Lawmakers approved two antitrust in health care bills this session. The first one, AB47, requires parties to certain reportable health care or health carrier transactions to submit a notification to the attorney general with information about the transaction at least 30 days before it is finalized. Reportable transactions include material changes to the business or corporate structure of a group practice or health carrier that results in a group practice or health carrier providing 50 percent or more of services within a geographic market.

The bill, which was presented by the attorney general’s office, also prohibits employers from bringing court actions to restrict former employees from providing services to former customers or clients under certain circumstances and bars noncompete agreements from applying to employees that are paid on an hourly wage basis.

The bill attracted opposition from the Nevada Hospital Association and the Nevada State Medical Association. During a May hearing on the bill, Jesse Wadhams, a hospital association lobbyist, thanked the attorney general’s office for working with them on the bill but said the association still could not support the legislation.

“We believe the policy itself comes from a faulty premise,” Wadhams said. “We believe policies should promote more physicians, more access to care and more investment in the health care community.”

Another bill, SB329, requires hospitals to notify the Department of Health and Human Services of any merger, acquisition or similar transaction. It also requires physician group practices to report similar transactions if the practice represents at least 20 percent of the physicians in that specialty in a service area and if the practice represents the largest number of physicians of any practice in the transaction. The legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas) and pushed for by the Culinary Health Fund, requires the department to publish that information online and write an annual report on that information.

Another section of the bill allows the attorney general or other individuals to bring a civil action against a health care provider that “willfully” enters into or solicits a contract that bars insurance companies from steering insured individuals to certain health care providers, putting health care providers in tiers or otherwise restricting insurers. It also makes such an action, known as “anti-tiering” or “anti-steering,” a misdemeanor. (A final amendment to the bill reduced the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor.)

“I think this is one of the early steps in what will probably be a national trend,” Bond, of the Culinary Health Fund, said in an interview. “I think contract provisions are going to become more and more antitrust looking.”

The bill was opposed by the Nevada Hospital Association and individual Nevada hospital systems and hospitals.

“The technical elements of this and eliminating antitrust provisions by themselves are not the problem we have with this bill — it is making sure that it doesn’t impede the open contracting that occurs otherwise in this highly competitive environment,” Jim Wadhams, a lobbyist for the hospital association, said during a May hearing on the bill.

Tristian McArthur cares for an infant inside the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Sunrise Hospital on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Medicaid

In perhaps the most substantial victory for health care providers this session, lawmakers rolled back a 6 percent Medicaid rate decrease approved by the Legislature during a budget-slashing special session last summer.

Legislative fiscal analysts projected the move would restore about $300 million in Medicaid funding both in the current fiscal year and in the upcoming biennium, including about $110 million in general fund spending.

“Nevada faced an unprecedented state budget crisis,” Bill Welch, CEO of the Nevada Hospital Association, and Jaron Hildebrand, executive director of the Nevada State Medical Association, wrote in a letter to the governor in May. “The work you did alongside the Nevada Legislature to restore funding to hospitals and providers will be instrumental in safeguarding the health care available to many Nevadans.”

Lawmakers made a number of other changes to Medicaid services as well, providing for coverage of doula services in AB256 and community health workers in AB191. The public option bill, SB420, also contained several Medicaid provisions, including one section providing that pregnant women are considered presumptively eligible for Medicaid without submitting an application for enrollment and another prohibiting pregnant women who are otherwise eligible for Medicaid to be barred from coverage for not having resided in the United States long enough to qualify.

On the mental health front, SB154 requires the state to apply for a waiver to receive federal funding to cover substance use disorder and mental health treatment inside what are known as institutions of mental disease — or psychiatric hospitals or residential treatment facilities with more than 16 beds. Medicaid has long been barred from paying for care in such facilities, but states were recently given the ability to apply to the federal government to cover these services through Medicaid via a federal waiver.

Lawmakers also approved AB358, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), which will allow for a more seamless transition of incarcerated people to Medicaid upon release from prison. The bill requires a person’s Medicaid eligibility to only be suspended, rather than terminated, when they are incarcerated and specifies that individuals who were not previously on Medicaid should be allowed to apply for enrollment in the program up to six months before their scheduled release date. The bill also requires eligibility for and coverage under Medicaid to be reinstated as soon as possible upon an individual’s release.

In a major victory for families of children with autism, lawmakers passed SB96, which boosts reimbursement rates for autism services.

A member of the Nevada National Guard places a swab in a container after performing a COVID-19 test at the Orleans on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Public health

Lawmakers, by and large, did not spend much time tackling the COVID-19 pandemic head on during their legislative session, likely a byproduct of how rapidly the situation has evolved over the last six months.

Legislators did, however, approve SB209, sponsored by state Sen. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas), which requires employers to provide paid leave to employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and requires the Legislative Committee on Health Care to conduct a study during the 2021-2022 interim about the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and make recommendations to the governor and lawmakers for the next legislative session in 2023.

They also passed SB318, also sponsored by Doñate, requiring public health information provided by the state and local health districts to “take reasonable measures” to ensure that people with limited English proficiency have “meaningful and timely access to services to restrain the spread of COVID-19.” 

Beyond COVID, the Legislature passed a number of other public-health related measures this session, including, notably, establishing a public health resource office within the governor’s office through SB424, with the goal of taking a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to public health in the state. 

