Amid brutal fire season, inmate firefighters see obstacles, wages described as ‘a form of enslavement’

On the heels of a smoky summer, Northern Nevada is finally seeing blue skies and some control over rampant blazes. But for their work helping keep forest fires at bay, inmate firefighters are still paid well below the federal minimum wage, something state officials have said they want to change.

In an Executive Branch Audit Committee meeting in June, then-Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall said she believed the current rate of pay, $24 per day of work, was “a form of enslavement.” Attorney General Aaron Ford echoed the sentiment and said the subminimum wage and work required of incarcerated firefighters reminded him of “convict leasing,” a system of forced labor historically practiced on Black men in the American South that survives in some places today.

Leaders at the Nevada Division of Forestry said they’re working on a small increase to wages, but a substantial increase isn’t feasible until the state creates a new budget with more funding for the program. 

Mike Osborn — spokesperson for the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources — said the state Division of Forestry employs 74 conservation crew supervisors who train 740 inmates, 185 of whom are assigned to fight fires. The program was initially designed in the 1950s to help incarcerated people transition back into society by providing them with paid, skilled work leading up to their release.

For fighting wildland fires, on top of the $24 per day, inmates can earn a sentence reduction of up to 45 days based on the time that they work. They can earn 15 more days if they choose to receive training based on national firefighting standards, with opportunities for future employment. In comparison, state-employed firefighters earn in an hour of training what inmates earn for an entire day of work.

Only incarcerated people in minimum security facilities and within two years of release are eligible for the work. Personnel numbers have remained relatively stable despite worsening fires in recent years, according to State Forester Kacey KC. 

Incarcerated crews make up about 30 percent of the division’s fire response capacity. Combined with local, state, and federal government and contract workers, those crews are 1 percent of all firefighting forces in Nevada, Osborn said.

KC added that the Division of Forestry has been working on a proposal to increase inmate wages across the board and expand some benefits, such as time off sentences. But she said that hinges on the next budget that the state passes, and isn’t immediately resolvable.

Marshall suggested that the department should request more funds for their work if it means inmates would be paid more.

“If the forestry division is saying that they don't have the money to do proper firefighting programs,” Marshall said in an interview with The Nevada Independent, “then I think that there are numerous ways right now where we have a lot of money coming into the state to turn around and apply for that money and make sure that we are properly funding them.”

In the audit meeting, Marshall also raised concerns that inmates who finish their sentence face a number of obstacles to becoming employed to do the firefighting work they trained for. She pointed out that the forestry division had only recently hired one formerly incarcerated individual for firefighting work. 

“They may not be able to clear their record, and so therefore may not be able to work on a firefighting line, because they have a record; they may not be able to get a license,” Marshall said at the audit meeting. “There are things that we can do — expedited expungement, the ability to leave your county to work fire lines.”

KC said the forestry department had so far hired two individuals out of the inmate training program. The Division of Forestry said they do not have more specific numbers on how many people from the program went on to work for firefighting forces following their release, citing a “do not fraternize” policy with the Department of Corrections. 

“Inmates are able to apply directly with state, federal, and contract wildland fire crews upon release and have been successfully hired on multiple occasions,” Osborn said in a statement to The Nevada Independent

Marshall also referenced new legislation from California designed to strengthen the career pipeline and said similar policies could empower Nevadans who have served their time. California’s law cleared the way to future employment for incarcerated people pursuing firefighting careers upon their release, expunging records to limit restrictions applicants might otherwise face. 

The Department of Corrections did not reply to multiple requests for comment on its collaboration with the Division of Forestry and responsibilities running the program.

Marshall said she wants to see another audit conducted on what a wage increase would look like and how to best make it happen. An audit would have to be directed by Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office; it is unclear whether there are plans for such an audit. 

The governor’s office did not reply to multiple requests for comment on whether a second audit looking into increasing wages is being planned or currently underway.

Indy Q&A: Departing lieutenant governor on her legacy, her successor and her new White House job

Lieutenant Governor Kate Marshall walking in the Legislative Building

Outgoing Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall said when she got the call about her new gig at the White House, she was sitting straight up, stunned, at attention.

It was President Joe Biden himself.

“I kinda never believed that someone like me would be an elected person, you know?” she told The Nevada Independent in a recent interview. “Or then be able to go to the White House. Who gets that?”

Marshall, a Democrat who was next in the line of succession to the governor’s seat before resigning the job effective Friday, is moving soon to the nation’s capital, where she will begin work in the Biden administration as a senior adviser to governors on how to best work with the federal government. Her departure is drawing interest because the governor will have the opportunity to appoint her replacement.

But she’s also taking the time to reflect on her service in Nevada, where she served two terms as state treasurer, ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state and won the seat for lieutenant governor in 2018.

Here are highlights from The Indy’s exit interview with Marshall. Questions and answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Did you ever aspire to take the governor’s seat?

I did not take the pulse of the governor every time I shook his hand. So no, if that's what you're referring to … I take every office as an opportunity to do what one can and I think if you're just going to go into office to get another office … I don't think you're suited for public service, quite frankly.

Do you intend to run for office again in the future?

I don't put it in the “no” category. This is a very exciting moment for me. And so it's hard for me to see beyond even just to try to get through the first day and hope I do a good job. But my husband and I will definitely be keeping our home here in Reno, and I am a Westerner.

Are you endorsing anyone to replace you as lieutenant governor?

No, that's not my place. I mean, really, it is the governor's appointment. And I will support who the governor appoints. He needs a partner, right? He may have a particular view of what he wants his next four years to look like, and so I give that to him. And then of course after that, then it's up to the voters. 

And so nowhere in that process did you see me. 

Lieutenant Gov. Kate Marshall applauds during the State of the State address on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Do you think it's important to have a candidate from a diverse background, or a woman, in that position?

I think it's important for every elected official, if they're not from the background of the person that's in front of them, that they are willing to listen and hear. I think that we come from a very, very diverse community. And those experiences are important. And you're not going to be able to represent Nevada well unless you are open to those experiences.

You will never have all the experiences of all the people you meet. But it can help you to make better decisions. So I think diversity is absolutely critical in this state. 

Your office recently announced members of a new Keep Nevada Working Task Force focused on integrating immigrants into the Nevada economy. What is your vision for that group?

This country has done, I think, a remarkable job with people being able to make a home here, whatever their culture, whatever their language, whatever their dreams. And I think more recently we have dropped the ball in that regard. We used to go to libraries and learn English, right? And there were all these things that we as Americans did.

I'm not saying that there weren't failures. There's always failures. But we certainly embarked on this with an appetite that I don't think exists in other countries. 

And so in my mind, part of the Keep Nevada Working Task Force is to put people on a panel and let us try to see what we can do to further prosperity in immigrant communities. And that really requires a more comprehensive view of things, right? It's not just education, it's not just finding a job, it's not just health care, it's all of it. 

So maybe a goal is infant mortality, or maybe a goal is with third grade reading achievement. It depends on the community. And I don't think it is my place to tell them what their goals ought to be. But to basically do that, so that then you have a measurable way to say, what kind of progress are we making? And hopefully moving forward.

I envisioned the committee making recommendations about immigration policy. Is that your vision?

It could be. You will find that when you talk to immigrant communities, especially if they have a type of green card, and then now, can they become a citizen? There are certain things that are roadblocks, and depending on the community, those issues are going to be different. That issue is going to be different for the Haitian community, as opposed to a Latino community, as opposed to an African community. 

And so getting them to come together on what we measure is for them to do. And I think you may find some surprises, right? You can go in thinking it's all about the workforce, and they can come back to you and see and say to you it's all about daycare. And so that's where it's not up to the elected official. You try to facilitate the conversation so that people can tell you what their priorities are.

How can you ensure that the Legislature will take these recommendations and bring them to fruition?

You have to follow through. You can't just then hand in the report, and then say goodbye. You have to come back. And you have to advocate for your report, and you have to find legislators who are willing to take up your report and make it their bill. And then you have to support them in that process. 

You chaired Nevada’s Complete Count Committee. Do you believe the census was a success?

We came in number one in the nation in terms of the increase in the self-response rate. And I think that is a direct result of the committee, and of the work that that committee did to reach out to their various pockets and have those pockets reach out and reach out and reach out. 

We didn't let up. I remember there was one point where they were coming on to that last weekend. ... And we wanted to have an outreach weekend in Vegas, and across the state, but definitely in Vegas. And the Census Bureau called us and said, “We're not going to be able to do this.” And I got on the phone and I said, “You are going to be able to do this. We will do this. And you will be there. And I expect to see you when I get there.”

And I called every single mayor ... and I said, “If you are not out there getting your people to fill out the census, I want to come make a personal visit because I need you and you know how important this is.” And mayors really know how important it is because it’s resources, right? And Nevada is a net exporter of taxes, and so grabbing that money that we already put into those coffers to come back to Nevada is very, very important.

