Follow the Money: Campaign finance reports show GOP edges in key Assembly races, tight contests in State Senate

Front of the Nevada Legislature building at night

A year after legislative Republicans became close to an endangered species after widespread 2018 electoral defeats, the party’s attempted comeback was boosted by candidates in several key races outraising incumbent Democratic lawmakers during the last year.

Details from the 2019 contribution and expenses reports, due on Jan. 15, detailed how much legislative incumbents and candidates raised over the last calendar year and painted a more hopeful picture for Republicans in several “swing” Assembly races, with a more mixed view in competitive state Senate seats.

Although there are 63 seats in the Legislature — 42 Assembly members and 21 senators — actual control of the body, or more likely whether or not Democrats have a two-thirds majority (required for passing any increase in taxes) in either body, will likely come down to just a handful of competitive seats up in 2020. 

Changing the balance of the state Assembly, where Democrats enjoy a 29-13 seat advantage, could be the best ticket for Assembly Republicans. In at least three races — Assembly Districts 4, 29 and 37 — Republican candidates reported raising at least six figures and each substantially outraised the Democratic incumbent in the seat.

Only 10 seats are up for election in the Senate, with members serving staggered four-year terms. Democrats control 13 seats — one shy of a super-majority — but have not endorsed candidates in the two most likely pick-up districts; Heidi Gansert in Senate District 15 and Scott Hammond in Senate District 18. And those incumbents will start with a significant financial advantage — Gansert raised $245,000 in 2019, and Hammond also pulled in $107,800.

Senate Democrats will also have to work to defend two competitive seats — Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s Senate District 6 and the open Senate District 5, vacated by termed-out Sen Joyce Woodhouse. They’ll also have to deal with a competitive, three-way primary in safely Democratic Senate District 7 between caucus-backed Roberta Lange and two long-time Assembly members, Richard Carrillo and Ellen Spiegel.

And with no major statewide or federal races (beyond congressional seats and the presidential election) on the ballot, it’s likely that more attention and funds will make their way to down-ticket legislative races, especially ahead of an expected redistricting after the 2020 Census that could determine the political trajectory of the state over the next decade.

Fundraising reports, especially those filed nearly a year before an election, aren’t a perfect barometer of the success of any particular candidate, but offer a helpful context in determining which races that individual parties determine to be the most winnable and whether or not individual candidates have the resources to compete in a down-ballot race. (It’s also worth noting that incumbents are disadvantaged in fundraising because of a legally required “blackout” period before, during and shortly after the 120-day legislative session).

On the flip-side, a close examination of major contributors can pull back the veil on which businesses or industries are trying to curry favor with lawmakers ahead of the 2021 legislative session. 

Here’s a look at the financial status of major legislative races:

Major state Senate races

Although 10 state Senate races will be on the 2020 ballot, only a handful of races are likely to be competitive and shift the current 13-8 seat advantage currently held by Democrats.

A key battleground will be in Senate District 6, which is held by Cannizzaro, who narrowly beat former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman in the 2016 election. Senate Republicans have endorsed April Becker, a Las Vegas-based attorney. Democrats make up 40 percent of registered voters in the district, and Republicans make up roughly 32.8 percent of registered voters.

Cannizzaro, who also beat back a politically motivated recall attempt in 2017, starts the race with a significant financial advantage after raising more than $326,000 throughout 2019, spending just $22,000 and ending the reporting period with $531,000 in the bank. Her top donors include $30,000 from properties affiliated with the Las Vegas Sands and $10,000 checks each from the Mirage, Switch and the Home Building Industry PAC, as well as nearly $10,000 from Woodhouse’s campaign.

But Becker’s first campaign finance report isn’t shabby; she reported raising nearly $313,000 over the fundraising period (including a “written commitment” from herself for $125,000) and ended the period with $152,000 in her campaign account.

Top donors to Becker included several Republican senators ($10,000 each from James Settelmeyer and the Senate Republican Leadership Conference, $5,000 each from Ben Kieckhefer, Joe Hardy and former state Sen. Michael Roberson and $2,000 from Keith Pickard), as well as $10,000 each from Abbey Dental Center owner Sanjeeta Khurana, the law firm of Gerald Gillock & Associates and Nevsur, Inc. (owned by Bruce and Barry Becker ).

Another highly competitive seat is Senate District 5, where Woodhouse narrowly beat Republican candidate and charter school principal Carrie Buck by less than one percentage point in the 2016 election. Democrats make up 38.4 percent of registered voters in the district compared to 32.6 percent for registered Republicans.

Buck, who is running again and has been endorsed by Senate Republicans, reported raising nearly $63,000 and ended the fundraising period with nearly $58,000 in the bank. Her top donors were fellow Republican senators; $10,000 each from the caucus itself and Settelmeyer, $5,000 each from Kieckhefer, Roberson and Hardy and $2,000 from Pickard.

But Buck’s fundraising total was eclipsed by Democrat Kristee Watson, a literacy nonprofit program facilitator endorsed by Senate Democrats in October.

Watson, who ran unsuccessfully for a Henderson-area Assembly seat in 2018, reported raising nearly $87,000 through the fundraising period, with a significant chunk coming from transfers from other candidates and office-holders. She received $10,000 contributions each from a PAC affiliated with Cannizzaro and the campaigns of Sens. Woodhouse, Chris Brooks, Marilyn Dondero Loop, and $5,000 from the campaigns of Sens. Melanie Scheible, Julia Ratti and Yvanna Cancela.

Other potentially competitive state Senate races feature a lopsided fundraising advantage for the incumbent. Democratic Sen. Dallas Harris in Senate District 11 was appointed to fill the term of now-Attorney General Aaron Ford, and reported raising nearly $46,000 over the fundraising period ($65,000 cash on hand). Her Republican opponents, Edgar Miron Galindo and Joshua Dowden, raised only $7,250 and $ 11,500 respectively over the fundraising period.

