Higher education officials ended 2021 session with mixed budget news, prospect of another fight over removing regents from constitution

Administrators, officials and lobbyists in the orbit of Nevada’s higher education system shared a common refrain coming out of this year’s legislative session: It could have been worse. 

“I think relative to where we started the process, we ended up in a much better place,” Nevada System of Higher Education CFO Andrew Clinger said. “Now, I wouldn't say that we're in a great place. We're better than we were.”

When the dust settled, NSHE escaped with roughly $76 million in cuts to operational budgets, after another $93 million had been restored to institutional coffers through federal COVID relief dollars. It was a surprise boon and last-minute addback aimed at lifting a hiring freeze and avoiding the looming prospect of faculty layoffs. 

Even now, optimism remains high that lawmakers will use some of the roughly $2.7 billion in federal aid allocated to Nevada through the American Rescue Plan to erase some or all of the outstanding $76 million cut — though exactly how or when that could happen remains unknown. 

While the budget drew much of the attention during the session, lawmakers also passed dozens of higher-education related bills, including measures that formalized land-grant university status for UNLV, created fee waivers for Native students and began the process of amending the Board of Regents out of the state Constitution. 

Budget woes blunted, but not erased

When the legislative session began in early February, vaccinations had only just begun in earnest. Among the many unknowns at the time, it remained unclear when — and by how much — the state’s precarious revenue outlook would rebound after a devastating 2020. 

Amid that uncertainty, Gov. Steve Sisolak proposed a two-year budget that skimmed 12 percent off state agency budgets. That included NSHE, where 12 percent over two years amounted to a cumulative $169 million in cuts. 

At the time, the 12 percent figure, combined with several key restorations of tens of millions in capital project funding, was seen as something of a win. Budgets fell by roughly 19 percent in 2020 by the end of last year’s special legislative session, but several administrators, system officials and lobbyists expressed relief at the time that the governor and lawmakers declined to go even further in dipping into higher education coffers to fill severe budget holes elsewhere. 

Through the course of the 2021 session, higher education advocates were concerned that legislators might use higher education budgets as a release valve. And at multiple junctures, lawmakers on key budget committees pressed higher education officials for more information on individual budget accounts, and asked why formula-based funding tied to student credit-hours, referred to as caseload growth, was increasing even as enrollment numbers fell. 

“I've said this to almost every NSHE advocate and lobbyist that I have ever met with, that I appreciate where they are, [but] that if I have a choice between kindergarteners and college kids, I'm there for the kindergarteners,” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said during a May committee meeting. “They need my voice, they need our voice.”

Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton in the Legislature in Carson City on Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Clinger and system Chancellor Melody Rose argued to legislators that the increase came because formula budgets lagged the current budget cycle by roughly two years, and the increase was in essence a built-in “catch-up” mechanic. 

That question came in addition to claims from committee members that NSHE was better positioned to absorb cuts in large part because of federal aid dollars set aside specifically for colleges and universities through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). 

Created as part of the original CARES Act and boosted twice by federal relief measures in December and again as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), HEERF ultimately funneled more than $369 million to NSHE institutions, with a little less than half — $160 million — set aside for student financial aid. 

In documents presented to the committee in the waning days of the session, Clinger argued that the HEERF money had only offset deep revenue losses at individual institutions, essentially covering massive budget holes created by empty dorms, unfilled stadium seats and unbought parking passes. Clinger said the HEERF allocation would not cover the sum total of expected revenue losses and a 12 percent across-the-board cut. 

Even now, as the widespread lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and the expansion of vaccination programs are buoying state and local economies, Clinger told The Nevada Independent that revenue projections have yet to change. The latest round of HEERF money allocated through the ARP will still be set aside to cover expected losses in non-state funding. 

The biggest budgetary win for NSHE came in the final days of the session, when budget committees opted to fully restore personnel budgets and added back roughly $93 million dollars in an effort to unfreeze hundreds of vacant positions across all eight institutions. 

However, lawmakers left another $76 million in operational cuts in place while also instituting a handful of fee waiver bills. Most notable among the waivers was AB262, which essentially waived tuition and fees for members and descendents of any federally-recognized Indian tribe or nation in Nevada. 

The fee waivers were hailed by Native leaders as critical expansions of educational access, and saw support from both UNR and UNLV. After AB262 was signed by the governor, Nevada Indian Commission Executive Director Stacey Montooth said the measure “exponentially broadened” the futures of the state’s Native Americans. 

But NSHE officials and members of the Board of Regents have raised concerns that such waivers were delivered to the system as “unfunded mandates” with fiscal impacts that are difficult to quantify because of the impact on future revenues, ultimately compounding operational cuts.  

“So [the Legislature] cut the budget, and then tell higher ed that they have to give certain students free or reduced tuition,” Regent Jason Geddes said in an interview. “And most of [the waivers] I'm very favorable about, and I've supported, like AB262, but it is tough to balance.”

Faculty labor priorities see mixed results

As lawmakers mulled the budget, faculty advocates sought action on a number of their own labor priorities with mixed results. 

In the win column, legislators approved language that allowed regents to implement the first permanent merit-based pay raise funding pool in more than a decade. 

Under a policy later approved by regents during an early June meeting, institutions will use a 1 percent pool from their budgets to fund performance-based pay increases, functionally replacing a state-funded 2 percent pool that was eliminated as part of Recession-era cuts 12 years ago.

Representatives with the Nevada Faculty Alliance (NFA), including UNLV’s Doug Unger, called the change “a victory” and “a long time coming,” pointing to the pool as a key factor in helping address issues of salary compression and worsening faculty morale.  

UNLV campus on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Even so, the NFA’s main priority, SB373, struck a logjam in the Senate Finance Committee, where it ultimately died without receiving a second hearing.

A measure that would have granted Nevada higher education faculty collective bargaining rights under state law, SB373, was pitched by NFA leaders as a necessary step toward removing control of the current bargaining process from NSHE and the Board of Regents. 

“The problem with that is that our employers, who are the Board of Regents, both write and interpret the rules of engagement for collective bargaining,” Kent Ervin, Vice President of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said. “And we have no way of going to an outside group for mediation or arbitration for efficient resolution of any disputes.”

Under the current system, faculty can collectively bargain under NSHE code, just as CSN faculty did last year. However, such bargaining units are unable to directly negotiate with the state for pay and benefits, leaving them unable to ask for the 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) raise offered to certain state employee unions. 

“It’s rather ironic that at the same time, our collective bargaining bill, to give us the right to negotiate under the state system, was not passing through the Legislature, we were told that, ‘well, unless you have a collective bargaining agreement with the state, you can't get this higher COLA, you have to have the agreement first,’” Ervin said. “And yet, we have no way in statute to have that agreement.”

And while faculty fears over impending layoffs were allayed by the restoration of personnel budgets, other compensation cuts remain in place. That includes deep cuts to the Public Employees Benefits Program (PEBP), including reductions in life insurance benefits and the wholesale elimination of long-term disability insurance.

The expected pain from those cuts was partially mitigated with the surprise addition of a premium holiday. But with the enrollment period for the current fiscal year already come and gone, Ervin and other faculty advocates are still “cautiously hopeful” that lawmakers could use federal relief money to plug holes for the 2023 fiscal year. 

The Accountability Question

Each of the last three legislative sessions has had a similar yet distinctive throughline: a visible lack of trust between key legislators and NSHE, its chancellor and the Board of Regents. 

The history of tension between the Legislature and the regents spans decades. Unlike many other states, the Board of Regents that govern higher education in Nevada are written directly into the Constitution with the power to control not only universities, but also community colleges. Critics of the board have often charged that it and NSHE at large have wielded that constitutional status as a legal shield, at times casting itself as a fourth branch of government in legal disputes with the Legislature. 

The relationship deteriorated quickly and severely in the wake of a 2016 scandal that saw then-Chancellor Dan Klaich ousted over the revelation that his office had misled legislators during the high-stakes revision of the system’s funding formula in 2012. 

The incident and other lingering divisions between legislators and the regents finally led to 2017's AJR5, which sought to expand legislative oversight by pulling the Board of Regents from the state Constitution entirely. 

After four years of winding through the legislative process, AJR5 became Question 1 on the 2020 ballot. But after all those years, including a year of full-throated public campaigning, Question 1 was rejected by voters by a narrow margin of just 3,877 votes out of more than 1.2 million ballots cast. 

Just five months after the ballot question failed, lawmakers introduced and passed SJR7, a legislatively-proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the Board of Regents from the state Constitution, in essence mirroring Question 1 with a handful of small tweaks.

Like AJR5 before it, SJR7 would need to secure passage from both houses in another legislative session before it could head to the voters for final approval in 2024. The measure cruised easily through both the Assembly and Senate, encountering only a bit of late-session resistance from a small bloc of 11 conservative Assembly Republicans — far short of the 22 votes needed to block the measure. 

Lawmakers on the floor of the Assembly inside the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, April 15, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Question 1’s backers have coalesced around SJR7, now armed, they say, with the knowledge of why Question 1 failed at the ballot box. 

“I think there's just significant evidence that can't be ignored that the public was very, very confused about it,” said Warren Hardy, a former state senator and lobbyist with the nonprofit Council for a Better Nevada, which funded efforts supportive of Question 1 on the 2020 ballot. “And so being as close as it was, I feel like having a question clarified and very specific about the fact that it just simply looks at taking the regents out of the Constitution, but yet doesn't change any of the statutory provisions related to how they're elected or anything.”

The question of whether the regents should be enshrined in the state Constitution has also been linked to a related but separate question: Should the regents be elected at all? 

Both sides of that issue have argued that the possibility of appointing, rather than electing regents — which is not a policy addressed either by Question 1 or by SJR7 — should not be part of the debate over the regents’ constitutional status. 

Even so, the two issues have so-far been inextricably tied together, both in opposition rhetoric and in the Legislature. 

In the midst of the second round of discussions in 2019, then-Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse — a co-sponsor of AJR5 — proposed SB354. It was a sweeping measure that would have completely overhauled the makeup of the Board of Regents (if Question 1 on the 2020 ballot were to pass), dropping the number of regents from 13 to nine and splitting the board between just five elected regents and four appointed by the governor. 

Even though the bill failed to pass, it has since served as proof-positive among Question 1 skeptics that Legislators will likely attempt to appoint at least some regents should the legal bar be lowered and the board is removed from the Constitution. 

Vocal Question 1 critic and Regent Jason Geddes asked in an interview with The Nevada Independent, in light of moves by lawmakers to slash budgets, enforce fee waivers and audit system finances, “What is the overall intent, if not to make the board appointed, not elected?”

“I think [appointed regents] is still the through line,” Geddes said. “I don't think they should have brought [SJR7] this session. To me, it's somewhat dismissive of the electorate to say, ‘they just didn't understand it. and even though they voted it down, we're going to bring it back.’”

Proponents of SJR7 argue, just as they did with Question 1, that the entire debate is and should be about the accountability of the board to lawmakers. To that end, among the differences between last year’s failed ballot question and this year’s renewed joint-resolution is the addition of a Constitutional requirement for lawmakers to audit the higher education system every two years. 

Lawmakers would have the power to initiate an audit regardless of the passage of SJR7, and indeed moved this session to begin just such a process with AB416. But, Hardy said, the enshrinement of a legislative audit in the language of SJR7 was included because “the public overwhelmingly supported that provision.” 

“We started emphasizing a little bit because of the public interest that was in it,” Hardy said, citing internal polling and focus groups. “But certainly for the most part, when we were trying to figure out what people did and didn't understand about it, it was pretty clear that those who supported it understood [audits] and wanted it included.”

The broader question of accountability often dips deeper into something more foundational: Should Nevada overhaul the structures through which it governs higher education? 

