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. 

Behind the Bar: Just how slow is the start of session? NV GOP alleges election fraud (again), unemployment updates and bills to watch for this week

Behind the Bar is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature. 

In this edition: Has this session started slower than others? Plus, the Nevada Republican Party turns in election complaints, unemployment updates and related GOP indignation, plus a look at upcoming major bill hearings.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. The newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.

I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at rsnyder@thenvindy.com.


It’s around this time of every legislative session, pandemic or no pandemic, that the whispers start.

“What’s taking drafting so long? Why are they going so slow? How are they going to meet the deadline?”

While there might not be lobbyists in the building just yet, I’ve started to hear the same whisperings this session.

The day this newsletter publishes, March 8, is the 36th day of the 120-day legislative session. The deadline for lawmaker bill introductions is a week away (March 15), and the deadline for most other remaining bill introductions is two weeks away (March 22).

Rather than just rely on a general sense that things are moving slowly this session, I wanted to take a look and compare this session’s quote-unquote productivity with recent sessions.

So far in 2021 (as of Friday, March 5), there have been 401 bill or resolution introductions, along with 349 committee actions (hearings, amendments, or bills mentioned) and 881 floor actions — which includes bill introductions, amendments, votes or generally any other action taken on the Senate or Assembly floor.

That’s behind the pace of the 2019 legislative session, which at this point had 539 bills or resolutions introduced, 432 committee actions and 1,103 floor actions. 

It’s even further behind the pace of the 2017 session — 574 bill or resolution introductions, 559 committee actions and 1,579 floor actions at this point.

So by those metrics, the pace so far is slower than the last two sessions. Some caveats: let me be the latest reporter to tell you that we’re in a pandemic; many of the normal practices and courses of the legislative session have been thrown off by COVID-related disruptions and delays.

And going by raw numbers of bills isn’t the best measure of productivity — not all bills are created equal, and many are destined for the legislative graveyard (see Richard McArthur’s bill eliminating scheduled minimum wage increases or any of the other red-meat Republican Party priorities).

That said, there isn’t too much of a public sense of urgency with nearly a third of the session completed. There’s only been one Friday floor session to date (last week in the Assembly) and many committees are still canceling meetings scheduled for Thursday evening or Friday, save for the budget committees. 

Circling back to the original point, I don’t think this is some unique failure of current legislative leadership — there’s always been a slow start to the session, with a frantic rush at the end to wrap everything up before Sine Die arrives.

If you think slow legislative starts are by any means a new phenomenon, check out this neat compilation of legislative history on the constitutional amendment that set the strict 120-day time limit for legislative sessions (passed in 1998, debated in 1995 and 1997. A special hat tip to lobbyist Lea Case for forwarding it). 

It’s a fun read — the back and forth between former Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio and then-Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus is feisty, and a certain large Las Vegas newspaper supported the change in an op-ed because “lawmakers operating under a hard-and-fast deadline will become more focused and less prone to mischief.” 

And in a weird twist, former Democratic Sen. Mike Schneider in a floor speech in 1997 appears to have sort of eerily predicted the future virtual session, warning that: “Maybe legislators, 50 years from now, will be with their lap top computers and be called from Carson City and hearings will be held instantaneously around the state.”

“Each session has different priorities and each session probably takes a different number of days to complete,” said Schneider, the only “no” vote against the resolution in 1997. “We do not know how long it will take to complete a session because of the types of bills that come in.”

— Riley Snyder


NV GOP’s voter fraud crusade continues

A full 121 days after Election Day 2020, Nevada Republican Party leadership and a crowd of about 40 supporters gathered on the steps of the state Capitol on Thursday to turn in boxes filled with what they said were more than 122,000 reports of election irregularities in the previous election.

Despite assurances from the Nevada secretary of state and election officials in major counties and state court decisions rejecting the notion that widespread voter fraud had occurred in the 2020 election, Republican Party leadership nonetheless continued to echo the unsupported rhetoric that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

The complaints submitted Thursday largely include instances of alleged fraud previously identified by the Trump campaign and state Republican Party in court — deceased voters (1,506), non-citizen voters (3,987) commercial or non-existent addresses (8,842 and 8,111) and alleged duplicate voters (42,284). 

Many of those categories were mentioned in data reports submitted as part of the Trump campaign’s lawsuit against the state, but were initially filed under seal (some later released on the party’s website) and did not publicly name which individuals it had accused of cheating the system.

On Thursday, speakers sought to walk a careful line between relitigating 2020 and various claims of fraud, while looking ahead to future elections and potential legislative changes to the state’s election process.

“We don’t agree on much these days, but at the end of the day, we have to come together and unite to fix this broken abortion of a bill,” state party Chairman Michael McDonald said in reference to AB4 of the 2020 special session, at one point adding that “this isn’t about the past election...if we do not have fair and open elections, this state is dead.”

Others, such as former Republican congressional candidate Jim Marchant, remained focused on 2020.

“I believe the race was stolen from me,” said Marchant, who lost by more than 16,000 votes in his bid against incumbent Democratic Rep. Steve Horsford. “I believe the race was stolen from Donald Trump.”

Marchant said he was “very passionate” about voter fraud issues and planned to run for Secretary of State in 2022.

A spokeswoman for the secretary of state confirmed that the office had received the complaints and will “review them and investigate when warranted.”

— Riley Snyder


DETR by the numbers

The Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) presented its projected unemployment insurance budget for the upcoming two-year budget cycle to a joint budget committee on Thursday.  Here are some figures that stood out:

82,847: The number of unemployment insurance (UI) and pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA) claims that DETR still has pending. Those are initial claims that the department still must process and administer funds for. UI and PUA claims each make up about half of the total pending claims.

306,632: The number of UI and PUA claims suspected to be fraudulent that are pending identity verification. More than 250,000 of those are PUA claims. Jeff Frischmann, an administrator at DETR, said that many of those claims came from a spike of around 100,000 claims filed in early January following the passage of the federal stimulus bill.

4: The projected number of years it will take DETR to modernize its UI computer system. A January report from the DETR Rapid Response Strike Force recommended that the department modernize its UI system, with upgrades projected to cost between $30 and $50 million. During the budget presentation, Marylin Delmont, the department’s IT administrator, said that it would take at least three and a half to four years to implement a new system after receiving a federal award for the upgrades. However, the funding request process can take as long as a year, and DETR has not yet identified a source for federal funding for system modernization.

$178 million: The state’s unemployment trust fund debt. That number, which continues to climb, represents nearly $200 million in loans that Nevada has received from the federal government in order to maintain the state’s unemployment trust fund. Those loans remain interest free through the middle of March, though the interest moratorium could potentially be extended by the next federal stimulus bill. 

155: The number of intermittent full-time employees that DETR hopes to maintain in the upcoming biennium to handle the increased number of pandemic-related claims. The 155 employees are a part of a proposed amendment to the department’s budget and have not yet been approved. Those employees would cover a variety of different roles, including 92 positions for call center support and 36 for fraud support. The estimated cost of the proposed amendment is a little more than $12 million for each fiscal year of the biennium.

— Sean Golonka


Republicans call DETR situation “shocking”

Republicans took to social media after the DETR budget presentation described in the previous item to call the numbers of claims held up over ID issues “shocking,” with Assemblywoman Jill Dickman (R-Sparks) adding “it’s time for us to ask the tough questions of our unemployment compensation system.”

Dickman has requested a BDR that would take the following steps:

  • Allocate $48.5 million for the modernization of DETR’s system
  • Begin updating the system immediately upon allocation
  • Have the legislative auditor examine DETR’s processes for ensuring accurate data about claims during the pandemic, and evaluate the agency’s processes for detecting and preventing fraud. A report would be due at the end of 2022.

It’s also worth noting that Republican senators including Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) recently met with Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claimants to try to develop an intervention into DETR problems.

Bill language has yet to come out, and with this expenditure not included in the governor’s budget, Republicans who have been vociferous about the unemployment problems under a Democratic administration still need to identify where the money for an immediate modernization would come from. Another big question: would any of these big-picture plans address the immediate pain of claimants who are stuck in the system right now, or are less-flashy tweaks the answer?

We’ll be watching this week for more specifics about these proposals, what happens when DETR’s capstone bill SB75 comes up for a work session on Monday, and how the COVID relief bill that’s on the brink of passage may change the entire calculus.

— Michelle Rindels


Upcoming Bills of Note

Requiring courthouses to have lactation rooms for members of the public, preventing schools from having racially insensitive mascots or logos, and creating an all-payer claims database related to health services are just some of the top issues scheduled for hearings this week.

