Why Nevada is spending $8 million to refund millions of $1 DMV fees

In the near future, Nevada drivers and anyone who made a transaction at the state Department of Motor Vehicles over the past two years is in line for a somewhat meager payday — a refund of the $1 per transaction technology fee.

Although the actual form of the refunds is still undetermined, the state has allocated roughly $7.8 million to pay back a total of $5.1 million worth of the $1 technology fees assessed on all DMV transactions over the past two years.

Refunds of the technology fee — which has been in place since 2015 and was designed to fund a long-awaited but scandal-stricken DMV system modernization upgrade — didn’t exactly come as a surprise. The fee and an extension of the state payroll tax were challenged by state Senate Republicans in a 2019 lawsuit, and the state Supreme Court ruled in their favor in May 2021, requiring that the state pay back the unconstitutionally extended taxes collected over the past year.

While the DMV this session had requested a further extension of the $1 fee (which legislators did not approve), the agency also had made plans in case of an adverse ruling from the state Supreme Court, sequestering about $5.9 million in fee revenue in case it was ordered to pay the amount back to customers.

But paying back 5.9 million worth of $1 fee transactions comes at a cost — $7.8 million in state Highway Fund dollars, which legislators appropriated to the DMV through a last-minute amendment in the final days of session. 

A DMV spokesman said the agency was still working on details of the refund payments, and that any proposal would need to go through legal review, be approved by all parties involved in the court case and finally receive approval through the Interim Finance Committee — meaning any refund payments are likely months away.

Frustration over the situation was palpable among legislators in the final week of session.

“The biggest part of this whole damn thing is they need the money to fix the technology, so that if they had this problem again, they'd have the technology to fix it,” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said in a late May interview. “It's chicken and the egg, it's just circular. It's crazy. This is a circular firing squad.”

After the state Supreme Court handed down its decision in early May, legislators introduced several bills — AB488, AB491, AB490 — aimed at either retroactively enacting the technology fee or appropriating dollars to the DMV to help cover the cost of issuing refunds.

But all of those measures ran into a similar problem — Republican lawmakers (whose votes would be needed to exceed the constitutional two-thirds majority needed for any tax increase) were generally against any kind of legislative maneuvering to keep the fees in place, either going forward or retroactively.

During a late May hearing on AB488, which would have extended the fee through June 2026 and also would have retroactively permitted the fee from the end of June 2020 onward, state senators James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) and Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) took the unusual step of testifying in person against the bill.

“Judgment has been entered by the District Court in favor of the plaintiffs in the two-thirds case and, in particular, the judgment in favor of the taxpayers and the fee payers,” Settelmeyer said at the time. “I don't want to belabor this point. I'm tired of litigation. People deserve their money back.”

Without a clear path to a two-thirds majority to implement or reinstate the technology fee, Democratic legislative leaders instead opted to focus on allocating funding to the DMV to process the refunds. During a Saturday, May 29 evening budget meeting on AB490, an appropriations bill covering the cost of conducting the refunds. Carlton said lawmakers had a “responsibility to do this now.”

“Believe me, I'd much rather spend this $8 million on autism, that would help solve a big problem with autism right now, but instead we are spending $8 million on helping the DMV refund $5 million,” she said at the time. 

Republican lawmakers on the committee chafed — Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) suggested that since the court gave no timeline, lawmakers could wait and see if the DMV could instead implement a credit system rather than sending out checks. Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) suggested that lawmakers put the money in a contingency fund and dole it out through the Interim Finance Committee once the DMV had a more solid plan or other options in place.

“I do believe it's a little premature. I think there's some other options that we can do later on,” Roberts said.

An irked Carlton opted to set the bill aside, saying that she wanted to ensure that a repayment option was actually supported, and was “not just being suggested, and then still voted against, which I have had an experience with this year.”

“Madame Chair, I'll give you my word if that's the way that we go, I’ll support it.,” Roberts replied.

“No comment,” Carlton replied.

Between Republican skepticism and the truncated timeframe of the final days of the session, all three of the legislative fixes to the DMV fee issue were relegated to the legislative dustbin and never advanced past the hearing stage.

Death of the technology fee will not immediately affect the DMV’s planned system modernization upgrades. Language included in one of the budget implementation bills (AB494) directed the state to allocate an additional $13.6 million to the project if the two proposed Assembly bills AB488 and AB491 failed to pass.

Instead, lawmakers opted to amend language into SB457 — another last-minute measure authorizing the DMV to use a greater share of state Highway Fund dollars — that appropriated $7.8 million for the cost of issuing refunds of the technology fees.

“There is no time to wait, and we need to get it done now,” Carlton said prior to Assembly adoption of the amendment.

Analysis: Which legislators had the most (and fewest) bills passed in the 2021 session?

Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature during the 2021 session, and hundreds of high-profile Democratic measures sailed through the Assembly and Senate while a vast majority of Republican-backed measures failed to make much headway in the legislative process.

Out of 605 bills introduced and sponsored by a lawmaker this session, Democratic legislators had 63 percent of their bills and resolutions pass out of the Legislature, compared to just 18 percent for Republicans. Those in the majority party were able to pass priority measures, including bills establishing the “Right to Return,” a public health insurance option and permanent expanded mail voting, while many priorities for Republicans, such as a voter ID law, were killed without so much as a hearing.

Which lawmakers had the most success passing their bills? Which lawmakers were least successful? How did Assembly members fare compared to senators?

The Nevada Independent analyzed all bills and resolutions that were both introduced and primarily sponsored by a lawmaker and examined which of those bills passed out of the Legislature and which ones died. Of those 605 bills, 267 (44 percent) were approved by members of the Assembly and Senate, while the remaining 338 (56 percent) were left in the graveyard of the legislative session.

Those 605 measures make up only a portion of the 1,035 bills and resolutions introduced during the session — others were sponsored by committees, constitutional officers such as the secretary of state or governor, or helped implement the state budget. The 2021 session also saw fewer measures introduced than previous sessions, as the 2019 and 2017 sessions each saw closer to 1,200 bills and resolutions introduced.

State law limits the number of bills that can be introduced by any individual lawmaker — incumbent senators and Assembly members can request 20 and 10 bill draft requests, respectively, while newly-elected legislators are limited to six bills in the Assembly and 12 in the Senate. Legislative leadership for both the majority and minority parties are also allowed to introduce additional bills beyond the normal limits.

The analysis revealed that Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) and Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) led their caucuses with the highest rate of bill passage, while Assembly members Jill Tolles (R-Reno) and P.K. O'Neill (R-Carson City) were the only Republicans who had more than half of their bills passed out of the Legislature. Eight Republican legislators ended the session with zero bills passed.

A previous analysis of votes during the 2021 session revealed that most bills passed with bipartisan support, as more than half of all votes included no opposition. But that trend was largely driven by Democrats in the majority passing their priorities while not advancing nearly as many Republican bills, with 175 more Democrat-backed measures passing out of the Legislature than measures introduced by Republicans.

The guide below explores the results of our analysis, examining the successes and failures of both parties and of individual lawmakers this session.