As the lieutenant governor, you're the head of the Nevada Commission on Tourism. Is there anything that you feel like is left undone trying to get people out into the rurals and show them that that's a tourist destination?

One is outdoor recreation, which is obviously a very resilient industry when it comes to pandemics and these kinds of things. I passed the dark skies bill. And we're currently working on creating a dark sky route — park to park in the dark — so from Death Valley to Great Basin National Park, which by the way, if you haven't been to Great Basin National Park.

We're also working on a trail Institute in Ely, where we would basically certify people so that they could work on creating, maintaining, drawing, and planning trails. You could draw people from all over the country to go to that trails Institute. 

And lastly, my plan for my state parks. We have 27 state parks in Nevada, and I worked with state parks and a lot of different stakeholders to take care of the deferred maintenance, upgrade them, make them more accessible. What's always important in a state park is the restroom. So make sure that all these things can be used and used by many. 

And so we put in for about $180 million of [American Rescue Plan] funding in the governor's framework. And so I hope that that goes forward. It will be a lifetime legacy to have all our state parks upgraded.

Any state park that you would recommend? 

The Kershaw-Ryan State Park in Caliente is another place that you can see dark skies with the naked eye. It is a little oasis there. It's never too hot there. And there's a little place where ... there's little bricks for every legislator. It's just very unique. I would recommend going.

What will you be bringing to the Biden administration?

I have worked in the federal government (in the U.S. Department of Justice), and I've worked in state government. And so I see the differences. And I understand, for example, at least Nevada's budget, how a lot of the interactions are between state agencies and the federal monies, they get where the glitches are. 

For example, I was just at a [Nevada Department of Transportation] board meeting this morning, and they got $33 million in the August redistribution because we spent all of our federal dollars. So other states are losing money, because they didn't spend all their allocation. So these kinds of things that people at the federal level may not have in front of mind and the various difficulties that states need to communicate so that they can do what they need to do on their side.

Now of course, with COVID with wildfires with Afghan evacuee resettlement, these kinds of things really will require coordination.

What advice do you have for your successor?

You are on very many boards. Only the governor is on more boards than the lieutenant governor. And if you wanted to solely occupy your time with those boards, you could, but there is an opportunity to step into those spaces that need attention. 

The mayor was talking to me in Ely and he said, “I have sewer problems.” And I said, “Yes, you do. So do many communities in Nevada.” And he says, “I have housing problems.” And I said, “Yes, you do. So do many communities in Nevada.” And he said, “Well, we don't have books.” And I said, “Really? Because we can do books pretty easily.”

And we got 17,000 books there into that community and filled the school, filled the library. And they were able to give books to parents who couldn't afford books for their children. And the parents were around the school block, waiting to go in and get books. 

This opportunity to step into spaces — and the governor doesn't have the time to do that — so the lieutenant governor position is such that you can meet your passion there.

Do you think the structure of the position needs to be changed in any way? It’s technically part time.

I guess it hasn't been for me, but maybe that's the nature of the person. I think that that job should be more than full time if you're going to do those things well. 

I tend to call my staff on Sunday nights and say, “This is what I know, here's the questions I have for the following week.” They always answer. I don't think that's what most people consider when they consider a part-time job because I'm starting the week on Sunday.

What was the most gratifying part about being lieutenant governor?

Delivering with Dignity. I drove around and delivered food to people and that was wonderful. That was wonderful. People are so grateful to come together. 

Anything else you want to add?

When I was treasurer, I received this invitation to a White House Christmas party. And I told my daughter, “Oh, no, honey, that's not real. I think they just send those things.” And my daughter keeps saying to me, “It is real.” I said, “No, it's not real. You don't even have people like me, go to the White House. I wouldn't even know where to go.”

And it turned out it was real. It's just like, who gets this stuff? It's amazing. It's an honor to be able to serve. You can't even imagine how wonderful it is to serve people.

Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall to resign, accept White House post as adviser to governors

Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall formally announced Thursday afternoon that she will resign and accept a position with the Biden administration.

Marshall, whose move The Nevada Independent reported earlier this week, will become the White House’s senior adviser to governors within the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs but will continue to serve as lieutenant governor until her transition sometime in the late fall.

“I will work on the same issues I have during my time in elected office: to ensure that the American Dream can be reached by all who seek it in Nevada and our country,” Marshall said in a press release. 

Julie Rodriguez, director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, said Marshall's experience in the lieutenant governor role would help the White House accomplish its goals.

“Her first-hand experience in leading economic development efforts and supporting small businesses will be integral to President Biden’s efforts to implement the American Rescue Plan and the full Build Back Better agenda,” Rodriguez said.

Under Nevada law, the lieutenant governor’s office could remain vacant or Gov. Steve Sisolak could appoint a replacement. In 1989, when U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan took office, then-Lt. Gov. Bob Miller ascended to the governorship and the No. 2 position remained vacant.

The lieutenant governor’s post is up for election next in 2022.

Asked about his plans at an affordable housing-related event in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Sisolak said he has “no idea at this time” about whether to replace her or leave the seat vacant.

“I talked to the lieutenant governor, I talked to President Biden about it. I'm happy for her… So we have to wait and see what happens," he said. "I've obviously gotten numerous phone calls and texts and expressions of interest. But right now today, I'm focusing on affordable housing." 

He noted that there will be a special legislative session in coming months and said he planned to talk to his team about whether the seat could be held open until then. On Thursday, Sisolak’s office said in a press release that there is no specific legal deadline to make an appointment. 

Marshall previously served as a two-term state treasurer, winning races in 2006 and 2010. Prior to that, she was a senior deputy attorney general from 1997 to 2000. 

Marshall’s resignation comes shortly after other key members of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s leadership team announced their departures. Last month, Chief of Staff Michelle White and Senior Advisor Scott Gilles said they were stepping down. Both indicated they would be taking some time off after a hectic year and a half helping shepherd the state through the pandemic and subsequent economic fallout.

Last week, Sisolak announced that former state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, who had moved to Washington, D.C. to work within the federal Department of Health and Human Services, will return to Nevada as his new chief of staff. 

Update: Aug. 17, 2021. This article was updated to add a line about Dan Schwartz announcing his candidacy. It was updated again to add a comment from Sisolak about plans for replacing Marshall.  This article was updated again on Aug. 19, 2021, to include information from a formal press release Kate Marshall sent about her transition to the Biden Administration and to add comment from the White House.

Reporter Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

“It's really bad for us:” Water managers prepare for extreme drought across the state

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

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

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For the past few weeks, I’ve heard variations of the same line: “This is one of the worst water years I’ve seen in a long time.” The drought is visible on the ground. There is less snow on the mountains and less water running off into streams. Soil is dry and reservoirs are far below full.

Exactly how challenging is this water year, and how is Nevada responding to it? For this week’s newsletter, we include perspectives from across the state. It’s important to note that drought affects different parts of the state in different ways, depending on where water is coming from and how it’s being used. But with extreme to exceptional drought affecting about 75 percent of Nevada, arid conditions are not limited to only a few pockets of the state.

Live in Las Vegas, Reno or Carson City, and you might not always think about where your water is coming from when you turn on the tap. In many cases, it starts with the snowpack. The water that comes out of your sink and shower often comes from snow melting into rivers and streams. 

And this year, across the state, the amount of water flowing through streams is projected to be far lower than average. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which compiles statewide water supply reports, expects that streamflow will be 7 to 61 percent of average for May to July (the big range accounts for different conditions across the state). 

Jeff Anderson, an NRCS water supply specialist, who helped compile and prepare the report, said the forecast has decreased each month, in part because Nevada saw little rain and snow during the spring. In the 12-month period between May 2020 through April 2021, Nevada and other Western states recorded their driest years since 1895. But that’s not the full story. 

Snowpack was well-below normal, but the soil underneath it was also dry. When soils are dry, it reduces the amount of water that makes it into streams. Instead, more water is absorbed by the parched landscape, and with little precipitation last fall, soil moisture was below average.

“The soil moisture is making the runoff different than it otherwise would be,” Anderson said. 

With less water making it into streams and rivers, urban and rural water users across the state are closely watching the situation and implementing drought measures.

In Northern Nevada, the Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA), which serves Reno and Sparks, held a press conference last week to announce new conservation measures, including additional public outreach, lawn watering restrictions from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and hiring more “water watchers” to patrol whether residents are complying with the conservation rules. 

TMWA gets most of its water from the mountains around Lake Tahoe, where snow melts into the tributaries that form the Truckee River. At a critical point on the river, flows are expected to be about 22 percent of average, and water managers plan to pull water stored in reservoirs. 

“Over the last two months, these forecasts have just deteriorated significantly,” said Bill Hauck, a senior hydrologist for TMWA and the agency’s water supply administrator.