Below, we’ve listed out the hearing times and short descriptions for those high-profile measures. They’re accurate as of Sunday afternoon, but are subject to change at any time (given that the Legislature is exempted from Open Meeting Law). For links and times to watch committee meetings, check out the Legislature’s website.

Here’s what to watch this week in the Legislature:

Monday, 9 a.m. - Assembly Judiciary reviewing AB64, a bill that increases penalties and makes other changes to laws on prostitution. It’s sponsored by the attorney general’s office.

Monday, 10 a.m. - Assembly Government Affairs reviews AB196, which generally requires courthouses in the state to provide a lactation room for a member of the public.

Monday, 3:30 p.m. - Senate Growth and Infrastructure plans to review SB196, a bill by Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas) that would make an “anatomical gift” (organ or other body part donation after death) an opt-out, rather than opt-in system.

Tuesday, 9 a.m. - Assembly Government Affairs reviews AB99, which would raise the prevailing wage minimum threshold for public works or construction projects undertaken by the Nevada System of Higher Education. It’s sponsored by Assemblyman John Ellison (R-Elko).

Tuesday, 1:30 p.m. - Assembly Education to review AB88, a bill by Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) prohibiting schools from using an “identifier” such as a name, logo, mascot, song or other identifier that is racially discriminatory or is associated with a person “with a racially discriminatory history.” It’d also authorize higher education governing bodies to adopt similar provisions, but require the state Board on Geographic Names to change any similar racially discriminatory names of places or geographic features. 

Tuesday, 3:30 p.m. - Senate Health and Human Services to review SB40, a bill by the state Patient Protection Commission that would create an all-payer claims database of information relating to health insurance claims resulting from medical, dental or pharmacy benefits provided in the state.

Wednesday, 8 a.m. - Assembly Judiciary to hear AB42, a bill that implements the Nevada Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in Anderson v. Nevada requiring any person convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime that would prohibit them from owning firearms have the right to a jury trial

Wednesday, 1 p.m. - Senate Judiciary will review SB140, a bill by Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) that would require inmates working for the state to be paid the minimum wage.

Wednesday, 3:30 p.m. - Senate Growth and Infrastructure to hear SB162, which would allow drivers of low emission and energy-efficient vehicles to use the HOV or carpool lane regardless of the number of passengers.

What we’re reading

The first installment of Megan Messerly’s ‘What Happened Here’ COVID retrospective.

Tabitha Mueller takes a deep dive into issues of affordable housing and housing supply that could come up this session. Didn’t realize it, but the highly-touted $10 million in tax credits for affordable housing hasn’t really been used at all in the last two years. 

A 54 percent increase in contract buyouts among Nevada colleges and universities, via Jacob Solis.

Jannelle Calderon reports on fallout from a federal court loss for backers of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Has COVID killed off the famous Las Vegas buffets? (Reno Gazette-Journal)

Legislation aims to end racial disparities in youth possession of weed (Nevada Current).

“In a letter read into testimony, one inmate said because of the deductions, his mother ‘has to send $17.50 for me to buy a $2.50 deodorant’” (Nevada Current).

Assemblywoman makes case for treating pretrial house arrest as time served. (Nevada Current)

Attorney Sigal Chattah takes a break from suing the state to announce a run for attorney general (Associated Press).

The understaffed Department of Corrections wants a staffing study, but Assemblywoman Brittney Miller asks why we need a study for a problem we’ve already identified (Nevada Appeal).

In proceedings slightly less dramatic than the 1917 October Revolution, Judith Whitmer defeated Tick Segerblom to become the new head of the Nevada State Democratic Party (Las Vegas Review-Journal).

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 4 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 7 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 84 (May 31, 2021)

Updated at 10:20 a.m. on Monday, March 8 to correct the number of filed bills or resolutions for the 2021, 2019, and 2017 session. The previous totals did not include the number of pre-filed bills.

Behind the Bar: Should inmates get minimum wage? Plus plans to address learning loss, an esports commission and Carson City Restaurant Spotlight

Behind the Bar is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature. 

In this edition: Can either Assemblywoman Annie Black or a federal lawsuit open the Legislature to the public? Plus, details on a bill to pay inmates the minimum wage, a proposed esports commission and legislative Democrats’ plan to offset educational losses during a year of COVID. Carson City Restaurant Spotlight makes a triumphant return.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. The newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.

I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at rsnyder@thenvindy.com.


The effort to reopen the doors of the Legislature to the public has finally moved beyond rhetoric and press releases.

After giving a floor speech denouncing the continued closure of the building on Tuesday, Assemblywoman Annie Black (R-Mesquite) made a motion on the Assembly floor to “open the Legislative Building under the same safety procedures of Walmart, bars, casinos and other businesses.”

After a short recess to discuss legislative rules, the motion wasn’t recognized — the motion came under the wrong order of business (“Remarks from the Floor” and not “Motions, Resolutions and Notices”). Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) told my colleague Michelle Rindels after the session on Tuesday that it was an “inappropriate motion.”

Black nonetheless wrote in her newsletter that she plans to bring up similar motions during floor sessions. But Black — a freshman in the minority party who opted to not join the Assembly Republican Caucus — has relatively few cards to play under Assembly procedural rules. 

In essence, there’s no realistic pathway for a motion like the one Black brought to pass unless she’s able to get the support of a majority of the Assembly — an impossible task in the Democratic-controlled body. If she’s able to get her procedural ducks in a row, make the motion at the right time and is recognized by the Assembly speaker, Black could in theory force a roll call vote related to the building’s closure.

Such a vote would likely be on a motion to table Black’s initial motion, so not a direct vote on opening the building. It’d also default to a voice vote, but she’d need support from only two colleagues to force a roll call vote (fellow Republicans Jim Wheeler (R-Minden) and John Ellison (R-Elko) spoke in favor of her motion on Tuesday).

Even if all the pieces fall into place and a roll call vote is taken, any victory would be symbolic — I don’t think any Assembly Democrats would publicly move away from leadership’s position that a limited reopening should come in mid-April, after building staff are fully vaccinated.

Outside of that fight, there have also been more developments in the legal effort to open up the Legislative Building. The federal lawsuit filed by four conservative lobbyists last month has now been appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, after the case was not granted an expedited briefing schedule by Judge Miranda Du.

Du issued a minute order (essentially a judge’s abbreviated decision that’s less formal than a written order) stating that the plaintiffs failed to request expedited briefing in their motion and “did not otherwise establish they are entitled to an expedited briefing schedule.” 

The plaintiffs appealed that minute order to the 9th Circuit on Tuesday (you can read a copy of the filing here). It largely recaps arguments from the initial filing, and says that Du’s order on the expedited briefing schedule is inaccurate because the lawsuit was filed as an emergency motion and because there are only 90 or so days left in the legislative session.

A 9th Circuit clerk’s order (also filed on Wednesday) stated that the appeals court “may lack jurisdiction over this appeal” because the minute order filed by Du “does not appear to be a final or appealable order.”  It ordered plaintiffs to either voluntarily dismiss the appeal or to show cause as to “why it should not be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction” sometime before March 8.

I’m not an attorney, and I haven’t owned a Magic 8 Ball since I was 9, so I’m hesitant to predict what the future might hold in terms of the timeline for re-opening the Legislative Building. 

But I think actually kicking off the vaccinations for building staff, legislators and press last week (plus the mid-April tentative date for a limited re-opening) helps quell at least some of the concerns that I’ve seen and heard expressed about the plan, or lack thereof, to safely open the building while still protecting staff. 

Addendum: This is the tenth edition of the newsletter that we’ve published, and we’re hovering around the 900-subscriber milestone. Thank you to everyone who continues to subscribe and read this newsletter every week. It’s listed at the top every week, but if you have any feedback or things you would like to see, please send me an email at rsnyder@thenvindy.com

— Riley Snyder


Should inmates get paid minimum wage?

In December 2015, Darrell White fractured a finger bone while on the job as a firefighter for the state Division of Forestry, leaving him temporarily disabled for 144 days.

White filed a worker’s compensation claim, but there was a problem: His job came through an inmate work program hosted by the Nevada Department of Corrections, and his worker’s compensation amount was tied to the miniscule wage ($18 to $22 a month, or $0.50 a day) paid to inmate workers in the state.

White lost a court case in 2019 challenging his worker’s compensation amount, but the issue of state correctional institutions paying inmates subminimum wage has drawn national attention.

It’s why Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) is sponsoring SB140, a bill that would require the Nevada Department of Corrections to pay inmate workers a salary equal to the state’s minimum wage, and change deduction programs to ensure that more dollars are given to inmates once released from prison. The bill was introduced last week and is scheduled for a hearing on Wednesday.