One potential kickstart to discussions about new governance models could come from AB450, a bill backed by the governor and creating an interim committee tasked with examining whether governance and funding structures for Nevada community colleges align with broader workforce development goals. 

AB450 was the end result of a promise Sisolak made in his State of the State address in January, when he pledged to call on lawmakers to work with NSHE “to develop a framework to transition Nevada’s community colleges to a new independent authority that will focus on making Nevadans job ready.”

In the time since, the governor has at least twice called for increased community college funding — once during a post-session bill signing event, and again during a roundtable event with U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh last month. 

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, right, and Gov. Steve Sisolak announce a workforce grant during a roundtable at the College of Southern Nevada on Tuesday, June. 22, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

“I've always maintained — from my time on the Board of Regents to the [Clark] County Commission to now as governor — our community colleges are underfunded and underappreciated and overlooked, unfortunately,” Sisolak said during the roundtable.

What form such an increase would take is unclear. But should AB450 initiate new talks on a funding formula revision, higher education administrators said it is likely that any community college formula changes would ripple outward to the state’s four-year institutions, too. 

And while the bill is in a technical sense merely a study — often the death of lawmaking endeavors — Hardy said key provisions in AB450 mean the study committee will produce an actionable report come the next regular session. 

“This is the first step towards modernization,” Hardy said. “And we're very delighted that there's language included in there, this implementation language. That it is not just a study, but there's a provision that requires the group to come back with recommendations for 2023. So we think we can begin implementing these things as early as 2023.”

Land grant status, more policies pass muster

No single piece of legislation threatened to re-open regional wounds between UNLV and UNR in the early months of the legislative session like SB287

In the simplest terms, the measure sought to formalize UNLV and the Desert Research Institute as federally designated land grant institutions alongside UNR in statute, essentially firming up several legal opinions that held that UNLV and DRI were already land grant schools, as both were already part of the “University of Nevada” as described in the state Constitution. 

UNLV administrators and Southern Nevada boosters praised the measure as a necessary equalizer between north and south, a change they said could provide the state’s younger university the same opportunities afforded the venerable UNR. 

But many at UNR —  including university President Brian Sandoval, who vetoed a similar measure during his time as governor in 2017 — railed against the bill as potentially devastating to the university’s Cooperative Extension, which partners with county governments across the state to provide a host of popular programs.  

University of Nevada, Reno on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

In the end, the regional push-and-pull was for naught, as last-minute compromises gutted the original draft’s most controversial provisions. SB287’s final form left UNR’s funding for its Cooperative Extension untouched, while still allowing for formal legal recognition of UNLV and DRI as land grant institutions.

For the Council for a Better Nevada, also a major booster of the bill, Hardy said the goal for 2021 was securing formal land-grant status in Nevada law — not pursuing millions of dollars in funding made available to UNR through its operation of the Cooperative Extension, as the original draft did. 

“In retrospect, if I had to do it again, I would have only included section six that provision related to codifying land grants in the first place,” Hardy said. “Because that was the portion that we were interested in.”

The ultimate financial effect of SB287’s addition of grant application opportunities will likely take months or years to play out as UNLV and DRI faculty apply for the grants at issue. 

SB287 was only one of many higher education-related bills that survived the session. Other major legislation approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor includes: 

  • SB434: Restores $25 million in state funding for the medical education building under construction for UNLV’s nascent Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine. Originally allocated in 2017 but cut during the 2020 special session, Hardy said the money will go toward furnishing the interior once construction is complete. 
  • SB347: A wide-reaching bill that, among other things, directs the regents to create a sexual misconduct task force and create a system-wide campus climate survey, and also removes citizenship requirements for the Millennium Scholarship, Silver State Opportunity Grant and the Nevada Promise Scholarship. The measure was the end result of three bills — two addressing Title IX issues and a third focused on scholarship requirements — merged into one.
  • SB342: Allows the Board of Regents to give final approval to a 50-year partnership deal between the UNR Medical School and Reno-area health care giant Renown Health. Hailed as “transformative” by proponents, the deal was approved by regents in a 12-1 vote at their June meeting. 
  • SB128: Directs the state treasurer to conduct a study on the effectiveness of publicly-funded scholarships and grant programs. The study would evaluate a range of metrics, from the administrative costs of these programs to the short and long-term viability of publicly funded scholarships. 
  • SB327: Though not wholly related to NSHE, this bill in part expands definition of racial discrimination to include ancestry, color and certain traits like hairstyles. The bill also prohibits discrimination based on “traits associated with race” for enrollment in Nevada schools, including institutions under NSHE’s umbrella. 

Updated, 7/2/21 at 11:30 a.m. - This story was updated to include additional details on the Nevada Board of Regents as among the few elected boards nationwide, and to correct a transcription error. NFA Vice President Kent Ervin said "for efficient," rather than "or efficient."

Freshman Orientation: Senator Carrie Buck

As in sessions past, The Nevada Independent is publishing a series of profiles featuring all the new lawmakers in the state. This is the third installment of more than a dozen. Check back in coming days for additional stories on new legislators' backgrounds, interests and policy positions.

  • Freshman Republican who succeeds Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse (D-Las Vegas).
  • Represents District 5, which includes parts of Henderson and the Las Vegas Valley east of Interstate 15.
  • District 5 leans slightly Democratic (36.9 percent Democratic, 31.8 percent Republican and 24.4 percent nonpartisan in the 2020 election).
  • Buck did not have a primary opponent in the 2020 election.
  • She won a narrow victory over Democrat Kristee Watson in the 2020 general election, with a 329-vote margin out of more than 67,000 votes cast.
  • She will sit on the Education and Legislative Operations and Elections committees.

FAMILY AND EDUCATION

Buck was born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, and earned her undergraduate degree at Montana State University before moving to Las Vegas to begin her teaching career in the 1990s.

She also achieved a master’s degree in administration and supervision from the University of Phoenix and a doctorate in organizational leadership from NOVA Southeastern University. She is married and has four children.

CAREER

Buck has a long career in education, starting out teaching English language learners at an elementary school in Las Vegas and eventually rising to become principal at C.T. Sewell Elementary School. She then transitioned to a charter school network, the Pinecrest Academy, where she rose to become lead principal and executive director of the network.

She currently serves as the president of the Pinecrest Foundation, a registered nonprofit that helps fund charter school educational initiatives including scholarships for students. 

PROFILE

Carrie Buck’s love of teaching started with her sister.

Growing up in an isolated rural community, Buck said that after school, she would head home excited to “play school” and teach her sister everything she had learned from school that day (she takes partial credit for her sister ending up in a gifted and talented program).

After graduating from college, she moved to Las Vegas in 1996 to take a teaching job in the Clark County School District. She started as a teacher for nearly three dozen English language learner students, most of whom spoke Spanish but also others who spoke Japanese and Swahili. 

“I remember driving on the I-15 South and seeing the lights for the first time,” Buck, 49, said. “And then I had a little anxiety, because it is a culture shock. Moving from these small little areas to a big city, you just don't know what to expect, but it has been nothing but amazing.”

Buck continued rising up the ranks in the education world until she became principal of C.T. Sewell Elementary in the middle of the 2005-06 school year. At the time, the school was one of the worst-performing elementary schools in the state, but Buck attracted local and national attention in her efforts to turn the school’s fortunes around and eventually earn distinction as a National Title I School.

She left the school in 2014 to become principal of the Pinecrest Academy charter school in Henderson. She left that position in 2019 to become president of the affiliated nonprofit Pinecrest Foundation, which provides scholarships and funding for other programs for the charter school network.

“It's been a great perspective being in a traditional school district, and then moving to a charter school district, and seeing all the ins and outs of school financing, and all of it comes into developing a strong instructional plan that serves kids,” she said.

Her interest in politics started back when she was still principal at Sewell, saying she initially contacted former Assembly Republican Leader Paul Anderson about possibly running for an Assembly seat. But instead, she opted for a run for a state Senate seat in the 2016 election and lost a close race to incumbent Joyce Woodhouse (D-Las Vegas) by fewer than 500 votes.

Buck also made headlines in 2017 when she was put forward as a potential candidate during a series of recall efforts targeting Democratic state senators, including Woodhouse. The recall efforts ultimately failed, and Buck later privately apologized for her role in the process.

Buck ran again for the same seat in 2020, this time narrowly defeating Democrat and political newcomer Kristee Watson by 329 votes out of more than 67,500 cast in the district (Woodhouse was prevented by term limits for running again).

Buck is one of four freshmen in the Senate, and the only Republican elected in a competitive district. She said she hoped to put her head down and focus on passing her priority bills, but wasn’t concerned if her proposals were held up or blocked for overtly political reasons. 

“I learned by (watching) what happens to others,” she said. “And so when leaders treat others poorly or unprofessionally or lock it out as they have in the past, that's just what is expected,” “So there may be a little anxiety about that but I'm a big girl, I signed up for this, and I'm willing to take whatever...comes my way. I can handle it.”

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

ON THE ISSUES 

COVID vaccines

Buck said she doesn’t plan to immediately get a COVID-19 vaccine, and disclosed that she and her husband, who works for the Henderson Police Department, both had the illness in December.

She said her symptoms were like a mild flu, but acknowledged that it “can hit anyone differently, so you just don’t know.” While she doesn’t have any reservations or concerns about the vaccine, she said that she would prefer to wait until more people in the general public begin to receive it.

“I have a lot of between 65- and 70-year-olds that are emailing me wanting the vaccine, so until constituents are vaccinated, I think I can wait,” she said.

Education changes

Unsurprisingly, many of the bills that Buck plans to bring forward in the 2021 session have to do with education.

One “simple fix” she’ll be proposing has to do with making the GPA weights for dual enrollment college courses taken by high school students equal to the higher weights given to Advanced Placement classes. She’s also working on a proposal with fellow Republican Sen. Scott Hammond to provide internships for high school students and dropouts.

She also plans to introduce a bill that would ensure teachers and government employees receive training about their publicly funded retirement system and benefits.

And while it may not be a piece of legislation, she said she also wanted to ensure that no bills are passed that affect the carryover dollars or reserve accounts budgeted by individual school principals — a topic that came up but was abandoned by the Clark County School District during the 2020 policy-focused special session.

“The reason you save money as a school leader is because if the following year you're asked to make a 15 to 20 percent cut, that you can keep your staff because it brings consistency for kids,” she said. “And that's what they need. Your staff doesn't want to have to worry about transferring schools and all this upheaval. They work the best when there is trust and that there's a leader that's going to go to bat for them.”

Taxes

Buck declined to stake a position on the sales and gaming tax initiatives backed by the Clark County Education Association and currently in the Legislature, saying she wants to “see how this plays out.”

Lawmakers have a 40-day clock from the start of the legislative session to take up the measures, or else they’ll head to the 2022 ballot. Democratic leadership in the Legislature have said they don’t plan to support the measure.

As for the trio of proposed constitutional amendments raising taxation rates on mining that passed during the 2020 special session, Buck said she would support “bringing mining into the conversation” but was leaning against what Democratic lawmakers had passed last summer.

“I don't believe in isolating industries to tax them and turning people on each other,” she said. “Because then you never know who's next on the dinner plate.”

ID cards for inmates

Buck also said she’s working on a bill with Republican Sen. Ira Hansen to fix issues with identification cards for former inmates. 

State lawmakers in 2017 passed a law requiring prison officials to verify an inmate’s true name and age with a birth certificate before issuing any identification cards after they’re released from state custody, but prison officials estimated that difficulties in meeting the higher standard meant nearly half of released inmates didn’t have any form of identification when they leave.

Buck said that left former inmates having to wait weeks to get other forms of identification, which makes it harder for them to return to normal society.