Lawmakers also approved SB461, which requires the state to disburse $20.9 million of American Rescue Plan dollars to specifically to address needs spotlighted by the public health emergency including “mental health treatment, substance use disorder treatment and other  behavioral health services, construction costs and other capital improvements in public facilities to meet COVID-19-related operational needs and expenses relating to establishing and enhancing public health data systems.”

The Legislature additionally passed a few tobacco-related pieces of legislation including AB59, sponsored by the attorney general’s office, officially raising the tobacco purchase age in the state to 21 — the federal Tobacco 21 law went into effect in December 2019 — and AB360, sponsored by Assemblyman Greg Hafen (R-Pahrump), which prohibits people from selling, distributing or offering to sell cigarettes or other tobacco products to a person under 40 without first conducting age verification. Additionally, SB460, the budget appropriations bill, allocates $5 million for vaping prevention activities.

Lawmakers also approved SB233, sponsored by state Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City), which appropriates $500,000 to the Nevada Health Services Corps, a state loan repayment program for physicians and other health practitioners aimed at encouraging providers to practice in underserved areas of the state. The Legislature also approved SB379, a health workforce data collection bill that proponents say is critical for the state’s health professional shortage area designation. 

“It’s kind of nerdy, wonky data stuff, but those designations are really critical for Nevada, for loan repayment, for health service corps, for [federally qualified health center] and community health center designation and reimbursement and all sorts of stuff,” said John Packham, co-director of the Nevada Health Workforce Research Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. “We just need better data, period, on the workforce.”

Vitality Unlimited provides substance abuse treatment in Elko
Vitality Unlimited provides substance abuse treatment in Elko. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Mental health

While mental health advocates have become accustomed to making slim gains each legislative session, Robin Reedy, executive director of NAMI Nevada, believes 2021 was a good session for mental health.

“For once, it’s a long list. It’s just so amazing,” Reedy said of the mental health bills that passed this session. “Everything has just been an uphill climb constantly … but this year, oh my God.”

In addition to SB154, mentioned above, key mental health bills passed this session hone in on mental health parity (AB181), implement the 9-8-8 National Suicide Prevention Hotline (SB390), bolster crisis stabilization services in the state (SB156) and remove stigmatizing language from state law referring to people with mental illness (AB421).

Lawmakers also approved bills put forward by the regional behavioral health policy boards established during the 2017 legislative session, including SB44, which aims to smooth the licensure process to boost the number of behavioral health providers in the state, and SB70, which makes changes to the state’s mental health crisis hold procedures.

Reedy attributed the increased focus on mental health this session to a “perfect storm of things coming together.”

“I think it's incredibly sad that it took a pandemic for people to actually look more at mental health — when everyone was going through some form of anxiety or depression from being isolated, from not knowing what the future held, from it being just really untenable, and everyone has different levels of acceptance of those things, and living through those things, different levels of resilience,” Reedy said. “Suddenly it's like, ‘Mental health.’ We've been working on this forever. Finally.”

But Reedy said there’s still a long way to go. For instance, she wishes that SB390, which authorizes the state to impose a surcharge on certain mobile communication services, IP-enabled voice services and landline telephone services to fund the 9-8-8 line, would have capped that charge at 50 cents instead of 35 cents. She believes had the session been a regular session and had mental health advocates been able to pack the committee room with patients, they would have been able to get that fee cap increased.

“I just don't think 35 cents is going to be enough … We’re 51st in the nation [for mental health],” Reedy said. “I know telecommunications does not want to pay to fill the hole, but that means crisis lines are going to be busy.”

A medical staff member prepares a COVID -19 vaccine during the Amazon employees Covid-19 vaccination event at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in North Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Other health care bills

In addition to reigning in drug pricing costs, lawmakers passed several bills making changes to how Nevadans can access certain kinds of prescription drugs. SB190, sponsored by Cannizzaro, will allow pharmacists to dispense certain kinds of hormonal birth control directly to patients. SB325, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden), similarly allowed pharmacists to dispense preventative HIV medication, including PrEP.

Other prescription-drug focused bills passed this session include AB178, a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Melissa Hardy (R-Henderson) requiring insurers to waive restrictions on the time period in which a prescription can be refilled during a state of emergency or disaster declaration, and AB177, a bill from Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) aiming to expand access to prescription drugs in people’s preferred language.

Lawmakers also passed a number of other health care related bills including:

  • SB275, sponsored by state Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), modernizes state laws on HIV by treating the virus the same way as other communicable diseases
  • SB342, sponsored by the Senate Education Committee, puts the legislative stamp of approval on a major partnership between the UNR School of Medicine and Renown Health
  • SB290, sponsored by state Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas), makes it easier for certain stage 3 and 4 cancer patients to receive prescription drug treatment by allowing them to apply for an exemption from step therapy, which requires patients to approve that certain drugs are ineffective before insurance will cover a higher-cost drug 
  • SB340, sponsored by state Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas), provides for the establishment of a home care employment standards board
  • SB251, sponsored by state Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno), requires primary care providers to conduct or refer patients for screening, genetic counseling and genetic testing in accordance with federal recommendations around BRCA genes, which influence someone’s chance of developing breast cancer

Several health care bills also died with the end of the legislative session, including AB351, which would have allowed terminally ill patients to self-administer life-ending medication, and AB387, a midwife licensure bill.

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.

Indy Q&A: Speaker Jason Frierson on the new mining tax, death penalty repeal and school funding

With the dust of the 2021 legislative session finally settled, few individuals played more of a prominent role in the outcomes of the session than Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas).