In an interview, Neal said that paying inmates less than the minimum wage was a counterintuitive policy — the state already pays millions of dollars to prepare and support inmates for reentry into society, but once released, inmates (especially those who previously worked for in a skilled industry) have to essentially start from scratch because their previous jobs in a prison industry paid so little.

“It doesn't make sense to push them out onto welfare, when they've worked for a private corporation inside the prison,” she said in an interview on Monday.

Nevada inmates work in both “regular jobs” and in “correctional industries,” which covers a wide variety of programs including sewing clothes, welding, horse raising, printing, sorting hangers and auto restoration. The state’s correctional industry program is called “Silver State Industries” and employs around 4 percent of the state prison population at any given time, or about 400 to 600 individuals.

Inmates employed in Silver State Industries can make anywhere from $0.25 to $5.15 an hour, according to a 2017 survey of inmate wages by Prison Policy Initiative.

The legislation would also eliminate all deductions currently taken out of incarcerated worker salaries, save for those required for familial support or restitution for victims. Any wages left over after those deductions would be placed in the newly-created “Offenders’ Release Fund,” which would house inmate income and distribute aggregate wages to inmates once released from prison.

Inmates employed through Silver State Industries remit a significant portion of their wages — nearly a quarter go to room and board, 5 percent goes to a statewide account to compensate victims of crime, and another 5 percent goes to a fund for capital projects to “house new or expanded Prison Industry programs.”

Neal said she expects pushback from the state Department of Corrections, as the remitted inmate wages help with the agency’s usual budget woes. The agency filed a fiscal note on the bill, saying it would require the agency to “significantly” increase pay to inmates, and that another portion of state law prohibits inmates from entering into normal employment contracts with the state prison system.

But Neal said the current system was too reminiscent of convict leasing — a post-slavery practice of forcing mostly-Black prisoners to work on railways, mines or plantations for no wages.

“Now, whether or not the bill gets passed out of committee. I mean, at least I have a hearing to discuss what I think is a legitimate issue on how we are not really serving (inmates),” she said.

— Riley Snyder

Getting Nevada’s students back on track

The pandemic and the move to virtual learning over the past year has led to an ongoing academic achievement gap that Democratic lawmakers hope to address through an education policy aimed at at-risk students.

Legislators unveiled details of the policy proposal, which will provide school districts with funding for summer school programs and other resources, during a virtual press conference on Wednesday afternoon.

"Learning loss because of the pandemic is a crisis that threatens to set many of our kids back with the potential of leaving behind a widened achievement gap," Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas) said. "If we don't work now to correct it, it will have implications for their educational development for years to come."

Under the "Back on Track Act," school districts would:

  • Create a learning loss prevention plan reviewed and approved by the Nevada Department of Education.
  • Set up virtual or in-person summer programs for students pre-K through 12th grade
  • Receive funding to provide educators and support staff, including mental health professionals, with supplemental pay.
  • Offer transportation and meal services for students in need.

To fund the program, lawmakers are banking on federal aid that the state would receive as part of the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package under consideration in the Senate. Parents will not pay any additional costs for the program, lawmakers said.

Tameka Henry, the mother of two children attending schools in the Las Vegas area, said that her children have struggled with their studies and mental health throughout the pandemic. 

"We cannot afford to leave one child behind," Henry said. "Parents should have the options at their disposal, as these summer schools, and other resources, especially counselors, and those dealing with our children's mental health. These should be free options that will help get us back on track."

— Tabitha Mueller

Could video games be Nevada’s latest pillar of economic development?

Andrew Andinster Woodward of Spacestation Gaming (Courtesy Hyperx Esports Arena)

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) has denied to this newsletter that he’s a gamer in real life.

But that’s not stopping the lawmaker from banking on large-scale “Fortnite” and “League of Legends” tournaments as a brave new world in Nevada economic development.

Kieckhefer’s bill, SB165, dropped Tuesday and would create a three-member Nevada Esports Commission. Duties would be something similar to those of the Nevada Athletic Commission that regulates boxing — Esports regulators would register events with purses larger than $1,000, enforce integrity of video game tournaments and even set drug-testing requirements for players.

It’s not a new idea for Nevada to explore the professional gaming realm. In 2016, then-Gov. Brian Sandoval entertained the idea and heard from professional “cyberathletes” during a meeting of his Nevada Gaming Policy Committee. 

Kieckhefer said it may have been premature five years ago, but since then, Las Vegas has unveiled venues including the Hyperx Esports Arena. It’s a 30,000-foot, self-described “gamer’s paradise” at the Luxor complete with a “gamer-inspired” menu heavy on Red Bull cocktails to fuel those all-night LAN parties.

“They fill stadiums all over the world ... for big tournaments of $20, $30 million. So the prospect of bringing these types of events to Las Vegas, I think, is a no-brainer,” Kieckhefer said. “Couple that with, sort of, the fact that a lot of these participants and fans are in their 20s — it's an opportunity to bring a young new audience to Las Vegas.” 

— Michelle Rindels

Carson City Restaurant Spotlight: Poké Beach

A soon to be devoured bowl of poke from the Poké Beach in Carson City. (Michelle Rindels/The Nevada Independent)

Trying poke (pronounce poh-kay) was a bit of a last food frontier for me — I have some lingering fish-hesitance from my childhood.

But since trying Poké Beach a few Nevada Days ago, I’ve been absolutely hooked on this place and the Hawaiian-inspired dish as a whole.

Think of it as deconstructed sushi, with all sorts of tasty fresh seafood heaped on a base of rice and topped with an abundance of veggies and sauces. What you lose in perfect sushi roll presentation, you gain in quantity, speed, and portability.

One of my favorite lunches is a Lava Bowl with half rice, half Fritos as a base, plus mango, jalapeño, avocado and a generous supply of sriracha. It’ll set you back $12 to $14, but it’ll power you through hours of afternoon committees and spare you both a carb coma and fried-food guilt.

Place your order at (775) 434-7066, get their app or order from the site at www.thepokebeach.com. The restaurant is located at 1442 E. Williams St. #2 in Carson City. 

Have a restaurant suggestion for the Spotlight? Tell me at michelle@thenvindy.com. FYI: We’re not accepting free food in order to preserve the integrity of the reviews.


What we’re reading

Storey County and the county water district are not so keen on the idea of letting a major tech company form their own separate autonomous governing structure, Daniel Rothberg reports.

Details on the effort to create the first statewide human trafficking task force, via Sean Golonka.

Another excellent installment of our Freshman Orientation profiles takes a look at Democratic Assemblywoman Natha Anderson, Michelle Rindels reports.

There are a handful of people in Nevada public life who you can read a quote from and hear it exactly in their voice. Legislative Counsel Bureau General Counsel Kevin Powers, who argued for the Legislature in the Opportunity Scholarship program lawsuit oral arguments, is one of those people (via Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez).

Real estate, home builders and developers were the largest overall donors to lawmakers in the 2020 election cycle, Jacob Solis reports.

A hearing on a bill from the state Division of Water Resources to limit judicial review on decisions made by the state’s top water official almost (I’m so sorry for this) drowned in opposition (Nevada Current).

Nevada Department of Wildlife vs. Pete Goicoechea vs. the Center for Biological Diversity (Nevada Current)

Details on the bill to count house arrest toward times served (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

“Washoe ZIP codes with the highest infection rates have a higher proportion of lower-income residents and a larger share of minorities — Hispanics in particular.” (Reno Gazette-Journal)

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 8 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 11 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 88 (May 31, 2021)

Continued expansion of mail voting, straight-ticket ballots among election proposals on Legislature’s docket

Lawmakers kicked off the 2021 session in the shadow of a bruising election marked by the former president sowing doubt about the results and a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol.

It’s served to push the two parties further apart: Republicans are trying to roll back an expansion of voting opportunities based on instances they’ve seen of stray ballots and unproven allegations of widespread voter fraud. Democrats have become even more strident defenders of the election’s integrity.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) reiterated in an interview what state and local election officials have said about the election: that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud. She said any policy discussions or ideas that stem from the “plethora of lies” related to the election wouldn’t see the light of day this session.

“To somehow say the Legislature should get involved in this, is really founded on that fundamental principle that is being spread throughout the United States, which led to an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6,” Cannizzaro said in an interview on Thursday. “We're not going to do any policy in this building based upon that crime.”