“Inmates that have messed up in their life but served their time and are out, we need to get them into the workforce and get them (to be) productive individuals as soon as possible,” she said.

Election integrity

Asked whether she believed that massive amounts of voter fraud caused former President Donald Trump to lose Nevada in the 2020 presidential election — something the president’s campaign has claimed but that has been denied by Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske and in courts around the state — Buck demurred.

“I don't know, I don't know that,” she said. “I mean, I just don't know. I wasn't presented with any evidence. I didn't see for myself any nefarious happenings. So I haven't been briefed on that.”

Buck said she thought election officials should ensure that death records are closely compared to voter files, and noted that several of her Republican colleagues plan to introduce bills related to election procedures and processes, although she said she didn’t think they’d “see the light of day” in a Democrat-controlled Legislature.

She said she was uneasy about the close vote margin and issues with ballots in the Clark County Commission race between Ross Miller and Stavros Anthony, but didn’t outright say that fraud had or had not occurred in any races on the 2020 ballot.

“That's a really tough question because I don't know,” she said. “I do think that there were different things that were happening, but I don't have proof of anything, so I'm not going to be one that's going to be shouting that because I'm not an attorney with proof.”

Updated on Feb. 5, 2021 at 2:46 p.m. to correct that Buck's husband works for the Henderson Police Department, not the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

Behind the Bar: Why there’s no registered lobbyists + Woodhouse’s return + Remembering Robin Bates

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

Welcome to the second edition of Behind the Bar, which digs into why lobbyists aren’t having to register so far this session, the return of Joyce Woodhouse, a push for environmental justice and an update on COVID vaccine numbers for Department of Corrections staff and inmates. We’re also sharing remembrances of former Assembly Sergeant at Arms Robin Bates, who passed away from COVID-19 complications this week.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions.

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 weird.

That’s probably the best description I could give to describe how the 2021 Legislature has operated over the first few days. The other go-to example I’ve used is that everyday seems to feel like how a Friday felt during a “normal” session, where the building is half cleared out and a general sense that no one really wants to be there.

The addition of session staff helps things feel a little more normal, as compared to the special sessions where the building felt especially empty. 

But the normal pulse of the building is off. There really are not many people wandering the halls, no bustle between committee rooms, no huddles of lobbyists or anything like that. Instead, most lawmakers stick to a small travel loop between their individual offices, floor sessions and caucus rooms (most of which have removed large tables and instead have movie-theater style chairs around the perimeter of the room, separated by plexiglass dividers).

Session operations and the pace of the Legislature will eventually settle into a rhythm. And complaining about how the legislative session feels different seems small compared to the other disruptions, pain and loss of life caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But it’s still worth noting how legislative operations have changed. Lawmakers do form personal relationships when spending time together in the building, eating lunch or sitting through long committee meetings. Will that be the same if everyone is in their office, primarily interacting through Zoom? Is there more friction and less trust between legislators than before, and will that play a role in whether or not the session ends on time?

I’m hopeful that legislators, staff and anyone who needs to be in the building on a normal basis can and will get vaccinated before the end of session, and return some kind of sense of normalcy to how the process usually works.

In the meantime, we’ll keep providing these updates. This kind of writing is new to me, but I hope it gives a rough sense of what it’s like covering normal legislative business in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

— Riley Snyder

Assembly Majority Floor Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson gives an interview on the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Lobbyists registration on hold 

As of Wednesday, not a single person has officially registered with the Legislative Counsel Bureau to lobby during the 2021 Legislative session.

That’s not because Nevada has advanced to a utopia of a society where lobbyists are no longer needed. Instead, it’s because of a loophole created through the decision to close the physical Legislative Building to the public during the session.

Nevada law defines a lobbyist as someone who both “communicates directly with a member of the Legislative Branch on behalf of someone other than himself or herself to influence legislative action” and “appears in person in the Legislative Building” or other building where a legislative committee meets.”

Anyone who acts as a lobbyist (as defined in state law) is supposed to register with the Legislative Counsel Bureau within two days after beginning lobbying activity. In normal, non-pandemic times, they register with the LCB and appear on an online registry where their information and clients are listed.

But as the building is closed to the public and to lobbyists, there’s no way for a lobbyist to actually enter the building and register under the normal procedure. Plus, they’re not considered a lobbyist until they’re actually in the building, regardless of any advocacy for legislation they may engage in virtually or over the phone.

A solution is being worked on. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson has submitted a bill draft request that would require registration for anyone who is engaged in lobbying activity virtually. Such a measure was also hinted at in LCB Director Brenda Erdoes’ January announcement of the Legislative Building’s closure, saying such a bill would “bring Nevada’s Lobbyist Statutes into conformity with similar laws of other States.”

Frierson’s bill hasn’t been formally introduced yet, but it’s expected to move quickly through the legislative process. In the interest of transparency, it should — the public list of lobbyist registrations is not only a valuable reporting tool, but an important disclosure to make to the public.

— Riley Snyder

Woodhouse’s return 

Even though she was termed out of office at the end of the 2019 session, former Democratic state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse has returned to the Legislature.

Woodhouse has been hired as a Leadership Officer through the Legislative Counsel Bureau and is positioned with the Senate Majority Leader. It’s a nonpartisan position, but it's not unusual for legislative leadership to transition someone from the political world into an LCB position for the length of the legislative session.

But those hires have in past sessions tended to be political operatives, not former legislators. Woodhouse brings a wealth of institutional knowledge — she’s the former chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and chaired an interim committee on the redistricting process.

Woodhouse’s previous district, Senate District 5, was flipped to Republican control after the 2020 election. Republican Carrie Buck — who ran and lost against Woodhouse in 2016 — now represents the district.

— Riley Snyder

New emphasis on environmental justice 

As the Legislature has become increasingly diverse, lawmakers are highlighting the importance of including communities of color in decision-making and addressing health, economic and access disparities faced by low-income and minority populations and not just in the criminal justice sphere.

Newly-appointed chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas), stressed that discussing and addressing conservation's racial equity implications has to be a priority during a Nevada Conservation League panel on Monday.

"We're going to be looking at a range of legislation to protect our natural resources, our wildlife," Watts said. "I'm excited to try and make sure that everybody's voice is at the table."

Watts' emphasis on racial justice in the conservation movement and Gov. Steve Sisolak’s inclusion of environmental justice in his climate strategy plan represents a shift in focus from past leadership and addresses advocates who have been calling to include diverse voices in policy planning.

"Black people have made countless contributions to American society and to climate and conservation issues, however, they have historically been left out of the conservation movement, even though Black communities remain one of the communities that are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change," Deputy Director of the Nevada Conservation League Verna Mandez said on Monday. "We need to make sure that we do not exclude any voices from the movement."

— Tabitha Mueller

Assembly Sergeant at Arms Robin Bates dies of COVID-19

Lawmakers in a Tuesday floor session honored longtime Assembly Sergeant at Arms Robin Bates, who died of COVID-19 on Monday night. He was known as the voice calling lawmakers into the chambers for floor sessions but also as a boisterous practical joker.

A sergeant in arms is the chief officer coordinating the safety of members of lawmakers and visitors and maintaining decorum in the chambers. After taking the role in 2001, Bates professionalized it, according to Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson.

“He wanted the office to reflect the seriousness of the work done here,” Frierson said. “He proudly upheld the traditions of the Assembly and represented this House with distinction and honor, both here and nationally. We will all smile when we hear our friend call us into the Chamber he loved so much. He was truly the heart and soul of this chamber.”

Democratic Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson said those who knew him long enough may have been on a prison tour with him and heard stories about Nevada history.

“I think what ... so many of us are going to remember is his kindness,” she said. “I saw him defuse situations that could have easily become pretty, pretty, pretty unsavory. We're pretty rowdy, pretty loud, and it was because of his demeanor — always kind, and always respectful.”

Parole Board Chairman Chris DeRicco also gave an emotional tribute to Bates on Wednesday, telling the Assembly Judiciary Committee that Bates filled in for parole hearings as needed for the last 12 years, but took great pride in the six-month breaks he took to serve the Assembly during session.

“He epitomized Nevada, he loved the state and he was always willing and ready to serve,” DeRicco said. “God bless you and your family, my friend.”

— Michelle Rindels

By the numbers

Lawmakers in the Assembly Judiciary Committee have been hearing presentations this week from various state agencies — including the prisons and attorney general’s office — and a few numbers stood out.

32,000: The number of inquiries sent to the attorney general’s constituent services office in 2020. That’s double the number that came in in 2019, and it’s all handled by 3-5 staffers. No wonder we’re getting “please be patient with us” auto-replies from the PIO staff!

81: Number of missing children recovered by the AG’s office in 2019 and 2020. The office says all recoveries were issues related to parental custody and — good news — all were found safe in Nevada.

3,650+: Number of servicemembers helped by the Office of Military Legal Assistance. This was a program started during Adam Laxalt’s tenure in late 2015, and Ford said a big focus this year has been helping military families fend off eviction.

874: Number of Nevada Department of Corrections staffers who have been vaccinated as of Jan. 29, although it’s possible more have been inoculated and haven’t reported it. Prison staff have a priority over inmates, but the statistics indicate less than one-third of the 2,700 employees have received the COVID-19 shot, and they’re being vaccinated at a pace of 100 per week. More than 38 percent of employees have had COVID already, and four have died.

52: Number of inmates who have died of COVID as of Wednesday, per a state dashboard.

1: Number of Nevada prison inmates who have been vaccinated — someone in Ely who got it from a local provider. Prison officials said inmates may get the shot starting in March, and there’s definitely interest — in one facility, 69 percent of residents say they want the vaccine.

---Michelle Rindels

Assemblywomen Melissa Hardy, left, and Heidi Kasama on the first day of the 81st session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading:

If you haven’t, check out the first installments in our Freshman Orientation series (Shondra Summers-Armstrong, Cecelia González). 

Our recap of the first day, plus excellent photos from David Calvert.

Fabian Doñate and Tracy Brown-May were chosen to fill the two legislative vacancies.

A draft version of the “Innovation Zone” concept touted by the governor in his State of the State address is out, and it’s quite a read.

The Nevada Appeal writes up a bill from Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City) that would raise the cap on state employee salaries. It’s currently set to 95 percent of the governor’s salary, which automatically increased when Sisolak took office in 2019.

Somewhat related, the Nevada Supreme Court has sponsored a bill to raise judicial salaries.

Nevada is jockeying behind-the-scenes to be first on the presidential primary calendar, Michelle Price from the Associated Press reports. Unsurprisingly, the boss is behind the idea.

There are more than double the number of women in the Legislature this session compared with just a decade ago. It’s all in this brief from the Legislative Counsel Bureau’s Research Division.

Face masks for sale inside the legislative gift shop on the first day of the 81st session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 37 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 39 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 117 (May 31, 2021)

Biden’s victory, key House wins upheld Nevada’s blue wall while Republicans chipped away at it down ballot

As the sun dipped below the horizon, closing out the seventh to last day before the election, Kamala Harris had a message for the supporters who had gathered on socially distant red, white and blue picnic blankets at an East Las Vegas park to hear her speak.

“You all are going to decide who is going to be the next president of the United States. You will decide,” the Democratic vice-presidential nominee told the crowd, to hollers and applause. “A path to the White House runs right through this field.”

President Donald Trump, speaking at a rally a day later just over the state line in Bullhead City, Arizona, was equally as bullish on his chances in Nevada.

“Six days from now, we are going to win Arizona, we are going to win Nevada, and we are going to win four more years in our great White House,” Trump told the crowd of thousands who had gathered.

It wasn’t just talk. Nevada, of course, mattered to both campaigns this election cycle. It’s why the Trump campaign focused on building out its Nevada operation long before there was even a Democratic presidential nominee. It’s why Joe Biden’s campaign doubled down on its voter outreach this summer when it felt like the contest was narrowing.