We’ve double-checked our work to make sure we’ve counted every vote and hearing, but if you spot something off or think a bill was missed or improperly noted, feel free to email sgolonka@thenvindy.com.

How did Democrat-sponsored legislation fare? Did any Republican lawmakers find success?

Though hundreds of the more than 1,000 bills and resolutions introduced during the session were sponsored by Democrat-controlled committees, there were only 350 measures specifically sponsored and introduced by a lawmaker from the majority party.

Many were headline-grabbing progressive bills that drew staunch Republican opposition, including expanding permanent mail-in voting (AB321) and setting up Nevada to become one of the first states to have a public health insurance option starting in 2026 (SB420).

Of the 350 bills from Democratic lawmakers, 221 (63.1 percent) passed out of both houses. However, Assembly Democrats fared slightly better than their Senate counterparts, with 65 percent of their bills passing compared with 60 percent for those in the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The success rate of bills introduced by Republican lawmakers was dismal in comparison.

Members of the Assembly Republican caucus had 27 of their 126 introduced measures (21 percent) pass out of both houses, while Senate Republicans had 19 of their 129 (15 percent) pass out of the Legislature. The majority of Republican-backed measures were not even given a chance by the majority party, as 56 percent of 255 bills and resolutions introduced by Republican legislators never received an initial committee hearing.

Failed Republican-backed bills included an effort to create a bipartisan redistricting commission (SB462), a measure requiring voters to provide proof of identity (SB225) and a bill that aimed to limit the number of legislative actions allowed per session (AB98).

Among the 46 Republican-sponsored measures that passed out of the Legislature were a variety of health care-related bills, including legislation from Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City) that appropriated state funds to the Nevada Health Service Corps for encouraging certain medical and dental practitioners to practice in underserved areas (SB233). Lawmakers also approved a measure from Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) authorizing the Board of Regents to waive fees for family members of National Guard members who reenlist (AB156).

Senate Minority Leader James A. Settelmeyer, left, and Senator Joe Hardy on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

While Republicans fared far worse, Democratic lawmakers still had more than a third of their bills fall victim to the legislative process.

Some bills were overwhelmed by backlash, such as SB452, a bill that aimed to grant casino resorts greater authority to ban firearms on their premises but was opposed by a broad coalition of Republicans, gun right advocates and criminal justice reform organizations and failed to advance out of the Assembly. 

Other bills were watered down or axed after lawmakers deemed there was not enough time to consider the effects of a measure. Such was the case for AB161, a bill that started as a ban on the state’s “summary eviction” process, then was amended into a legislative study on the process but still never received a floor vote. Some measures fell just shy of the support they needed, including AB387, an attempt to license midwives that fell one vote shy of a two-thirds majority in the Senate on the final day of the session.

Which lawmakers were most prolific? Which lawmakers introduced the fewest bills?

Although Democratic lawmakers significantly outpaced Republican lawmakers in getting their bills passed out of both houses of the Legislature, the number of bills introduced by each legislator remained similar between the two parties.

On average, lawmakers from the majority party introduced 9.2 measures during the 2021 session, compared to 10.2 for lawmakers in the minority party. 

Those who led their parties in introductions were typically house leaders or more experienced lawmakers.

In the Assembly, Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) topped the rest of his party with 18 bills introduced and sponsored, while Minority Floor Leader Titus had the most bills introduced and sponsored of anyone in the Assembly Republican caucus with 14.

Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus speaks to Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson inside the Legislature on Monday, March 15, 2021 in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) introduced and sponsored 25 bills, which was the most of any legislator during the session.

Four other Senators also stood above the pack: Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) led Democrats with 23 introductions, while Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) and two Republican senators, Hardy and Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), rounded out the top with 20 bills each.

Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas), who was appointed by the Clark County Commission on Feb. 2, 2021 to fill the seat of Democratic former Assemblyman Alex Assefa, who resigned amid an investigation into whether he met residency requirements, was the only lawmaker who did not introduce a single piece of legislation this session.

The others at the bottom of the list — Assembly members Elaine Marzola (D-Henderson), Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) and Richard McArthur (R-Las Vegas), and Sens. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas) and Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) — introduced three bills each. Doñate was appointed to fill the seat of former Sen. Yvanna Cancela (D-Las Vegas), and introduced three of her bill draft requests submitted prior to the start of the session.

Which legislators had the most success with their bills?

Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) had more success getting her bills passed than any Nevada lawmaker during the 2021 session, as all eight bills that she introduced and sponsored passed out of both houses of the Legislature.

Jauregui had one bill that was passed only with the support of her own party members in both houses. AB286, which bans so-called “ghost guns” and other firearm assembly kits that don’t come equipped with serial numbers, passed through the Assembly and Senate along party lines. 

Other bills Jauregui introduced included measures focused on the environment and residential properties, as well as AB123, which increases fees on special Vegas Golden Knights license plates to help give more funds to charities.

Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui arrives on the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Five other Assembly Democrats, all based out of Southern Nevada, had at least 80 percent of their measures pass out of both houses, including Assembly Speaker Frierson. Frierson, who saw 15 of his 18 sponsored measures pass, introduced several high-profile Democratic measures, including a pair of big election bills: AB126, which moves the state to a presidential primary system instead of a caucus-based system, and AB321, which permanently expands mail-in voting. 

Other bills introduced by the Assembly leader that passed out of the Legislature included a measure requiring a three-day grace period before landlords can charge late fees for overdue rent (AB308) and a bill allowing college athletes to profit off of their name and likeness (AB254). Frierson was also the primary sponsor of AB484, which authorizes the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) to use $54 million in federal funds to modernize the state’s outdated unemployment insurance system.

Frierson had only three bills that did not pass out of the Legislature, including a controversial measure that would have allowed for the Washoe and Clark County school boards to be partially appointed (AB255).

Other lawmakers to have at least 80 percent of their measures pass out of both houses were Assembly members Venicia Considine (D-Las Vegas), Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) and Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas).

Considine had five of her six introduced measures pass both houses with significant bipartisan support, including a measure that replaces the gendered language for crimes of sexual assault with gender-neutral language (AB214). 

Yeager saw eight of ten introduced bills pass, including AB341, which authorizes the licensing of cannabis consumption lounges, though he also presented several other, sometimes controversial, measures as chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. He presented AB400, a bill that removes “per se” limits on non-felony DUIs involving marijuana and that passed along party lines out of the Assembly. And he presented AB395, the death penalty bill that was scrapped by Democratic lawmakers in the Senate.

Though Monroe-Moreno had four of her five introduced bills pass out of both houses, including a measure that reduces the criminal penalties for minors found in possession of alcohol or small amounts of marijuana (AB158), she was also the sponsor of one of the few measures to fail to advance out of the Legislature because it failed to achieve a needed two-thirds majority. Her bill AB387, which would have established a midwifery licensure board, fell one vote shy of the two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Watts, a second-term assemblyman, sparked a variety of partisan disagreements throughout the session, as six of his ten introduced bills passed out of the Assembly with zero Republican support (Watts had eight bills pass out of both chambers). Those measures ranged broadly from a pair of environment-focused measures to a bill that bans offensive or racially discriminatory language and imagery, names, logos or mascots in Nevada schools (AB88).