By August, Hauck said the amount of water flowing through Reno will drop off noticeably. But he also stressed that the water agency is prepared for drought and has water stored in reservoirs.

In and around Las Vegas, the situation is a little more complicated. Las Vegas gets about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, fed by snowpack from the Rockies. 

On the Colorado River, the situation was similar to the one that played out across Nevada. Dry soils decreased runoff, and only about 26 percent of average is expected to reach Lake Powell, a key reservoir. Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas, is projected to drop below a key threshold, triggering the first ever federally declared shortage — and cutbacks for Arizona and Nevada.

Officials with the Southern Nevada Water Authority have long prepared for cutbacks. In addition, the water authority is pushing an aggressive conservation measure through the Legislature. The bill, AB356, would remove about 5,000 acres of decorative grass by 2026. Water officials expect the conservation push to save more than 10 percent of the state’s Colorado River allocation. 

“When people see the headlines about the hydrology on the Colorado River, when they read about these looming shortages, I think they need to know that that is serious,” John Entsminger, the water authority’s general manager, said in an interview earlier this week. “That is not hyperbole. But we as a community have the tools at our disposal to meet that challenge.”

Farmers and ranchers are also feeling the early impacts of the drought in rural parts of the state. In Lovelock, which sits at the end of the Humboldt River, farmers are seeing less water, said Ryan Collins, who leads the Pershing County Water Conservation District. 

Rye Patch, a reservoir that the district relies on to store water, is at about 32 percent of capacity, according to the NRCS water supply outlook. Last year, it was about 85 percent full.

“It's really bad for us,” Collins said. “We're going to use what little we have in the reservoir.”

Dan McEvoy, a researcher with the Western Regional Climate Center at the Desert Research Institute, said he has observed this drought intensify faster than the one that started in 2012.

“We're in our second year into the drought, and we’re already seeing similar impacts to what we saw four years into the last drought," McEvoy said.

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


CARSON CITY AND CONGRESS

Governor signs bill to create state designation for “dark skies:” Gov. Steve Sisolak signed legislation, sponsored by Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall, to create a program for awarding a “Dark Sky Designation.” “The signing and implementation of the Dark Skies Bill celebrates this uniquely Nevadan asset by encouraging protection of this public resource, while also sharing it with visitors to our state and thereby increasing tourism opportunities for rural cities and counties,” Marshall said. Terri Russell from KOLO 8 has more on the legislation and the bill signing.

A mining tax deal? The Clark County Education Association is dropping cryptic hints. 


WATER AND LAND

“It’s literally the foundational shrub:” Excellent piece by Science Friday’s Lauren Young looking at the ecological importance of the sagebrush sea and the many threats facing it. 

Why water communication is important: The Record-Courier’s Kurt Hildebrand reported on some startling survey numbers: “Not quite a tenth of the residents living in the Carson River Watershed could name the river in a recent survey. Carson River Subconservancy Watershed Program Manager Brenda Hunt told Douglas County commissioners on Thursday that 62 percent either didn’t know or think they lived in a watershed at all, and that 70 percent thought they didn’t affect the watershed, or only had a slight impact.”

A dispatch from the Extraterrestrial Highway: Former Sen. Harry Reid wrote about UFOs in the New York Times: “Let me be clear: I have never intended to prove that life beyond Earth exists. But if science proves that it does, I have no problem with that. Because the more I learn, the more I realize that there’s still so much I don’t know.”

Ammon Bundy is running for governor as a Republican...in Idaho, the Idaho Statesman’s Hayat Norimine reports. Last year, Bundy was banned from stepping onto the Capitol grounds.


ENERGY AND CLIMATE

A big deal for those watching domestic mining: Reuters reporters Ernest Scheyder and Trevor Hunnicutt are reporting that the Biden administration is shifting course on its earlier statements that it would emphasize the domestic procurement of minerals needed for the energy transmission. From the story: “U.S. President Joe Biden will rely on ally countries to supply the bulk of the metals needed to build electric vehicles and focus on processing them domestically into battery parts, part of a strategy designed to placate environmentalists, two administration officials with direct knowledge told Reuters.”

Remember that secret shipment of plutonium? The plutonium is still in Nevada. Reporter Colin Demarest with the Aiken Standard has an update on efforts to move the plutonium.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved a geothermal project in Washoe County.

Reno-based Ormat is acquiring two existing geothermal projects and a transmission line. 

Democrat, former Athletic Commissioner Aguilar jumps in race for secretary of state

Sign in front of the Nevada State Capitol building

Attorney and former state Athletic Commissioner Cisco Aguilar is launching a campaign for secretary of state, the latest candidate to hop in the race to replace term-limited incumbent Barbara Cegavske.

Aguilar, a Democrat, rolled out his campaign on Tuesday touting endorsements from a host of high-profile Democrats and education advocates, including former Secretary of State Ross Miller, Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall, philanthropist Beverly Rogers and tennis legend Andre Agassi. (Aguilar previously worked as general counsel for Agassi’s management company, Agassi Graf.)

In a statement, Aguilar said he wanted to run for the seat to “defend every eligible American’s right to vote,” remove barriers to voter participation and to make elections as transparent as possible to “maintain the public trust.”

“We have an opportunity to become more efficient as a government, reduce bureaucracy, and enhance access to services that are too often out of reach for many Nevadans,” Aguilar said in a statement. “Our recovery as a state is dependent on empowering our small businesses, reaching out to some of the hardest hit communities, and restoring Nevadans’ faith in government.”

Aguilar spent eight years as a member of the state’s Athletic Commission, which oversees and licenses boxing and other unarmed combat. He also is the founding chairman of Cristo Rey St. Viator, a college preparatory high school.

Two Republicans have also announced intentions to run for the statewide office. Sparks City Councilman Kris Dahir announced a bid for the office in February, and former Assemblyman Jim Marchant has also announced plans to run for the seat.

Cegavske, a Republican, won re-election to the office in 2018 over former Democratic Assemblyman Nelson Araujo by a narrow margin, fewer than 6,500 votes out of nearly a million cast. Cegavske was the only Republican candidate to win statewide in the 2018 midterms, but has drawn criticism from many in her own party (including an official censure) for her assertion that no large-scale fraud occurred in the state’s contentious 2020 election.

The office of secretary of state is likely best known for its role in managing and overseeing state elections, but the office is also granted authority over commercial recordings, notaries public and the securities division in the state.

Cortez Masto, Lee top prior first-quarter fundraising tallies as congressional campaigns eye 2022 midterms

Congressional representatives across the state reported race-leading fundraising hauls this week, positioning each with an early money advantage more than a year in advance of next summer’s primary elections. 

Leading all fundraising was Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-NV), who reported more than $2.3 million in fundraising ahead of what is expected to be a competitive re-election bid. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), who is not up for reelection until 2024, reported $341,794.

In the House, District 3 Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) led the state’s delegation with $607,407 raised through the first quarter; District 4’s Steven Horsford (D-NV) followed with $363,210; District 2’s Mark Amodei (R-NV) reported $77,749; and District 1’s Dina Titus (D-NV) reported $48,080.

With so much time left before the formal filing deadline for congressional elections next spring, the field of challengers in each district remains relatively small. Even so, two Republican challengers in the state’s two swing districts reported six-figure fundraising hauls, including Sam Peters in District 4 ($135,000) and April Becker in District 3 ($143,000).

Below are some additional campaign finance numbers for each candidate, broken down by district from greatest cumulative fundraising to least. 

Catherine Cortez Masto (D) — incumbent

Ahead of her first-ever bid for re-election as a U.S. senator and as Democrats prepare to defend their razor-thin margin in the Senate, Cortez Masto reported $2.3 million in fundraising, boosting her cash on hand by roughly 55 percent to nearly $4.7 million. 

A vast majority of that money, about $1.8 million, came from individual donors, including roughly $1.35 million in itemized contributions and $460,000 in small-dollar unitemized donations. Cortez Masto also raised an even $349,000 from PACs, more than $51,000 from political party committees and nearly $86,500 from other fundraising committee transfers.  

With a fundraising total orders of magnitude larger than any other candidate in Nevada through the first quarter, Cortez Masto also has by far the most individual donors of the entire field with thousands of itemized contributions reported, including several dozen contributions of the legal maximum. 

By law, individuals can contribute up to $2,900 per candidate per election (i.e. for the primary and for the general) in federal elections, while PACs and other committees can contribute up to $5,000 per election. Major donors will often contribute that maximum twice, once for the primary and again for the general, up front, giving candidates between $5,800 and $10,000.

Among the many donors who maxed out their contribution to Cortez Masto were a handful of Nevada regulars, including businessman and major Democratic donor Stephen Cloobeck ($2,900 in the first quarter, $5,800 overall) and MGM Resorts International ($5,000).