By the time the night of the election rolled around, though, it seemed as if, in many ways, Nevada’s importance had been written off. Polls had Biden several points ahead. The prognosticators anticipated Nevada would lean blue. Both Biden and Trump spent their final days in the battleground states that were ground zero for the 2016 election — states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

When results started rolling in on election night in Nevada, Biden had a sizable, if not overwhelming, 3 to 4 percentage point lead at first, as many had predicted. But by early Wednesday morning, as the votes continued to be tallied, Biden’s lead over Trump had shrunk to 0.6 percentage points, or 7,647 votes.

Suddenly, what had seemed like a sure bet for Democrats in Nevada earlier in the evening, wasn’t anymore, and the Silver State was thrust into the national spotlight as the presidential race here remained too close to call.

Of course, it wasn’t really. Over the span of several days, Biden managed to steadily grow his lead as outstanding mail ballots, most of which were in Clark County, the state’s Democratic stronghold, continued to be counted, as anticipated.

But to the rest of the country, which remained on pins and needles as the presidential race nationally also remained too close to call as votes continued to be counted in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina, Nevada’s vote counting seemed impossibly slow, inspiring countless memes across social media.

Finally, four days later, the race in Nevada was officially called for Biden, just about half an hour after some media outlets called the entire race for the former vice president. Though a small number of ballots still remain to be tallied, Biden’s lead in Nevada stands at 2.39 percentage points, or 33,596 votes, as of Saturday.

From the outside looking in, Biden’s victory in Nevada may seem predictable because Nevada looks like a blue state. Its governor is a Democrat, both of its U.S. senators are Democrats, three out of four of its House members are Democrats and both chambers of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats. But neither Republicans nor Democrats here have been willing to concede that Nevada is, in fact, a blue state.

For Democrats, those victories have all come hard fought, some won by the skin of their teeth. In 2016, Catherine Cortez Masto won her U.S. Senate race and Hillary Clinton won the presidential race both by 2.4 percentage points. Though margins of victory widened two years later with Steve Sisolak’s 4.1 percentage point victory in the gubernatorial race and Jacky Rosen’s 5 point victory in the U.S. Senate, Democrats knew that 2020 would look different.

Republicans knew this too. They knew that Trump voters who didn’t turn out to vote in 2018 would show up this year to vote for the president, and they hoped those voters could also be persuaded to vote Republican all the way down the ticket. They also hoped to persuade moderates that overwhelming Democratic control in Carson City wasn’t a good thing.

On that front, Republicans appear to have succeeded. While Democrats celebrated their win at the top of the ticket, they actually lost ground down the ballot in the Legislature. Three Assembly seats that Democrats had picked up in 2018 returned to Republican hands, meaning that Democrats no longer have a supermajority in that chamber, and they lost a key state Senate seat as well, narrowing their majority.

And while Democrats held onto two competitive congressional seats, their victories were narrower than they were two years ago.

Still, Democrats look at the results of this election and see a blue wall. Even with their losses in the Legislature, they still hold majorities in both chambers. To them, the election once again demonstrates that ensuring Nevada votes blue takes work, and a lot of it.

“It should be crystal clear now that Biden would not have won Nevada but for a well-funded ground game ... We win in Nevada because we leave it all on the field — every cycle,” Rebecca Lambe, a longtime Democratic operative in the state responsible for building the Reid machine, said in an email. “We fund communications, we fund mail, we fund field —  we knock doors to push our voters to vote.”

Republicans, however, are hopeful in the wake of this election. They see the narrower margins as a sign of hope for the 2022 election. They also look at specific victories, such as the fact that Heidi Gansert, a Republican, was re-elected to her Washoe County state Senate seat even as the county swung decidedly for Biden, and that educator Carrie Buck flipped a state Senate district that has two Democratic Assembly seats nested beneath it as glimmers of hope for the future of their party — that the state might still be more independent than it has in recent years appeared to be.

"The biggest surprise to me in this election was the historic DNA of Nevada — being independent and looking at the person before the party — reappeared,” said Pete Ernaut, a longtime Republican consultant in Nevada. “The idea that there were ticket-splitters was as refreshing as it was surprising."

Voters line up to cast their ballots at West Sahara Library on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

How Biden won Nevada

Over the summer, some Democrats fretted that the presidential race in Nevada might be closer than anticipated. The coronavirus pandemic had forced them to toss their usual playbook out the window and, as the Trump campaign returned to knocking doors in person in June, their campaign remained virtual, hindering, in the eyes of some, their ability to effectively connect with voters.

Of course, Democrats had been hosting Zoom events, phone banks and text message drives, utilizing the framework of “relational organizing,” or the principle of having supporters tap into their personal networks to turn voters out to the polls. But the face-to-face connection was missing.

Enter the Culinary Union.

The politically powerful labor union, which represents 60,000 hotel workers across the state, has earned a reputation cycle after cycle for turning the tides in favor of Democrats in close elections, most notably in Harry Reid’s 2010 U.S. Senate race. But its membership was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic: Ninety-eight percent of the union’s members were furloughed this spring, and only about half are back to work.

The union’s finances were hit hard, too. It had no money for a political operation. So, for the first time, they set up a super PAC, Take Back 2020, asked for help, and it came, from the Carpenters Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Operating Engineers, the American Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, and more, D. Taylor, international president of the Culinary’s parent union, UNITE HERE, said.

“If it had not been for other unions, individuals, organizations contributing to us, we never could have done this — ever, ever ever,” Taylor said.

The super PAC raised money nationally for Unite Here’s efforts, which included political operations in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida. But Taylor said the union raised more than $10 million for its Nevada operation alone, which deployed 500 canvassers in the field who knocked 500,000 doors in Las Vegas and Reno and talked to 130,000 voters, including more than 42,000 eligible voters who did not participate in the election four years ago. 

“We didn’t have the money,” Taylor said. “Frankly, even if we had had the money, we still probably needed to set up a PAC. Just here in Nevada, Trump’s campaign was much more robust in 2020 than it was in 2016.”

Plus, there was an extra added benefit: The political operation also helped out-of-work union members put food on the table.

“Up in Reno we had folks come in from our locals in California who were laid off too and other locals besides Las Vegas,” Taylor said. “In Las Vegas a lot of folks were laid off workers who got to earn some money and change the country.”

It represented the Culinary Union’s largest — and earliest — political effort to date. When the union started talking to voters at the doors on Aug. 1, it was the only Democratic-aligned organization in the field. For Our Future, a super PAC focused on grassroots Democratic turnout, launched an in-person canvassing operation on Oct. 1, eventually knocking on 150,000 doors, in addition to making 650,000 calls and sending over a million text messages. 

Other organizations focused primarily on virtual or non-face-to-face outreach. Mi Familia Vota, for instance, made nearly 100,000 calls and sent more than 80,000 text messages to Latinos in Nevada on Election Day, while One APIA Nevada dropped literature in five Asian languages at 30,000 doors, in addition to making 180,000 phone calls and sending 6,000 text messages.

The Biden campaign, meanwhile, engaged in a mostly virtual campaign until the final three weeks, when it started in-person door knocking as well.

Combined, Democrats report knocking on more than 1.3 million doors across Nevada this election cycle, while the Trump campaign reported knocking more than 1.1 million.

"It is one thing to get the green light to go knock doors. It’s another to move an entire organization to really take on that challenge and do it in a way that’s safe,” said Shelby Wiltz, the Nevada State Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign director. “In 21 days, really, we were able to put together a massive door-knocking operation and lit-dropping operation across multiple counties to talk to voters that we didn’t have phone numbers for, that we hadn’t reached in the first two months of the campaign, including young people and people of color."

The Culinary Union, for its part, attributes its decision to knock doors so early to the conversations that it had with epidemiologists and industrial hygienists around workplace health and safety as it pushed for employee protection legislation in Carson City over the summer. Using that knowledge, union leaders established health and safety protocols canvassers had to adhere to while out in the field, including wearing masks, requiring those they spoke with to wear masks, and practicing social distancing.

 “We said if not us, who? There was no other who,” Taylor said. “We did what we do without a lot of bells and whistles and just did the work.”

The Culinary Union engaged in other kinds of voter outreach, too, sending emails and texts to 60,000 members, mailing 5.6 million mail pieces, making 2 million personal calls and 240,000 automated calls and running digital persuasion ads that racked up 11.6 million views — the kind of outreach that other organizations engaged in as well. 

But what set the union apart was the size and scope of its door-knocking operation. Taylor said that where the union’s typical contact rate at the door is usually 7 percent, it was more like 30 percent this year.

“I think that’s been proven over and over and over, and we know that it’s a three-legged stool to move folks,” Taylor said. “One, you have to have the TV stuff, two, you have to have the phone bank and text but, three, it’s the actual conversations with folks.”

Taylor, for his part, does not think Biden would have won Nevada without the Culinary Union.

“I know who we turned out and that was the difference in Washoe and Clark,” Taylor said. “I don’t think Joe Biden would’ve won and I don’t think a lot of Democrats would have won.”

Other Democrats in the state painted the election as a team effort, but acknowledged the decisive role that the union played not just in Biden’s victory but in key down ballot races as well, including Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s tight re-election campaign in Senate District 6.

"If Culinary was not out there in a meaningful way starting in August, I think this race would’ve been a lot closer,” said Megan Jones, a longtime Democratic operative in the state. “I think we would’ve eked it out, but we may have lost Nicole’s seat and we would’ve probably lost a couple more Assembly seats."

Democrats believe that Nevada could have easily become the next Wisconsin or Michigan from 2016 if not for the investments in the Culinary Union, For Our Future and other organizations on the independent expenditure side of the campaign, in addition to the Biden campaign’s decision to put canvassers back on doors at the end of the race.

The Biden campaign acknowledges they wouldn’t have been able to win in Nevada if not for the help of those other Democratic-aligned organizations.

"You have to remember that it’s a team effort and that there is institutional knowledge and organizations, like the NV Dems, like the Culinary Union, have been building relationships with voters for many cycles,” said Alana Mounce, Biden’s state director in Nevada.

As far as the tight margin of victory in the presidential race in the state, it doesn’t come as a surprise to Democratic operatives who know Nevada well.

"We knew from very early on that this was going to be a close race. Nevada is a battleground state,” said state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, a senior advisor on Biden’s Nevada team. “The margins haven’t been 5 to 10 point margins, they are 2 to 5 point margins, which means every vote really matters."

A group celebrates president elect Joe Biden's victory on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. Around 50 people gathered at the Commercial Center in Las Vegas. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Republican gains down the ballot

While Democrats celebrate their success at the top of the ticket, it is Republicans who are finding reasons to be hopeful further down the ballot, including in the four legislative seats that Republicans were able to wrest from Democrats.

To some, it feels like a reset back to the way things were four years ago, before Democrats extended their reach in the last election. The only difference between the makeup in the Assembly this year is that Republicans picked up District 31, giving them one more seat than they had in 2016. In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans have the same split they did in 2016; they have just since swapped control of Senate Districts 5 and 9.

“From the Assembly Republican perspective, we’re happy where we’re at,” said Eric Roberts, executive director of the Assembly Republican Caucus. “We had four seats we were looking at picking up, and we got three of those.”

Perhaps the biggest upset, though, was Republican Carrie Buck’s victory over Democrat Kristee Watson in Senate District 5. Buck had run for the seat four years ago against state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, the term-limited incumbent, and lost by 0.9 percentage points. 

This year, Buck won by 0.5 percentage points, even as the two Assembly districts nested beneath the seat swung for Democrats. Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen won her re-election bid in Assembly District 29 by 2.5 percentage points, while newcomer Elaine Marzola won her election in Assembly District 21 by 3.9 percentage points.