In the Senate, only three legislators had more than two-thirds of their introduced measures pass out of both houses: Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas) and Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas).

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

Brooks was the most successful of the bunch, getting five of his six introduced bills passed, including SB448, an omnibus energy bill expanding the state’s transmission infrastructure that was passed out of the Assembly on the final day of the session. With a larger number of introductions (13), Lange had twice as many bills passed as Brooks (10), covering a wide range of topics from health care to employment to a bill permanently authorizing curbside pickup at dispensaries (SB168).

The majority leader also succeeded in passing a higher percentage of her bills than most of her Senate colleagues, as 12 different Cannizzaro-sponsored bills made their way to the governor’s office. Those measures were met with varying degrees of bipartisan support, as a bill requiring data brokers to allow consumers to make requests to not sell their information passed with no opposition (SB260), while a bill barring the suspension of driver’s licenses for the nonpayment of fees received mixed support from Republicans in both chambers (SB219). Another bill, SB420, which enacts a state-managed public health insurance option, passed along party lines in both the Senate and Assembly.

A few Assembly Republicans stood above the pack, as Assembly members Jill Tolles (R-Reno), P.K. O’Neill (R-Carson City), Lisa Krasner (R-Reno) and Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) were the only members of their party to have at least half of their bills pass out of both houses.

Tolles, who was more likely to side with Democrats on close votes during the session than any other Republican lawmaker, found the most success of the group, as four of the six bills she introduced and sponsored were sent to the governor. Those bills that passed were met with broad bipartisan support, such as AB374 — that measure, which establishes a statewide working group in the attorney general’s office aimed at preventing and reducing substance use, passed unanimously out of both houses. The third-term legislator did introduce some bills that were killed by Democrats, such as AB248, which sought to allow "partisan observers" to watch over elections at polling places.

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

Four of O’Neill’s seven bills were sent to the governor. One allows the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum to designate certain buildings and grounds of the former boarding school for Native children for special events and authorizes the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages at such events (AB270). O’Neill was the only Republican present at a bill signing event for Native-focused legislation, after many of those bills passed with bipartisan support.

Half of Krasner and Roberts’ bills passed out of the Legislature, with each lawmaker introducing and sponsoring eight measures during the session.   

Nearly all four of Krasner’s bills that made it out of both chambers attracted unanimous votes, including AB143, which creates a statewide human trafficking task force and a plan for resources and services delivered to victims. Another well-received bill, AB251, seals juvenile criminal records automatically at age 18 and allows offenders to petition the court for the expungement or destruction of their juvenile records for misdemeanors. Both AB143 and AB251 have been signed by the governor.

Roberts, who was among the Republicans most likely to cross party lines and vote contrary to the majority of his caucus, had several bills sent to the governor with strong bipartisan support, including AB319, which establishes a pilot program for high school students to take dual credit courses at the College of Southern Nevada. Another of his four successful bills was AB326, which is aimed at curbing the illicit cannabis market.

Success for Republican senators in passing bills was more rare.

Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) had one bill sent to the governor and two bills killed without a hearing, giving him a higher percentage of bills passed (33 percent) than any other member of his caucus. Hansen’s one successful measure, SB112, aligns Nevada law with federal law regarding the administration of certain products for livestock. One of Hansen’s failed bills included an attempt to prohibit police officers from using surveillance devices without a warrant, unless there were pressing circumstances that presented danger to someone’s safety (SB213).

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) was the second most successful member of his caucus in terms of getting bills passed, as three of the 14 measures (21 percent) he introduced passed out of both houses, including a measure establishing an esports advisory committee within the Gaming Control Board (SB165). But many of the measures introduced by Kieckhefer still failed, including a resolution to create an independent redistricting commission to conduct the reapportionment of districts (SJR9).

Only three other members of the Senate Republican caucus, including Minority Leader Settelmeyer, Hardy and Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka), had at least 20 percent of their introduced measures pass fully out of the Legislature.

Which legislators had the least success with their bills?

Despite Democrats controlling both legislative chambers, a handful of Democratic lawmakers still had less than half of their sponsored measures sent off to the governor’s office.

In the Assembly, five members of the Democratic caucus failed to have 50 percent of their bills advance out of both houses, including Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas), who rounded out the bottom of the list as just one of her eight introduced bills passing out of the Legislature. Though that one successful bill — AB189, which establishes presumptive eligibility for pregnant women for Medicaid — garnered bipartisan support, many of Gorelow’s introduced measures failed to even receive an initial committee vote. Those failed bills included multiple more health care-focused measures, including an effort to require certain health plans to cover fertility preservation services (AB274).

The others in the caucus to have more than half of their bills fail were Assembly members Bea Duran (D-Las Vegas), David Orentlicher (D-Las Vegas), Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) and Cecelia Gonzalez (D-Las Vegas), who each had between 33 and 43 percent of their bills passed.

Duran found mixed success with her bills, getting three of her seven introduced measures passed, including a bill that requires all public middle schools, junior high schools and high schools to offer free menstrual products in bathrooms (AB224), but seeing four others fail, including one requiring public schools implement a survey about sexual misconduct (AB353).

One of Orentlicher’s five bills was among a small group that failed to advance at a mid-May deadline for second committee passage. The measure, AB243, would have required courts to consider whether a defendant is younger than 21 when deciding a sentence and failed to clear the deadline after previously passing out of the Assembly along party lines. Orentlicher introduced five bills, but only two passed out of both chambers.

While Flores introduced several measures that received broad unanimous support throughout the session, such as a measure that established a new, simpler Miranda warning for children (AB132), he also proposed several controversial measures that failed to advance out of the Assembly. One of those bills, AB351, would have allowed terminally ill patients to self-administer life-ending medication, and another, AB131, would have required all uniformed police officers to wear body cameras when interacting with the public. Only four of Flores’s ten introduced bills passed out of both legislative chambers.

Assemblymen Edgar Flores, center, and Glen Leavitt, left, speak inside the Legislature on Tuesday, March 9, 2021 in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Gonzalez, a freshman, had four of her six introduced bills die at different times over the course of the session. Two of her bills died without ever being heard. Another bill she introduced (AB151) was never voted on by the Assembly because a Cannizzaro-sponsored bill took almost the same approach in barring the suspension of driver’s licenses for the nonpayment of fees. 

Gonzalez even had one piece of legislation, AB201, fail in its second house. That bill, which would have required more tracking and reporting on use of criminal informants, failed to advance out of a Senate committee after passing out of the Assembly along party lines.

Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas) was the only member of his caucus to have more than half of his bills fail. Though seven of his sponsored measures passed out of the Legislature, eleven other bills and resolutions from Ohrenschall failed to advance. Those bills often focused on the criminal justice system, including a measure that aimed to eliminate the death penalty for people who are convicted of first degree murder (SB228), though some stretched beyond that scope, such as an attempt to make Nevada the first state with an opt-out organ donation system (SB134) that failed to be voted out of committee.