Two Republican incumbents up for re-election also posted impressive fundraising numbers that far outstripped potential opponents. Gansert in Senate District 15 raised nearly $246,000 and has nearly $237,000 in cash on hand; potential Democratic opponent Lindsy Judd did not file a 2019 campaign finance report.

In Senate District 18, incumbent Hammond raised nearly $108,000 and has more than $91,000 left in his campaign account; potential Democratic opponent Liz Becker raised $21,700 in comparison and has just $11,200 in cash on hand.

Primary battles

One of the most intriguing legislative races could come in the three-way Democratic primary to replace longtime Sen. David Parks, who is termed out of his Senate District 7 seat. Two Assembly members — Ellen Spiegel and Richard Carrillo — are running for the seat, but state Senate Democrats have thrown their weight behind another candidate, former state party head Roberta Lange.

Lange — who only made her bid for the seat official in mid-December — reported raising more than $64,000 for the seat, essentially during only the last two weeks of December. Her major donors included $10,000 from Cannizzaro’s political action committee, and $5,000 each from six incumbent senators — Ratti, Brooks, Scheible, Woodhouse, Cancela and Dondero Loop. She also received $2,500 from Parks, $1,000 from former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s Searchlight Leadership PAC and $5,000 each from UNLV professor and former gaming executive Tom Gallagher and his wife, Mary Kay Gallagher.

But she faces a potentially tough primary fight from Spiegel, who raised $63,000 throughout 2019 and has nearly $213,000 in available cash on hand. Her top contributor was Cox Communications ($10,000 cumulative) but other top givers included the Nevada REALTORS PAC, pharmaceutical company trade group PhRMA, health insurance giant Centene and AT&T ($3,000 from each). 

Carrillo lagged behind both Lange and Spiegel in initial fundraising reports. He reported raising $29,500 throughout the fundraising period, spending $37,600 and having just $17,000 left in available cash. His biggest contributor was the Laborers Union Local 872, which donated $12,500 through contributions by five affiliated political action committees. Other top contributors include tobacco company Altria and the political arm of the Teamsters Union ($5,000 each), and $3,000 each from Nevada REALTORS PAC and the Nevada Trucking Association.

Another major primary election is brewing between Republican candidates Andy Matthews (a former campaign spokesman for former Attorney General Adam Laxalt) and Michelle Mortensen (former television host and congressional candidate) in a primary for the right to challenge Assemblywoman Shea Backus in Assembly District 37.

Matthews raised a massive $154,000 over the fundraising period, the highest amount of any Republican Assembly candidate and the second most of any Assembly candidate behind only Speaker Jason Frierson.

He reported spending $23,800 and ending the period with more than $130,000 in available cash. His top donors included $10,000 combined from manufacturer EE Technologies and founder Sonny Newman, and $5,000 each from Las Vegas-based businesses Vegas Heavy Haul and InCorp Services, Inc. 

Mortensen also posted a substantial fundraising total; more than $102,000 raised, $9,500 spent and more than $93,000 in cash on hand. Her major donors included primarily family members; her husband Robert Marshall and his company Marshall & Associates ($20,000 total), her father-in-law James Marshall ($10,000) and maximum $10,000 donations from several family members including Betty Mortensen, Tom Mortensen, Ryan Mortensen and Mila Mortensen.

Both Republican candidates outraised incumbent Backus, who raised nearly $25,000 during the reporting period and has nearly $64,000 left in cash on hand. Her top donor was Wynn Resorts, which gave her $5,000. Backus narrowly defeated then-Republican Assemblyman Jim Marchant in the 2018 election, the first time a Democrat won the district in four election cycles.

Another competitive primary is happening in Assembly District 36, where appointed Assembly Republican Gregory Hafen II is facing off against Joseph Bradley, who ran for the seat last cycle against former Assemblyman James Oscarson and famed brothel owner Dennis Hof, who won the primary but died before the election.

Hafen reported raising $62,000 over the fundraising period (including a $9,500 loan) and has nearly $47,000 in cash on hand. Bradley reported raising $54,000 and has $38,500 left in his campaign account.

Key Assembly races

Nevada’s Assembly Democrats hit a potential high-water mark in 2018, winning control of 29 seats for the first time since 1992 and gaining enough seats to relegate Assembly Republicans to a super-minority (fewer than two-thirds of members).

But in a handful of competitive Assembly seats currently held by Democrats, Republican candidates posted substantial fundraising totals that not only eclipsed but often lapped the amount raised by incumbent Democrats, giving Republicans a financial leg up in some of the state’s most competitive legislative districts.

In Assembly District 4, first-term lawmaker Connie Munk reported raising $18,600 throughout 2019 and ended the period with just over $30,000 in cash on hand. Her biggest donors were PhRMA and trial attorneys-affiliated Citizens for Justice, Trust.

But her fundraising total was overwhelmed by Republican candidate Donnie Gibson, who reported raising $115,000 and has $87,000 left in his campaign account. Gibson, who runs a grading and paving company called Civil Werx, received maximum contributions from home builders and developers: $10,000 each from Associated Builders & Contractors, Associated General Contractors, the Nevada Contractors Association and the Home Industry Building PAC.

A similar disparity in fundraising totals was also present in Assembly District 29, where incumbent Democrat Lesley Cohen reported raising $16,000 over the fundraising period and has just under $50,000 in available cash.

Steven Delisle, a dentist and former state Senate candidate who announced his intention to run for the Assembly seat on Thursday, reported raising more than $134,000 for the race against Cohen, including a $125,000 loan to his campaign account.