“We were fortunate Carrie Buck decided to run again. She ran four years earlier, and it was a close election,” said Greg Bailor, executive director of the Senate Republican Caucus. “Carrie has deep roots in that district being an educator and she really campaigned hard and was able to talk to Democrats and nonpartisans in a way that helped gain that support in the district.”

In many ways, the Republican pickups in the Legislature mirror what happened at the national level, where Democrats lost several key House races to Republicans that they had picked up two years ago.

“Democrats won too much in 2018, if you will. They got farther out than they probably should’ve because there was so much energy on the Democratic side,” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. “In 2020, you didn’t see that. They lost ground or held their own.”

Democrats, for their part, aren’t entirely shocked they weren’t able to replicate their successes from 2018, though the losses still sting. Jones said that, in looking at the data, it is “abundantly clear” that nonpartisans in Clark County did not break for Democrats.

“We're up in Clark County by the amount of Democrats that voted essentially, which means nonpartisans were a wash or we lost a few,” Jones said.

Republicans are also celebrating their successes in Washoe County, including in Senate District 15, where Gansert was able to fend off a challenge from a newcomer Democrat, Wendy Jauregui-Jackins. Gansert won by 3.6 percentage points when Biden won the county by 4.5 percentage points.

“Washoe County as a whole has seen growth and a lot of that growth has come from new constituents and voters that are a little bit more moderate,” Bailor said. “Senator Gansert does have a track record in the community and with her constituents, but she had to reintroduce herself to voters.”

Still, Gansert’s victory this year was narrower than her 11 percentage point victory in 2016, which has some Republicans worried about their prospects down the ballot there moving forward. 

“The trend in Washoe is concerning,” Roberts said. “As a Republican, we have to look at that and say, what’s happening here?” 

There is also one down-ticket race that political operatives believe was likely specifically affected by the pandemic. Assemblyman Skip Daly, a Democrat, has earned a reputation cycle after cycle for his relentless doorknocking that has allowed him to represent a Republican-leaning district for eight of the last 10 years. But, because of the pandemic, he didn’t door-knock this cycle, and former Assemblywoman Jill Dickman, a Republican, bested Daly by 3.5 percentage points in their fourth head to head in Assembly District 31.

“It’s as close as you can get to a control group of a comparative analysis. Same candidate, same campaign management, it’s the same basic everything from 2018 to 2020,” said Riley Sutton, a Democratic consultant in Washoe County who managed Daly’s race. “The only difference is who is at the top of the ticket and if we knocked doors or we didn’t. Skip didn’t knock doors.”

In the two competitive congressional districts, Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford both faced tighter contests this year than they did in 2018. Lee won by 3 percentage points this year, compared the 9.1 point margin she won by two years ago, while Horsford won by 4.9 points after winning by 8.2 points in 2018.

Republicans attribute the closeness both in the presidential race and down ballot elections, in part, to the decreased Democratic field operation this cycle.

“There still wasn’t the Democrat presence on the doors that I had seen in the past,” Roberts said. “Even when there was, it almost had more of a feel of a lit drop. I didn’t see any Democratic operatives out knocking doors. In past cycles I’ve always seen that.”

But they also point to the successes of an enhanced field operation that they say was boosted by the fact that Chris Carr, a Republican operative with deep ties to Nevada, was political director for the Trump Victory organization this cycle. They also highlight that the Republican operation in Nevada has now existed continuously for four years instead of getting reset cycle after cycle.

“I would say this was the largest field program we’ve had,” Bailor said. “Prior to 2020, 2018 was the largest, and 2016 was the largest before that. We’ve continued to build on that.”

The Trump campaign declined to comment for this article, citing ongoing legal fights. Though it has yet to file a new legal challenge in court since the election, the outcome of any legal battle, even if favorable for the Trump campaign, is unlikely to change the results of the presidential election in Nevada because of Biden’s relatively wide margin of victory in the state. Any legal action could, however, potentially affect close down ballot races.

Trump aside, Republicans believe they’re well-situated headed into the 2022 election, where there will be a competitive U.S. Senate and gubernatorial election in Nevada.

"Republicans won some close races and Democrats won some close races. I think both sides did a really good job and ran good campaigns,” Ernaut said. “The biggest difference was in the last four cycles the Republicans really hadn’t. They really didn’t have much of a ground game and this time they did — and had a good one."

Jan Moody during the GOP watch party at the South Point Hotel on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Voter turnout

The biggest puzzle that remains about the election in Nevada isn’t why Biden won or why Republicans succeeded down ballot: It’s why even more voters didn’t turn out to the polls in such a high-interest election and with voting easier than ever before with mail ballots sent to every active registered voter this cycle.

That’s not to say that turnout isn’t significantly up: Turnout in Clark County was about 80 percent this cycle, after subtracting about 75,000 inactive voters who should have been removed from the county’s voter rolls, about 5 percent higher than it was in 2016. Washoe County’s voter turnout was about 83 percent this year, up from 80 percent four years ago, while statewide turnout was about 81 percent, up from 77 percent in the last presidential election.

While those numbers are high, they’re not as high as perhaps some had expected.

“When we came out of the blocks this time with the mail and early voting and numbers were coming in, there was a question of, ‘Could we get to 90 percent turnout?'” Roberts said. “Instead, I think we just saw a pretty major shift in how people vote.”

Democrats had predicted a turnout of about 1.4 million based on vote enthusiasm and turnout in past presidential cycles, which ended up being correct with just a little more than 1.4 million ballots cast in the election. 

“Given the challenges Nevada faced in terms of the economic downturn and the pandemic, I don't think it's surprising that we didn't exceed that expectation,” Lambe said.

Damore, the political science professor at UNLV, additionally noted that the best predictors of turnout are residential stability, age and education, factors that don't bode particularly well for high turnout in Nevada.

“It’s just part of our culture,” Damore said. “This isn’t a civic engagement state.”

Another possible reason that the voter turnout percentage wasn’t even higher this year is because there were simply more registered voters who weren’t actually interested in participating in the election, since, for the first time this year, Nevada offered automatic voter registration at the DMV. About 57.4 percent of the voting age eligible population cast ballots in Nevada in 2016, according to the United States Election Project, compared to about 65.3 percent in 2020.

As far as why more people didn’t participate on Election Day, Roberts speculates that there just weren’t that many people left who wanted to vote.

“I think people were fearful of the long lines they saw in the primary, which wasn’t an apples to apples comparison,” Roberts said. “I think people prepared for that.”

And while mail ballots split essentially two to one in favor of Democrats this election cycle — largely the result of Democrats encouraging voters to take advantage of mail voting while Trump cast doubt on the integrity of the process — political observers say there’s no reason it needs to be that way in elections moving forward. 

"Everybody has the same opportunity to vote, whether it’s mail ballot or traditional absentee or early voting or Election Day. It shouldn’t favor any party. It’s a matter of your strategy, your organization,” Ernaut said. “If one party did better than another in those areas, it’s either because they worked harder or had a better strategy."

The other surprise was the fact that roughly an equal number of Republicans and Democrats took advantage of the state’s new same-day voter registration law, which was passed during the 2019 legislative session. The policy was expected to offer a boost to Democrats, and was staunchly opposed by Republicans, though in the end 22,701 Democrats and 22,886 Republicans took advantage of the same-day registration process this year.

"Whether or not this cycle proves that those who utilize same day weren’t necessarily our voters, I think in the long term same-day registration benefits democracy by expanding turnout,” Jones said.

A voter returns his ballot card in Sun City Summerlin on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Looking forward

For those who know Nevada well, the close election results this year don’t come as a surprise. Greg Ferraro, a Republican consultant in Washoe County, recalled working on President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign when he won Nevada by only 21,500 votes, or 2.6 percentage points, over John Kerry.

“It’s not new that these races continue to be close because Nevada still, I think, is fairly evenly divided despite some of the registration differences,” Ferraro said.

Democrats, however, are still considering this year largely a blue wall year.

“There was no blue wave in 2020 anywhere — in fact, quite the opposite,” Lambe said. “Nevada became part of the Blue Wall that secured a Democratic presidential win against increased turnout and enthusiasm for Trump.”

All the same, Republicans are optimistic.

“I think it was going to be a big lift to completely flip the state,” Bailor said. “So to then see the Nevada Legislature hold Republican seats and pick up seats, I would have to say in Carson City it’s not a wave but we definitely got some Republicans down ticket.”

If this election cycle proved anything, though, it’s that it’s not enough for Republican running statewide to run up the ballot count in the state’s ruby red rural counties if they continue to lose by a wide margin in Clark County and a still sizable margin in Washoe County, as they did in the presidential election this year.

The challenge for Republicans, then, moving forward is to somehow translate those down ballot wins into statewide victories. If they can’t find a way to win across the state, the blue wall will continue.

“The question is where their next statewide candidate is coming from,” Damore said. “They’re going to be in that problem of the primaries, the Dean Heller dance that fell flat in 2018. What’s going to happen in 2022? Are you going to put more hardcore Trump folks in statewide races with Catherine Cortez Masto? That’s probably not going to go well.”

As blue as Nevada has been in recent elections, though, this election served as a reminder to still expect the unexpected.

"Nevada works better when it works like this, when it’s not so partisan and not so polarized,” Ernaut said. “Everyone, regardless of whether their candidate won or lost, should feel a lot better about this election than they have about any of the last few."

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the May Museum at Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

In push to oust regents from Constitution, pro-Question 1 PAC banks more than $470,000 in third-quarter fundraising

Nevadans for a Higher Quality Education, a pro-Question 1 super PAC with ties to the business community, reported raising $470,500 in the third quarter, setting the stage for a final campaign push to pass a ballot measure that would remove the Board of Regents from the state Constitution. 

According to a filing made with the secretary of state’s office last week, a majority of the PAC’s third-quarter funding came from just three sources: $235,000 from the Council for a Better Nevada, a political non-profit that backed a 2014 initiative to create a state appellate court and the controversial 2016 gun background checks initiative; $100,000 from a company linked to Stephen Cloobeck, the multimillionaire founder of the Diamond Resorts International timeshare company; and another $85,000 from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

The Council for a Better Nevada's executive director, Maureen Schafer, once served as the chief of staff for the UNLV medical school, and now works as the CEO of the development company overseeing construction and development of the medical school's long-delayed central building.

The remaining money came in a handful of five and four-figure contributions, including $25,000 from an LLC linked to Eureka Casino Resort CEO Gregory Lee and $10,000 from an LLC managed by former Cannery Casino Resorts owner Bill Paulos.

The PAC also saw contributions of $2,500 and $2,000, respectively, from the campaigns of Democratic Assemblyman Steve Yeager and Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, marking at least three such contributions from legislators ahead of November’s vote. Republican Sen. Keith Pickard’s campaign contributed $500 in the second quarter. 

The PAC’s third-quarter haul raises its total fundraising in the cycle to more than $596,000, with much of that money — $473,578 — having already been spent. Of that spending, about 80 percent of it, around $386,000, came in just the last three months.

Almost 90 percent of the third-quarter spending — roughly $338,000 — went to a collection of five consulting firms: California-based Winner & Mandabach Campaigns ($225,182) and Southern Nevada-based firms Woods Strategies ($63,894), Community Strategies Inc. ($35,000), The Warren Group ($10,000) and Sala Consulting ($4,000). 

The group spent an additional $34,300 on Washington, D.C.-based pollster the Mellman Group, which has a long history of polling Nevada elections (editor’s note: the firm has done past polling for The Nevada Independent). 