Across the Senate and Assembly, eight Republican lawmakers had zero bills pass out of the Legislature. Those eight were Assembly members Alexis Hansen (R-Sparks), Annie Black (R-Mesquite), Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas), Jill Dickman (R-Sparks), Jim Wheeler (R-Minden) and Richard McArthur (R-Las Vegas) and Sens. Carrie Buck (R-Henderson) and Pickard.

All eight of those Republicans were also among the least likely in their party to break from the majority of their caucus and vote with Democrats on legislation.

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

Those eight legislators introduced 70 measures combined, of which 58 died without ever receiving a committee hearing. Pickard was particularly unsuccessful, as he introduced 20 bills, and only one received a committee hearing before failing to advance past the first committee passage deadline in early April. The Henderson-based senator was previously derided by Democratic lawmakers, after backing out of a deal with Senate Democrats centered on a mining tax during one of the 2020 special sessions.

When were bills heard and when did they pass?

Throughout the session, lawmakers often waited until the latest possible days to complete the work needed for certain legislative deadlines.

In the week leading up to the first major deadline — bills and resolutions without an exemption were required to have passed out of their first committee by April 9 — lawmakers voted 336 bills out of committee. In the roughly nine weeks prior to that, only 236 bills were passed out of their first committee.

The other deadlines of the legislative session followed a similar pattern.

In the week leading up to and the week including the first house passage deadline (April 20), 340 bills received a vote in their first house, while just 71 bills were voted out of their first house in the 10 previous weeks.

The busiest week of the session was the week ending May 21, which included the second house passage deadline (May 20). During that week, 337 bills and resolutions were voted out of their second house, while a couple hundred more measures were acted on in some other way, including committee hearings, committee votes and first house votes.

The final shortened weekend of the session, stretching from May 29 through May 31, was also chock-full of legislative action, as lawmakers passed more than 150 bills out of their second house during those three final days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SENATE

Ben Kieckhefer: 36

Heidi Seevers Gansert: 33

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Goicoechea: 20

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

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

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

Joe Hardy: 17

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

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

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

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

Scott Hammond: 14

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

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

Keith Pickard: 6

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

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

Ira Hansen: 5

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

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

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

Carrie Buck: 3

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

James Settelmeyer: 2

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

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

ASSEMBLY

Jill Tolles: 92

Tom Roberts: 90

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Hardy: 82

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

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

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

Glen Leavitt: 55

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

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

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

Heidi Kasama: 52

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

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

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

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

Lisa Krasner: 36

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

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

Gregory Hafen: 30

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

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

Alexis Hansen: 18

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

Robin Titus: 5

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

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

Annie Black: 3

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

The Nevada Legislative Freedom Caucus

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

P.K. O’Neill: 19

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

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

Jim Wheeler: 6

Jill Dickman: 6

Andy Matthews: 5

John Ellison: 3

Richard McArthur: 3

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

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

Which Republicans broke up unanimous votes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Democrats dissented from their party?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sisolak ‘damn proud’ of Legislature, will sign state public option bill, explains death penalty decision

Gov. Steve Sisolak said on Tuesday that he is “damn proud of what this Legislature did” and thinks it was “a very productive session,” highlighting priority policies that he will likely run on during the 2022 midterm election.

The first-term Democrat rattled off a list of accomplishments during the 120-day session that ended Monday, including distributing $100 million in grants to small businesses, earmarking federal funds to modernize the unemployment system, passing a bill that guarantees many hospitality workers the “right to return” to their old jobs and passing measures that expand voting opportunities.

He also says he’s “110 percent” sure he will run for re-election in 2022, saying he thinks the state is on the upswing after a turbulent year responding to the pandemic.

“I think we have an opportunity to build a new Nevada in the future, and I want to be part of that,” he said.

Below are highlights from a wide-ranging interview Sisolak conducted with reporters from his Carson City office.

Gov. Steve Sisolak with Chief of Staff Michelle White and Senior Adviser Scott Gilles at a roundtable discussion with reporters about the 2021 session in Carson City on June 1, 2021. Photo by David Calvert.

State public option

Sisolak confirmed Tuesday that he will sign Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s SB420, legislation that will make Nevada one of the first states in the nation to adopt a state-managed public health insurance option.

The governor’s commitment to sign the bill dashes the hopes of opponents urging a veto after a contentious legislative journey for the bill, which requires insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population to also offer a public option plan resembling existing qualified health plans on the state health insurance exchange system. The bill also calls for an actuarial study and for the public options to become available starting in 2026.

“It's not something that you flip a switch and happens overnight,” Sisolak said. “But anytime there's an opportunity to get health care coverage available for more Nevadans is certainly something that I'm interested in.”

Special sessions

Sisolak said he has not scheduled a legislative special session focused on how the state should spend the coming $2.7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan dollars and hundreds of other federal COVID relief funding streams coming into the state. 

Nevada lawmakers ended the regular session without a clear plan on the coming federal windfall — though lawmakers approved legislation, SB461, earmarking $335 million of the federal dollars to the unemployment trust fund aimed at avoiding any automatic hikes in unemployment taxes paid by businesses.

The legislation also includes millions more in direct spending on specific public health, food insecurity and other programs, while also creating a “waterfall” of funding priorities for future use of the federal dollars.

Will that be enough to avoid a special session? Sisolak demurred, saying his office was still working through the U.S. Treasury guidance on how the federal dollars can be spent and for now was taking a “wait and see” approach. The governor added that a fall special session will be necessary to complete the state’s redistricting process, after delays in compiling and reporting U.S. Census data caused by the pandemic.

“When there's a session necessary, we'll call it,” he said.

Tax initiative petitions

Part of the deal to pass a bill imposing a new tax on the mining industry involved the Clark County Education Association teacher’s union withdrawing two proposed ballot measures that would raise sales and gaming taxes. Lawmakers amended a bill in the waning hours of the session to explicitly authorize such petitions to be withdrawn within 90 days of an election, even after they have qualified for the ballot.

“I'm gonna trust that any commitment that they made to me or to my staff, they're gonna follow through on,” Sisolak said.

CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita said after the bill’s first hearing but before a vote that “if we get a deal, we will keep our word.”

But Sisolak said he wasn’t sure exactly when that would happen or if it would be right at the allowable deadline for withdrawal.

“I would hope we don't have to wait ‘til 90 days right before,” Sisolak said. “Hopefully it will be sooner than that. I don't know how much sooner.”

Asked if he was worried that the strategy of filing an initiative petition to try to force certain actions from policymakers would become commonplace, the governor said he hoped not.

“I don't believe in legislating by initiative petition,” he said. “The public's input is certainly required, it's necessary and sought out. But that's why we elect people. I don't think that the initiative petition process is the most effective way to get results. And I hope that that's not what this causes.”

Death penalty

After what was arguably the highest profile bill to die in the legislative process — a measure advanced by the Assembly on party lines to abolish the death penalty — Sisolak said nobody has yet approached him asking for him to impose a moratorium on capital punishment.

He also said he doesn’t believe he has the individual power to grant clemency for people on death row who fall outside of a category he thinks the death penalty should exist for — the most egregious cases, such as mass shootings and terrorism.