Frierson, who underwent treatment for prostate cancer in March, played a crucial role in negotiating the final mining tax package that won support from a broad swath of interest groups — not only the mining industry, but also progressive groups, the Clark County Education Association (CCEA), broader businesses interests and enough Republicans to clear the required two-thirds constitutional hurdle for a new tax increase.

The final negotiated package ensured that proposed mining tax constitutional changes and a pair of CCEA-backed tax initiatives will be withdrawn from the 2022 ballot — a win for both a mining industry that feared a large tax increase and Democratic lawmakers who were hesitant to appear on a potentially unfriendly midterm ballot with multiple tax increases.

In the middle of all of it was Frierson, who sponsored the mining tax bill. He gave more details on how the final “deal” came together in an interview with The Nevada Independent on Monday.

The Assembly leader also gave a rundown of enhanced K-12 education funding and what lawmakers want the Commission on School Funding to do in the interim, and all but declared another sales tax hike to help fund education off the table.

Frierson also gave more details on the demise of efforts to repeal the death penalty this session and why the Assembly advanced the measure. He also discussed when and if a special session on federal COVID relief funding may be called, and what his future in public office may hold — including potentially the position of Clark County district attorney.

The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.

How did “the deal” come together, from your perspective?

The mining deal reflected a tremendous amount of collaboration ... I think it was great that the industry came forward and represented being a willing payer, and a participant and wanting to do their fair share. And, of course, when the economy turned down and the value of gold went up, we recognized that we needed to take further steps to diversify our economy. 

I think that COVID certainly helped develop momentum to one resolution to invest in public education. There was obviously, out of our control, CCEA’s effort with a couple of ballot initiatives that I think brought more folks to the table. And then of course, last special session, both the Senate and Assembly resolutions that proposed to approach generating greater revenue from mining also provided motivation for folks to come to the table.

Those resolutions were designed to … put a measure before the people, because I think our legislative institution was tired of not making progress in that regard. And so it was up to them to come together and offer something that was an alternative. And they did just that.

How did you guys get to a place where even folks on the left were OK with this?

I met with progressives weekly, all session, but also met with the business community all session, I met with labor all session, I met with various stakeholder groups all session to hear from them. 

And I think across the board, while everyone had what they thought would be an ideal amount or a minimum, everyone also agreed that we needed to have meaningful movement towards increased revenue from mining for education. 

While we would have liked 200, 250 million, maybe even 300 million, these are all projections that aren't certain anyway. At the end of the day, when I'm at the door with voters, and I'm talking about having meaningful increases in contributions for public education, they're not going to split hairs over whether it's 170 million or 175 million. They wanted to see a meaningful contribution, and I think what we were able to accomplish did just that. 

It seems the structure was set, and then came negotiations about what concessions would be made. Can you tell us how that developed?

The first step was, what will it take to get the Democrats in the Assembly and the Senate across that finish line? If we don't have them, then it would be a lost cause. 

And then after that, we can start to talk about how we could get two or three Republicans across the finish line to support the cause and what it would take to get them there. 

Why did it happen so late?

I certainly would have preferred that it happened sooner. But again, legislation is the art of compromise. And so I don't know that we had Republican colleagues ready to give up a two-thirds vote. 

The Commission on School Funding calls for researching new revenue ideas. They came out with a report in April pointing to sales and property tax. What more do you want them to do?

What I don't think that they had the benefit of is knowledge that we were going to make a record investment in public education, that we were going to fast forward what was, by some studies, projecting periodic increases over a 10-year period. We made a record investment right off the bat, and I think that changed a lot of the approaches that were laid out. 

So we would like for them to continue to look at not only how much money we need, but other sources and other ways to get to that point. 

You have been public against raising the sales tax because of its regressive nature, but the other recommendation was the property tax. Are you calling on people to be studying that over this interim?

I'm calling on [the commission] to look at all options, and look at all options that do it not on the back of hardworking families.

Last interim was a difficult interim with COVID and our inability to meet in person, folks concerned about getting ill. We look forward to this upcoming interim; I think there's going to be a much more productive and traditional interim session where we can have those conversations, bounce ideas off of each other.

Is it safe to say that as long as your leader I mean, the sales tax is off the table?

I believe that increasing a sales tax in a state that already has a high sales tax is a regressive approach, and does the opposite of what we're talking about doing. 

I think that we're going to consider all options that make sense, so long as it doesn't do it on the backs of the folks that can sustain it the least.

You just finished this exercise of pulling all stakeholders together to get more education money, but the commission is calling for about $200 million more every year beyond where we're at. Is that daunting to you?

Well, first, I think that the $200 million per cycle mark was, again, before we made the unexpected $500 million investment in education, plus provide not only $170 million in new revenue, but $140 million of existing revenue dedicated expressly for education.

I think that we need to continue to work towards making increases in our support for public education. I think that it pays dividends in our workforce, and in the quality of our education. I think that increases the chances of more industries coming to Nevada when we improve investments in our public education system.

You put in a bill draft request before the session for a constitutional amendment that would have gotten rid of the two-thirds requirement if a tax went directly to K-12 education. Why did that concept not advance?

I think that legislation is the art of compromise. That was a reflection of the frustration that I've seen over the past decade or more of an unwillingness by a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to increase funding for public education. 

But we provided an alternative ... and I have never lost hope in finding bipartisan solutions. I have said, since I became Speaker, that I will always extend an olive branch across the aisle to try to get us where we need to go. And we were able to do that without putting another measure on the ballot.