And though no advertising costs are listed in the PAC’s third quarter filing, at least some money has been spent on pro-Question 1 ads in the last few weeks. The group Yes on 1 for Higher Education launched an ad last week that purports Question 1 would “stop scandals and waste” and “put students first” if passed.  

A legislatively referred constitutional amendment that sailed through the legislative sessions in 2017 and 2019, Question 1 would amend the state’s Constitution by removing language referring to the Board of Regents, which governs the state’s higher education system, and placing the board under statute, instead.

Proponents of the question have argued the change would provide a necessary increase in oversight of the board by state legislators, who have for decades sparred with regents and chancellors over funding and accountability issues.

Opponents, including many regents and former Chancellor Thom Reilly, have argued that the amendment is a “solution in search of a problem” that would do little to advance the goals of higher education and that too little has been made clear about how exactly the Legislature will adjust the makeup of the higher education system should Question 1 pass. 

For more on Question 1 and for explainers of every 2020 ballot question, visit our elections page here.

Updated, 10/19/20 at 3:03 p.m. - This story was updated to include additional information about the Council for a Better Nevada.

Election Preview: State Senate races will determine Democrats’ chances at reaching a super-majority

All it takes is one.

After the 2018 election, Democrats controlled 13 of 21 seats in the state Senate — enough for a clear majority, but one short of a supermajority that could give the party the power to raise taxes and take other major procedural action without a Republican in support. The arrangement was brought into laser-sharp focus through Democrats’ multiple failed attempts to raise mining taxes during the summer special session because they failed to notch a Republican vote.

Now, with less than a month before Election Day, state Senate Democrats are aiming to flip two Republican-held districts while defending two suburban Las Vegas districts they won narrowly in the 2016 election.

It’s unlikely Republicans will gain a majority in the Senate without a major wave that gives them victory over essentially all seats in play and a fifth seat that’s considered generally out of reach. Democrats enjoy a 13-8 advantage in the Senate, and Republicans are aiming to both pick up seats and defend potentially vulnerable districts to ensure that Democrats don’t obtain a supermajority.

As members of the 21-seat state Senate serve four-year terms, only 11 districts are up for re-election in 2020 — and only four are considered to be up for grabs, given relative closeness in voter registration totals. 

Democrats are playing defense in two suburban Las Vegas Senate districts, with Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro running against Republican attorney April Becker in District 6, and political newcomer Kristee Watson attempting to keep control of Senate District 5 in a race against Republican charter school leader Carrie Buck (Democratic former Sen. Joyce Woodhouse is termed out of office).

On the flip side, Republicans are fending off challenges to well-funded incumbents Heidi Gansert in Reno (running against Wendy Jauregui-Jackins) and Scott Hammond (running against Liz Becker) in northwest Las Vegas.

Other Senate candidates are facing a much easier walk to re-election — incumbent Democrats Chris Brooks and Pat Spearman didn’t attract a single challenger, while incumbent Republican Sen. Pete Goicoechea and Democratic candidate Dina Neal are both running in districts with overwhelmingly favorable voter registration advantages. Former Democratic state party head Roberta Lange overcame robust challenges from sitting lawmakers in the primary election for termed-out Sen. David Parks’ seat, but she does not have a general election opponent.

Some Republican consultants have identified Senate District 11 — where appointed Sen. Dallas Harris is running for the first time against Republican Joshua Dowden — as a potential pickup opportunity in a wave election. However, registered Democrats currently outnumber registered Republicans by a nearly 18-percentage-point margin in the district, making it unlikely that control of the district will flip.

But Republican candidates are for the most part entering the final period before the election with a cash advantage. All four Republicans in swing districts — Gansert, Hammond, Becker and Buck — outraised their opponents over the most recent fundraising quarter, which ran from July to the end of September.

“We've really been focused not only on protecting our incumbents, Sen. Gansert and Sen. Hammond, but really making sure that Carrie Buck and April Becker had a strong team behind them and the resources that needed to compete knowing how close these races have been historically,” said Greg Bailor, director of the Senate Republican Caucus.

The most recent numbers also mean that, save for Cannizzaro, Republicans have cumulatively outraised Democratic candidates since the start of 2019 in three of the four competitive districts. They’re also receiving a boost from several outside groups, including a PAC created by the Las Vegas Police Protective Association that’s raised half a million dollars, and former Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison-led PAC (Stronger Nevada PAC) that has raised more than $1.8 million this year and placed substantial television and digital ads attacking Democratic candidates.

But fundraising totals and voter registration data are just some of the factors that determine electoral success, not infallible predictors.

Nevada State Senate Democrats Executive Director Cheryl Bruce said early returns from the first week of mail voting had been a positive indicator, but that candidates and the party would continue pushing hard through the state’s early vote period and Election Day. 

“In races like these that we're playing in, it is always going to be tight, it's always going to be close,” she said. “And so we cannot take anything for granted, and we're not going to. We have reasons to be optimistic, but we're not going to let our foot off the gas.”

While some campaigns got a slower start to door-knocking and canvassing because of concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, Bruce said that the party recently started using a “hybrid” canvassing system, where volunteers who are comfortable drop campaign literature at doors or have conversations with voters at a six-foot, socially distanced space.

And while the presidential race has sucked up much of the political oxygen, the lack of a statewide race on the ballot (such as governor or U.S. Senate) means that legislative candidates in two races — Cannizzaro and Becker, and Gansert and Jauregui-Jackins — have purchased television advertisements.

No legislative candidates bought television ad time in 2018, and only one — former Sen. Joyce Woodhouse — did so in 2016. Though there are some drawbacks — television ads can’t be geolocated to an individual district and thus likely reach a large number of voters who can’t vote for the candidate — Bruce said that the lack of other major races or a big-money ballot question gave candidates “a little bit more of an opening, both in terms of maximizing our dollars and also cutting through some noise on TV.”

Republicans hope to pin their opponents to Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, whose approval ratings have dropped by double digits as economic troubles have carried on, unemployment remains sky high and critics have scrutinized his response to the pandemic. If they block Democrats from holding a two-thirds majority, Republicans can continue to be a relevant part of the policy conversation.

“We're also 200 days plus now into the COVID shutdown and the economic shutdown and seeing the governor continue to struggle to communicate,” Bailor said. “If there is a path to get the Senate back in Republican control, that puts at least a check back on the system of state government. And that is an opportunity to maybe have a more bipartisan conversation when we go to Carson City in 2021.”

Bruce said that even with the governor’s lower approval ratings, Democratic candidates were not shying away from Sisolak’s support or endorsement. She said if anything, voters were more apt to make decisions on down-ballot races based on their reaction to President Trump.

“People are really responding well to the steps and the actions that he's taken to help us weather the storm of the pandemic, both economically and health and safety-wise,” she said. “There is definitely a very strong sense of anger towards the Trump administration right now, and really DC politics in general, that I think is going to probably play a factor in these races.”

As for Republicans? 

“Nobody's shying away from the party ticket,” Bailor said. “But with our messaging, we're not talking about national issues. We're talking about local issues at the state level.” 

Below, The Nevada Independent explores those four Senate races this year. Click here to read more about the Assembly races and check out our election page for more information overall on the 2020 election.

Senate District 5 

Republican former charter school principal Carrie Buck is trying for the third time to win a seat in the swingy Henderson-area district held by termed-out Democrat Joyce Woodhouse. Buck lost to Woodhouse by less than one percentage point in 2016 and proffered herself as a potential replacement in an unsuccessful attempt to recall Woodhouse in 2017.

Currently the head of Pinecrest Foundation, which supports the now eight-school Pinecrest Academy charter school network, Buck raised $211,066 in the latest quarter and spent $60,562, leaving her with $246,023 heading into the final month of her campaign. Her fundraising eclipses that of Democrat Kristee Watson, who reported raising $115,055 and spending $161,266, leaving her with $123,686 to spend in the home stretch.

Buck said her priority bills would require students to read at grade level by fifth grade, and she wants to develop the workforce by identifying available jobs and working backwards to what can prepare middle and high schoolers for those openings. 

Watson is the program facilitator for literacy nonprofit Spread the Word Nevada. She ran for an Assembly seat in 2018, but lost to Republican Melissa Hardy by about nine percentage points.

Libertarian and retired electrical engineer Tim Hagan is also competing in the race and reported $6,000 in contributions last quarter, all from an in-kind donation for video production. All three candidates ran unopposed in their June primaries. 

Democrats hold a roughly 6 percent voter registration advantage in the district over Republicans as of the most recent registration data available, with 37.7 percent registered as Democrats, 31.8 percent registered Republicans and 24 percent nonpartisan. Senate District 5 includes portions of Henderson and southeastern Las Vegas. 

At the same time in 2016, Democrats represented about 38.9 percent of registered voters compared to roughly 34 percent of Republicans, or about a 5 point difference in voter registration advantage (with about 20.1 percent of voters registered as nonpartisan). 

Senate District 6 - Cannizzaro/Becker

Prosecutor and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro is in a fierce contest to keep her swingy Summerlin-area seat this cycle. She faces Republican real estate attorney April Becker in a race that is a referendum on one of the most powerful decision makers in the Legislature and therefore the direction of the body as a whole, including bills passed on narrow margins and late-night hearings on major policy.

“There's plenty to campaign on right now, just over the behavior of the Senate majority, the politics that were played,” Bailor said. “It's unnecessary, especially when we are dealing with such a large economic burden and such a health care crisis.”

Cannizzaro raised $193,131 in the latest quarter and spent $302,972, with a massive war chest of $581,936 cash on hand heading into the final month of the campaign. Becker topped her fundraising haul in the latest quarter, bringing in $248,668, but spent $217,527 and has less cash on hand — $181,011 — heading into the last month of the campaign.

Cannizzaro’s television campaign focuses largely on health care — touting votes for protecting people with pre-existing conditions and ending surprise hospital billing — while accusing Becker of being supported by politicians who support repealing the Affordable Care Act.

Bruce said that Cannizzaro’s campaign was focused largely on the twin points of health care and education, while also addressing the state’s pandemic response and recovery. She said many of the complaints about the rushed legislative process during the special sessions came from lobbyists or other legislative watchers and not from normal citizens.

“It's kind of a disconnect between what the general lobby corp and Carson City insiders would say, versus what every day voter and citizen in Nevada would say about that,” she said.

A centerpiece of Becker’s campaign has been riding around her district in a bright blue ice cream truck meeting voters. Her ads accuse Cannizzaro of voting to raise her own pay (through support of annual legislative sessions) and promises that she’ll donate her legislative salary to teachers.

Becker also criticized moves to scale back Opportunity Scholarships, which give businesses tax credits for donations to scholarships that families can use to attend private schools, and argues that “we need to stiffen penalties on dangerous felons.”

Democrats hold about an 8 point voter registration advantage in this district over Republicans, with the most recent data showing the district’s more than 84,000 voters to have 39.7 percent registered Democrats, 31.8 percent registered Republicans, and 22.4 percent registered nonpartisan.

That’s a slightly smaller percentage advantage than the 8.5 percent registration advantage Democrats enjoyed in 2016, which saw registration made up of 40.9 percent registered Democrats, 32.4 percent registered Republicans and 19.2 percent registered non-partisan. 

In 2016, Cannizzaro narrowly defeated former Republican Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman by slightly more than 1,000 votes out of more than 56,000 cast.

Democrats upped their total registered voter advantage by about 2,000 over the four-year period (4,691 advantage in 2016 and 6,684 in 2020), though the total number of registered voters in the district also jumped by more than 14,000 over the same four-year period.

Senate District 15 

Republican Sen. Heidi Gansert is seeking re-election to her Reno-area district. She raised $201,665 in the last quarter and spent $191,223, leaving her with $282,068 on the eve of the election.

Gansert is the executive director of external relations at the University of Nevada, Reno, and served as chief of staff to former Gov. Brian Sandoval. 