Sisolak’s chief of staff, Michelle White, said the governor had wanted to meet with people on both sides of the issue, including families of victims and of people on death row, but those talks did not happen before the session.

“There were no conversations with our office leading up to this legislative session on the death penalty,” she said. “There was no outreach saying, 'we're going to do this and so we want to get some input on this.'”

Sisolak said he was uncomfortable making such a momentous decision in an environment where many legislative meetings were remote and public comment was taken in short increments over the phone. 

“It's different when you're sitting face to face with someone you see them, the family member,” he said. “And I'm not talking necessarily about the large groups, I'm talking about the family members who lost a loved one as a result of a mass shooting.”

He said there was “zero” consideration about being seen as soft on crime when Republican Joe Lombardo, the sheriff in Clark County, is planning to run for governor.

“When I make legislative decisions, they have nothing to do with my political opponents,” he said.

Opportunity Scholarships

The compromise by which the mining tax was approved involved funding authorization for a program many Democrats dislike — the tax credit-funded Opportunity Scholarship program that supports low-income children attending private schools. The bill brings funding back up to 2019 levels, reversing an arrangement that lets no new children enroll and effectively begins a phase-out of the program.

Asked if he thinks the program should be a permanent fixture in Nevada, Sisolak noted that one Legislature can’t bind a future Legislature.

“There were a lot of discussions leading up to that. It wasn't easy,” he said. “Good governance is all about compromise. I mean, it's not just getting your way all the time.”

Asked if he would include it in the recommended budget he will put forward if he is re-elected ahead of the 2023 session, he said he hasn’t thought about the budget for next session but will “definitely” be talking to his top staffers about what the budget will look like.

“This was an agreement that was made,” he said. “I'm going to follow through with my side of the agreement, all the terms that were made.”

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

Innovation Zones

Though the concept was downgraded to an interim study, Sisolak said he is still a believer in “Innovation Zones,” the proposed semi-autonomous corporate-backed governmental structure sought by Blockchains, Inc.

No bill was ever introduced, but draft language around the “Innovation Zone” concept drew opposition from state lawmakers in both parties, rural communities concerned about proposed water usage and even became the butt of jokes for late-night TV hosts.

Sisolak acknowledged that the bill was a “heavy lift” but said he was still a supporter of the concept mentioned during his January State of the State address, saying that it put no state money at risk and could help with economic development. He said building support for the bill was difficult with the Legislature largely closed to the public and in-person meetings.

“I think the concept was misunderstood because the detractors put it out there like it's a company town, and you're given control of the government. That's not at all what it was,” he said. “But in the midst of a 120-day session, when I was in the initial discussions on Innovation Zones, I wasn't contemplating having a pandemic.”

Raises for state workers

Some lawmakers spoke out against a plan to give raises up to 3 percent for state workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, and 1 percent to those without. It’s the first budget approved since state workers were authorized to unionize.

“I guess what I find disturbing is because this becomes a reward and an incentive to put everyone under a collective bargaining unit, because we don't pay them if they don't,” Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said before voting against a bill implementing state employee pay. “And to me that seems to be a little inappropriate.”

Asked whether the arrangement is fair, Sisolak said it’s not collective bargaining if everybody gets the same thing.

“I've been involved with different parts of collective bargaining for a long time. That's what collective bargaining is,” he said. “Different units came forward with different proposals and different requests and made cases and they came to agreements. And I'm no one to stop that.” 

SNWA turf removal

While cautioning that he wanted to read the bill for any last-minute amendments, Sisolak indicated that he also will sign a proposal backed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority that would generally prohibit non-functional grass outside of single-family residences in Clark County starting in 2027. The bill would remove about 5,000 acres of unused grasses, which uses about 10 percent of Nevada’s 300,000 acre-foot water allocation from the Colorado River. 

Sisolak called the idea behind AB356 a “great policy,” saying that anyone who flies into Las Vegas can see the infamous “bathtub ring” on the shores of Lake Mead and see the need for water conservation in Southern Nevada.

“I think that it's incumbent upon us, for the next generation, to be more conscious of our conservation and natural resources, water being particularly important,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

$15 million earmarks on American Rescue Plan funds

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

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

— Michelle Rindels

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

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

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

— Riley Snyder

Closing ‘classic car’ loophole

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

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

— Riley Snyder

Permanent expanded mail voting and ballot initiative withdrawals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Riley Snyder

Authorizing cannabis consumption lounges

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

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

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

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

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

— Michelle Rindels

Taxing and regulating short-term rentals

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

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

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

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

— Michelle Rindels

Bill removing citizenship requirement for higher education scholarships revived

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

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

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

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

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

It also addresses other higher education inequities by:

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

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

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

— Tabitha Mueller

Deportation defense funds

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

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

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

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

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

— Michelle Rindels

Transmission build-out, electric vehicle charging infrastructure bill passes

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

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

The measure previously passed unanimously out of the Senate. 

— Riley Snyder

Minimum energy efficiency levels for appliances

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

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

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

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

— Tabitha Mueller

Overhauling interim legislative structure

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

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

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

— Riley Snyder

Fifth time’s the charm to decriminalize traffic tickets 

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

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

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

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

— Jannelle Calderon

Nevada joins and leapfrogs primary states

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

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

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

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

— Jannelle Calderon

Allocating federal COVID aid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Michelle Rindels

DMV repayment

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

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

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

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

— Michelle Rindels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Riley Snyder

Lawmakers advance mining tax deal; Republicans who voted in favor explain why

State lawmakers voted Monday to advance a major mining tax package that will allocate a combined $500 million to public education through new and extended mining taxes and federal COVID relief dollars — pushing the compromise package through the legislative process quickly on the final day of session.

The Assembly vote on AB495 was 28-14, with all Assembly Democrats and two Assembly Republicans — Jill Tolles and Tom Roberts — in support. In the Senate, four Republicans — Ben Kieckhefer, Heidi Seevers Gansert, Scott Hammond and Keith Pickard — joined Democrats to pass the bill in a 16-5 vote, sending the bill to Gov. Steve Sisolak for approval.

The bill, introduced late Saturday and heard for the first time on Sunday, involved a complicated trade of bills — including commitments to kill certain bills and pass others — and some challenges reining in the multiplying requests of lawmakers being courted for votes. An amendment to Democrat-sponsored SB292 that eliminates provisions allowing for straight-ticket voting was one of the Republican-favored elements of the deal.

The bill, which creates a new excise tax on annual gold and silver mine gross revenue above $20 million, is expected to eventually direct up to $500 million to education — including $200 million in federal COVID relief dollars and the rest through new and redirected taxes on the mining industry. It also restores funding to Opportunity Scholarships, a private school scholarship program supported by private donations made in exchange for tax credits.

An amendment adopted shortly before the floor vote in the Assembly allocated an additional $15 million in federal funding for learning loss at charter schools; charters were previously set to be excluded from the pot of money. Groups such as the Nevada State Education Association teacher’s union have opposed more allocations for charter schools, which they say are exempted from too many accountability rules.