With nearly $663,000 spent this quarter, no Nevada politician came close to Cortez Masto in outlays. Most of that money, $382,206, went to nine firms involved in fundraising operations, including mailers ($213,406) and online ($168,800). 

Jacky Rosen (D) — incumbent

With more than three years before she’ll face voters again, Rosen reported a comparatively modest $341,794 in contributions last quarter, but her campaign has more than $1.85 million in cash on hand. 

Of that money, most ($226,165) came from individual contributions, with the rest flowing largely from PACs ($14,000) and authorized committee transfers ($97,600).

Among the several dozen donors giving Rosen the legal maximum were Las Vegas Sun owner Brian Greenspun ($5,800) and his wife, Myra Greenspun ($5,800); Niraj Shah, CEO of the furniture retailer Wayfair ($2,900); and a leadership PAC linked to former Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, the Seeking Justice PAC ($5,000).  

Most of the $137,000 spent by Rosen was for regular operating expenditures, though her campaign twice spent $5,000 for online advertising from New York-based firm Assemble the Agency. 

A district that covers much of the southern half of Clark County, including some of the Las Vegas metro’s wealthiest suburbs, District 3 has switched hands between the two major parties three times since its creation in 2002. 

For three cycles, that control has been maintained by Democrats, following a narrow win by Rosen in 2016, and subsequent victories by Lee in 2018 and 2020. Still, a narrow victory in the district by Donald Trump in 2016 and small voter registration gaps have marked District 3 as one of a few-dozen nationwide that may become key to deciding which party controls the House after the 2022 midterms.

Susie Lee (D) — incumbent

Frequently the top-fundraiser among Nevada’s House delegation, Susie Lee continued her streak last quarter with $607,407 in contributions. After Lee largely depleted her campaign reserves in a pricey bid to keep her seat last year, that first-quarter fundraising has left her campaign with just over $484,000 in cash on hand. 

Nearly all of that money — $493,070 — came from individual contributions, with the remaining $114,000 coming from big-money PAC contributions. 

Among those individual donors were several dozen contributing the $2,900 maximum. Those big money donors were largely local business leaders — including Cashman Equipment CEO MaryKaye Cashman, MGM Resorts International CEO Bill Hornbuckle and former MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren — though the group also included television showrunner and producer Shonda Rhimes.

Among PACs that contributed the $5,000 maximum were a mix of business interests (including PACs related to Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts International), and unions (including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and SMART, the sheet metal and transportation workers union, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.) 

Lee reported spending nearly $146,000 last quarter, an amount second only to Cortez Masto among the delegation members. Most of that money went to campaign consulting and staffing costs, with the single largest chunk — $32,000 spread over five payments — going to Washington, D.C.-based digital consulting firm Break Something. 

April Becker (R)

After her unsuccessful run for the Legislature in 2020, attorney April Becker is challenging Susie Lee (D) for her seat in Congress. In the first quarter of 2021, Becker raised $143,444 mostly from individual contributors. 

Becker received $2,000 from PACs, such as the Stronger Nevada PAC and (although not officially endorsed by) the campaigns for fellow Republican politicians, former Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei. 

Several of her big individual contributors included family members; donations from individuals with the last name Becker totaled $29,500, nearly a fifth of the total contributions. Local business owners also contributed to Becker, including some car dealership owners: $5,000 from Gary Ackerman of Gaudin Motor Company; Cliff Findlay and Donna Findlay of Findlay Automotive each donated the maximum of $2,900, totaling $5,800; and Donald Forman of United Nissan Vegas gave $5,800.  

Co-owners of the Innovative Pain Care Center, Melissa and Daniel Burkhead, each gave $5,800 totaling $11,600. Other contributors included several medical professionals, real estate investors and attorneys.

In the first quarter, Becker kept most of the money collected, $131,460, reporting spending only $11,983 on more fundraising efforts. 

Mark Robertson (R)

Also hoping to challenge Susie Lee, Army veteran Mark Robertson raised $61,631 in his first time running for a political seat. The sum includes $7,451 he loaned his campaign.  

Although he collected less than half than Becker in the first quarter, retirees were large contributors to his campaign, some nearly reaching the $5,800 maximum for both the primary and general elections. 

Several local architects, engineers and construction contractors were also among the contributors, including $5,000 combined from Kenneth and Michelle Alber of Penta Building Group, $3,000 from Brock Krahenbuhl, a contractor for GTI Landscape and $3,000 from Wayne Horlacher of Horrock Engineers. 

Robertson reported spending $25,148, including $5,250 on campaign consulting, $3,138 on office supplies and $3,270 on video and print advertising production services. After the expenditures, Robertson is left with $44,034 cash on hand. 

A geographically massive district — larger than some states — that encompasses parts of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and much of the state’s central rural counties, District 4 has been held by Democrats for all but one cycle since its creation in 2011. That exception came in 2014, when Republican Cresent Hardy unseated then-freshman Democrat Steven Horsford in an upset. 

Horsford retook the seat in 2018, defeating Hardy in an open race after incumbent Democrat Ruben Kihuen declined to mount his own re-election bid amid a sexual harassment investigation. Horsford later won re-election in 2020, beating Republican Jim Marchant by 5 percentage points. 

Steven Horsford (D) — incumbent

With $363,209 in reported fundraising, Horsford boosted his campaign war chest by more than 50 percent last quarter, lifting his cash on hand to $757,142. 

That fundraising was driven mostly by $205,883 in individual contributions, though Horsford also brought in a much larger share of PAC contributions ($157,251) than his delegation counterparts.

Among Horsford’s single-largest contributors was Las Vegas Sun owner Brian Greenspun and his wife, Myra, who both contributed the $2,900 maximum for the primary and general elections, or $11,600 combined. 

Horsford’s biggest PAC contributions came from a mix of political committees linked to the Democratic Party, unions and corporations. That includes $10,000 from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC (of which Horsford is a member), $5,000 from the public employees union AFSCME and $5,000 from MGM Resorts International.   

A vast majority of the $102,000 spent by Horsford’s campaign last quarter went to operating costs, salaries and consultants, though — like his fellow incumbents — a sizable portion ($21,000) still flowed to a pair of fundraising and finance compliance consultants. 

Sam Peters (R)

After finishing second in last year’s Republican primary for District 4, veteran and local business owner Sam Peters led Republican fundraising efforts in the district this quarter. Peters’ campaign raised more than $135,000, which came entirely from individual contributions.

Those contributions were driven largely by retirees, as two-thirds of the 100 big-money contributions over $200 came from donors listing themselves as retired. Peters’ campaign was also boosted by a few maximum or near-maximum donations, including $5,800 from Frank Suryan Jr., CEO of Lyon Living, a residential development company based in Newport Beach, California, and $5,800 from Suryan’s spouse.

After spending a little more than $24,000, mostly on campaign consulting and fundraising services, Peters ended the quarter with nearly $115,000 in cash on hand, nearly double the amount he had at the end of the first quarter of 2021.

A district that includes Reno and much of rural Northern Nevada, District 2 has for two cycles been the only federal seat in Nevada still held by a Republican. The one-time seat of former Sen. Dean Heller and former Gov. Jim Gibbons, both Republicans, the seat has been held by incumbent Republican Mark Amodei since 2011, when he defeated Democrat Kate Marshall in a special election to replace the outgoing Heller. 

Mark Amodei (R) — incumbent

After Amodei spent close to a thousand dollars more than he raised through the first three months of 2021, his campaign war chest sits at $323,347 entering the second quarter.

His fundraising of nearly $78,000 came largely from big-money contributions totaling more than $50,000, including roughly 30 donations between $1,000 and $2,000. But Amodei was also boosted by several maximum or near-maximum donations from Margaret Cavin, owner of plumbing company J&J Mechanical in Reno ($5,600), and Uwe Rockenfeller, president of Boulder City-based engineering firm Rocky Research ($5,800).

Amodei’s fundraising was also boosted by a few large contributions from political committees, including $5,000 donations from PACs affiliated with MGM Resorts International and New York Life Insurance, $3,500 from a PAC affiliated with the aerospace company Sierra Nevada Corporation and $2,500 from Barrick Gold, a mining company.

Amodei’s spending was distributed across a wide range of categories, as he spent $7,625 on radio advertising, $4,000 on campaign consulting, nearly $20,000 on fundraising consulting, $12,750 on accounting services and more than $7,500 on meals and entertainment for contributor relations — including nearly $700 paid to cigar companies and more than $2,000 spent at Trattoria Alberto, an Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Located in the urban center of Las Vegas, the deep blue District 1 has been held by incumbent Democratic Rep. Dina Titus since 2012. Titus won the seat after losing a previous re-election bid in nearby District 3 in 2010, which she had held for one term after a win over Republican Rep. Joe Heck in 2008.