“She grew up in that community, she's served multiple sessions in assembly, and now the Senate,” Bailor said. “People know Heidi. And that's also something that's gonna help — she's (part of the) fabric of that community.”

Bruce said there was a “big difference” in the dynamics of Gansert’s 2020 race after two terms in the Legislature,  as opposed to her initial 2016 state Senate bid, where she defeated attorney Devon Reese by an 11-point margin.

“She can't necessarily paint herself as this moderate this time when she has a voting record to answer for,” she said.

Democrats have endorsed and rallied around Wendy Jauregui-Jackins, a county appraiser and the sister of Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui. Jauregui-Jackins reported raising more than $126,000 over the last three months, spending just under $100,000 and keeping roughly $133,000 in cash on hand. 

Similar to Cannizzaro, Jauregui-Jackins’s television ad focuses largely on health care issues and claims Gansert took campaign dollars from drug and insurance companies and voted against a resolution urging Congress to not repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Gansert has responded directly to that ad, releasing a response touting her votes for drug transparency legislation, birth control access legislation and a vote in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment.

One possible sign of concern for Gansert comes in voter registration trends; Democrats now enjoy a narrow 841-person voter registration lead over Republicans in the district, a flip from the same point in 2016 when Republicans held a 1,641-person advantage in registered voters.

Senate District 18 

Republican incumbent Scott Hammond is seeking to maintain a seat he’s held since 2012 representing a Republican-leaning, northwestern portion of Las Vegas. He raised $131,762 and spent $65,050 last quarter, holding $90,095 heading into the final leg of the race.

A former teacher who now works as Director of Community Outreach for the Nevada Contractors Association, Hammond’s campaign has involved convening weekly telephone town halls on topics relating to the pandemic.

He will compete against Democratic challenger Liz Becker in November. She is a former teacher and environmental scientist who previously worked with Southern Nevada Water Authority who lists environmental issues and gun violence prevention among her top campaign priorities.  

Becker’s funding falls far short of Hammond’s, though — she raised $24,161, or less than a fifth of what Hammond did in the most recent quarter.

Becker spent $16,493 and had $41,650 cash on hand with a month left to go in the race.

Democrats account for 33.7 percent of active registered voters in the district, while Republicans have 37.5 percent.

Police union launches campaign attacking Cannizzaro over alleged lack of support for law enforcement

State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro on Friday, July 31, 2020, during the first day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City.

The Las Vegas Police Protective Association is going on the offensive against Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, kicking off an independent expenditure campaign against the Democrat’s re-election campaign after lawmakers rolled back a bill granting additional protections to officers accused of misconduct.

The LVPPA, which represents active and retired members of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, has created a political action committee and launched a website, social media ads and two videos attacking Cannizzaro for allegedly siding with “criminals over law enforcement”. Cannizzaro is locked in a re-election race against Republican April Becker, who has been endorsed by the LVPPA. 

It’s the latest development in an acrimonious political divorce between state Democrats and the LVPPA, which broke from the ranks of most organized labor organizations to endorse President Donald Trump and a mix of other Republicans on the 2020 ballot, including congressional and state Senate Republican hopefuls.

In a statement, Senate Democratic Caucus Executive Director Cheryl Bruce said the attack was disappointing given that Cannizzaro is employed as a prosecutor with the Clark County district attorney’s office, working in the office’s gang unit.

“At the same time LVPPA is sending out blatantly false information about her record on public safety, Senator Cannizzaro is prosecuting a double homicide case, among other violent criminal cases,” she said in an email. “Attacking a prosecutor who is risking her own safety to keep our streets and families safe is the worst kind of lie.”

Though the union endorsed Cannizzaro and all other state Senate Democratic candidates in the 2016 election cycle, it soured on the Democratic Senate leader after lawmakers in a late summer special session approved a bill rolling back parts of a 2019 bill that granted several powers and protections to officers accused of misconduct. 

Criminal justice advocates pushed hard for that legislation, SB2, amid a nationwide reckoning and renewed focus on police violence and misconduct stemming from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But it was opposed by several police unions, including the LVPPA, as an unnecessary reaction removing protections for accused officers.

The LVPPA did not return an email request for comment.

The campaign so far includes a 15-second video stating Cannizzaro is “on the wrong side of the law” after passing a bill that “lowered sentences for drug traffickers and burglers (sic).” Similar language is used in a Facebook ad that began running on Wednesday, stating “our families aren’t safe with Nicole Cannizzaro.”

It’s an extremely simplified reference to a 157-page bill passed in the 2019 Legislature, AB236, a sweeping criminal justice reform measure that originated from a Department of Justice study and recommendations as to how to cut costs and reduce the state’s prison population. Among its many changes included lowering the state’s “strict” rules on drug possession and sales, and changes to state laws on burglary 

The bill was initially opposed by police departments and prosecutors, but was amended in the Senate by Cannizzaro to address some of those concerns raised by district attorneys and other law enforcement agencies. The final version of the bill passed on a 19-2 vote in the Senate.

Per legislative minutes, the LVPPA did not testify on the bill during any of the three public hearings held on the measure.

That social media ad redirects to a website — “Corrupt Cannizzaro” — that outlines a barrage of attacks against her, including supporting bills that her lobbyist husband’s clients supported, attempting to raise her salary (through supporting a change to annual legislative sessions), raising taxes and holding “closed-door” special sessions over the summer.

Democrats currently enjoy a 13-8 seat advantage in the 21-member state Senate, but are playing defense in two suburban Las Vegas districts (Cannizzaro and termed-out Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse) while backing candidates against Republican Sens. Scott Hammond and Heidi Gansert.

Cannizzaro, who took over the Senate majority leader position in 2019 after the resignation of former Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, who pled guilty to federal charges of misappropriation of campaign funds for personal use. She won a narrow victory over former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman in the 2016 general election, prevailing by slightly more than 1,000 votes out of more than 56,000 cast.

Cannizzaro has been endorsed by the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers (NAPSO), a separate organization representing more than two dozen law enforcement organizations. That organization is separate from the “Public Safety Alliance of Nevada,” which includes the LVPPA.

“She has a strong record on public safety, and that’s why as Nevada’s largest law enforcement Coalition, we continue to proudly endorse her re-election campaign,” NAPSO Executive Director Rick McCann said in an email. “We know Nicole, and we trust her.”

The Indy Explains: Question 1, a measure that would strike the Board of Regents from the Constitution

The Nevada Legislature building

Question 1: The Nevada Higher Education Reform, Accountability and Oversight Amendment

Formal name: Assembly Joint Resolution No. 5 (79th Session)

Type of measure: Legislatively referred constitutional amendment

Groups organized: Yes on 1 for Higher Education

Other groups in favor: Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, Nevada AFL-CIO

Summary of what it does: Question 1 would remove language including the Board of Regents from Article 11 of the Nevada Constitution, instead requiring the Legislature to provide by law for the “governance, control, and management and the reasonable protection of individual academic freedom.” The amendment would also clarify certain legal provisions related to money provided by federal land grant funds provided as part of the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act, in part by updating the state’s legal language to match congressional amendments made in the time since and by removing references to the Board of Regents.  

What other states have done: Governance structures for higher education systems vary widely from state to state, but Nevada is among 29 states that utilize a single administrative board tasked with overseeing all higher education institutions across the state. Among those states, Nevada is the only one that elects all its regents through a general election. Most others, in part or in full, rely on appointments by their respective governors or legislatures. 

Arguments for passing Question 1: Proponents of Question 1 — a broad coalition of ex-legislators, business interests and some students and faculty — have claimed the measure is a necessary reform that will provide greater legislative oversight, and therefore greater accountability, over the Board of Regents. 

Formally citing legal cases from 1948 and 1981 and informally pointing to incidents such as a funding formula controversy under former Chancellor Dan Klaich, those in favor of Question 1 charge that past regents or chancellors too often use their “antiquated” constitutional status as a legal shield for bad behavior. 

“The regents have not made their case of why they think they’re better at holding themselves accountable than the rest of us,” Elliot Anderson, a former assemblyman and the author of AJR5, said. “Because in the rest of American government, no one gets this special protection from accountability — only the regents do.”

In testifying for the measure in 2019, Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse told lawmakers that the change was a direct response to “events of the past several years,” including efforts by NSHE to “control, alter or misrepresent” information presented to the Legislature. 

Though not explicit, Woodhouse’s testimony is a likely reference to an incident in 2012 in which Klaich and other higher education officials allegedly drafted a letter to legislators under a consultant’s letterhead, an act that lawmakers both then and now say was a deliberate attempt to mislead and obfuscate the high-stakes process of revamping the system’s byzantine funding formula.

Originally revealed through a public records request by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2016, Klaich later denied any wrongdoing and said emails construed by the RJ as malicious were intended as jokes. In a written statement later delivered to regents before his resignation, Klaich said that, though he was involved in drafting the letter, the final language was still approved by consultants before being sent to the legislative committee in question.

Anderson also stressed that the measure would not put the Legislature “in control,” of higher education — something implied by some regents during a board meeting in July. He said that, under a regulatory scheme created through Question 1, Regents would still handle regular administration of the higher education system, while the Legislature instead ensures the board remains subject to the “checks and balances and the law just like every other agency.”

“You know, the Legislature is imperfect and the Board of Regents is imperfect,” Anderson said. “And the whole idea is that imperfect, by the government, is supposed to be able to hold each other accountable and check and balance each other.” 

Also criticizing the elected nature of the Board of Regents and a lack of nimbleness and adaptability, the Yes on 1 campaign has claimed that the amendment will modernize the higher education system and “help us save taxpayer dollars from waste,” specifically taking aim at a $26 million administrative budget and a six-figure salary for new Chancellor Melody Rose. 

However, that budget figure is likely misleading, according to NSHE administrators, as it includes nearly $19 million budgeted for the so-called “system computing center,” which covers human resources, accounting and other software used by all NSHE institutions. 

There is also the issue — or in the view of some Yes-on-1 proponents, the non-issue — of what comes next should voters ultimately approve the amendment. 

The ballot question proposes no policy changes outside pulling the board from the Constitution. But Chet Burton, former NSHE CFO and former president of Western Nevada College, argued the lack of specificity provided flexibility on those specifics later down the line, adding that a vote against Question 1 was “approving the status quo.” 

“A lot of people don't know what the final product will look like,” Burton said. “But I think that at least it gives us the opportunity to put together a working group and bring the best minds together and look at how other states handle it.”

Arguments against passing Question 1: Though there are no formal or organized opponents to Question 1, several regents and former Chancellor Thom Reilly vocally opposed the measure as it worked its way through the Legislature. In public testimony and in interviews with The Nevada Independent, these critics say Question 1 does little in the way of furthering educational outcomes for students or otherwise improving higher education governance in the state. 

“How will this make the system better for students?” Reilly asked The Nevada Independent. “How will that advance our graduation rates and retention rates in our research portfolio in our workforce force output? No one has been able to answer that. So if we're going to do a pretty significant change in governance, there should be a better articulation about how that's going to advance the system.”

Reilly also cast doubt on the prospect that placing higher education in the realm of any other state agency would make it more efficient or “nimble,” calling it instead “extremely bureaucratic and onerous.” Pointing specifically to the “multiple levels of bureaucracy” required by the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee for state agencies, he said specifically that the direct distribution of coronavirus relief dollars earlier this year by NSHE “can never happen in the state” if the system operated like an agency.

Regent Trevor Hayes, likewise, called the measure a “classic example of a solution in search of a problem” and Regent Laura Perkins raised doubts about the lack of any clear definition for policies that could result from Question 1’s passage. 