But Republicans have advocated for those schools, including in a bill, SB463, that will apply $3.8 million to hold a dozen charter schools harmless from funding drops they otherwise would have experienced in the transition to a new funding formula. Tolles also said some charters experienced similar closures of in-person learning during the pandemic.

“There was significant learning loss. They could utilize that help as well,” she said in an interview.

Passage of the bill out of both chambers was lauded by Nevada Mining Association President Tyre Gray, who said in a statement that the legislation “encapsulates what is possible when we stop worrying about north or south, urban or rural, teacher or miner, and remember our commonalities.” The Clark County Education Association — a key booster —  tweeted that a “bipartisan relationship made this possible.”

And in a joint statement with Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, Sisolak called the legislation “one of the most significant steps our State could take on our road to recovery.”

“Today's historic vote was only made possible thanks to the partnership of education leaders, business and industry, a bipartisan group of legislators, stakeholders and community members,” Sisolak said in a statement. “Our comeback will be strengthened by the continued collaboration and efforts of all Nevadans committed to working together for our families and a brighter future.”

Assembly vote

Prior to the vote, Tolles and Roberts spoke with The Nevada Independent about their rationale for the votes, stressing that they had not only gained concessions in exchange for their pledge to support the tax, but also had an opportunity to improve education funding without overly burdening one single industry.

“For the mining industry, the caveat was everybody that is impacted agrees to it. There are no loss of jobs, there's … no loss of revenue to counties. And so the industry says we want this, that's a condition for us,” Roberts said.

The Nevada Mining Association on Sunday night made it clear in a tweet that they were in support of the bill, and association President Tyre Gray sat at the presenter’s table with Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson during the hearing for the bill. 

Through the session, both lawmakers have struck a more moderate tone than others in the Assembly Republican caucus. Roberts, a former assistant sheriff with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, is planning to leave legislative service and run for Clark County sheriff in 2022.

For her part, Tolles said her entire rationale for getting involved in politics was to advocate for education — saying the combination of industry buy-in for the bill and the fact that proceeds would go to education checked all of her boxes.

“I'm not going to be in politics forever, but I'm always going to be a human being and a wife and a mom and a professional and a member of my community,” she said. “And so every decision that I have to make can't be about whatever is going to happen in the future, it has to be about whether or not I feel good about what's right in front of me and how I feel about it when I'm looking back at my life.”

Both lawmakers said that bill language adding back funding authorization to the Opportunity Scholarship program — a tax credit program offering private school tuition grants for low-income families — was a key element of negotiations, and said future discussions on the scholarship program have been promised.

Tolles wanted the scholarship program, which now counts only a little more than 1,000 enrollees and is at less than half its original size, not to be so restrictive and to ensure continuity of funding through budget cycles, so that parents with children enrolled in the program have more certainty year-over-year rather than having to face fears every two years about being dropped from the program.

“The way that the system, as I understand it works right now, is that every two years, it's a fight just to maintain,” she said. “And so that's very traumatic for those kids, and those families, to feel like it's essentially their version of an eviction moratorium like every two years.”

The bill does not guarantee that the scholarship lasts beyond the coming biennium, but does lift provisions from 2019 that did not allow new students to enroll.

Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas) said in a speech on the Assembly floor that his Republican colleagues’ decision to support a tax hike “in exchange for concessions so modest as to be insulting is simply astonishing to me.” 

“Spending more money without enacting any structural reforms or accountability measures has never solved our educational problems,” he said.

Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) said when evaluating good tax policy, one question she asks is “are the people who are going to be taxed understanding of that tax, and ... do they share those principles enough that they come in support?”

“We have that in Assembly Bill 495,” she said. “In this building, it is a rare thing to get consensus. It is even more rare when we get it around policies such as this. This is long overdue.”

Senate

Four Senate Republicans crossed party lines to support the bill on Sunday evening, easily clearing the required two-thirds majority just a few hours after the Assembly passed the bill.

Kieckhefer, who is termed out of office after this session, said in a floor speech that the bill represented the “art of legislating in a single bill,” representing a compromise of things he strongly supported and strongly opposed. 

“While there are plenty of reasons that I could point to to vote against this bill, I think the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks,” he said. “And when you get to this place, I think it's important to try to find a way to say yes to help people, and that's what this bill does.”

Seevers Gansert also pointed to the enhanced education funding in the bill, touching not only public education but also charter schools and Opportunity Scholarships, as the reason for her support. Pickard said he was troubled by “special interests” using the initiative petition process to “put pressure on us,” but said he would support the bill because of the additional funding for education.

Hammond said the process of getting to the vote “was a rocky one,” but said he ignored pressure from “outside interest groups and disaffected third parties” and voted to advance the policy because he agreed with the merits of the bill.

“While I don't expect the ... naysayers who don't even bother to read the legislation to keep their opinions to themselves, I will be voting yes, for all of our state’s students,” Hammond said. “I urge my colleagues to join me, because even if it's only one student, it’ll change their life without ever even knowing it and that's worth it.”

But five Republican senators voted against the bill, with several raising concerns with the rushed process that brought the legislation forward. Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) said he had wanted to see a credit offsetting any increased collection of the existing net proceeds tax on minerals against the new excise tax, and said it was “unfair to ask any one industry to come to the plate.”

“Education needs to be borne by all of us, not one single industry,” he said. “I think they were forced to be here, and forced to support this bill.”

Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) also raised similar concerns about the industry-specific tax, saying that the state’s gaming industry had long skated by without paying its fair share to education, saying it would “allow the very people that have not paid enough consistently to get away with it once again.”

“(For) all but a handful of us in this room, the people that are going to pay this tax, they are not our constituents. They are mine. It's very easy to tax people that actually are not even in your district.”

Reporter Tabitha Mueller contributed to this report. Updated at 4:34 p.m. on 5/31/21 to add comments from floor speeches. Updated again at 7:30 p.m. to include details from the Senate vote.

Lawmakers begin wrapping up 2021 session; ‘Right to Return’ passes, Death with Dignity fails

The Nevada Legislature building as seen in Carson City on Feb. 6, 2017.

Crunch time has finally arrived for the Legislature, with lawmakers planning to work steadily through Sunday to work out compromises and pass scores of bills with less than a day and a half left in the 120-day session.

Much attention has been paid to negotiations over the long anticipated AB495 — the measure implementing a new excise tax on mining and various other education and health care changes, up for its first hearing on Sunday evening. But many other high-profile measures are finally approaching the finish line — including final votes on “Right to Return” legislation, as well as last-minute appropriations and amendments.

Here’s a look at some of the latest developments in Carson City on the penultimate day of session. 

Physician aid in dying legislation will not advance

A deeply divisive bill that would have allowed terminally ill patients to self-administer life-ending medication is not moving forward.

Bill sponsor Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) told The Nevada Independent on Sunday that there was no consensus on AB351 and the bill would not receive any further hearings or a floor vote. 

“I've lost all hope,” Flores said. “The position of the leadership is just, we don’t think the votes are there.”