But Democrats may have caught a break in Assembly District 31, where incumbent Skip Daly has won multiple races despite representing a district that went for President Donald Trump in 2016. Daly raised $46,425 through 2019 and has $75,800 left in his campaign account.

Assembly Republicans initially rallied behind Jake Wiskerchen, a marriage and family therapist who reported raising $27,700 for the race and had $19,000 in cash on hand at the end of 2019. But Wiskerchen opted to publicly drop out of the race in early January, leaving Republicans without an endorsed candidate for the time being. Daly’s 2018, 2016 and 2014 opponent, Jill Dickman, reported raising $8,800 in 2019 and has nearly $104,000 in leftover campaign cash.

Legislative leaders

Democratic Assembly Speaker Frierson reported raising more than $233,000 through the fundraising period, spending $174,000 and ended the period with just under $475,000 in cash on hand. His top contributors included a wide swath of Nevada businesses, including $10,000 each from Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, the campaign account of former Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, Home Building Industry PAC, MGM Resorts and UFC parent company Zuffa, LLC. He also received $5,000 from the Vegas Golden Knights.

Republican Assembly Leader Robin Titus, who took over the caucus leadership position after the 2019 legislature, raised just over $38,000 during the fundraising period, spending more than $16,000 and ending the period with $72,000 in cash on hand. Top contributors to Titus included PhRMA and the Nevada REALTOR PAC ($5,000 each).

Her Republican counterpart in the state Senate, Settelmeyer, reported raising nearly $95,000 over the reporting period, with top contributors including UFC parent company Zuffa ($7,500), TitleMax, Nevada Credit Union League PAC, Grand Sierra Resort and Storey County businessman Lance Gilman ($5,000 from each). Settelmeyer ended the reporting period with $137,000 in cash on hand.

Sisolak

Although he isn’t up for re-election until 2022, Gov. Steve Sisolak broke fundraising records for Nevada governors in their first year in office after raising more than $1.6 million for his campaign and another $1.7 million for two closely affiliated political action committees. 

Sisolak reported having more than $2.3 million in available cash on hand at the end of 2019, and only reported spending $164,000 throughout the year. The governor also raised $1.7 million between the Sisolak Inaugural Committee and the Home Means Nevada PAC, which were initially set up to manage Sisolak’s inaugural events but have since been used for pro-Sisolak advertising. Political action committees in Nevada are allowed to accept unlimited donations.

Updated at 12:55 p.m. on Saturday, January 18th to include fundraising totals from Senate Republican candidate Joshua Dowden.

Governor appoints Culinary Union leader Arguello-Kline to stadium authority after county commissioners passed her over

Geoconda Arguello-Kline in a red shirt

Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Monday he appointed Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Union, to the Las Vegas Stadium Authority Board of Directors after the Clark County Commission chose another candidate instead of her last month. 

The announcement came after the Clark County Commission’s controversial decision to re-appoint Laborers Union Secretary Tommy White to the board on Dec. 17. Both of Nevada’s sitting senators had endorsed Argüello-Kline for the position, and Argüello-Kline described White’s appointment as a missed opportunity for the board, which at the time only included one woman and one person of color.

“We deserve better representation on the Stadium Authority Board. The Clark County Commission let Nevadans down today with their refusal to appoint to the board a qualified candidate who understands hospitality jobs and workforce development,” Argüello-Kline said in a statement released by the Culinary Union after the commission vote.

Commissioners said they chose White, who previously held the seat, because he would bring “consistency” to the board that oversees the under-construction Allegiant Stadium for the Raiders.

There was no mention of the county commissioners’ decision from a couple of weeks ago or Argüello-Kline’s previous nomination for the board in Sisloak’s press release on the appointments. He also noted he was reappointing Steve Hill, the former director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and current chair of the stadium authority, to the board.

“I’m pleased to reappoint Steve Hill as Chair and appoint Geoconda Argüello-Kline to the Stadium Authority,” Sisolak said. “I’m confident that Steve’s steady leadership and expertise, combined with Geo’s deep understanding of Nevada’s service industry and experience in workforce development, will create necessary continuity and dynamic representation on this Board.”

Argüello-Kline will join the nine-seat board after more than 30 years in Las Vegas’ hospitality industry and is replacing former Station Casinos executive Scott Nielson. Terms last four years, and members of the board are appointed by the governor, county commissioners, UNLV and the stadium authority board.

Clark County Commission votes to re-appoint Laborers Union head to stadium authority, rejects bid by Culinary Union boss

Clark County Government Center

The Clark County Commission voted Tuesday to re-appoint Laborers Union Secretary Treasurer Tommy White to a four-year term on the Las Vegas Stadium Authority Board by a margin of 5-2, shooting down a bid by Culinary Union head Geoconda Arguello-Kline that had gained the backing of several high-profile Nevada Democrats.

Speaking before the vote, Commissioner Larry Brown told a room filled with the red shirts of Culinary Union members that the move was about creating consistency ahead of the stadium’s completion next summer. 

“It’s critically important that that consistency be there,” Brown said. “The Board has some tremendous responsibilities as far as the county and being stewards of the room tax dollars that go into [the stadium].”

Arguello-Kline, who had filed a last-minute application for the seat just before the December deadline, received a bevy of big-name endorsements in the days and weeks leading up to Tuesday’s vote. Among them, kudos from former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, both of Nevada’s sitting U.S. senators and MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren. 

A handful of progressive organizations also threw their support to Arguello-Kline, including the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Mi Familia Vota and the immigration-focused group Make the Road Nevada. 