Some of the groups that are very closely watching the funding formula are looking at how the base per pupil funding compares to what it was in legislatively approved 2019 levels. Do you feel confident that it's higher or lower than what it was in 2019? And how relevant do you think that question even is?

I think it's relevant. And I think whether or not the numbers, historically, that have reflected Nevada's investment in per pupil spending have been accurate, we have money outside of the base that was not taken into account. And so I believe that what we have right now is a more efficient and effective way of providing per pupil spending than the way that we've done it. 

So we've gotten rid of our old funding formula, we have changed our formula so that the money follows the student, and I believe we've done it in a way that makes it more challenging and more difficult to supplant versus supplement education funding. So I believe it is a smarter way to fund public education moving forward. 

We’re not done, this is just the beginning. For folks that think that we moved backwards, I just disagree. I think we moved forward in the structure of how we fund education, and provided alternatives that allow us to put additional dollars on top of that base funding.

What protections are there against the supplanting of the net proceeds of minerals tax, now that it is earmarked for education?

I think that the protections are a simpler and more transparent, straightforward way of funding public education, and a will of an electorate to do that. We have come together, and I think we recognize now that we cannot move backwards.

I think ... that's going to be the expectation of legislators moving forward is that we continue to make progress and that we don't move backwards. So it's accountability and transparency. But I think that we have collectively the will, in a bipartisan way, to continue to value public education.

Sitting here with the benefit of hindsight, is there is there anything that you would have done differently in terms of the death penalty repeal bill?

At the end of the day, my caucus believed that it was a priority. And as you saw, my entire caucus supported the cause. This isn't new, we've been talking about this for some time. And it's not because of the nature of our day jobs. I've been a public defender, I have been a deputy district attorney, and efforts previously have failed, regardless of which side of that issue in my day job we're on. 

But moving forward, we thought this year, with the COVID economic downturn and the challenges with our budget, that this was an appropriate time to reconsider whether or not that's a wise use of our public dollars. 

I think that what it showed is that we're not monolithic, we all have different concerns. And I think on that particular issue, there was a desire to have a much more thorough, broad conversation in a regular interim, where we didn't have limitations that we have this last interim, and I respect that outcome. 

But my job as leader of my caucus is to empower the members of my own team. And in this case, we felt like it was the right time and the right opportunity to have that conversation. But ultimately, it didn't result in a bill on the governor's desk. 

And so I'm confident we'll continue to work together this upcoming interim ... to talk about whether or not there are other compromises or alternatives that we were not able to talk about this session. 

Did you know that the governor would have the position that he did — that he would oppose the full repeal of the death penalty — before the death penalty repeal bill came up for a full vote in the Assembly?

I didn't. And I think that we had not decided whether or not it was going to be a full repeal, or a scale back on the circumstances under which somebody could seek the death penalty. I think it was an adjusting matter that we had discussions about and tested with our colleagues both internally within the Assembly, as well as conversations with the Senate. 

So we didn't know for sure, but we weren't sure what version would ultimately be moved. And I don't think that we foreclosed the ability to have conversations about different versions up until the last day of session. But again, it wasn't able to get across the finish line. That's the process, we dust off, and we get back to work.

Even the governor said the issue for him is that he hadn't had enough conversations about it. Do you think that's going to resolve the concerns?

I don't think it's a simple issue at all. I think that there are victims, groups that have strong feelings about it … there are families that have been impacted in the criminal justice system. I think that there are advocates on both sides of the issue. It’s a complicated and emotional issue, and I think it's worth having extensive conversations about.

The Assembly believed that we had considered it and we had considered it in the past and not moved forward. And I think if there's an interest in having greater conversation about it. It is not a simple issue by any means. 

Do you know of any specific conversations that are planned, or people reaching out trying to set things up at this point?

I don’t. We're less than a month out of session. 

We have lots to be proud of that we're focusing on. We'll again test our messaging and talk to our constituents after the session to find out what they're interested in continuing to consider as a policy matter moving forward.

Do you share the opinion of some criminal justice advocates that district attorney offices are overzealous in pursuing the death penalty?

We have not carried out the death penalty in some time. I know that there's litigation going on right now, I won't comment on that. But I think that we have to culturally, as a state, look at our criminal justice system, and the best way to use our public dollars in a way that advocates for criminal justice that protects victims, that protects the community, but it's also responding to a desire to be more responsible with our public dollars. 

Look, I've been in the DA’s office, I've been in the public defender's office, I think that there are valid concerns across the board. And that's what this conversation is about. It's about balance and having collective discussions about it. 

Do you have an interest in eventually running for Clark County District Attorney or another position outside of the Legislature?

My job's not done here. I'm proud of the work that we've done, and I'm looking forward to the impact that's going to have on Nevadans. I'm proud that we've done it in a bipartisan way. 

So I haven't made a decision about what's next for me, that's a conversation that  when we all recover, and figure out what the path forward looks like, we'll have a conversation with our families about what's next for us.

Do you have any interest at all in the Clark County DA's office?

There are a lot of different ways that I feel like I could contribute and help the community. I think that's certainly a possibility. That's something I have considered and discussed with close friends and colleagues. 

But I've also been able to do tremendous things in the Legislature. I have an obligation to continue to do that, to continue to bring up new leaders and train them and get ready. I’ll have to decide what the best way moving forward is to serve the community, and when myself and my family have figured that out, we'll take that next step.