Similar legislation divided Republicans and Democrats in 2017, when it passed 11-10 in the Senate. Democrats largely supported the measure, but the bill never made it to a final vote after it died in an Assembly committee. A 2019 measure sponsored by then Sen. David Parks (D-Las Vegas) also never received a floor vote after passing through its first committee.

Flores chalked the death of the bill up to ethical dilemmas and hesitancy to pass such a contentious piece of legislation. But he hopes to continue the dialogue in future sessions.

“It's funny how … there's very contested bills and then one session it just comes in and it goes right through,” Flores said. “And I think it's a lot of just that education component, and then kind of holding out, just being consistent.”

In early April, New Mexico became the latest state to provide a legal pathway for physician aid-in-dying, Flores said, noting that opinions are shifting.

“There's an obvious trend where states are recognizing that there's folk who need it, and should have a right to request it if they want it,” Flores said. “So I think we'll come back in two years and do this whole thing again.”

— Tabitha Mueller

Assembly approves ‘Right to Return’ legislation, bill heads back to the Senate for final vote

The Assembly gave quick party-line approval to legislation that would guarantee the rights of laid-off gaming and tourism industry workers to return to their jobs.

The 26 Democratic Assembly members outvoted 16 Republicans to send SB386 back to the Senate for final concurrence on an amendment. The Senate voted along party lines last Wednesday to approve the legislation.

Lawmakers on Friday evening adopted an amendment that exempts small businesses — ones that prior to the pandemic employed 30 or fewer workers — from being affected by the so-called “Right to Return” legislation. The amendment likely exempts small restaurants and vendors operating in casinos from having to comply with the hiring requirements in the bill.

Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama (R-Las Vegas) urged lawmakers to vote against the legislation, saying its passage would hurt small businesses and 30 “seemed like an arbitrary number.”

However, Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) called SB386 a bill that “protects the people that built this state. They are the economic engine of Las Vegas.”

Carlton said the 78-day shutdown of the gaming industry in an effort to slow the spread of the pandemic a year ago March, “was done for the right reasons. This is also the right thing to do. This protects everyone.”

Gaming interests and the Culinary Union struck a deal on the high-profile legislation earlier last week, agreeing to limit the scope of the bill and exempting certain employee classes including managers and stage performers. The Nevada Resort Association agreed to take a neutral position on the bill in return for those concessions, though not all casino operators are on board with the proposed legislation.

SB386 would allow workers in the gaming and travel sectors the right to return to their jobs, covering those workers laid off after March 12, 2020, and who were employed for at least six months in the year before the governor’s first COVID-19 emergency declaration.

— Howard Stutz

Amendments to a bill pushing citations, rather than arrests, for minor crimes

A bill directing law enforcement to issue citations in lieu of arresting people for misdemeanor crimes, AB440, passed out of a conference committee Sunday morning with two amendments, one proposed by Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) and the other from Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas).

Settelmeyer’s amendment establishes requirements for candidates running for county sheriff in rural Nevada counties. Specifically, the amendment lowers the population threshold for required qualifications from 100,000 to 30,000 and stipulates that a candidate running for county sheriff must have accumulated at least five years of service as a law enforcement officer and have been certified by the state or a federal law enforcement training program.

The other amendment gives law enforcement officials time to implement the measure, specifying that provisions within the act do not apply until the Division of Parole and Probation has sufficient resources to carry out the measure.

The bill passed out of the Assembly and Senate on party-line votes with Republicans in opposition.

— Tabitha Mueller

Gender-neutral bathrooms bill gets messy

A discussion over a bill requiring that single-stall bathrooms be designated as gender neutral going forward turned into a discussion about whether more urine ends up on the floor in men’s rooms.

Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said he would oppose the bill — AB280 from Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno) — because he doesn’t think there should be mandates on businesses to make their restrooms unisex. He also argued that “women have more sensitive sensibilities as a whole.”

“By doing this, we're going to be making all the restrooms men's rooms, and that will create problems for a good number of women in society,” Pickard said.

Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City), a doctor, also offered an anatomical explanation for why the floor of men’s rooms might be dirtier.

“So, it sounds to me like men are the problem, and they could work on that, but in the meantime, I think the bill is fine,” concluded Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas). 

The committee ended up passing the bill — which “grandparents” in existing restrooms but governs future builds — with Republicans opposed.

— Michelle Rindels

$1 million to Immunize Nevada in AB355

AB355, a bill that already includes a variety of allocations for nonprofits, has a new proposed addition — $1 million for the statewide nonprofit Immunize Nevada.

Sen. Julia Ratti said the organization has seen a deluge of support for the COVID-19 vaccination effort, but much of that is strictly limited to the pandemic. Ratti said she doesn’t want the group to be shortchanged in its normal work.

“This gives them the flexibility to make sure that we're not disrupting the regular programming that they do for flu, back to school,” she said.

So far, the bill includes: $750,000 for the “Expanding the Leaderverse” initiative at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, $350,000 for the “We the People” civics program in schools, more than $3 million for the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, $1 million for the Nevada Blind Children’s Foundation and $2 million for the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas to develop an ethnobotanical garden for teaching indigenous farming techniques.

Assembly Ways and Means Chairwoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) has said that nonprofits often approach the Legislature seeking allocations that they can leverage into further donations, and AB355 is a vehicle for such allocations.

— Michelle Rindels

Lawmakers introduce last-minute budget maneuvers for more financial flexibility as session draws to a close

Despite the sound and fury that accompany the end of every legislative session, lawmakers only have one actual constitutional requirement to fulfill before the end of the 120 days of session — pass a balanced state budget.

Closing a roughly $9 billion budget is rarely an easy task, and 2021 has brought a host of new challenges — better-than-expected tax revenue forecasts, a coming windfall of $2.7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan dollars and a major state Supreme Court ruling on extended payroll tax and DMV fees blowing a roughly $200 million hole in the budget. 

During the final week of the legislative session, budget committees have introduced several bills aimed at providing more financial flexibility for legislative priorities — measures sometimes derided as budget “gimmicks” aimed at freeing up tens of millions of dollars to help balance the budget. These include measures extending a $1-per-DMV-transaction technology fee until 2026 after a previous iteration was ruled unconstitutional, and suspending a required money transfer to the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Here’s a closer look at the last-minute budget moves being considered by lawmakers:

DMV fee extension, Highway Fund extension

Members of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday discussed AB488, which extends the $1 DMV technology fee through June 2026 and retroactively permitting the fee from the end of June 2020 onward.

The previous extension in 2019 was recently ruled unconstitutional by the Nevada Supreme Court because it increased collection of public revenue but did not pass out of each house of the Legislature with a two-thirds majority. It fell one vote short of that threshold in the Senate back in 2019.

Following that ruling, the DMV now lacks a dedicated revenue source to fund IT upgrades meant to shift more transactions online and make DMV interactions easier for the public. The state also has to refund the technology fees assessed during the time that the fee was unconstitutionally extended. During the Tuesday hearing, legislative staff said the state owes approximately $5.5 million in refunds.

Through AB488, lawmakers are seeking to (with a two-thirds majority in each house) reinstate that funding source for the IT upgrades and eliminate the need to refund the millions of $1 fee charges to motorists. Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), who chairs the money committee, noted that processing and disbursing the refunds could be more expensive than the refunds themselves.