Dina Titus (D) — incumbent

With no clear challengers in the district, Titus finished the first quarter with the least money raised of any Nevada incumbent — she received $48,080, which was $1.85 less than she raised through the same period last year.

More than half of those funds were given by four PACs that contributed a combined $25,000. The American Institute of Architects’ PAC, a PAC associated with the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC gave $5,000 each, a pro-Israel PAC called Desert Caucus donated $10,000.

Titus also received $14,280 from individuals, including a $1,000 contribution from former Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin and a maximum contribution of $5,800 from Uwe Rockenfeller, president of Boulder City-based engineering firm Rocky Research.

After spending $37,000 in the quarter, Titus brought her cash on hand total to almost $340,000.

Assembly committee advances bill to limit police collaboration with immigration enforcement officials

Clark County Detention Center

A legislative committee voted on party lines Wednesday to limit local police cooperation with federal immigration authorities after hearing stories of families affected by deportations, including a 13-year-old boy who became suicidal during his father’s monthslong stay in immigration detention.

The Assembly Government Affairs Committee voted 8-5 to advance AB376, sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), which — among other things — bars law enforcement from detaining a person at the request of immigration authorities unless there is a warrant for that person and requires police to warn people that their answers to questions about their birthplace could be used against them in deportation proceedings.

“Federal government agencies should not be allowed to commandeer our state's scarce public safety resources,” Torres said. “Studies also show that misuse of local resources for federal immigration enforcement has a negative effect on reporting for both victims and witnesses of crime.”

The bill, which also declares that it is not the primary purpose of local law enforcement to enforce civil federal immigration law, is part of a long struggle between immigrant advocates and police agencies over practices such as jails holding inmates longer than they otherwise would in order to give immigration officials a chance to take custody of them. 

While some agencies have dropped formal 287(g) partnerships with the federal government, activists say less-formal collaboration still happens and can turn arrests for minor infractions into life-altering, family-splitting deportations.

That’s what Jennifer Antonio testified happened to her husband, an undocumented immigrant, in August 2019. She said her then-11-year-old son Ethan has ADHD and tried to run away during a behavioral episode; when her husband grabbed the boy’s jacket to stop him, someone called the police and both the boy and her husband were arrested.

The boy was released to his mother shortly after, but Antonio’s husband was detained for nine months and authorities said she could not bail him out because he was on an immigration hold. With less supervision, Ethan started acting out, becoming depressed and even attempting suicide.

“My father got out of immigration three days before my birthday, and that was the best present that I could have ever had,” Ethan testified. “Now he is home, and I feel better, but we still live in fear that they will come for my father. Please stop taking people from their families. It’s not right.”

Opponents, however, questioned whether the bill would prevent authorities from catching dangerous criminals who have violated immigration laws. Assemblywoman Annie Black (R-Mesquite) pointed to a news article about the arrest of two Yemeni men apprehended by the Border Patrol who had been on a terror watch list and asked if the bill would prevent local police from helping bring them into custody. 

“There's nothing preventing ICE from doing their job,” Torres replied. “Additionally, in the legislation it's abundantly clear that if there is a federal warrant, they can still detain those individuals and they would be transferred into ICE custody.”

The bill would bar state and local law enforcement from using agency money or personnel to investigate, question or arrest people for immigration enforcement purposes, and specifies that police should not detain someone solely for the purpose of determining their immigration status. It also bars local agencies from allowing federal immigration officials to question inmates in local custody about noncriminal matters unless the interview is voluntary or backed by a court order.

Police agencies opposed the bill, raising a litany of issues with the language. Chuck Callaway, lobbyist for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said that asking arrestees about their birthplace is legitimate because police have to notify certain countries such as China and Saudi Arabia when their citizens are arrested. 

He said the measure also would prevent jail personnel from answering questions from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about when an inmate was going to be released if federal authorities wanted to detain someone exiting the jail. Eric Spratley of the Nevada Sheriffs and Chiefs Association added that the Miranda rights-style disclosure the bill requires to alert inmates that any answers they provide could be used for immigration enforcement will make inmates distrustful. 

“It will make people we are coming in contact with feel like we are now partnered for immigration purposes, and further widen this racial divide that law enforcement is actively trying to repair,” he said.

Members of the public opposing the bill said it would give Nevada a reputation as a “sanctuary state” that could repel tourists and invite crime.

“Bills like AB376 invite people to break our laws at the expense of our most vulnerable Nevada citizens,” Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald said in written comments. “The United States of America is a land of laws and we ask that this committee respect our country enough to abide by the existing laws already in place.”

But supporters argued that striking a clearer divide between local police and federal immigration enforcement officers would build trust and create a safer community. Liz Ortenburger, CEO of the nonprofit Safe Nest dedicated to victims of domestic violence, said fear of deportation prevents victims from calling the police or seeking a restraining order.

“We also see in the eyes of many of our victims the fear of being deported and taken away from their children, and leaving their children unsupervised at the hands of a batterer,” she said. “All of this creates more abuse, more cycles, more traumatized children, and more generational violence in our community.”

Education advocates testified that the bill could ease anxiety among children with undocumented parents and help them focus on school. The bill specifically prevents school police from inquiring about or collecting information about a person’s immigration status or birthplace.

Sylvia Lazos, a professor at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, noted that close to half of the students in the Clark County School District have one or more immigrant parents, and some of those are undocumented.

“When a parent is deported, the children who are left behind are traumatized, not knowing why their parents abandoned them, fearful that no one will take care for them,” she wrote. “Exactly what is the Southern Nevada community gaining from such policies?” 

A less controversial element of the bill, which was dubbed the Keep Nevada Working Act, establishes a task force affiliated with the lieutenant governor’s office and the Office for New Americans that would explore ways to attract and retain immigrant-owned businesses. The group would conduct research and submit recommendations to the Legislature about developing small businesses and maintaining stability in the agricultural workforce, which is made up predominantly of immigrants.  

“Creating the task force will assist our state in continuing to attract and retain a talented workforce, including entrepreneurs and small businesses, to create jobs and prosperity,” said Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall, a Democrat.

The hearing and vote were the first steps for the bill, which now heads to the Assembly for a possible vote.

Behind the Bar: Frierson on his cancer diagnosis, taxing EVs, small business support office and taking a stand against AAPI discrimination

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

In this edition: More details on Speaker Jason Frierson’s prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment. Plus, another GOP effort to tax electric vehicle charging, return of the small business advocate office, what elected officials had to say about discrimination against Asian Americans and another Carson City Restaurant Spotlight.

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

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


For reporters, heading into the Speaker’s office means it’s time to talk about a major piece of policy, or some kind of major upcoming development to watch for in the legislative session.

Monday was different.

My colleague Michelle Rindels and I headed into the office to interview Speaker Jason Frierson on a much more personal topic: his prostate cancer diagnosis and decision to undergo a cryotherapy treatment on Wednesday.

It’s an immensely personal thing to share. I think Frierson was mildly uncomfortable, at least at the start of the interview, with talking at length about the diagnosis and his decisions as they relate to treatment.

But Frierson didn’t have to share this much information — legislators tend to not really share too much about their personal health history or ongoing issues, especially as it relates to temporary absences from the legislative chambers. 

All accounts indicate that the procedure went well, and I believe that Frierson plans to participate in (virtual) committee meetings as soon as Thursday. 

But in the days since the interview and while writing the story itself, I’ve reflected on just why Frierson decided to share his diagnosis. Obviously, there is news value and a necessity to report that one of the two most powerful Democrats in the Legislature is battling cancer, but one thing that struck me in reviewing the transcript in how much of his focus was on spreading general awareness about prostate cancer.

“I just felt compelled to make sure that if there was one person ... that will go get tested when they turn 50, or one person that will follow up after they get a ... PSA (prostate-specific antigen test) that's higher than it should be for the age, then it's well worth it,” he said during the interview. “Just one.”

It’s pretty easy to get numb to the various pronouncements and awareness days (or weeks or months) that are announced almost daily in the Legislature. There’s a lot of them, and only 120 days to recognize them all.

But an announcement like the one Frierson made cuts through that monotony of floor speeches and recognitions, and makes it real. This is a man who many who read this newsletter have met, and who is concerned about whether he’ll be around to see his kids grow up. That’s real.

If anything, this should bring a little more attention to a preventable disease that nonetheless kills nearly 300 people a year. It should also bring more attention to a bill that I, in all honesty, probably would have skimmed over before this interview happened.

It’s AB187 — a bill that “Designates the month of September of each year as ‘Ovarian and Prostate Cancer Prevention and Awareness Month’ in Nevada.” It’s up for a hearing on Monday, and we’ll be covering it.

— Riley Snyder


Electric vehicle tax again proposed by Senate Republican leader

Monday was not April Fool’s Day, Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) told members of the Senate Growth and Infrastructure committee at the start of the week.