Republicans in recent weeks distanced themselves from the more extreme allegations lodged by President Donald Trump’s supporters and campaign, which posited that up to 10 percent of ballots cast in Nevada might be fraudulent. Following a press conference last week, representatives of the Assembly Republican Caucus asserted that the election was not “fraudulent” but that reforms were still needed to button up procedures and address what polls show is a lack of confidence in the process.

But the issue is not totally put to rest. Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler still referenced 42,000 duplicate ballots in the press conference as something that should be investigated, and Republican Sen. Carrie Buck suggested 1,500 dead people voting during a committee hearing. Both allegations trace back to Trump campaign officials and were presented in an election challenge lawsuit rejected in court; proponents have yet to publicly attach names to the tens of thousands of votes they consider suspicious.

Under the stated goal of “enacting meaningful election reform,” Republican lawmakers have introduced a suite of legislation related to elections — everything from full-scale repeals of expanded mail-in voting, requiring identification to vote and rolling back changes lawmakers made in 2019, such as same-day voter registration.

Most of those could be considered dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson both said they’re open to concepts that will improve the function of the state’s election system, as long as they come in good faith and don't aim to solve an unsubstantiated voter fraud problem.

“We all want accurate elections,” Frierson said. “The folks that are concerned about accuracy and fraud, regardless of whether or not I believe that the basis for those concerns is legitimate or reliable, I do believe that we need to hear them out and make sure that we have an inclusive vetting process.”

Kelley George helps voters turn in their mail-in ballots at the Clark County Election Department in North Las Vegas on Sunday, Oct. 12, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Keeping expanded mail-in voting permanently

Few bills passed out of the Legislature have sparked more partisan flames than AB4.

The bill, passed on party lines in a 2020 special legislative session, required state election officials to mail ballots to all active registered voters in the state, while continuing in-person early and Election Day voting and legalizing “ballot collection,” where individuals are allowed to pick up and drop off mail ballots for non-family members (a practice described pejoratively by Republicans as “ballot harvesting”).

Democrats said the measure was a necessary step in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic; Republicans complained that it was a last-minute rules change aimed at giving the other party a leg up. (A lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign seeking to block implementation of the measure was dismissed before the election).

But with the dust mostly settled from the 2020 election — which saw a record number of votes cast and nearly half submitted through mail or a drop box —  Nevada Democrats are now doubling down. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson wrote in a recent op-ed that he planned to introduce a bill in the 2021 Legislature that would make the provisions of AB4 permanent and not subject to whether or not the state is in a pandemic.

In an interview Thursday, Frierson touted the heavy use of the mail option, saying it was evidence that voters would continue to use that method of voting even after the pandemic.

“It would be different if we went from 9 percent to 11 percent (mail turnout), and folks were simply determined to vote in person no matter what,” he said. “But the incredible turnout that we saw this past election cycle speaks to what Nevadans as a whole want, and as long as we continue to do that in a safe and secure and effective way, I think it's certainly always a good thing to give folks the freedom to make as many choices as they can.”

No bill language has been introduced, and Frierson said he would be “open to some tweaks” based on feedback from state and local election officials on any issues that came up in carrying out the 2020 election — notably in reporting results faster. 

But the Assembly Democratic leader poured cold water on proposals to cut back on ballot collection practices, saying he wouldn’t implement policy based on “a made-up concern that there's no factual basis for.”

“If you have suggestions about how to improve what we have, then we're going to have a vetting process to have that conversation,” he said. “But if your only answer is there are problems that we have not been able to identify, so we just think we should take steps backwards, that's not really something that is solving a problem.”

Nevada Assemblywoman, Robin Titus on the first day of the 31st Special Session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City, Nev., on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Republican pushback on AB4

But Republicans nonetheless chafe at AB4, and many signed on to bills that would repeal that section of law entirely.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus said her caucus remained opposed to the continued expansion of mail-in voting and that making the proposal permanent would “drive us further apart.” Any perception that voters are restricted without sweeping mail balloting is a “manufactured crisis by partisan politicians,” she said. 

“We have an unshakable conviction that universal mail and voting and ballot harvesting will further degrade the fragile civic trust already shared by millions of people in the state of Nevada,” she said.

Assemblyman Andy Matthews is sponsoring AB134, which would repeal all of the changes made in AB4. He said he wanted to bring the bill over concerns from constituents about the security of the state’s election system, including when ballots arrive at their homes for people who have moved or died.

“I'm not telling them they should have doubts about election security,” Matthews said. “And it's not coming from an elected official or from a news network or a pundit. This is just something they see with their own eyes. And they go, ‘Wait a minute, this doesn't add up.’”

Voters cast their ballots at a polling location inside John Dooley Elementary School in Henderson on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Straight-ticket voting and vacancy appointment changes

Legislative Democrats have broader ambitions for election policy beyond keeping universal mail-in voting in place.

Democratic Sen. Roberta Lange proposes allowing voters to cast a straight ticket vote in partisan races — essentially allowing voters to choose a party’s entire candidate slate with a single mark on the ballot. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only six other states still have straight-ticket voting laws on the books.

Lange said straight-ticket voting options help increase participation among minority populations, and that it could help avoid issues of “undervoting,” where people just cast a vote for high-profile races and skip down-ballot contests.

“Lots of times, it's too much for people to go through,” she said. “So it just gives an opportunity for people that want to vote straight Democrat or straight Republican to have options to bubble in, and it increases their participation.”

Another significant change in Lange’s bill, which has not yet been introduced, would come in the process of filling vacancies. 

Current law requires that county commissions fill vacant legislative seats in their jurisdiction, by picking from a slate of applicants who are required to live in the same district and be of the same political party. The proposed change would remove county commissioners from the appointment process and allow the highest-ranking member of the same party in the respective legislative chamber to choose the replacement.

Lange said that county commissioners have expressed frustration about making appointments to a body that they themselves don’t serve on. She said individual caucus leaders would be better suited to making that call.

“It's hard for the county commission to understand and know everything that we might need, because we work together, we're very close,” Lange said. “And so it just makes sense that it would stay with the body of where that opening is.”

The proposed bill also changes the procedure for filling nomination vacancies after a primary election but before the general election, giving the appointment power to the senior partisan leader in the appropriate jurisdiction.

It’d change the process if the vacancy occurs and there are no other members in the jurisdiction of the same political party — it’d then go to the governor, all statewide elected officers, and then legislative leadership, with the first elected official of the same political party in that lineup given the decision-making power.

Another provision would clear up conflicting opinions as to the selection of major party candidates in special elections to fill U.S. House seats — clarifying that a primary election is required before a special election.

The issue arose in the 2011, where political parties differed on whether state law on special elections should be considered “open” (with an unlimited number of candidates,) or if state party central committees should select the nominees for the special election. The election was won by Republican Mark Amodei, who still holds the seat. 

Lange’s bill would also repeal sections of state law related to the function and structure of major political parties in the state. She said the current statutory scheme could easily run afoul of the Constitution, as the state shouldn’t be involved in the governance and structure of political parties as private organizations.

“The political parties already have their own constitution and bylaws,” she said. “So it should be a fairly easy transition. It doesn't change what they're doing.”

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

Blanket primary

Nevada’s ever-growing bloc of nonpartisan voters could have a greater voice if lawmakers advance a bill to implement a “blanket primary,” although even proponents expect it will be a hard sell among legislative leaders who are the product of the two-party system.

The measure introduced by Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, SB121, creates a modified nonpartisan “blanket” primary system in which the names of all candidates appear on the primary election ballot and any registered voter may vote for any candidate, regardless of their affiliation with a political party.

It would essentially make Nevada elections that are run as partisan operations to run more like nonpartisan elections, such as those for local government seats. That doesn’t necessarily mean the candidates chosen are more moderate — outspoken conservatives such as Las Vegas City Council members Michele Fiore and Victoria Seaman won their nonpartisan races, for example.

“I think it's dangerous to make assumptions about what the outcomes are going to be because I don't think that's how it works,” Kieckhefer said. “I don't think it necessarily rewards moderation. It rewards responsiveness, attention to a broader swath of the electorate.”

Legislative leaders gave the idea a cold reception in interviews. Frierson said he personally wasn’t interested in the concept of open primaries, and had issues with the potential cost as well as effects on the party process.

“I don't see what problem that would be solving,” he said.

Cannizzaro said she didn’t know that Democrats were interested in the concept.

“We have political parties that are picking their nominations,” she said. “That's really what our primary election is for, is who's representing that particular … organized political party on the ballot.”

The Nevada Republican Party memorialized its opposition to the concept in its 2020 platform.

“We support the current, partisan primary election system, and oppose any alternative such as the Open Primary System,” the platform states.