“It's a $5 million refund, and it's going to cost us $8 million to give it back. And that impacts other services in the state,” she said. “I believe it is our responsibility to weigh those as we move forward and make the best decision that we need to make for the people of the state.”

Carlton also said that the refunds could be especially costly if the department were to use a back-credit process programmed through its own systems, following a suggestion from Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno).

“The programming involved, in the investigations that we have done, could cost even more than the actual refund itself,” Carlton said. “You're basically putting the refund on steroids by trying to do all the programming … so don't ever go down the programming road with DMV because it is a very long, twisty, dark, scary road.”

However, the measure faces steep opposition from some Senate Republicans, who filed the lawsuit against the original extension of the fee.

In an atypical move, Sens. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) and Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) both testified against the bill during the contentious Tuesday hearing.

“Judgment has been entered by the District Court in favor of the plaintiffs in the two-thirds case and, in particular, the judgment in favor of the taxpayers and the fee payers,” Settelmeyer said. “I don't want to belabor this point. I'm tired of litigation. People deserve their money back.”

At roughly the same time on Tuesday, members of the Senate Finance Committee discussed and unanimously passed SB457, a measure that allows the DMV to use a greater percentage of highway funds to replace the DMV’s current technology and bring the majority of DMV services online over the course of the next four years.

The bill would increase the percentage of highway funds the DMV could use for administrative costs from 22 to 27 percent, and though the bill originally would have applied to the 2020-2026 fiscal years, a conceptual amendment made it so the bill only applies to fiscal years 2022-2026.

“During the pandemic, it became clear to us that [bringing DMV services online] needed to be our number one goal, as was the same with many businesses and state agencies,” said Julie Butler, the Director of Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles. “This bill is needed to continue our progress on this critical project for the department and for the state of Nevada.”

But, when DMV representatives said they did not expect to go above the 22 percent threshold for fiscal year 2020-2021, Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) noted that the retroactive provision seemed unnecessary.

“I would understand the need to increase it to 27 percent in the upcoming biennium, but for our current biennium. If we weren't going across over 22 percent the retroactive piece seems unnecessary,” Kieckhefer said.

Rainy Day Fund transfer suspension 

Members of the Assembly Ways & Means Committee on Tuesday also discussed AB487, which suspends an automatic transfer of 1 percent of the state’s projected revenue to the Rainy Day Fund for each of the next two fiscal years.

The suspension is intended to give lawmakers more financial flexibility ahead of the finalization of the state’s budget as the state awaits federal funds from the American Rescue Plan.

“We know there are dollars coming,” said Carlton. “But we also know that we have to fund the government by May 31, so we can't pretend that money is going to be there. We have to actually use real money that is available right now.” 

According to projections from the Economic Forum in May, the amount of money that would no longer be transferred to the Rainy Day Fund if the bill is passed is $43.4 million in the upcoming fiscal year and $46.4 million in the following year, meaning lawmakers could have approximately $90 million in additional funds to spend before the session ends.

Lawmakers will be unable to backfill the fund with federal dollars, though. Spending guidance from the U.S. Treasury released earlier this month indicates that states will not be allowed to deposit American Rescue Plan funds into their reserve accounts.

Shortly after the hearing, the bill was voted out of the committee on Tuesday and awaits a vote on the Assembly floor.

Reporter Riley Snyder contributed to this report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reducing points of contact and racial disparities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Miranda warning for minors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limiting direct file

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jurisdiction over juvenile cases

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changes to juvenile housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treating youth found incompetent

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

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

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

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

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

Diverting more youth

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

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

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

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

Sealing records

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structural changes within the juvenile justice system

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

Future justice efforts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contentious bill expanding whistleblower protections passes in spite of business pushback

Senate chambers

A bill codifying whistleblower protections in state law passed out of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Friday, but still faces opposition from Republican lawmakers and business groups. 

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), AB222 aims to expand existing protections for “whistleblower” employees from retaliation by their employer in cases of reporting illegal or unsafe workplace conditions to a supervisor or employer, instead of solely having those protections when they report to a government entity such as the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

On Friday, committee members voted 4-3 to pass the measure with the promise that another amendment will be filed prior to a floor vote. The bill previously passed out of the Assembly on a party-line 26-16 vote in April.

Torres said the bill would resolve the issue of employees being too afraid to talk to a supervisor if something doesn’t seem right, and encourage employees and employers to have open conversations. 

As it currently stands, if an employee feels unsafe at work and reports the issue to an external authority such as OSHA or the state Labor Commissioner's Office, they are guaranteed whistleblower protections — but the protection is not guaranteed to employees who report issues to a supervisor or other authority within their place of employment. 

“I just want to make it abundantly clear that this piece of legislation is aimed at targeting bad actors. So this is not going to just impact your business who lets go of somebody because they have proof that the individual has been taking extended lunches or something like that. It doesn't prevent that,” Torres said at an earlier committee hearing in May. 

The bill would codify whistleblower protections for employees as interpreted by the Nevada Supreme Court and established after the 1989 Wiltsie v. Baby Grand Corp. case. The Supreme Court determined that an employer violates the protections of a “whistleblower” if the employer terminates them because the employee reported to an external authority, but ruled that the protections do not extend to a whistleblower who reports such conduct only to a supervisor or other person within the employer’s organization.

But those in opposition say the bill would create an incentive for unhappy employees to create problems and file lawsuits against their employers. Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) also said the bill goes against the “interests of private industry.”

“I'd be perfectly okay with this bill, but this goes so much farther ... in the mind of those that I spoke to, it creates a definite incentive for disgruntled employees to really create havoc in business,” Pickard said during the bill’s committee vote on Friday. “Although they may be relatively small in number, it's going to affect whatever the prices are that that business has to charge … If that amendment comes through and softens the harshness of this, I might vote yes on the floor.”

In previous hearings, Clark County, the Vegas Chamber, the Henderson Chamber, the Nevada Resort Association, the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce, the Retail Association of Nevada and the Associated General Contractors Nevada Chapter all testified in opposition of the bill,  arguing that the measure is too broad and current law is sufficient.

Since it was introduced in March, the bill has been amended several times, including to remove a section that would have allowed courts to award costs and attorney’s fees to an employee involved in a lawsuit. 

Another amendment removes language authorizing an employee who experienced “unlawful employment practices” and brought a civil action against the employer to obtain damages equal to the amount of the lost wages and benefits. However, the employee is still able to bring the suit for any future compensatory damages, which would have to be shown in court.

The bill now heads to the full Senate, where it will have to pass before the May 21 deadline for second house passage. Torres said she would continue to work on an amendment with interested parties to resolve any lingering issues. 

“While the amendment is not ready today, I know that we are close to finding some type of agreement between ourselves and other key stakeholders and I'm confident that we will be able to get many of our stakeholders to neutral with that language,” she said. “This really empowers the employer to have conversations with their team about safety and deal with issues in house, it prevents accidents since employees feel confident talking to employers about unsafe working environments.”