Yet the nominally anti-tax leader of the state Senate Republicans nonetheless is sponsoring a bill, SB191, that would levy a 10 percent surcharge (also known as a tax) on the sale of electric service to charge the battery of an electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

Settelmeyer hasn’t had a major change of heart on taxes (he introduced a similar bill last session), nor does he have it out for electric vehicle owners — telling committee members Monday that he’s one of the handful of lawmakers who owns an electric vehicle. He said his main concern was ensuring the solvency of the state’s Highway Fund — which is mostly funded through taxes on gasoline sales.

“We bought an EV based on the fact that it was economical,” he said. “We're able to get a used one for $8,000, and the fact of not having to contribute at all bothered me.”

The proposal attracted support from trade groups representing contractors, the petroleum industry and even the state’s Independent American Party, whose lobbyist Lynn Chapman in perhaps the understatement of the session said they “usually don't support taxes and fee increases” but thought Settelmeyer’s bill made sense.

But the legislation was opposed by a handful of clean energy groups, whose representatives said the bill would unfairly target electric vehicles and that lawmakers should take a more holistic approach to modernizing transportation infrastructure and funding.

“This bill only hurts the EV drivers who utilize public charging, which are generally those drivers who do not have access to home charging and live in multi-unit dwellings, which are usually the lower income drivers,” Plug In America lobbyist Katherine Stainken said. “And so this bill is seeking to ensure that the roads in Nevada are adequately funded by EV drivers? This bill makes no sense in accomplishing that objective.”

Settelmeyer — who at one point quipped that the DMV didn’t submit a fiscal note on the bill because they were “looking at the chances the majority party letting the minority party have a bill passed” — said he was open to amendments on the proposal, including potentially broadening the language to include other alternative fuel sources and sending a portion of the proceeds to county governments for transportation spending.

“Let's try to be far-reaching, so we don't have to come back and do this again,” he said.

— Riley Snyder


Support for small businesses is on the horizon

Since the start of the COVID pandemic, 35 percent of Nevada's small businesses have permanently closed their doors. 

Lawmakers worry that unless the state provides more support, that percentage will only continue to grow.

One solution to the problem lies in an initiative Gov. Steve Sisolak touted in his State of the State address and was introduced as AB184. Sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), the bill would establish an office of small business advocacy with staff dedicated to helping small businesses access resources and knowledge.

"Our small businesses need us more than ever," Frierson said during a Senate Government Affairs committee hearing Monday. "With the influx of federal, state and local resources available during these tough times, I see no better time for this office to exist, to help Nevadans navigate through these difficult times and find the resources in a central location to have the greatest chance of success."

The office would operate under the lieutenant governor's purview, acting as a central hub for businesses seeking advice, navigating bureaucracy and looking for support. A similar concept was introduced in 2019 but failed to advance out of the Senate.

But the program comes with a price tag. It’s projected to cost a combined $576,000 over the next two fiscal years, and $412,000 in future budget cycles, per a fiscal note attached to the bill. The dollars would fund two positions (one director and one associate or ombudsman) and help pay for a case management system and other start-up costs.

Businesses with 100 employees or less would have access to the program, Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall said. Reports from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that businesses employing fewer than 20 people account for 83 percent of all firms in the state.

Plans also include hiring a Spanish-speaking aide, and Marshall said that the office would seek to make sure that interpreters are available to help business owners in the language with which they are most familiar.

"One of the things you find when you're talking to small businesses is that [for] minority and women, [owning a business] is an opportunity for those demographics to move ahead economically in life," Marshall said. "It is a path, and it is a particularly American path. And so, the ability to serve diverse communities becomes very important."

— Tabitha Mueller


‘Hate has no home in Nevada’: Leaders speak out against discrimination toward Asians

State and local leaders in Nevada are turning a spotlight on discrimination against Asian Americans in the wake of a shooting at Asian-owned spas in Georgia that left eight people dead.

Democratic Assemblywoman Cecelia Gonzalez, who is of Thai and Mexican descent, said on the Assembly floor on Wednesday that she was “heartbroken” by the news of the shooting that happened on Tuesday. Six Asian women were killed at three spas, and a 21-year-old white man was arrested and charged with murder in connection with the case.

“It is with a heavy heart I rise in support of my Asian brothers and sisters across the country as we continue to experience escalating rates of violence driven in part by fear-mongering and racism,” she said. “ I will continue to be a voice for all of our communities targeted by extremists, including my (Asian-American Pacific Islander) community, as long as our community continues to experience bigotry.”

Hours before the rampage, Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom requested the drafting of a resolution condemning and combating racism, xenophobia and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

“This is a huge issue around the country,” Segerblom said at a meeting Tuesday. “Fortunately we haven't seen visible public signs of this happening in Las Vegas. But 10 percent of our population is Asian and it's important to be proactive and let them know that we stand behind them.”

During public comment, Craig Valdez, a member of the Clark County Asian American Pacific Islanders Community Commission, urged the commissioners to support the resolution as incidents of racism, discrimination, harassment and assault toward AAPI population have surged nationwide since the start of the pandemic. Asian Americans reported nearly 3,800 hate-related incidents between March 2020 and February 2021, according to a report released by Stop AAPI Hate on Tuesday.

“Fear of the novel coronavirus, which originated in China, has increased racist and xenophobic sentiments, creating a climate that hails back to the era of yellow peril,” Valdez said. “Hate has no home here in Nevada. Our community must come together to confront this hate and vitriol and work collaboratively across the lines of difference in the pursuit of justice and liberation.” 

— Jannelle Calderon


By the Numbers: Behavioral health budget cuts

On Tuesday, members of a legislative budget subcommittee took a deep look at the state’s behavioral health budget, which suffered substantial cuts during the 2020 budget-focused special session. Here are some figures that stood out:

$38 million: The total dollar amount of budget cuts made to the state’s behavioral health budget accounts during the 2020 special session. Division administrators said most of those cuts have since been restored.

$176,000: The proposed reduction in the budget for the state’s problem gambling treatment program for each fiscal year in the two-year budget. If approved, the proposed cuts would be assessed and through the state’s Advisory Committee on Problem Gambling.

63: The number of individuals who, if the $176,000 in annual funding was restored, could receive treatment through the state’s problem gambling treatment program.

62: The current number of vacancies in the northern Nevada state behavioral health program. The governor’s proposed budget would keep 22 of those vacancies throughout the first year of the budget.

— Riley Snyder


Carson City Restaurant Spotlight

I found myself a bit torn on Tuesday evening — should I start dinner or devote my full attention to the scintillating if dense panel discussion about mining taxes unfolding live on The Indy’s YouTube account?

I chose the latter, and decided to let the nearby pupuseria La Santaneca handle the food.

If you haven’t tried pupusas, they’re a staple of El Salvador cuisine that is essentially a chunky grilled tortilla stuffed with melty cheese, meat and other tasty accompaniments. They’re the ultimate savory, not-really-spicy comfort food best served with a side of spicy tax policy debate.

I ordered an assortment of pupusas filled with cheese, chorizo, beans, jalapeno and loroco (an edible Central American flower), and they came piping hot with little baggies of marinated cabbage and a mild red salsa to heap on top. I’d recommend two to three pupusas per person, which are between $2 and $4 a pop.

Even if you don’t have the sonorous voices of Jim Wadhams and Laura Martin as your soundtrack, La Santaneca is an abundantly worthwhile choice for your next takeout dinner.

Place your order (before 8:30 p.m.) at (775) 301-6678, and pick it up at 316 East Winnie Lane.

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

— Michelle Rindels

A pair of soon-to-be-devoured pupusas from La Santaneca in Carson City on March 17, 2021. (Michelle Rindels/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading:

Three weeks until all adults can get the COVID vaccine, Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez and Megan Messerly report

Another calm, well-thought-out and reasonable debate about guns — this time on banning “ghost guns” and beefing up the banning of guns on private property.

An important read from Daniel Rothberg on swamp cedars, a “unique population of large juniper trees” in Eastern Nevada that’s sacred to Indigenous communities in the area. Sign up for the Indy Environment newsletter here.

If you need more Daniel in your life, or want to relive the YouTube comment flame war, check out our panel discussion on Nevada mining taxes.

AG Aaron Ford wants his office to have the same “pattern and practice” investigatory powers that the U.S. Department of Justice has (but stopped doing them in 2017). An interesting subplot in this Michelle Rindels story is the LVPPA continuing to break ranks with other law enforcement unions.

Our story on Monday’s bill introduction Deadline Day that wasn’t (my conspiracy theory is that there’s a big Bachelor fan in the legal division who didn’t want to miss the finale).

Another great installment in our Freshman Orientation series, on Assemblywoman Clara “Claire” Thomas (via Tabitha Mueller).