Pointing to her experience at the helm of the Culinary Union, Arguello-Kline had become a vocal critic of a lack of diversity on the stadium authority, which, among voting appointees, includes just one non-white member and one woman.  

But Brown pushed back on Arguello-Kline’s criticism, saying that the stadium authority had made strides to address diversity in hiring and that the County Commission’s “actions speak louder than words.” Still, Brown also took time to make clear that the appointment shouldn’t be construed as the commission “abandoning” the Culinary Union. 

“It’s difficult when this board is put in a position where we’re deciding between two leaders of labor, and labor that enjoys a pretty good relationship with this County Commission,” Brown said.

Arguello-Kline wasn’t without her own support on the commission, however, as Tick Segerblom joined Justin Jones in voting against White’s appointment. 

“The reality is diversity is now, that’s what we represent in Las Vegas,” Segerblom said ahead of the vote. “You can thank people for how they’ve served, but going forward, it’s really important that our commitments and our appointments reflect Las Vegas. And Las Vegas is not white, male — Las Vegas is diverse.”

In a written statement released shortly after the vote, Arguello-Kline slammed the decision as a missed opportunity for the commission.

“Clearly this decision today shows that the Clark County Commission does not care about the conduct and reputation of their members on the Stadium Authority board,” Arguello-Kline said. “If they wanted to affirm that board members can be racist, sexist, and threaten violence on Twitter (like Donald Trump does) and get away with it — they have succeeded.”

Amid the push for a seat on the board remain the echoes of the 2016 fight over the stadium itself, in particular the choice by state lawmakers to utilize $750 million in tax dollars to help fund construction. Both then and now, the Culinary Union criticized the decision as a handout to the billionaires involved with professional football, even as the Laborers Union touted construction as a job-creating economic boon. 

The work of appointing the nine-member Stadium Authority Board is split between the governor, the Clark County Commission, the board itself and the UNLV president. Though the board will not control events at the stadium once it is opened, it remains the ultimate owner and overseer of the stadium itself. 

Culinary union boss gets boost from U.S. senators, Reid in push for appointment to stadium authority

Geoconda Arguello-Kline in a red shirt

With less than a week to go before the Clark County Commission votes to fill a soon-to-be-vacant seat on the Las Vegas Stadium Authority, Geoconda Arguello-Kline — secretary-treasurer of the powerful Culinary Union — received weighty endorsements for her own bid for the seat from Nevada’s sitting U.S. senators, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen, as well as a nod from former Sen. Harry Reid. 

In their letter to the commission dated Nov. 21, more than 10 days before Arguello-Kline submitted her application for the appointment, Cortez Masto and Rosen praised Arguello-Kline as “leader in our community when it comes to diversity, inclusion and workers' rights for decades,” touting her experience in the industry as crucial as the newly-named Allegiant Stadium nears completion next year. 

And in his own letter to Commissioner Michael Naft, Reid said much the same, imploring that “we must now look toward the next chapter: the hospitality phase for the stadium.” 

Arguello-Kline filed a last-minute application last Monday for a seat currently held by Laborers Union head Tommy White, whose appointed term to the stadium board expires at the end of the year. The commission opened up those applications to the public in October, and White has since also re-applied for his appointment. 

But Arguello-Kline, who is Hispanic, has been a vocal critic of the board’s diversity, which includes just one member of color and two women, of which one is a non-voting ex-officio member. Speaking to The Nevada Independent following the last of the Culinary Union’s presidential town halls Wednesday, Arguello-Kline made those criticisms once more. 

“I think the board needs diversity,” Arguello-Kline said. “It is very important to have diversity in the group, in the board, and people who have experience in the jobs they are going to need at the stadium.”

With the days ticking down before the commission makes its vote, Arguello-Kline and her supporters have also begun to circulate an ad taking a jab at the board’s lack of diversity, showing a collage of the faces that is almost entirely white. 

White did not immediately return a request for comment. 

During deliberations over the stadium deal in 2016, the Culinary and Laborers Unions stood in stark contrast to each other over the question of public funding. In particular, Culinary took aim at the “billionaires” who would profit from the deal, while the Laborers saw the proposal as an economic boon that would create thousands of construction jobs.  

The Stadium Authority was created in 2016 as part of the state’s expansive legislation establishing the means and methods for an eventual move by the Oakland Raiders football team to Las Vegas, including raising $750 million in funding through a bump in Las Vegas’ room tax.

Though a Raiders subsidiary has spearheaded stadium construction and events management, the Stadium Authority will ultimately retain ownership of the stadium itself in addition to the land on which it sits. 

Comprised of nine members and a tenth non-voting “ex-officio” member, the job of appointing the board is split between the governor, the county commission, the board itself and the president of UNLV. 

Ahead of the next round of appointments this month, five of the nine members will see their terms expire by the end of the year. 

Arguello-Kline Recommendation - Rosen, CCM by Jacob Solis on Scribd

Arguello-Kline Recommendation - Reid by Jacob Solis on Scribd

Water authority delays $30 million, 10-year marketing contract with Raiders; seeks input from advisory group

Photo rendering of Las Vegas Stadium

The Southern Nevada Water Authority is delaying action until at least next year on a proposed decade-long, $30 million advertising contract that would see the public agency become a major advertiser at the future Las Vegas Raiders’s Allegiant Stadium.

Scott Huntley, an executive with the water authority, said Monday that the SNWA’s executive team had decided to move the proposed contract from the authority’s Thursday meeting and instead kick it to a January meeting of a citizen’s advisory board.

The initial version of the proposed contract would have seen the water authority pay an annual $2.5 million (with an annual 4 percent increase) to the still-under-construction Allegiant Stadium, which will house the National Football League’s Raiders franchise beginning in 2020. The construction cost of the stadium is partially financed by a 0.88 percent hotel room tax that funds a $750 million chunk of an estimated $1.9 billion cost, approved by lawmakers in a 2017 special session of the Legislature.