Doug Goodman, executive director of Nevadans for Election Reform and a proponent of the concept, said he thinks the idea doesn’t stand a chance with the current leadership but might succeed if it went to a statewide vote. 

“One is the status quo,” he said. “‘This is how elections are done, and we're the party that benefits from the current system.’ They don't realize that the party that gets out there and actually expands the system is actually going to be the party that benefits.”

He also would like to see ranked choice voting, where voters can rank candidates in order of highest to lowest preference, and the candidate with highest overall favorability would win. Democrats used such a process during early voting for the presidential caucuses.

“It was very well received,” he said. “People loved it.” 

Cannizzaro said Democrats don’t have any plans to expand use of that concept.

Voter ID

Proposals to require ID to vote have failed even in Republican-led sessions. In 2015, the concept got a hearing but ultimately failed amid arguments that the practice throws up too many barriers for people, especially the elderly who may no longer have a license.

This time, Republican Sen. Keith Pickard and Republican Assemblyman John Ellison have both requested voter ID bills be drafted. 

The measures would keep the practice of voters who show up to the polls stating their name, signing a roster and having the poll worker look them up to verify they have not voted and comparing the signature to one on file. But it would add a requirement that the voter present proof of identification; those who do not have a driver’s license or similar identification could apply to the DMV for a voter identification card.

Cannizzaro panned the concept.

“Voter ID laws are, quite frankly, in every way in which you can look at this issue ... a way to disenfranchise poor, minority, and elderly populations, who have less ability to obtain state-issued licenses,” she said. “We're not going to do that now. We're not going to disenfranchise voters under the guise of election security.”

Nevada Assemblyman Jim Wheeler outside of the Legislative Building before the Assembly gaveled in fon the fourth day of the 31st Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City on Saturday, July 11, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Legislature certifying the vote

Wheeler is bringing a bill that would have the Legislature certify elections — an idea that would be a shift from the current practice of  having Supreme Court justices canvass the results of a general election in late November. The governor then issues certificates of election to the winners in a process that is largely a low-key formality but garnered much more attention in 2020.

Wheeler has requested a resolution that would amend the Nevada Constitution and require the Legislature to do the canvass and certification. Formal language for that idea has not been released, and amending the Constitution would require approval in two subsequent legislative sessions and through a statewide vote.

Wheeler said such a change would align the Nevada Constitution with the U.S. Constitution. That appears to be a reference to a portion of the U.S. Constitution that says “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State.”

“I think that if the people saw it was their closest representatives —  legislators — certifying the elections, not the secretary of state, not the governor, not anyone else, not the Supreme Court, that it’s their legislators that are doing that, they're gonna have more faith in our elections,” he said. “And that's all I'm looking for.”

In the aftermath of his 2020 loss, President Donald Trump requested lawmakers in states including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia to help him reverse a loss in those states by appointing an alternative slate of electors supportive of the president. None of the states ultimately fulfilled the request.

Wheeler said he doesn’t anticipate a change in the certification process would alter the results of the election, but would give lawmakers another juncture to review the results. 

“If there was widespread allegations of fraud … then we might call a hearing before we certify none of that happened," he said. "We've got that power, the other people don't."

Cannizzaro said such a concept was unnecessary.

“I have the utmost confidence in our election officials to be able to run elections and to be able to certify those results and to give us information about those results,” she said. “So I don't know why we would go and mess with that process, and insert ourselves.”

Reporter Tabitha Mueller contributed to this report.

Nevada seeks dismissal of Laxalt election lawsuit that claims noncitizens infiltrated state voter rolls

Attorneys for the state of Nevada are seeking the dismissal of a lawsuit against the secretary of state regarding voter roll maintenance, asserting that the court does not have jurisdiction over the subject matter and that the plaintiffs have misrepresented the secretary of state’s role in maintaining voter rolls.

In the motion to dismiss filed in the First Judicial Court in Carson City on Thursday, Gregory Zunino, deputy solicitor general for the state, wrote that the plaintiffs’ claim that Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske has failed to establish a system to verify citizenship in the state’s voter registration process was “demonstrably false.”

“Plaintiffs have no legal right to invoke this Court’s subject matter jurisdiction in their mission to seize partial control of the Office of the Secretary of State,” Zunino wrote.

The lawsuit, filed in December by former Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, names three plaintiffs — former Republican Assemblyman Al Kramer, former Washoe County District Attorney Dick Gammick and Roger William Norman — who claim that the alleged failure of the secretary of state to keep noncitizens off the voter rolls caused their votes to be diluted and discounted because “noncitizens are on the voter rolls and have voted in the past.”

Zunino wrote that it is the counties, not the state, that maintain voter rolls, meaning the responsibility to remove noncitizens from the lists falls to the county clerks. He also noted that the secretary of state merely maintains a centralized database of voter information collected from the 17 county clerks.

The plaintiffs pointed to the state’s new automatic voter registration system, which has added thousands of new voters since last January, as a potential opportunity for noncitizens to be added to the voter roll.

However, the system does have protections against the registration of noncitizens, including a citizenship question on the primary Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) form. Zunino wrote in the state’s filing that following the 2018 election, Cegavske worked with the DMV and attorney general to develop procedures for filtering noncitizens out of the voter registration process, including the exclusion of Driver Authorization Card holders, who are commonly noncitizens, from the automatic registration process.

Zunino also questioned the plaintiffs’ choice of attorney, arguing that Laxalt, who previously served as counsel for Cegavske in his capacity as attorney general, presents “an appearance of impropriety and conflict” because the plaintiffs claim that they have relied exclusively upon “public” records.

“Plaintiffs’ counsel may have access to non-public and privileged information regarding the Secretary’s efforts to address DMV voter registration processes in 2017 and 2018,” he wrote. “Insofar as Plaintiffs have engaged an attorney who may possess information acquired from an attorney-client relationship, their choice of counsel is problematic.”

Zunino also wrote that the plaintiffs lack standing in the court and that their demands for systemic and routine checks on voter citizenship represent a matter of policy that should be considered by the Legislature rather than addressed by the District Court.

That argument stems in part from the plaintiffs’ inability to prove injury by way of vote dilution, as the plaintiffs represent just three of more than 1.4 million votes cast by Nevadans in the last election. Zunino wrote that the plaintiffs aired a generalized and speculative grievance that any voter could raise, meaning that the plaintiffs have not proven any specific injury needed for standing.

He further noted that the generalized grievance about the operation of government raises policy questions that should not be handled by the court, but should instead be addressed by legislators and executives.

This session, Republican legislators are pushing for election reforms, although officials of the Assembly Republican Caucus said the group’s official position is that the recent election was not “fraudulent.”

Assembly members John Ellison (R-Elko), Jim Wheeler (R-Minden) and Jill Dickman (R-Sparks) are sponsoring AB137, which would require proof of identity for voting in person. And several Republican legislators are sponsoring AB134, which would repeal a law that calls for widespread distribution of mail-in ballots to active voters during states of emergency.

Democratic leaders have expressed interest in making the broad distribution of mail-in ballots standard, even in non-emergency times, in order to ease participation in elections.

Assembly Republican Caucus: 2020 election was not ‘fraudulent,’ but reforms needed

Officials with the Nevada Assembly Republican Caucus says the group’s official position is that the recent election was not “fraudulent,” although members pointed to individual examples of stray mail-in ballots as contributing factors to low confidence in elections, and members are trying to repeal a law that calls for widespread distribution of such ballots to active voters during states of emergency.

A rollback of election legislation passed in the summer was one of the policy plans Republicans described in a Thursday afternoon news conference outside the Legislative Building in Carson City. But many of those priorities will be difficult to accomplish with Democrats holding a majority in both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office.

Caucus members — all of them masked and together holding poster-sized printouts of a brochure outlining their policy priorities — spoke to reporters outdoors even as temperatures dipped into the 30s and a light snow began to fall. Assembly Republican Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) said their request to hold the event in a large conference room while observing COVID precautions was rejected; Republicans have been outspoken in support of a quicker lifting of capacity restrictions.

“This building is not open to the public and just for a point of information, it's not open to the legislators either,” Titus said. “We like the snow, it's just not necessarily an opportune moment for us to be out here in it.”

Reopening and emergency powers

While members did not all individually answer a question about whether they had been vaccinated, Titus said they are not anti-vaccine, but she also noted getting the vaccine to everybody is “a supply issue.” Democratic leaders have suggested the largely virtual session could reopen to the public once more people working at the Legislative Building are inoculated. 

“I think we're all in line to get that vaccine,” she said. “We want to get this building open. And we want to do it safely. We don't want to have that as an excuse not to open this building. We're all on board.”