Do you have any more clarity now that we're two weeks out for the session on whether the distribution of federal COVID aid needs to be addressed in a special session?

Well, we advanced legislation that prioritized where we want to spend those dollars. We worked with both the Senate and the governor to set a framework of how we want to spend those dollars. 

But the guidelines were lengthy, and so we're going to have to continue to look at and analyze those guidelines and figure out whether or not the framework that we've provided thus far is enough. I do believe that the guidelines call for public input, so to the extent that we can have that type of dynamic, without having a special session, it would be great. I'm not entirely sure we'll be able to do that. 

So you haven't asked the governor or expressed that we're going to need a session this summer?

No, we've talked about it since the guidelines came out, we've talked about how we'd like to see those dollars used and, and what the process would look like. 

To the extent that we're able to distribute federal dollars with the structure that we already put forth, we’ll do so. To the extent that we ultimately decide there are other things that we need... that we were unable to include in the structure, in that 120 days, we'll have a conversation with the governor and with the Senate about the best way to be able to do that.

Do you have a sense of when this special session to do the redistricting process is going to happen?

I don’t. I think that the census data finalization is what we need. It was originally September, I believe it's gotten moved up slightly to possibly in August, and then we'll have to work within that structure to have public input and do the normal things that we do every 10 years to get public participation in order to be responsible with drawing maps. But we're not there yet.

Is there any desire to potentially merge those two into one special session to both deal with ARP money and redistricting?

No … we haven't had that conversation. But I think redistricting is a huge undertaking that deserves a separate conversation without unduly politicizing it.

We don't even know we'll have to have a special session for the purposes of redistributing federal dollars. 

What are the next steps for you and for Democrats in the state to try to end up to be the first state in the presidential nominating process?

We'll continue to work with the DNC and the RNC to make sure that we're complying with the rules. Again, we can only meet for 120 days every other (year). But this was never for Nevada. This was because we believe Nevada is a more accurate reflection of where the country is going, and we believe that Nevada is a more fertile ground for candidates to make their case.

And so they can continue to go to states that don't reflect the direction the country's going in, or they can come to a state of manageable size that allows them to test their messages.

Now the state GOP has moved in a different direction, but this was certainly a bipartisan led conversation prior to session starting. So we're going to continue to advocate for and work with both the DNC and RNC. And we will land where we land.

If the RNC and if the state party aren't on board with moving Nevada off the calendar, does that kneecap this whole effort?

I'm confident Nevada is the best state for serving candidates and testing messages. So we're not going to violate our DNC rules. We're not going to put our Republican colleagues in a position of violating RNC rules.

We believe we have a strong case to make. And if the DNC and the RNC agree with us, then Nevada will be first. And if they don't, we will have to live with the confines of our statute, and our statute is currently consistent with our guidelines for the DNC and RNC. 

What can you say about why a ‘Death with Dignity’ bill allowing for physician aid-in-dying didn't move forward? 

At the end of the day, I don't believe that it had the support to move forward. As we do every session, [we] started to pivot our focus on the things that we knew have at least a chance of moving forward, and I think that's reflected in the demise of that bill and many other bills.

What would you say was the biggest accomplishment, and the biggest disappointment of the 2021 session for you?

I'll say the biggest accomplishment for me, despite having challenges with COVID and access to the building, was advancing record increases in support for public education. I think that that is by far the best thing that we could do, the thing is going to have the longest impact in our state for our families. So I'm most proud of that. 

We don't advance bills without the intention of trying to get some progress on those policies. And so all of those are a disappointment. But focusing on the positive, I'm proud of what we were able to actually accomplish. And for everything else, as we do every session, we dust off, to get back to work, and find out what we can advance and what common ground we can find moving forward. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SENATE

Ben Kieckhefer: 36

Heidi Seevers Gansert: 33

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Goicoechea: 20

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

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

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

Joe Hardy: 17

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

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

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

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

Scott Hammond: 14

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

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

Keith Pickard: 6

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

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

Ira Hansen: 5

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

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

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

Carrie Buck: 3

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

James Settelmeyer: 2

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

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

ASSEMBLY

Jill Tolles: 92

Tom Roberts: 90

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Hardy: 82

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

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

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

Glen Leavitt: 55

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

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

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

Heidi Kasama: 52

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

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

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

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

Lisa Krasner: 36

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

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

Gregory Hafen: 30

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

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

Alexis Hansen: 18

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

Robin Titus: 5

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

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

Annie Black: 3

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

The Nevada Legislative Freedom Caucus

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

P.K. O’Neill: 19

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

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

Jim Wheeler: 6

Jill Dickman: 6

Andy Matthews: 5

John Ellison: 3

Richard McArthur: 3

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

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

Which Republicans broke up unanimous votes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Democrats dissented from their party?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nevada Indian Country celebrates wins at the Legislature, including greater access to higher education for students

Tribal leaders and advocates are eyeing their communities’ futures with more hope after priority bills for Native leaders made it across the legislative finish line last week. 

“I say unequivocally there’s never been a better time to be Indigenous and live in the state of Nevada,” said Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, during an event last week at the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, where Gov. Steve Sisolak signed three bills affecting Nevada tribes  — AB262, AB88 and AB270 — into law. 