The contract would have made the water authority a “founding partner” with exclusive physical, television and radio advertising privileges in the new stadium, but would have marked a major expansion of the agency’s marketing and advertising budget. The water authority’s overall marketing budget for water compliance and conservation is roughly $4.9 million a year, and a spokesman for the authority said in an earlier interview that it spent only about $500,000 total in other advertising arrangements with sports teams at UNLV, minor league baseball team Las Vegas Aviators, Las Vegas Lights FC and the National Hockey League’s Golden Knights.

Huntley said the authority’s leadership had decided to take input from a recently re-formed advisory committee — composed of business and labor leaders, conservation advocates and economists — before making a decision on the contract. 

“They would like to have them consider and make a recommendation regarding moving forward in this way to the board, and then consider it after the advisory committee gets a chance to make that recommendation,” Huntley said.

The board that will take the contract under advisement is called the Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Committee, which held its first meeting under its current membership in October and will include discussion on the proposed contract during its meeting in January, where it will discuss water conservation issues. The 11 members of the committee include:

  • Ken Evans of the Urban Chamber of Commerce
  • Peter Guzman of the Latin Chamber of Commerce
  • Boulder City resident Carol Jefferies
  • Nevada Conservation League Executive Director Andy Maggi
  • Paul Moradkhan of the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce
  • Tom Morley of Laborers Union Local 872
  • Bob Murnane of GC Wallace Engineering, on behalf of the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association
  • Jonas Peterson, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance
  • Phil Ralston of American Nevada Company
  • John Restrepo of RCG Economics
  • Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resorts Association

The proposed contract would have given the water authority wide advertising and marketing privileges — digital and physical advertising space on TV, radio and social media in both English and Spanish, sponsorship of a two-minute warning, broadcast rights for the football team’s final non-nationally televised preseason game as well as exclusive advertising rights throughout the stadium’s bathrooms. Huntley estimated that the contract would bring an estimated 169 million impressions yearly and help the water authority bring its conservation message to a larger and more diverse audience than a traditional marketing campaign.

But news of the contract attracted opposition from a variety of groups, from the libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute to dyed-in-the-wool Democratic Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, who made his concerns with the deal known on Twitter.

“The simplest way to conserve water is to charge more and make the rates more progressive - subsidizing rates with sales tax revenue and then spending $ on advertising to encourage conservation seems counterintuitive,” he tweeted on Saturday.

Updated at 4:37 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22 to reflect that Bob Murnane is representing the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association.

Presidential hopefuls cite labor in opposition to Medicare for all, but what do Nevada’s unions want?

Union member stands holding flag

The Culinary Health Center lies within an unremarkable building on an unremarkable block in East Las Vegas.

But the clinic’s beige exterior belies its well-appointed interior — a granite, concierge-style reception desk where patients are greeted, tiled columns, wood paneled ceilings, modern globe light fixtures and wall decorations shimmering with gold-colored threads. If Culinary workers spend their days laboring in some of the most glitzy casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, their union wanted them to have an equally as pleasant aesthetic experience while receiving their health care, union officials have said.

Patients can show up to the center’s urgent care at any hour on any day of the week to get treatment. If it’s a more complicated case, labs and radiology — including CT scans — can be performed on site. If they have a tooth or eye issue, the dental and vision departments on site can be called for a consult. Patients can be set up for a follow up appointment upstairs in the primary care department. Any medicines they may need are provided free of charge just down the hall in the pharmacy where the wait time is an average of nine minutes. The goal was for the urgent care to see 30 patients a day. It sees 200.

For Culinary Union members, the 60,000-square-foot health clinic serves as a physical reminder of the health plan they have fought for since the 1960s. Roughly 130,000 workers and their family members receive health insurance coverage under the Culinary Health Fund, a multiemployer benefit trust fund also sometimes called a Taft-Hartley fund. The way it works is that employers of Culinary Union members pay money into the fund for each hour worked, which is then used to pay for health care for union members and their families. Employer contributions to the trust fund are negotiated through the collective bargaining process, and the fund itself is administered by a board of trustees with equal employer and union representation.

“We went through a lot of struggle to get health care for families, and a lot of sacrifice too,” said Geoconda Arguello-Kline, the Culinary Union’s secretary-treasurer, pointing to the union’s 67-day citywide strike in 1984 in which employer contributions to the health trust was a central issue.

Health care is often named as the top issue for voters heading into the 2020 presidential election and, particularly, Democratic voters. Democratic presidential hopefuls have been eager to stake their claim on the issue, from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who support a single-payer Medicare for all system, to Vice President Joe Biden, who favors expanding the Affordable Care Act and creating a public option plan that Americans can buy into.

The union health plan, Arguello-Kline said, is working for Culinary members. But that isn’t true for many Americans nationwide. A Kaiser Family Foundation/Los Angeles Times poll earlier this year that found while most Americans covered under traditional employer-sponsored plans are largely satisfied with their coverage, about 40 percent reported health-related financial difficulties in the prior 12 months, including paying their medical bills and affording the deductibles, copays and coinsurance required by their plans.

In this debate over health care reform, unions have become a central focus. At a labor forum in Las Vegas earlier this summer, Sanders touted that Medicare for all would take the health care conversation away from the negotiating table and allow workers to purely focus on negotiating for better wages, and Warren suggested that there would be some mechanism by which to ensure that unions get “fully compensated for what they have negotiated for” — meaning finding some way to ensure unions don’t lose out on potentially decades of wage concessions they’ve made for more robust health plans.