Assemblyman John Ellison (R-Elko), however, told Elko media in a call on Thursday that he wouldn’t be getting the vaccination on the basis of “religious belief.”

Another caucus priority is putting a check on Gov. Steve Sisolak’s emergency powers, which are still in effect nearly a year after they were first invoked. They held indoor capacity limits to 25 percent for many businesses for weeks until they were relaxed effective this week. 

A bill co-sponsored by virtually all Republican caucus members, AB93, would require the Legislature’s approval to extend a state of emergency beyond 15 days.

“A governor should have emergency powers. There's no doubt about that. We have a flood, we have a pandemic, we have … an earthquake, whatever — he's got to have those powers,” Assemblyman Jim Wheeler (R-Minden) said in an interview. “But at some point, the other branches of government have to step in, and the people that are closest to the people that are electing us need to have a say.”

Wheeler said he would hope Democrats could get on board with the concept on the understanding that a Republican could again become governor and assume those same powers. 

“I've spoken to some that are kind of open to it,” Wheeler said. “But I think they're afraid to say it out loud.”

Revenue and COVID relief funds

Titus reiterated that she wants no new taxes — a declaration that could stall any plans to increase revenue this session because Democrats would need to secure a two-thirds majority to push through any plan. Republicans hold 16 of 42 seats. 

Sisolak has not proposed significant new taxes, although Democratic leaders have said they want to have a discussion about revenue this session and several tax proposals that would need approval in a statewide vote are making a pit stop before the Legislature this session. 

“Our revenues are still not what they were before the pandemic. And we still need to be responsible stewards of our money,” Titus said. “Our team is continuously working with our fiscal staff on ways that we can save money without the need for raising taxes.”

Titus said she has concerns that if Nevada receives the potentially $4 billion that might come from the next federal COVID relief package, the funds may not be spent wisely and those expenditures might not be fully transparent. She raised concerns about the effect the stimulus could have on the national debt.

“They’re printing money like it’s going out of style,” she said in an interview. “And your grandchildren are going to be paying for that.”

If the state does receive a large amount of money, however, she wants to see a commission providing oversight over the expenditures. She said it might be able to help to shore up budget accounts that are precarious session after session, including the Millennium Scholarship, a court system funded by traffic ticket fees and the Rainy Day Fund.

“Many people say that it’s a very regressive tax system that we have in Nevada. And I think that it needs to be thoroughly vetted. So this may give us a cushion to do that,” Titus said. “There's nothing wrong with the Rainy Day Fund. There's nothing wrong with saving that or investing in our infrastructure here or buildings.”

Election integrity

Republicans’ policy platform asserts that “no Nevadans should be denied access to a ballot box or have their vote nullified by a fraudulent or illegally cast vote,” although caucus spokesman Jon Staab said after the event that “the caucus does not believe the election was fraudulent.”

During the press conference, Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas) described the Democrats’ bill expanding vote by mail and allowing people to turn ballots in for others as practices that “dramatically undermine the security of our elections.” 

He said people he spoke to on the campaign trail said they received mail ballots for people who did not live at the address anymore, and also cited as an example voting discrepancies in a close Clark County Commission race initially decided by 10 votes and photos of large numbers of ballots gathering near mailboxes at apartment complexes.

Wheeler said the criticism of the policies under the recently passed election bill AB4 do not amount to not accepting the results of the election, but said he still wants a post-mortem examination of what happened. 

“The election’s over, we can't go back. And I think that people that are coming out saying we need to overturn the election, it's stupid. It's ridiculous,” Wheeler said. “Let's get this building here, the [Legislative Commission], to audit the election, see where the problems were, and fix the problems.”

He pointed to an allegation presented by former President Donald Trump’s lawyers in an election contest lawsuit that was rejected by a Carson City judge in December that there was widespread double voting. Supporting materials for the allegation were filed with the court under seal and specific details have not been widely released. 

“When you come back and you see actual — I'm not gonna say evidence, but I'm gonna say something that needs looking into — like 42,000 double votes, that demands an investigation,” he said. “Is it true? I don't know. I haven't investigated it because I'm not an investigator. But it demands an investigation.”

Mark Wlaschin, elections deputy for the secretary of state’s office, testified before lawmakers a week ago that there is “no evidence of widespread fraud in any part of the 2020 general election,” but that doesn’t mean there was zero fraud, and discussions between law enforcement and certain individuals suspected of “bad choices” related to the election are ongoing. 

Titus said she hadn’t looked into allegations of large numbers of questionable ballots, but said she had patients bring ballots to her addressed to loved ones who had died several years ago. She wants to look into the process of notifying registrars when a voter dies.

“I discussed that with my county clerk. We're trying to make sure that doesn't happen,” she said.

Automatic voter registration system adds thousands of new voters, despite security concerns from critics

People wait at the DMV office in Henderson on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018

More than 140,000 people registered as new voters through Nevada’s automatic voter registration (AVR) system since it took effect in January last year, according to a new report.

After a majority of Nevada voters approved the system in 2018, AVR took effect in 2020, allowing individuals who complete certain DMV transactions such as driver’s license renewals to register to vote or have registration information updated unless they manually opt out.

The report, which was submitted to the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee by the secretary of state’s office, combined with data from the secretary of state’s office showed that AVR created 142,484 new Nevada voters last year. Those new registrations, along with updates to approximately 300,000 existing voter registrations, came by way of more than 580,000 DMV transactions that offered a voter registration opportunity.

The registration opportunities also resulted in 143,279 applicants selecting to opt out of the AVR system, and more than 50,000 applicants selecting a party affiliation.

The new voters registered by AVR last year represent 7.1 percent of the approximately two million voters registered in the state. Nevada is at record levels of voter registration, as there were approximately 250,000 more active voters in December 2020 than in December 2019, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. Besides the new AVR system, the introduction of same-day voter registration and interest in the presidential election last year helped boost the state’s registration numbers.

Critics, including Republican former Attorney General Adam Laxalt, have raised concerns that there are not enough back-end checks on the voter registration list to ensure non-citizens are not being registered through AVR.

Laxalt’s lawsuit against fellow Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske alleged that her office has failed to keep noncitizens from registering to vote in state elections because it “has not adopted systematic or routine checks of the citizenship of those on Nevada’s statewide voter registration list.” Laxalt’s case, filed in Carson City District Court, is pending.

Despite Laxalt’s claims, Nevada DMV spokesperson Kevin Malone has previously said there are safeguards in place to protect against the registration of ineligible voters.

The AVR system works by providing eligible voters with an “AVR Options” form after filling out their application for driving privileges, license renewal, or change of address. The form provides applicants with the option to opt-out of the voter registration process.

Applicants who are ineligible for AVR, such as those who will be under the age of 18 by the time of the next election or those who submit a permanent resident card for documentation, are sent a Notice of Ineligibility. 

The DMV application also includes a question about whether the applicant is a citizen, and holders of Driver Authorization Cards, which are commonly used by non-citizens, are excluded from the AVR process. 

As the process continues to create large numbers of new voters, AVR could receive attention in the upcoming legislative session. Several lawmakers, including Assemblyman John Ellison (R-Elko) and Senator Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), have requested bills addressing election security concerns, including proposals to enact voter ID laws. 

What will a Biden administration mean for public lands in Nevada? It’s about climate change.

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

Coming up: The Legislative session is starting next week. We’ll have a preview of topics we’re watching, from climate change to education to health care, on the website this weekend. And for more coverage, my colleague Riley Snyder is starting a newsletter focused on the session. Few people know more about the inner-workings of the Legislature. The newsletter is called “Behind the Bar,” and I highly recommend you sign-up for his Carson City dispatches.

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


The statistics are repeated everywhere from county commission meetings to the Legislature. 

The federal government manages about 85 percent of Nevada’s land. And one agency alone, the Bureau of Land Management, manages more than 65 percent of the state’s land for often conflicting uses: conservation, recreation, mining, ranching, oil leasing, renewable development.

If the federal government plays a key role in overseeing public land, new presidents play a key role in setting priorities for how those lands should be developed and protected. 

Over the past four years, the Trump administration’s policies put an emphasis on opening up land to industry. The administration rolled back conservation protections, sped up permits and encouraged fossil fuel development across public land, often contributing to the climate crisis. 

On Wednesday, the Biden administration outlined a vastly different path, one wrapped inside his climate agenda. In an executive order, President Biden outlined a public land strategy focused more on conservation and promoting renewable energy, including solar, geothermal and wind.

The order directs the Department of Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, to pause oil and gas leases on public land and look for ways to double renewable production. It calls for creating a Civilian Climate Corps to help restore and protect public land. The order also commits the U.S. to a national goal of conserving 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030. And it aims to center environmental justice in tackling climate change across federal agencies.