There have been a handful of bills introduced this session that affect public record laws. (Associated Press)

Residents of Empire and Gerlach held a screening of Nomadland, the Academy Award-nominated film that in part takes place in rural Nevada. Many locals are in the film, including the girl who asks Frances McDormand’s character early on if she’s homeless, but the nearest theater is 100 miles away in Sparks. (Reno Gazette-Journal)

Attorney Sigal Chattah spoke with the Review-Journal about her bid for attorney general. In semi-related news, Wednesday marks the one-month anniversary of her lawsuit seeking to open the state Legislature to the public, but as of Tuesday, attorneys for the Legislature haven’t actually been served with the lawsuit. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Most Nevadans who got their first COVID shot are following up to get their second COVID vaccine shot. (Nevada Current)

Not only did the Department of Corrections and Gov. Steve Sisolak not allow for compassionate release during a pandemic (5,460 inmates and staff contracted COVID, 56 died), but the office also suspended “good time” credits during the pandemic. Advocates say they’ve identified “817 people who should have received mandatory parole hearings and 71 whose sentences would have ended ‘if they would have received 60 credits they lost over the course of this year.’” (Nevada Current)

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Remaining Bill Introductions Deadline: 4 (Monday, March 22, 2021)

First Committee Passage: 22 (Friday, April 9, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 74 (May 31, 2021)

Inside the economic blueprint helping drive Sisolak’s legislative agenda

In last month’s State of the State speech, Gov. Steve Sisolak laid out his legislative wish-list that — in contrast to his 2019 progessive policy agenda — focused more on economic development and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ideas listed by the governor in the speech — funding a state infrastructure bank, creating “Innovation Zones” and a focus on job training and small business development — weren’t surprising, given the state’s precarious economic situation and a likely desire by Sisolak to avoid having his name attached to any controversial policy shifts ahead of his upcoming re-election in 2022.

The starting point for much of the governor’s legislative agenda comes from another source: the long-awaited update to the state’s economic development blueprint, created by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) in conjunction with a couple of think tanks — SRI International and Brookings Mountain West -- and a consulting firm -- RCG Economics.

The report was released in December 2020, and was published on GOED’s website in January. In an interview, GOED Deputy Director Bob Potts called the report a “foundational piece” to how the governor and his administration are approaching economic development during the legislative session.

“These were options that were made available to leadership,” he said. “And the ones that showed up in the State of the State are the ones that piqued the governor's interests, and actually fit his agenda and where he wants to go with things. So it's very complimentary.”

Creation of the report has been in the works for several years; GOED in 2018 had actually commissioned (at the price of around $200,000) an update to the state’s initial 2012 economic development blueprint report, but sat on the findings and finished product for more than a year during the transition between gubernatorial administrations. 

In October 2019, Sisolak tapped Michael Brown — former head of Barrick Gold USA and then-director of the Department of Business and Industry — to lead the agency, after it had implemented a temporary pause to new tax abatements offered by the state. In December 2019, Brown said the agency would pursue an update to the 2012 blueprint, but the publishing timeline was thrown off by the COVID-19 pandemic last March.

Potts said that the publishing delay was a blessing in disguise; the initial shutdown and lingering economic aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic have thrown out the normal playbooks for how states approach economic development, meaning that the office and hired think tanks had to essentially start the reporting process over from scratch.

Still, there could be legislative changes coming that would affect the economic development planning process. A bipartisan group of state lawmakers have signed on to a bill that would require that the state’s economic development plan be updated every three years.

“What’s happened is when our economy has been robust, we haven't updated the strategic plan,” bill sponsor Heidi Gansert (R-Reno) said. “It’s really important whether the economy is robust or not, that we're working on economic development strategically.”

Much of the report focuses on the near-term economic situation. It calls for an immediate “Economic Dunkirk” — an immediate leveraging of state and federal dollars to “rescue” pandemic-affected businesses and workers without opening the state up to an increase in COVID-19 cases (or affecting consumer confidence in the state’s ability to keep infections down).

But the report also looks ahead to a potentially uncomfortable future: the state’s economy in a post-COVID world that may be much different than the state’s pre-pandemic situation.

“The reality is that some of Nevada’s workers will not return to the same job that they had before the COVID-19 pandemic—either because of business closure, lack of customers, or drop in demand for certain industries,” it states. “Small- and medium-sized businesses have been especially hard hit, and their losses will delay a strong recovery.”

In addressing the anticipated changes, the report attempts to do three things: assess what has and hasn’t worked in past economic development efforts; identify which economic sectors or types of businesses the state should attempt to help grow; and suggest immediate as well as longer-term steps for potential initiatives to help those specific industries.

“The capacity of the state and its associated institutions is stretched to the limits by the current crisis,” the report states. “Nevadans have preferred a low-capacity state government, dispersed over three cities. But Nevadans cannot prosper in the future without accepting the need to invest in real management and financial capabilities.”

Many of the related proposals (called “Capabilities to Realize the Vision” in the report) were included in Sisolak’s State of the State address. They include:

  • Fully fund the state infrastructure bank. The report touts this as a major opportunity for transportation development (noting that the state constitution bans toll roads). “Capital will be cheap, labor will be available, and it will be vital to complete the capital projects discussed in the section above if the state’s economy is going to grow in new, more resilient directions,” the report states. Lawmakers created a shell of an Infrastructure Bank in 2017; Sisolak’s budget adds $75 million to the fund.
  • Create a Small Business Advocacy Center. The report says that at least three different agencies are at least partially focused on addressing the needs of “Micro-, Small-, and Medium-Sized Enterprises” (MSME), and suggests that those responsibilities be housed under GOED. Sisolak’s State of the State remarks touted a proposal by Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall's to create a Small Business Advocacy Center, meant to be a “one-stop location to help small businesses take advantage of the resources that exist and help them cut through the red tape.”
  • Restructure Nevada’s higher education system. The report calls for a better alignment for community colleges with the federal government definition (as well as redefining Great Basin College in Elko as a four-year institution), with a focus on “articulation, certification, remediation, stackable credentials and work-place learning.” (Community colleges have pushed back on the classification issue). Sisolak called for a restructuring of the state’s higher education system, including breaking off community colleges into their own governing structure.
  • Provide incentives for remote work. The report says the state should work to attract a “new class of digitally and geographically connected worker” to Nevada, citing a growth in remote work amid the pandemic. Sisolak called for creation of a “Remote Work Resource Center” in his State of the State speech.

Some of the report’s proposals, such as establishing a sovereign wealth fund or growing the state’s community banking network, weren’t mentioned in the governor’s speech. Potts said ideas listed in the report should be considered a menu of policy options for state leaders to take up, as opposed to a list of must-haves.

“There's going to be back and forth on some of this stuff,” Potts said. “Some of it may never see the light of day. And that's fine.”

And not all of Sisolak’s legislative agenda stems from the report. Despite the word “innovation” appearing 30 times in the report, it contains no details on the proposed “Innovation Zone” concept floated by Blockchains LLC that would allow the tech company to essentially establish their own “county-within-a-county.” The only mention of Blockchains, LCC in the report comes in a section about potential expansion of rail lines.

Potts declined to give additional details about the Innovation Zone concept. GOED representatives have largely avoided the topic or said that more details will be forthcoming from the governor’s office.

The office does not plan to bring bill draft requests to the Legislature that would modify the state’s current slate of tax abatement and incentive programs. The office says it has become more “picky” in choosing which industries it tries to attract to the state — Brown said during a recent budget committee meeting that the agency has started requiring corporate responsibility pledges as part of the incentive application.

But the topic of tax incentives, as well as the state’s economic development blueprint, is likely to come up during the 2021 legislative session. Sen. Heidi Gansert (R-Reno) introduced SB117 last week, a measure that would require GOED to update the state economic development plan at least once every three years, and would require regional development authorities (such as EDAWN in Northern Nevada or the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance in Southern Nevada) to present plans on “recruiting and marketing” efforts to GOED once every two years.

The measure would also create an interim legislative study committee diving into the state’s current abatements, exemptions and other incentives. A similar measure passed the 2019 Legislature but was vetoed by Sisolak — backers of that bill, including Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) have co-sponsored Gansert’s bill.

In an interview, Gansert said it was important for the state to more regularly update its economic development plan more often than once a decade, and that doing so would help match investments in workforce development and other longer-term projects with the state’s economic goals.

She said a legislative committee focused on a “bottom up analysis” of the state’s tax abatement package would help ensure that abatements or incentives were only being awarded to companies with high-quality jobs, and not just automatically offered to any business that met the minimum requirements.

“Right now, a lot of the abatements are on autopilot based on statute, and that's something we need to address,” she said. “I do agree that we need to look at jobs that will pay higher wages, jobs that are related to how we're developing a knowledge based economy, and also in health care. So we have to be able to have some discretion around the abatements and incentives so that we can target the best paying jobs for Nevadans.”