But at that forum they were, by far, in the minority of Democratic hopefuls, many of whom have used the unions as a cudgel against Medicare for all.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has slowly been climbing into frontrunner territory in the polls, has specifically mentioned the Culinary Union in making his pitch for his “Medicare for all who want it” plan, which is essentially a public option where people could buy into the government-run Medicare plan.

“If you like your private plan — I’m thinking for example about the Culinary workers who have negotiated and fought year after year for a good plan and earned it and it’s part of your compensation — I’m not going to make you give it up,” Buttigieg said at a rally in East Las Vegas on Tuesday. “We’ll let you decide whether the plan we create is better or not.”

Those who have been far less publicly vocal about their feelings about Medicare for all are the unions themselves on the ground here in Nevada. Of the more than a dozen union leaders contacted by The Nevada Independent, most expressed significant concerns about the possibility of their hard-fought health care plans going away under Medicare for all, while a smaller minority voiced support or openness toward a single-payer system.

Where there was more agreement is in how the unions are being used in the Medicare for all debate.

“One of the things that we’ve been very careful about is we don’t want candidates trying to use this union health care versus non-union health care as a wedge issue for our members because that doesn’t do anybody any good,” said Rusty McAllister, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada State AFL-CIO. “You can’t come out with a position that ‘unions don’t support this’ because you can’t speak for all the unions.”

Employees at the front desk of a health clinic
Employees work at the front desk of the Culinary Health Center in East Las Vegas on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2019 (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Pros and cons

Unions here are generally in agreement that everyone should have access to health care. Where they disagree is what that should look like.

One primary concern unions have about Medicare for all is that establishing a single-payer, government-run health care system will wipe out years of work at the negotiating table. Every dollar unions have asked employers to put into their health trust funds is a dollar that could have gone toward wage increases. The question is what happens to that money when it is no longer needed to pay for health care: Do the employers pocket it, or does it flow to worker paychecks?

“Medicare for all comes along, what does — in our case the contractor who we work for — and the union, how do they sit down and have a conversation about what to do with that money?” said William Stanley, executive secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building Trades. “There’s $10 or $15 an hour going to a trust fund for health care that’s no longer required because there’s Medicare for all. How does that contribution get divided? How is there a decision made, or are you just going to let the employer and the union fight it out and whoever is in the position of power wins and somebody walks from the table mad?”

Most of the building trades unions secured their health care provisions back in the 1960s and 1970s, Stanley said, which means that there have been six decades of making concessions at the negotiating table to get those health care benefits.

“How do you now go back and divide up those contributions?” Stanley said. “It’s a mess.”

But proponents argue that removing the health care conversation from the bargaining table would allow them to focus on other issues such as better wages and safer working conditions.

“Every time workers are going to the bargaining table, the employers are constantly trying to figure out how to put more and more cost on employees, and the insurance companies are trying to get more out of the employers. For us, they’re trying to figure out how to pass that along to the employee,” said Brian Shepherd, chief of staff for SEIU Local 1107. “Taking that off the table means we could focus on safer staffing levels, caseloads, better working conditions, which is what our members want to negotiate over.”

The union, which represents health care workers at major hospitals across the state as well as county employees, has gone so far as to explicitly endorse the mission of fighting for health care for all in its local constitution and bylaws.

“We are advocates for health care for every single person,” Shepherd said. “Now, I think where I think there are some differences is how do you get that done. If everybody has to have health care, we’re not just talking about insurance, we’re talking about actual health care.”

One primary difference between SEIU and other unions in Nevada wary of Medicare for all is that SEIU members here have employer-sponsored coverage, with the union bargaining for how much of the cost employees should pay and any changes in coverage, instead of running its own nonprofit health plan or, like the Culinary Union, a health clinic.

The Laborers Local 872, which represents construction workers in Las Vegas, has run its own clinic for more than a decade.

“Our clinic does fantastic for us. No copayments, there’s no out of pocket money, it’s free for our members and their spouses and their children,” said Tommy White, secretary-treasurer and business manager for the union. “It’s saved our health plan a ton of money and it isn’t that expensive. The cost of building the clinic and having it there for our members was a lot cheaper than having our members go to the emergency room or wait a month to see a doctor.”

Running a clinic has also given the union significant control over the health of its members in a way that it wouldn’t if its members were covered under an off-the-shelf private plan or a government plan. White said that after his brother-in-law overdosed on Christmas Day 2005, he got serious about cracking down on opioid prescribing — years before it was identified as a national epidemic.

“I started monitoring doctors. When I found doctors that were overprescribing members, we threw them out of our plan. No one wants to be proactive that way,” White said. “I had to take some heat from my members — ‘What did you do? He was a good doctor. He took care of my mom.’ He might have been doing the right thing for your mother, but he was doing the wrong thing for your sister or for somebody else’s family member.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Laborers are staunchly opposed to Medicare for all.

“We’re against it, and if there’s a candidate that’s going to come in and start saying, ‘We’re going to push Medicare for all,’ we’re not going to endorse them,” White said. “I speak it the way it is. I might get my ass in a jam every once in awhile for doing that, but I’ve got to protect what my members want. We’re more than willing to put in our fair share to help people, but we don’t want people telling us how much our deductible is going to be, our copayment is going to be, what we can prescribe.”

That’s another key issue for many unions that run their own health plans. A Medicare for all plan likely won’t cover some of the specialized, industry-specific benefits they have included in their plans. For the building trades, that might be more extensive chiropractic and orthopedic coverage. For police and fire, better mental health coverage to help with post-traumatic stress disorders. For the laborers, acupuncture and lasik surgery.

“It was cheaper to do lasik than it was to issue glasses every year or two years,” White said. “Medicare isn’t going to cover lasik.”