Stacey Montooth, Executive Director of the State of Nevada Indian Commission speaks during a bill signing ceremony with the Governor at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The legislation prioritized by Native leaders that cleared the lawmaking session include measures that waive fees at Nevada colleges and universities for Native students; prohibit racially discriminatory language or imagery in schools; and provide environmental protection for sacred sites, among others. 

Marla McDade Williams, an enrolled member of the Te-Moak Tribe of the Western Shoshone and lobbyist for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said legislation crafted with input from Native community members has been steadily increasing over the last few years in the Legislature, a trend that continued this spring.

“As long as people just continue to keep issues at the forefront, there's always going to be a legislator who is willing to bring those issues forward and see how we can craft a solution that is beneficial for the Native American community and tribes,” she said. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) said the inclusive legislation fosters unity amid an era of reckoning with historical injustices. 

“This is, I think, a groundbreaking legislative session for advancing the rights and issues of Indigenous people and fostering inclusion among all of us, because while we come from many different communities, we're also all one community and all Nevadans,” he said during the bill-signing event. 

Governor Steve Sisolak during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City after signing bills AB88, 262 and 270 on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Here’s a look at the bills that passed during the session, all of which have also been signed into law by Sisolak, that affect Nevada tribes:

AB262: Fee waiver for Native students 

One of the top priorities this session for Native leaders and advocates, AB262 waives registration, laboratory and other mandatory fees at Nevada System of Higher Education institutions for Native people who are members of federally recognized tribes in Nevada or descendants of enrolled tribal members. With in-state tuition, waiving fees at universities and colleges significantly reduces the financial burden to attend school for students.

The law goes into effect on July 1. 

At the signing event, Montooth said the measure “exponentially broadens” the futures of 70,000 Native Americans in the state. 

“I use that large number, not to scare NSHE (Nevada System of Higher Education), but because in Indian Country, when one of us earns a degree, our entire family earns a degree,” she said. 

Tribal leaders, such as Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez, who advocated for the bill during the session said the increased access to education will help lift tribes and their community members out of disproportionate poverty rates. 

Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Reno), who sponsored the bill, told The Nevada Independent that her hope is that it will ultimately benefit those who live on tribal lands. 

“The goal is really for students to be able to attend school and then come back hopefully to the community so that way we can get Native American doctors on the Native lands, we can get an attorney on Native American land — those things make a difference,” she said. 

Assemblywoman Natha Anderson attends a bill signing with Governor Steve Sisolak for AB88, 262 and 270 during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Cheryl Simmons, an enrolled member of the Washoe Tribe, said she’s excited for the measure to be implemented in time for her classes to start in the fall. As a single mother of two children who is also helping raise her grandchild, she said the fees pose a barrier to people such as herself who want to work toward an associates or bachelor’s degree. 

“I’d like to see that change in our school system because it’s penalizing [students] to learn more,” she said, adding that she’s working toward her fifth associates degree in criminal justice at Western Nevada College. She has other degrees in general studies, art and business management. 

Besides being an enrolled Nevada tribal member or descendant of one, students also must be eligible for enrollment in a university or college, be a Nevada resident for a year or more, maintain a 2.0 grade point average and fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to be eligible for the fee waiver. 

The bill also requires the Board of Regents to submit a report to the Legislative Counsel Bureau regarding the number of students eligible and the total funding available for the waived fees by Sept. 1, 2022, in order to provide accurate data for future legislative bodies.

The original version of the bill included providing in-state tuition at colleges and universities for members of tribes outside of Nevada, which was amended out of the final version. 

In a fiscal note, the Nevada System of Higher Education stated it could not determine the financial impact of the bill as it depends on how many students will take the opportunity to use it. 

The Assembly approved the bill nearly unanimously, with Assemblyman John Ellison (R-Elko) as the lone lawmaker who voted against it, and the Senate unanimously approved it on the final day of the session. 

AB88: Bans offensive, racially discriminatory imagery in Nevada schools 

Sponsored by Watts, the measure bans offensive or racially discriminatory language and imagery, names, logos or mascots in Nevada schools. 

The legislation came about during a time of reckoning across the country, with Native people calling for sports teams, businesses and schools to remove offensive names. Earlier this year, UNLV retired its Hey Reb! mascot after taking its statue down last June in response to a history tied to confederate symbolism and, last year, the Squaw Valley Ski Resort announced it would drop “squaw” from its name after years of protest from the Washoe Tribe. On the national stage, the Washington professional football team announced a name change in January, dropping the “Redskins” title after 90 years. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts attends a bill signing with Governor Steve Sisolak for AB88, 262 and 270 during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Watts said the goal of the measure is to continue promoting awareness about the injustices of the past in order to move forward. 

“That's really what Assembly Bill 88 tries to do is help educate people about some of the racially discriminatory aspects of our history, from our school mascots, to the names that we've given to places, places that were named first by Indigenous peoples, and then renamed when settlers arrived, and also addressing the issue of sundowner sirens,” he said during the bill-signing event. “I believe that by confronting these issues, and working together to address them, we can all move forward together and have a brighter future for the state.”

Nevada schools may still use language, imagery or mascots in connection with tribes as long as they have consent from local tribal leaders to do so. For example, the Elko band of the Te-Moak Tribe allowed the Elko High School Indians mascot to remain the same. 

Signs and flags of the Elko Indians at the Elko High School in Elko, Nevada. (Famartin / Creative Commons)

The bill also prohibits Nevada counties, cities and unincorporated towns from sounding sirens, bells or alarms historically used to alert people of color to leave town at a certain hour, known as a “sundown ordinance.” The bill specifically applies to Minden in Douglas County, which repealed the sundown ordinance in 1974 but continues to sound the siren at 6 p.m. each day. Tribal leaders have asked for years that the siren be removed, or at least changed to a different hour of the day.