The move was significant. For one, cities and states have been forced to grapple with climate change on their own. The executive order, Biden said at a signing ceremony on Wednesday, offered a “unified national response” to what is an issue where impacts are not isolated to one city or state. But perhaps more importantly, the executive order moves the boundaries around which future debates about climate action occur. It resets the dialogue with clear national goals.

Biden was careful not to paint his strategy as a black-and-white tradeoff between conservation and development on public land. His public lands policy is part of his climate change plan. 

And “when I think of climate change, I think of jobs,” Biden said.

Biden said his plan would create jobs in renewable development on public land and in activities that help promote conservation and climate goals — activities like carbon sequestration.

To learn more about what it all means, I talked to Bret Birdsong, an environmental law professor at UNLV and a lawyer for the Department of Interior under the Obama administration. Birdsong most recently served on the Biden transition team for the agency. Here are a few takeaways:

Setting a new national priority: Wednesday’s executive orders were aimed at starting the hard work of organizing the federal government, a sweeping bureaucracy, around climate action. For public land managers, that could mean a big shift in how lands are developed.

What they are really announcing is this whole of government climate initiative: to make climate central to everything that everybody does,” Birdsong said. “For public lands, that’s a really big thing, too, because the history of public lands and the laws that govern much of what happens on the public lands today are kind of legacies of the past. They weren’t created with climate in mind, although they provide some authority to address climate issues on public land.”

What does it mean in a state with little oil and gas production? Compared to other Western states, Nevada has historically seen little oil, gas and coal production. Although Biden’s review of oil and gas leases could help curb speculative leasing on public land, it will have little bearing on existing oil production in the state. A climate-focused approach to public lands will have more of an effect on renewable development and conservation, two issues called out in Biden’s executive order.

At times, improperly-located solar fields, transmission lines, geothermal plants and other clean energy infrastructure have clashed with conservation goals and efforts to protect endangered species. Birdsong said he views Biden, by committing to conservation and renewables, as trying to fuse the two issues — to encourage development in a way that doesn’t undermine the 30 percent by 2030 goal.

That doesn’t mean all tension will go away. 

“I do think there’s going to be some tension,” Birdsong said. “But I also think that, right off the bat here, on Climate Day, the president is sort of announcing a framework in which hopefully that conservation side is going to be integrated into meeting climate goals.”

Birdsong foresees science playing a much more determinative role in planning than it did during the Trump administration. On conservation and siting renewables, Birdsong said, “the idea is going to be, in a very serious way, to reintegrate science into [the Bureau of Land Management’s] decision-making about how and where to do things on public lands.”

What the order doesn’t mention is mining. Meeting climate goals through electrification means more demand for minerals, such as lithium. How the Biden administration views mine permitting on public land remains an open question.

Environmental justice is at the center: Biden’s focus on environmental justice as part of the climate plan could also have a significant effect on land management. 

“Native voices in public land management are going to be ascendant,” Birdsong said, noting a commitment Biden made on Tuesday to ensure the federal government respects tribal sovereignty. 

At the same time, Birdsong noted, there is a growing “recognition that rural or small town communities are actually much more diverse than is commonly understood or accepted.”

He expects public land managers in a Biden administration to be focused on making sure Tribes are not only included in decisions but also that Native voices are given more authority.

“There’s a lot of potential for that in Nevada,” he said.


Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

Regulating natural gas: Environmental groups are backing a legislative effort to require natural gas utilities to undergo more extensive planning before investing in new infrastructure that could become outdated as the state works toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. The legislation, which Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Las Vegas) plans to introduce, would help implement Gov. Steve Sisolak’s climate plan, which calls for transitioning away from natural gas. I wrote more about the state climate plan and natural gas at the end of last year. 

“It will be negotiated:” The Elko Daily Free Press spoke to Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) and Assemblyman John Ellison (R-Elko) about what to expect in Carson City, especially around changing the Constitution’s mining tax provisions. Goicoechea, reporter Adella Harding writes, said he did not envision changes to the constitutional cap on mining tax, but he left room for some sort of compromise. “I don’t see that the 5 percent net [proceeds tax] will be changed, but I think the mining industry will work through it and agree to take off some exemptions to provide a little more revenue,” he said. “I think it will be negotiated.” The debate over raising the mining tax will be interesting to watch as the budget conversation unfolds. Amending the Constitution can take years. Will legislators be tempted to cut a compromise that brings in more revenue sooner?

Snowfall: Snow in the mountains. Snow in Las Vegas. Snow day in Reno.

  • The wildfire effect: When an area burns, the effects can linger on the landscape. With precipitation comes the risk of hazards, including mudslides. “In the wake of [California’s] worst wildfire season on record, these rains carry with them a high risk of debris flows in the vicinity of burn scars. They also showcase a feature of California’s changing climate, with a seesaw between drought, heat and fires, and sudden winter storm-related flooding,” The Washington Post’s Diana Leonard and Andrew Freedman write.  

Thacker Pass in a Biden administration: The AP’s Sam Metz and Scott Sonner write about the Trump administration giving the final approval to the Thacker Pass lithium mine, north of Winnemucca. They write: “the question of how to extract lithium and whether former President Donald Trump’s Department of Interior rushed a mine through the approval process could be an early test for Biden and his nominee for Interior secretary, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland.”

  • Minerals and the climate transition: Jacob Holzman and Bill Holland, with S&P Global, offer an analysis of what mining regulation might look like during a Biden administration. They write that Biden, whose climate plan requires a supply chain of minerals like lithium and nickel, might take an approach similar to the one that Obama took with fracking. 

Climate change and the Devils Hole pupfish: Amy Alonzo, with the Reno Gazette Journal, took a look at the history and the efforts to protect the Devils Hole pupfish. But this quote, from an aquatic ecologist for Death Valley National Park, definitely stood out: “We call it probably the most endangered fish species in the world that we know of… The Devils Hole pupfish living in 93-degree F water is at the upper physiological limits for fishes. With a changing climate, the Devils Hole pupfish are a bellwether for aquatic species living in arid springs.”

We are losing 1.2 trillion tons of ice a year: “The world’s frozen places are shrinking—and they’re disappearing at faster rates as time goes by. In the 1990s, the world was losing around 800 billion metric tons of ice each year. Today, that number has risen to around 1.2 trillion tons.” E&E News’ Chelsey Harvey reports on a new study calculating global sea ice loss. 

Downwinders documentary: PBS Utah is airing a new documentary on the environmental fallout of nuclear testing in Nevada, according to St. George News. “There’s no question the government lied to everyone in Southern Utah about the potential risk of nuclear weapons testing from exposure to fallout. No question at all,” former Utah Rep. Jim Matheson said. 

Extremism, with roots in the West, casts unease over Inauguration Day festivities

The seeds of discontent had been building for some time in the United States.

Then 2020 happened, bringing a pandemic, protests for racial equality and a presidential election, which exposed even deeper fault lines within the American populace. Brewing alongside increasingly partisan social media posts and terse political conversations among loved ones was an extremist movement.

In May, armed protesters in military fatigues gathered at the Governor’s Mansion to protest COVID-19 restrictions. In August, counter-protesters, some of them armed with military-style weapons, outnumbered protesters at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Minden. Members of extremist groups appeared at pro-Trump campaign rallies and outside of the Legislature. 

Then, when election results didn’t tip in President Donald Trump’s favor, extremist groups, egged on by politicians and Trump himself, embraced false claims about voting fraud.

It culminated in a violent insurrection on hallowed grounds — the U.S. Capitol, where federal lawmakers were certifying the presidential election results.

The chaos transfixed the world’s eyes on the United States, which had not seen a breach of the Capitol in more than two centuries. Now, 20,000-some National Guard troops have descended upon Washington, D.C, ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday. 

Extremism is not new to this moment, and it is not isolated to one region of the country. In fact, FBI officials have warned of armed protests in all 50 state capitals ahead of and on Inauguration Day. But the West, including Nevada, has long been a hot spot for anti-government extremism that, especially in recent years, has often used violent rhetoric and urged on armed militias.

The images pouring out of the Capitol had echoes of armed confrontations seen in the West — and Nevada — throughout 2020 and during the past several years. In Nevada and elsewhere, these conflicts, like the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014, have often centered on disputes over  federal public land. 

"The West has the preponderance of public lands in the country and that is the anchor point of the federal government,” said Leisl Carr Childers, a historian at Colorado State University. “And Westerners experience federal oversight more closely than any other group of Americans.”