Union member speaks at forum
An AFSCME union member asks a question at a Democratic presidential candidate forum at UNLV on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (HuffPost/Courtesy)

A cautionary tale

But not all self-funded plans come the same.

Teachers in Clark County are covered under the Teachers Health Trust, a teacher-run nonprofit health plan beset by problems in recent years. With the school district hit hard by the recession and stagnating premium contributions, the trust slashed benefits from its once robust health plan in 2014 and shifted costs toward employees. That gave way to complaints from teachers about insurance hassles and even a class-action lawsuit against the trust.

In 2018, an arbitrator sided with Clark County School District teachers in a contract standoff with the district, requiring the district to increase its contributions to the health trust per teacher from about $538 to $583 a month.

John Vellardita, the executive director of the Clark County Education Association, said that the trust is “on the road to recovery” now with the increased contributions, but the plan is no longer what it once was. He blames, in part, the skyrocketing costs of health care.

“To the extent that the economy is good and your employer has that kind of money where you can bargain those increases, then it’s going to be great,” Vellardita said. “But the risk, the exposure you have is when there is a downturn in the economy and the employer is facing financial difficulties in that economy, it’s going to impact what goes on at the table. The table does not control health care costs. The market controls health care costs.”

Vellardita acknowledged the concerns that other unions voiced on Medicare for all — that their health plans are built on years of collective bargaining and that having purview over their plans lets them tailor benefits to their members’ needs — but he said that conversation can’t be separated from the economic realities that shape the deals hashed out at the bargaining table.

“The assumption built into that argument is that somehow health care can, in this day and age, be divorced from any kind of economic impact when you’re bargaining with your employer and I don’t see how that exists,” Vellardita said.

He’s also pragmatic about developing a national health care system based around the needs of unions, when only about 11 percent of workers are union members.

“Ninety percent of the population does not have the luxury of collective bargaining for health care,” Vellardita said.

The debate on Medicare for all, he believes, has been framed around a false dichotomy between a universal health care system and protecting union rights to collective bargaining.

“I think we’re at a passing moment in history where both of those solutions are not the solutions we’re going to land on,” Vellardita said. “The first thing that has to be answered is [health care] a right and then, once it’s answered, what’s the role of the government — to be the delivery system or regulate the private sector delivery system?”

On this, the Nevada State Education Association — and, by extension, the National Education Association — and the Clark County Education Association, which broke away from the state and national affiliates last year, are in relative agreement.

“The National Education Association believes that affordable comprehensive health care is a right,” said Chris Daly, a lobbyist for the NSEA. “The association supports a national health care policy that mandates universal coverage with the highest quality health care at the lowest possible cost. The NEA also advocates for incremental reforms to improve the health and health care of children, students, and communities as well as their members.”

There’s one final element that plays into the discussion. Teachers, like the nurses, have been invested on the national level in the Medicare for all debate not just as consumers of health care but as people who work in a profession devoted to the individual wellbeing of humans. If their students aren’t healthy, teachers can’t teach them.

“Health care goes beyond our immediate self interest. It goes to the population we serve in our profession and that’s these kids. When we see these kids not having access to health care and coming into the classroom with the effects of that, you can’t walk away from the issue,” Vellardita said. “You cannot close your classroom door and walk away from this issue because it’s in your classroom."

A group of teachers in red shirts with signs at a rally in front of Liberty High School
Clark County School District teachers rally outside Liberty High School after CCSD Trustees cancel the school board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The politics of health care

The question now is to what extent union’s positions on Medicare for all will shape who they ultimately decide to endorse — if they decide to endorse. Unions are an important constituency for Democrats, and their support could help tip the balance in the presidential nominating contests early next year.

But many unions have kept their powder dry so far, waiting to see how the crowded Democratic field thins out and giving union members time to consider their options.

The politically powerful Culinary Union — whose support is much coveted by Democratic presidential hopefuls — is no different. Arguello-Kline said the union has met with several candidates but that leaders aren’t making any decisions yet. She wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the union endorsing a candidate that backs a single payer system, but she stressed the difficulty of selling a candidate like that to her members.

“How am I going to go and talk to the members and say, ‘You have to support a member like that?’ I don’t think so,” Arguello-Kline said. “The members are really smart, and they want to protect their family first. They understand they have the right to protect their own health care too. How are you going to go and tell the members you’re supporting a person who is going to take away their health care?”

As far as what the union does need to hear from a candidate if they want to have any shot at its endorsement, Arguello-Kline said it’s simple.

“They need to say that they’re going to protect the Culinary Union health care,” she said. “All the union members, not only the Culinary Union.”

For its part, SEIU would like to see candidates keep talking about Medicare for all or any other solution that works toward the goal of universal coverage.

“If we start from the place that health care is a human right, then that means you have to have everybody in and nobody gets left out,” Shepherd said. “As a union that is the largest nurses union in the state, we want more people going to the doctor. We want more people getting the treatment they need so that health care workers can do what they were hired to do, not worried about having to turn away folks because they’re not eligible.”

Jeffrey Proffitt, business manager of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) Workers Local 88, said that the union is in no “way shape or form” ready to endorse a candidate yet. However, he said the plan he believes that most suits union households right now is Biden’s, which he said would “take care of the folks that need the health care” but not “unravel the whole system over here for the unions.”

Right now, the union provides health care to its members through a trust fund that spans three states, but Proffitt said that they’re trying to transition to a more localized health plan similar to the one the Culinary Union has.

“It’s not working for my members right now, but I wouldn’t swing the pendulum the other way and say we need to go to strictly Medicare for all,” Proffitt said.