Serrell Smokey, chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, said the measure gives the tribe a better “foothold” in its fight against the siren, which is triggering for some tribal elders who lived through the era of sundown ordinances. 

“We’ve seen this even in some elders nowadays, if you ask them about the siren, they'll say, ‘Don't mess with that, don't talk about it,’” Smokey said. “That's historical trauma. They're still scared about it and they don't want to address it. Us younger generations have more fight in us and we know we need to capitalize on taking action with social injustices that have been going on throughout the world.” 

The bill also asks that the State Board on Geographic Names recommend name changes for geographic features of places in the state that have racially discriminatory language or imagery. The board includes two Native representatives. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill 36-6 and 12-8, respectively, with some Republican lawmakers voting against it. Sisolak signed the bill into law during the event on June 4. 

AB270: Stewart Indian School preservation

Sponsored by Assemblyman Philip O’Neill (R-Carson City), the measure allows the museum director of the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum 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. 

The Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The bill also earmarks any funds made through the special events to be paid into the State Treasury for credit to the Nevada Indian Commission Gift Fund. Those funds must be used by the commission to maintain and preserve operations and cultural integrity of the Stewart Indian School. 

During the bill-signing event in Carson City, O’Neill said the measure will help ensure the museum can continue to educate the public on the harsh history of the boarding school. The measure also includes preservation efforts for the State Prison. 

“[The Stewart Indian School and the State Prison] are long standing in our Nevada history, both good and bad. And we need to teach that, have that available, so our future generations do not repeat. And that's the strongest part of all of our bills today is that we prepare our future generations to be better than we are,” he said. 

Assemblyman P.K. O'Neill attends a bill signing with Governor Steve Sisolak for AB88, 262 and 270 during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The Stewart Indian School was one of hundreds of federal boarding schools in the United States that housed Native children, often kidnapped from their families and forced to attend, in order to assimilate them into white culture. Their traditional long hair was cut short and their languages and spiritual practices were forbidden. It reopened last year, after receiving funding from the state, as a museum to share the story of what happened there, as told by school alumni, some of whom are still living in the state. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously, and Sisolak signed it into law during the event on June 4. 

AB261: Expand historical contributions of diverse groups in education 

Sponsored by Anderson, the measure requires that education curriculum used throughout the state promote greater inclusion and accurately reflect societal contributions made by various demographic groups.  

The bill requires the board of trustees of each school district and the governing body of charter schools ensure educational material includes contributions to science, arts and the humanities made by Native Americans and tribes, people of marginalized sexual orientation or gender identity, people with disabilities, people from African American, Basque, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander backgrounds and more. 

The bill addresses frustrations expressed by Native leaders and educators that education generally focuses on Native people as historical figures and fails to acknowledge the historical contributions and modern day presence of Native people and tribes in Nevada. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill in 26-16 and 12-9 votes, respectively, with Republican lawmakers voting against it, and Sisolak signed the bill into law in May. 

AB321: Expanded voting measure becomes law 

Sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), the bill sets in stone the expanded voting measures implemented last year in response to the pandemic. Native leaders and advocates have widely supported the measure as it includes extended deadlines for tribes to request polling locations and so-called “ballot harvesting,” which allows people to submit ballots for non-family members.

McDade Williams, Te-Moak tribe member and Reno-Sparks Indian Colony lobbyist, said the law improves access to voting for tribes. 

“Being able to recognize that tribal communities are isolated and figuring out ways to help them participate in the state selection process — these are all good things for tribes,” she said. 

A Native voter wears a "voting is sacred" T-shirt at a polling location for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Photo courtesy of the Nevada Native Vote Project.

The next step: Educating Native voters about how to access the ballot in time for the midterm election season next year, she said. 

“Hopefully those initiatives can really bear some fruit over the next 12 months, getting some resources at the tribal level to start training voters on how to access the process and how to understand candidates and what to look for in candidates,” McDade Williams said. 

The bill passed along party lines in the Assembly and Senate, and Sisolak signed it into law on June 2. 

AB103: Protecting Indian burial sites in Nevada 

A follow-up to legislation approved in 2017, the bill clears up ambiguities in the law regarding excavation of Indian burial sites across Nevada. Sponsored by Assemblywoman Susie Martinez (D-Las Vegas), the measure clarifies that entities engaged in lawful activity, such as construction, mining and ranching, are exempt from obtaining permits from the State Museum so long as the activity will not affect a known burial site. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously and Sisolak signed it into law following the end of the session in May. 

During a hearing for the bill in March, Michon Eben, manager for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony cultural resource program, said the current law does not protect Native items or objects found across Nevada and is something Native people would like to change in the future. 

AB171: State protection for “swamp cedars” 

The measure sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee grants state protection to Rocky Mountain juniper trees, known as “swamp cedars,” outside of Ely in Spring Valley. Native elders and tribal leaders widely supported the measure because the site where the swamp cedars are found, known as Bahsahwahbee in Shoshone, is sacred to Indigenous people. 

The Assembly approved the bill 29-13. It later passed the Senate in a 13-8 vote, with Republicans voting against it, except for Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks), who crossed the aisle to approve the measure despite raising concerns about historical inaccuracies regarding massacres of Indigenous peoples cited in the bill. Sisolak signed the bill before the session ended in late May. 