But if some roots of extremism can be traced back to the West, the expressions of extremism in Nevada over the past year echoed the nation’s politics, centering around COVID-19 restrictions, Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of police killings and false claims of election fraud.

Political leaders in Nye County and Elko County, both hot spots for public lands disputes with the federal government, have protested state COVID-19 restrictions, spread conspiracy theories about the insurrection at the Capitol and challenged the election results, perpetuating the disinformation that has provoked many far-right extremists to take action.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League, said several factors contributed to right-wing extremist groups having a more visible presence across the country in 2020.

These groups, typically aligned against the federal government, embraced President Trump and often turned their ire toward local and state officials, particularly governors. He said 2020 offered a series of events that “provided a lot of opportunities for right-wing extremists to act out.” Then came the election, in which Trump and his supporters purposefully sowed doubt in the election.

“The ether was filled with claims that this upcoming election was going to be fraudulent — that there was going to be mass fraud,” Pitcavage said in an interview last week. 

The series of events that primed extremists in 2020 played out in every region of the U.S. Still, Pitcavage said, it was “not a coincidence that, of the statehouses stormed in 2020, the West had two of them.”

A shifting rebellion

When pro-Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, observers who study the West were both surprised and not. Armed militiamen had confronted law enforcement here in the recent past, despite Nevada’s Constitution forbidding private militia groups.

.The insurrection at the Capitol, a public symbol on public land, looked similar to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon five years earlier. The takeover of the Oregon refuge, led by Ammon Bundy and aided by militiamen, was an apex of simmering public lands feuds across the West, including the armed Bundy Ranch standoff outside Las Vegas in 2014.

But James Skillen, an associate professor at Calvin University and the author of “This Land is My Land: Rebellion in the West,” saw those incidents as the culmination of something greater. 

When he watched the Bundy Ranch standoff unfold, his questions were less about the rancher, Cliven Bundy, who illegally grazed cattle on public land and was at the center of the dispute. They focused on a Fox News pundit, born in New York, who likely knew little about grazing fees. 

Skillen remembers asking: “Why is Sean Hannity so supportive? Why is he tripping over himself to think that Cliven Bundy is the most stand-up person?”

In the 1970s, public land disputes began flaring up in Nevada as a movement often referred to as the Sagebrush Rebellion took hold across the rural West. 

Federal public land comprises about 85 percent of the state’s land mass with roughly 67 percent of the state managed by one agency, the Bureau of Land Management, tasked with balancing economic activity and conservation on public land. As a result, the federal government plays an outsized role, especially in the rural West, over everything from grazing cattle to mining for gold.

The Sagebrush Rebellion, which came a few years after Congress passed legislation that aimed to protect more land for conservation and wildlife, sought to transfer federal public land to the states, a legally complicated and dubious task. At the request of ranchers and local politicians, state lawmakers, including in Nevada, passed legislation in support of the cause.

At the time, the Sagebrush Rebellion was a largely regional movement, Skillen said. There was no Twitter and few think tanks. Then things changed.

“What changes dramatically, already by the 1990s and then today,” he said, “is the unrest that we've seen is no longer just regional and it’s also no longer really just about land and resources. Those challenging the federal government are a coalition of people with really diverse interests.”

In 2014, the group that assembled in Bunkerville — about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas — proved that point. The people who showed up supporting Bundy, some bearing arms, didn’t just come from Nevada or neighboring Arizona and Utah. Some traveled thousands of miles from New England, galvanized by an anti-government mission in a very different locale. 

That’s what made the Bundy standoff such a groundbreaking event, said Cary Underwood, director of the Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center. 

“For the first time that I can remember in this, you saw a surge of militia adherence or extremist followers to one common rallying event,” he said. “They demonstrated their ability to communicate across militia groups.”

Extremism in the United States exists in many forms, with certain ideologies waxing and waning — but not completely disappearing — based on current events. But anti-government and racially motivated extremism, two components that live under a broad umbrella of extremism ideologies, account for a large share of domestic terrorism threats, according to the FBI. 

"Racially motivated violent extremists over recent years have been responsible for the most lethal activity in the U.S.,” FBI director Christopher Wray said during a House Homeland Security committee hearing in September. “Now this year, the domestic terrorism, lethal attacks we’ve had have, I think, all fit in the category of anti-government, anti-authority, which covers everything from anarchist violent extremists to militia types. We don’t really think in terms of left, right."

To Skillen, the Bundy standoff and the Malheur occupation signified that anti-government groups were increasingly organizing around similar causes, something he saw play out again when he watched armed Trump supporters storm the Capitol earlier this month.

“Ammon Bundy isn’t talking about land issues anymore,” Skillen said. “He's stopping high school football games over mask and social distancing requirements.”

The role of politicians 

Scholars say political rhetoric, amplified during a bitter election cycle, monthslong pandemic and  shaky economy, has fanned the flames of extremism. 

“I blame politicians more than social media,” said Arie Perliger, author of “American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism” and a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “When the president of the United States mentioned or embraced the Proud Boys in front of an audience of 120 million people in a presidential debate, that’s the problem.”

Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has assigned Trump some blame for the Capitol siege. On the eve of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Republican senator from Kentucky said, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”

Trump and his allies weren’t the only purveyors of such rhetoric. 

Local elected officials and political leaders, including former Nevada Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt, have spread false claims that the election was stolen. Others have perpetuated conspiracy theories about COVID-19 rather than debunked them.

The Capitol Hill violence, which disrupted the peaceful transition of power, wasn’t enough to stem the tide of inflammatory rhetoric. 

One day after the insurrection in Washington, D.C., Assemblyman John Ellison, a Republican who represents Elko County, said the rioters were not Trump supporters.

“They were Antifa — people dressed up as Trump supporters… They’ve got it on video,” he said in a Battle Born Media Networks interview. “It’s not about who wins an election but who steals the election. There will never be another free election in this country again if they don’t do something.” 

Meanwhile, a letter written by the Nye County Republican Party chairman, Chris Zimmerman, made national headlines, given that it stokes more false claims about the election. “Let me be clear: Trump will be president for another four years,” the message posted online Jan. 8 said. “Biden will not be president.”

Then, last week, the Nevada GOP tweeted that Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford was “complicit in stealing the voice of 130,000 voters in our state,” suggesting widespread election fraud. 

Political leaders across the U.S., experts said, have created an atmosphere to prime supporters for extreme actions, and in some cases, failed to rebuke groups that have threatened violence. 

Pitcavage said politicians bear “tremendous amount of responsibility.”

“If despite all of the facts, all of the complete lack of evidence for any significant fraud, despite dozens of court cases being lost or thrown out, after all of these accusations of fraud were repeatedly refuted and rebutted, to continue to claim that the election was stolen becomes not simply partisan positioning, it actually begins to weaken the Democratic foundations of the country because they are based on trust,” he said.

What the future looks like

From a law enforcement perspective, expect to see federal, state and local agencies be on heightened alert for more anti-government extremism threats, especially this week as a new administration takes office, said Cary Underwood, who heads the Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center. 

“The emotions and beliefs are not going to go away,” he said. “The perception that folks feel wronged is not just going to dissipate just because the inauguration occurs.”

But Perliger said Trump’s departure from the White House may render him less helpful and, therefore, not as important to right-wing extremist groups that have aligned themselves with him.

“I think they needed him because they believe that he's in a tool that will allow them to almost dismantle the government from within,” he said. “... Yes, he will be some kind of a figurehead, some kind of a symbol maybe, but, again, he's not useful for them anymore so we’ll see.”

An open question is how the militia movement’s organization will be affected after being taken off of social media platforms, their primary arena for organizing, Pitcavage said. 

“For the first time in its history, it has witnessed significant de-platforming,” he said.

Over the past year, tech companies have banned militia groups from organizing on their platforms. And after the insurrection at the Capitol, Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” Other companies did the same.

During the Trump administration, anti-public land extremism that specifically targeted the federal government was less of a threat than it was during the Obama administration. Trump appointed officials who were sympathetic to their concerns. 

This month, the Trump administration issued new grazing rights to Oregon ranchers who were convicted of arson and whose fight with the federal government helped sparked Malheur occupation. The administration took no action to stop the Bundy family from illegally grazing cattle in southern Nevada, even after a report chronicled unlawful irrigation ditches in Gold Butte National Monument. 

On Friday, E&E News reported that Cliven Bundy, in a recent interview, said that he believed the conflict around the Bundy Ranch and illegal grazing would continue in the coming years. 

“We’re going to have to go forward,” Bundy said. “If we have to walk forward towards guns, which we did at the Bundy Ranch, we have to do that. And we have to have faith.”