“I see it as trying to build the plane while you’re flying it,” Perkins said. “There’s no numbers or positive proof that the system that may or may not come out of this is better than the system that we have now.”

Opponents have also claimed that Question 1 represents a legal backdoor that would allow the Legislature to do away — either in part or in full — with elected regents.  

Regent Jason Geddes, among the longest-serving regents on the board, pointed to SB354 — a failed 2019 bill that would have reduced the number of regents to nine, including four gubernatorial appointees — as evidence of a broader legislative end-game.

In his view, Geddes said that the elected nature of regents under the current constitutional structure — one that he believes is ultimately responsive to constituents — could not be recreated under the framework laid out by SB354, or theoretically allowed by Question 1.

“Right now there's 13 of us, we represent just shy of 300,000 people,” Geddes said. “And we drop it down to nine, and we actually would only have five representing the entire populace of the state — it's pretty much a congressional district for a part time, $80-a-[meeting] job. It just gets difficult to represent that many people kind of over the years.”

Though SB354 was passed in the Senate by a 15-6 margin, the measure was controversial and found little support in the Assembly, where it died in committee. 

Even now, not all proponents of Question 1 agree on the question of an appointed board. That includes Anderson, who worked to quash that bill and called the issue a “separate question” and a “kind of a fiction that is presented for the benefit of the public.”

Though no faculty group has as-yet taken a formal position on Question 1, some Nevada faculty have vocalized past concerns that the amendment may not adequately protect academic freedom.

In a letter sent to lawmakers during deliberations on AJR5 in 2019, the Nevada Faculty Alliance listed at least eight instances in which political pressure was used to influence the nature of appointed higher education governing bodies, including a 2016 move by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin to oust trustees and the president at the University of Louisville.

But some faculty proponents have otherwise downplayed the issue, countering that Question 1 would, to the contrary, expand protections for academic freedom through placing such protections directly into the state Constitution. 

How did Question 1 qualify for the ballot? As a legislatively referred constitutional amendment, Question 1 was overwhelmingly — though not unanimously — approved by two successive legislative sessions as Assembly Joint Resolution 5. First introduced in 2017, AJR5 was passed 38-4 in the Assembly and 18-2 in the Senate. In its second run through the Legislature in 2019, the measure was approved by margins of 36-5 in the Assembly and 20-0 in the Senate. 

Primary funders: A PAC formed in support of Question 1, Nevadans for a Higher Quality Education, reported raising $115,500 through the second quarter of 2020. Nearly all of that money, $105,000, came in two contributions from the Council for a Better Nevada, a political non-profit helmed by Maureen Schafer, the former chief of staff for the UNLV Medical School. First formed in 2006, the Council for a Better Nevada in part funded a 2014 effort to create a Nevada Court of Appeals and the 2016 gun background checks initiative

The remainder of the PAC’s fundraising came from a $10,000 contribution from the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce and $500 from Republican state Sen. Keith Pickard’s campaign committee. 

Through the second quarter, the PAC reported spending $87,500, of which nearly half — $40,000 — went to the Mellman Group, a Washington, D.C.-based pollster with a long history of polling Nevada races. (The firm has also done polling for The Nevada Independent.) The PAC also spent another $30,000 on California-based firm Winner and Mandabach, which advertises itself as a specialist in the realm of ballot-measure campaigns.  

Financial impact: Cannot be determined. Because Question 1 would likely lead to legislative changes to NSHE and its administrative structure, an analysis by the state could not determine a financial impact of the measure without knowing what, precisely, those changes would entail. 

Status: The measure was approved by legislators in both the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions, leaving November’s vote as the only hurdle remaining before the amendment would take effect. 

For more breakdowns of ballot measures, laws or other complex topics, check out other Indy explainers here.

Correction, 9/7/20 at 11:59 a.m. — A quote from Regent Jason Geddes originally misstated the compensation for regents as "$80-a-day." Regents actually receive $80 per meeting, with four quarterly meetings scheduled per year.

Updated, 9/9/20 at 10:32 a.m. — This story was updated to include an endorsement of Question 1 by the Nevada AFL-CIO announced on Wednesday, Sept. 9.

Two state Senate Democratic candidates took additional donations from maxed-out Cannizzaro-led PAC

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro on the twelfth day of the 31st Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City on Sunday, July 19, 2020.

Two Democratic state Senate candidates who received maximum allowable contributions from a political action committee registered to state Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro also received donations from another entity entirely funded by her PAC.

State law explicitly prohibits so-called “conduit contributions,” or donations made in the name of another person to get around contribution limits. 

The law also specifically prohibits making donations to PACs as a way to get around contribution limits, stating that it’s illegal to “make a contribution to a committee for political action with the knowledge and intent that the (PAC) will contribute that money to a specific candidate which, in combination with the total contributions already made by the person for the same election, would violate the limitations on contributions.”

According to campaign finance records, the Cannizzaro-led PAC — “Battle Born and Raised Leadership” — transferred campaign dollars to a secondary PAC (registered to another state senator), which in turn made contributions to state Senate candidates Roberta Lange and Kristee Watson that, in total, exceed the maximum $10,000 per cycle limit on contributions. 

In an email, state Senate Democratic Caucus Executive Director Cheryl Bruce said the contributions were “made in the usual conduct of a Nevada political action committee during an election cycle.”

“There was absolutely no violation of campaign finance laws, and any suggestion otherwise is inaccurate and irresponsible,” she wrote.

Although Nevada law caps campaign contributions to $10,000 per single person or entity, many businesses and entities are able to get around the limits either through making donations through different business entities, or creative use of PACs, which are allowed to accept unlimited contributions.

Cannizzaro’s “Battle Born and Raised Leadership” PAC initially made maximum, $10,000 contributions to Lange and Watson in December 2019, according to campaign finance records

The PAC later made a combined $7,500 ($5,000 on March 31, and $2,500 on May 31) in contributions to “Brunch in Nevada,” a PAC registered to Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks. The PAC was registered on Feb. 25, and has not reported receiving any other contributions other than the $7,500 it received from Cannizzaro’s PAC.

The “Brunch in Nevada” PAC then contributed $5,000 to Lange (a $3,000 contribution on April 24 and a $2,000 contribution on June 2) and $1,000 to Watson on June 30.

Another PAC registered to Cannizzaro — Majority 2020 — also received and made contributions from sources (Brooks and termed out Sen. Joyce Woodhouse) that had already made maximum contributions to two candidates — Lange and Cannizzaro herself.

Lange won a narrow victory in a primary election against two sitting state Assembly members, and will be automatically elected to the state Senate as no other candidates filed to run for the seat. Watson is set to face off against Republican candidate Carrie Buck, who narrowly lost a 2016 bid for the same seat.

Both candidates have been endorsed by the Senate Democratic Caucus, which is currently one seat short of a two-thirds majority in the upper house.

Updated on Tuesday, July 28 at 8:36 to correct that Kristee Watson is running against Carrie Buck.

Cannizzaro-led PAC gave Dem Senate leader donation from maxed-out contributors

State Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro accepted contributions earlier this year from her political action committee that was entirely funded by two fellow Democratic state senators who had already maxed out on contributions to her campaign.

Nevada law explicitly prohibits so-called “conduit contributions,” or donations made in the name of another person to get around contribution limits.

The law is also specific on making donations to PACs as a way to get around contribution limits, stating that it’s an illegal practice to “make a contribution to a committee for political action with the knowledge and intent that the (PAC) will contribute that money to a specific candidate which, in combination with the total contributions already made by the person for the same election, would violate the limitations on contributions.”

According to her most recent campaign finance report, Cannizzaro reported raising more than $114,000 between April and the end of June, including a $5,000 contribution from an entity called “Majority 2020,” a political action committee that lists her as its president.

But the only contributions taken in by “Majority 2020” this election cycle have come from state Sens. Chris Brooks and Joyce Woodhouse — both of whom have already contributed the maximum allowable amount of $10,000 to Cannizzaro’s campaign.

In a statement, state Senate Democratic Caucus Executive Director Cheryl Bruce — who is listed as the PAC’s registered agent — said the “contributions were made in the normal course of business of the committee for political action during an election season, as demonstrated by their disbursement dates.” Roberta Lange received her contribution ahead of a contentious state Senate primary; Cannizzaro received hers shortly before the fundraising period ended.

Brooks said in an interview that he gave money to the PAC to support Democratic candidates, and said “where it goes from there, obviously I have no control.” Woodhouse declined to comment in a text message sent after this story was published.

Deputy Secretary of State Wayne Thorley said in a text message that the contributions would violate state law if they "were made to the PAC with the knowledge and intent that the PAC would use the money to give to Cannizzaro."

Nevada’s campaign finance laws and restrictions are not particularly challenging to evade; many businesses opt to give more than the $10,000 contribution limit through making contributions via different business entities, and many donate campaign dollars to PACs, which are allowed to accept unlimited contributions but are subject to the same $10,000 donation limit to individual candidates.

It’s not unusual for legislators in safe races or in leadership positions to distribute campaign funds to candidates running in more competitive races. Brooks is not up for re-election until 2022 and Woodhouse is termed out of office.

But use of PACs to boost candidate fundraising numbers has in the past come under legal scrutiny. Former gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid was fined $25,000 in 2011 after it was discovered his campaign had set up a main umbrella PAC that took in more than $900,000 in contributions and dispersed them to more than 90 smaller PACs (all registered at the same Las Vegas address), which in turn contributed the maximum amount allowable to Reid’s campaign.

Though on a much smaller scale, the contributions from Cannizzaro’s PAC to her campaign appear to fit a similar bill.

Here’s how it happened: On March 31, the “Majority 2020” PAC received two separate $5,000 contributions from the campaign accounts of two Democratic state senators — Brooks and Woodhouse. Those are the only contributions the PAC has received this year.

Then, the Majority 2020 PAC reported making two expenditures on its most recent quarterly campaign finance report — $5,000 to the campaign of state senate candidate Roberta Lange on April 24, and $5,000 to Cannizzaro’s campaign on June 26.

But both Brooks and Woodhouse have previously contributed the maximum amount allowable under state law ($10,000) to Cannizzaro’s 2020 re-election campaign in the years and months prior.

Brooks made his donations in four chunks between late 2017 and 2020, with the total amount of contributions equaling out to $10,000. Woodhouse has also maxed out contributions to Cannizzaro’s campaign; a $618.85 contribution in February 2018, another $5,000 in September 2019 and finally a $4,381.15 contribution in December 2019.

Usually, contributions from a PAC to an individual candidate’s campaign account would not raise any eyebrows, as legislator-led PACs typically take in money from a variety of sources and not just other legislators. 

While PACs are not required to report their cash on hand, publicly reported campaign finance totals indicate that the “Majority 2020” PAC only had about $716 in its account at the start of 2020 — meaning that the contributions to Cannizzaro had to have come from either Brooks or Woodhouse’s campaign accounts. 

Both Brooks and Woodhouse also donated $5,000 to Lange’s campaign last year, so an additional $5,000 contribution would not put them over the legal limit. Brooks, however, did contribute another $5,000 to Lange through his “Brunch in Nevada PAC” in April and June 2020.

The Majority 2020 PAC has been operational since at least the 2012 campaign cycle, and has been used as a vehicle by Senate Democratic leaders to direct funding to their most in-need candidates. The PAC (then known as Majority 2016) distributed $30,000 to three state Senate candidates during the 2018 campaign cycle, for example.

Cannizzaro narrowly won election to her Las Vegas-area Senate District in 2016, defeating former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman by slightly more than 1,000 votes out of more than 56,000 cast. Cannizzaro is facing off against Republican attorney and first-time candidate April Becker in the November 2020 election.

Updated on July 23 at 11:42 a.m. to include a comment from Sen. Joyce Woodhouse.