AJR4: Federal protection for “swamp cedars”  

Further expanding on AB171, the resolution, also sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, urges Congress and the Biden administration grant protections to  swamp cedars and designate the area as a national historic monument or expand the Great Basin National Park to include Spring Valley.

The Assembly approved the bill 29-13, with Republican lawmakers voting against it, and was later unanimously approved by the Senate. 

AJR3: Naming Avi Kwa Ame a national monument 

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Cecelia González (D-Las Vegas), the resolution heads to Congress to establish Spirit Mountain, known as Avi Kwa Ame in the native Mojave language, as a national monument. Avi Kwa Ame is a spiritual center for several tribes spanning across Nevada, California and Arizona, including the Fort Mojave Tribe. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill largely along party lines, with Republican lawmakers voting against it. 

Adding Native representatives to state groups: 

AB72: State Board on Geographic Names 

The measure adds another spot for a Native representative from the Nevada Indian Commission on the State Board on Geographic Names. The board already included a spot for a member from the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada and includes representatives from the state Bureau of Mines and Geology, UNR, UNLV, the U.S. Forest Service and more. 

The Assembly and Senate unanimously approved the bill and Sisolak signed it into law on May 21. 

AB52: Land Use Planning Advisory Council 

Sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources committee, the bill adds a voting member appointed by the Nevada Indian Commission to the Land Use Planning Advisory Council. The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously and Sisolak signed it into law last week.

AB54: Advisory Traffic Safety Committee 

Sponsored by the Assembly Growth and Infrastructure committee, the bill creates the Advisory Traffic Safety Committee, which will be tasked with reviewing, studying and making recommendations regarding best practices for reducing traffic deaths and injuries. As part of the committee, the bill adds a member representing Nevada tribal governments recommended by the Inter-Tribal Council. 

The Assembly approved the bill 36-4 and the Senate 12-9, with Republican lawmakers voting against it. Sisolak signed the bill into law on May 21. 

AB95: Legislative Public Lands Committee 

Sponsored by the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections committee, the bill adds a member representing Nevada tribal governments recommended by the Inter-Tribal Council and appointed by the Legislature to the Legislative Public Lands Committee. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously and Sisolak signed it into law on May 27. 

Sisolak celebrates bills that expand voting access during ceremonial signing

Gov. Steve Sisolak on Friday held a ceremonial signing of a handful of bills designed to make casting ballots easier in Nevada, marking a deviation from other states where lawmakers have passed more restrictive voting laws.

The bill-signing ceremony at the East Las Vegas Community Center kicked off the last day for the governor to pen his name on bills passed during the 81st Legislature. The five bills, a couple of which he had already signed, are all election-related:

  • AB121 allows people with disabilities to vote using an electronic system created for uniformed military members and other voters living overseas.
  • AB321 permanently expands mail-in voting while letting voters opt out of receiving a mail ballot, and it also gives Indian reservations or colonies more time to request the establishment of a polling place within its boundaries.
  • AB422 implements a top-down voter registration system, moving away from the existing setup that involves 17 county clerks maintaining their own systems and transmitting voter registration information to the secretary of state’s office.
  • AB432 expands automatic voter registration to other state or tribal agencies, such as those designated by the Department of Health and Human Services that receive Medicaid applications and the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange. 
  • AB126 moves the state to a presidential primary system, ending the use of the caucus.

Sisolak noted that lawmakers in other states have introduced 389 bills that would restrict voting rights, and 20 have been signed into law. He called it an “assault on one of the key tenets of our democracy — the right to vote.”

“But today, in the great state of Nevada, we are so proud that we are sending a strong message that the Silver State is not only bucking the national trend of infringing on voter rights — rather, we’re doing everything we can to expand access to the poll while ensuring our elections are secure and fair,” Sisolak added.

The bill-signings come roughly seven months after a contentious election season, during which Nevada’s Republican secretary of state, Barbara Cegavske, received an avalanche of threats and harassment after unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud following former President Donald Trump’s loss. Because of the pandemic, Nevada lawmakers expanded mail-in voting for the 2020 presidential election.

Gov. Steve Sisolak and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson celebrate the signing of election-related bills at the East Las Vegas Community Center on Friday, June 11, 2021. (Mikayla Whitmore/The Nevada Independent)

Sisolak lauded AB321 for permanently enshrining mail-in voting in the Silver State, which he said gives voters more options. He also commended Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) for being a “tenacious fighter” when it comes to preserving and expanding voting rights.

Frierson emphasized that AB321 doesn’t eliminate any voting options — people can vote by mail, deposit their ballots in drop-off boxes or vote in person.

“These are all options and individual liberties that Nevadans have come to enjoy,” he said.

The governor and state lawmakers also celebrated the state’s conversion to a presidential primary, which could place Nevada ahead of New Hampshire and Iowa to become the first nominating state in the nation. But that’s subject to approval from the Democratic National Committee. AB126, which moves Nevada away from a caucus, establishes that presidential primary elections would occur on the first Tuesday in February of presidential election years.

Sisolak touted Nevada’s diverse population as a reason for why it should lead the primary process, saying it “undoubtedly” represents the composition of the country.

The governor has spent the week in Las Vegas, attending a variety of bill-signing ceremonies to usher new measures into law. The legislative session ended at midnight on Memorial Day.