Grant program has aided thousands of small businesses, thousands more still waiting on a response

Man pours a beer into a glass a tap.

A pandemic-related grant program aimed at small businesses and nonprofits has already helped thousands of Nevadans, but an overwhelming response to the program’s launch in October has made assisting all of the applicants nearly impossible.

The Pandemic Emergency Technical Support Program (PETS) launched on Oct. 19 after an earlier state effort to administer commercial rent assistance awarded less than half of its approved funds. The PETS program offered broad eligibility, and in the four days the program was open for applications, the state received more than 13,500 submissions — about 10 times the amount the rent program received.

Treasurer Zach Conine said that the application period was one of the busiest in the history of ZoomGrants, an online application management system that Nevada and other jurisdictions have used to administer CARES Act funds.

“We've had so much volume through the PETS program that we were slowing down ZoomGrants in the whole country. So there were grant programs in other states and cities that didn't work because there were so many people trying to sign up for PETS,” said Conine.

Through the middle of January, the treasurer’s office and Governor’s Office of Economic Development had sent out more than $40 million through the program to approximately 4,100 small businesses and nonprofits in awards of up to $10,000.

But with so many applications to process, communication between the state and some small businesses has not always been clear.

Roy Brennan, the owner of a hamburger restaurant in Reno called Beefy’s, said he never received a confirmation email after applying for the PETS grant and received only one response from the state that he was in the queue.

Since the pandemic began, Brennan said he has lost one employee and had to reduce his business hours. And in order to expand his restaurant’s capacity, Brennan spends two hours each morning putting up a tent to allow for outdoor seating. 

“You're just out there, just lost. It's very frustrating to be left in the dark,” said Brennan.

On Wednesday, the treasurer's office provided comment that Brennan's email was incorrectly listed on his original application, but multiple communications had been sent to him over the last several weeks. And after publication of the story, Brennan said he was in communication with the treasurer's office and that his grant application was approved.

The state has already allocated nearly all of the $51 million that was previously available through the program. But with more PETS funding potentially on the way, applicants, who have not yet received funds through the program, may still be awarded the grant.

In his State of the State address Monday, Gov. Steve Sisolak proposed an additional $50 million in the state budget for the program. That money could be available as early as the first few weeks of February because the Legislature can approve that allocation by designating federal funds from the CARES Act before needing to approve the full budget.

“I’m asking the Legislature, as one of their first items of business, to get this done,” Sisolak said about approving the additional funding for the PETS program.

The program’s process

Conine said that the PETS program is the largest small business assistance grant program in state history. And because the treasurer’s office does not normally manage grants, Conine and his team have had to adjust to new processes that come with administering the program.

“This is something that was generated over the span of a couple of weeks, with a team of less than 10. We've been pretty flexible, looking for ways to speed up the process,” said Conine.

After the application period in October, the first step of the process was to put businesses in a ranked order based on a prioritization list set up by Conine’s office and approved by the Legislature. The list was aimed at those most affected by the pandemic and included disadvantaged businesses, nonprofits, bars, pubs, taverns, breweries, distilleries and vineyards.

After applicants were prioritized, the state began to process requests for funding using a variety of checks. Applicants must have an active business license with the state and have no more than 50 employees, and they must demonstrate that they have faced pandemic-related hardship. Businesses also are reviewed to see whether they are still active and have a physical location in Nevada.

If an application is approved, the recipient must submit paperwork, including a signed grant agreement and banking information, and then the state reviews that information and administers the funds.

But some of those steps can slow the process down. Conine said that he and Michael Brown, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, have had to repeatedly call some businesses to try to verify that the business is real. Conine estimates that of the more than 4,000 approved applicants, he and Brown have talked to 700 or 800 directly.

As Conine and his team handle a massive volume of applications with limited resources, they aren’t always able to provide responses to every applicant.

“I think that our goal here is to communicate with businesses that they are in line, that we're going to fund as many businesses as we can. You know, given the volume of emails and the fact that there's only, including myself, three people answering them, we don't look up everybody's status, when they reach out. And that's just to be fair,” said Conine.

Even as some applicants experience struggles in communicating with the state, others have said that applying for the PETS program was easy, including Kelli Kelly, executive director of the Fallon Food Hub.

“I write a lot of grant applications, usually like to the Department of Agriculture or to the USDA. And this was totally unlike anything I've ever written before,” said Kelly. “It was very straightforward. It was, you know, tell us who you are, provide us with your bona fides, you know, validate the fact that you're a Nevada-based business.”

Kelly said the only problem she faced while applying was the grant website crashing, and technical issues were among the most common problems people experienced during the application process.

“With the exception of ZoomGrants and some technology issues, which are more of a function of volume than anything, we think the process has been relatively smooth ... for a thing that's never been done before in the history of the state,” said Conine.

The impact

Jonathan Bradley, who operates a frozen yogurt food truck in Southern Nevada called Spoon-a-Bowl with his wife Ashley, also said the application process was “super easy.” But with limited channels of communication between the treasurer’s office and PETS program applicants, Bradley had to get creative in order to hear back about his grant request.

Bradley said he finally received a response to his application after tweeting at Erik Jimenez, senior policy director for the treasurer’s office.

“I just, kind of tongue in cheek, sent him a message or sent him a tweet saying ‘us next please,’ you know, we desperately needed it at that point,” said Bradley. “And he got right back to me and told me that he was going to look into our profile, and literally within the next 30 minutes, I got a phone call from him — and you know there's few things in life that have given my wife and I more joy than that phone call.”

For Bradley, receiving the grant was a lifeline. As food truck operators, Bradley and his wife had to completely shift their business model when the pandemic hit. Instead of selling their frozen yogurt at events, they had to start delivering their product — and after being denied a grant from the city of Henderson, they were in need of help.

“Looking back on it, had we not gotten that grant, I'm fairly certain that our business would have gone out of business,” said Bradley.

With the grant money, Bradley said he was able to catch up on bills and that he’ll have enough money to survive until his selling season starts up again.

Across the state, other small businesses have experienced flashes of relief because of the money they were awarded through the PETS program.

Cassandra Barslow, co-owner of Empowered Cafe in Las Vegas, said the $10,000 her business received allowed her to hold on a little bit longer.

Barslow trains and employs blind workers, and when the pandemic shut her business down for a few months, she had to let her workers go. Barslow said she was able to reopen in June with the help of a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, but the PETS grant was another huge boost in allowing her to pay her employees.

“We literally cried cause we just got the PETS grant and we—I honestly thought I was going to have to let my employees go again,” said Barslow.

Wyndee Forrest, who owns CraftHaus Brewery in Las Vegas, also was awarded money from the PETS program. Forrest said she had to change her business model four different times to pivot with all of the challenges posed by the pandemic. She applied to the program hoping for a little help with providing for her team.

“It's not going to save us from going bankrupt. It will help us inch by to maybe cover, you know, a two week payroll timeframe, but any grant is always welcome,” said Forrest.

The program’s future

The treasurer’s office is still administering the last of the $51 million that was previously allocated to the PETS program, and Conine said money continues to go out every day. But if the Legislature approves the governor’s request to allocate another $50 million to the program, Conine’s office can begin to approve funds for many more of the nearly 14,000 original applications as early as the first few weeks of February.

That extra funding would come from money left over from the CARES Act, according to Conine. He also added that he wants to get as much money out to small businesses as possible using the PETS program. 

A release from the treasurer’s office on Wednesday stated that all applicants who were waiting to hear if they had been awarded a PETS grant, along with those previously denied because of lack of available funding, would be emailed on January 20 with information on the most recent updates to the program, including the possible addition of more funding.

Conine said that there are no plans to reopen applications for the program because he wants to get the grant money out to those that have been waiting.

“If we get that additional 50, we'll be able to really chip away at that, and the majority of people who applied in October will get funding,” said Conine.

Conine also placed a strong emphasis on getting small businesses, in particular, the support and resources they need, and hopes they will help serve as the backbone of the state’s economic recovery.

“Talking to these small businesses, I think it's still very clear how important it is to support their efforts, and try and make sure that they've got the resources they need,” said Conine.

During his State of the State address, Sisolak also announced that Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall will be working to create a Small Business Advocacy Center that the treasurer’s office is also helping with.

As small businesses in Nevada continue to deal with pandemic-related hardships and other problems past the pandemic, the advocacy center is intended to help centralize state resources that exist to help small businesses.

“The goal of that Small Business Advocacy Center, eventually, is to serve as a Nevada 211 for small businesses,” Conine said, “so that they can reach out and say, ‘hey, I'm having trouble doing this,’ and then they can get the help they need to get going.”

This story was updated at 4:00 p.m. on January 27 to include an update about Brennan's grant application.