At the same time, he said that union workers have known Sanders “for years and years and he’s a strong union guy” but he’s “dead set on what he wants to do” on Medicare for all. With Warren, he believes there might be more wiggle room. The Massachusetts senator is expected to soon release a more detailed Medicare for all plan, including how to pay for it.

“What we do like about Elizabeth Warren is she says, ‘Let’s have a discussion.’ We’ve sat in the room with her and it’s about how can we do this. I don’t think that she’s dead set on everything she talks about because they’re ideas,” Proffitt said. “If Medicare for all can weave in with these systems where we can have our own [union] doctors and doctor’s offices, then I think you’ve got something special.”

They’re not the only ones who are open to listening to the arguments for a single-payer system, either. McAllister said that many AFL-CIO affiliates are supportive of something like a single-payer system. It’s more a question of how to get there, he said.

“One of the things I’ve found in this position here is labor’s all on the same mission but often they have a different idea of the best way to get there. That’s kind of where I think a lot of them are right now,” McAllister said. “We’re willing to listen to all options, but let’s make sure that the solution isn’t pitting one group against another.”

Union members rally on the Las Vegas Strip
Union members and activists rally during the May Day March near the Palms on Monday, May 1, 2017. Several thousand people marched along the Las Vegas Strip. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Tuesday's municipal election will yield three new Las Vegas City Council members

sign pointing to voting location

Two months ago, all eyes were on Ruben Kihuen.

Could the 39-year-old whose congressional career ended amid sexual harassment allegations win another election — this time to a Las Vegas City Council seat? The answer was no, but only by a razor-thin margin.

Former Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz and activist Melissa Clary garnered enough votes to oust Kihuen in the primary election. The two women are facing off in next week’s general election for the Ward 3 council seat. But it’s not the only seat up for grabs that day: Candidates are vying to represent Ward 1 and Ward 2 as well.

Municipal elections tend to fly under the radar, especially because they don’t coincide with the major state or national races happening in even-numbered years. (Eight cities in Nevada, including Las Vegas, hold their elections during odd-numbered years. But a bill passed by lawmakers this session and waiting Gov. Steve Sisolak’s signature will change that by requiring municipalities to move their elections to the fall of even-numbered years.)

In 2017, fewer than 8 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the city of Las Vegas’s general election. But the meager voter turnout belies the reality, which is that local elections often have more direct relevance to residents’ daily lives. As the city’s governing body, council members oversee a more than $1 billion budget, approve ordinances, appoint a city manager, and regulate businesses, the city’s fire department, enforce building safety, among other duties.

So those potholes on your street? Take it up with your council member, if you live within the city’s jurisdiction.

Early voting began May 25 and runs through Friday. As of Thursday, 7,168 people had cast ballots during early voting in the Las Vegas elections — 2,056 in the Ward 1 race, 3,900 in the Ward 2 special election and 1,212 in the Ward 3 match-up. Another 2,342 have voted via absentee ballots. But there are 141,993 active registered voters in Las Vegas, meaning fewer than 7 percent have participated so far.

The general election is Tuesday.

Here’s a closer look at the three Las Vegas races, one of which is a special election to fill a vacancy created by former Councilman Steve Seroka’s resignation:

Las Vegas City Council — Ward 1

Ten people ran for the Ward 1 council seat during the crowded primary election. In the end, Brian Knudsen and Robin Munier captured enough votes to move onto the general election.

Brian Knudsen

Knudsen, who owns a boutique consulting firm called BP2 Solutions, received about 27 percent of the votes; Munier, a special assistant to the City Council, garnered 20 percent of the votes.

With Ward 1 as home to the Medical District, Knudsen is hoping to see a lot of investment into the area — ranging from new facilities to more doctors with Las Vegas roots to help alleviate the shortfall of doctors and physicians in the city and state of Nevada overall. To that end, he hopes that the UNLV School of Medicine is completed and properly funded.

“Making sure that gets the resources it needs to be successful and working with the graduating students is very important,” said Knudsen.

He has worked on behalf of the City Council for nine years, with jobs ranging from community resource manager to administrative officer and was the president of the Boys and Girls Club of Southern Nevada.

Transportation is also a key issue for Knudsen, who hopes to build light rail that connects to the Medical District, Summerlin and Maryland Parkway.

“I would be advocating for mass transit throughout the valley,” he said. “The benefits of having mass transportation will benefit the city and its continued growth.”

As the first openly gay candidate to run for City Council, Knudsen is thrilled to have his chance to be the one who represents LGBT citizens in the city and hopes to set an example for others.

“Being gay is one part of who I am,” Knudsen said. “I’m hopeful that by winning that it creates an opportunity for every other minority population that feels that they can move into the space where they have influence and make the community a better place.”

His campaign has secured numerous endorsements, including from the Clark County Education Association and Mayor Carolyn Goodman.

Robin Munier

A former assistant to Mayor Pro Tem Lois Tarkanian, Robin Munier has worked for the Las Vegas City Council for more than a decade.

Focusing primarily on economic development, Munier believes business opportunities within the Las Vegas Medical District, around Decatur Avenue and along U.S. 95 are key to the future success of Ward 1, according to her campaign website. Her site lists County Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick as one of her supporters.

The Las Vegas Sun reported that both Munier and Knudsen oppose short-term rentals in the ward. She also vowed not to approve additional special permits for short-term rentals.

In addition to the development of the area, Munier noted on her campaign website that she wants to focus on crime and public safety, including new bike lanes and lighted crosswalks.

Munier did not respond to repeated interview requests.

Ward 1 mostly extends west of Interstate 15 and along U.S. 95. It includes the Las Vegas Medical District.

Las Vegas City Council — Ward 2

Former City Councilman Steve Seroka resigned in March amid a recall effort, leaving a vacancy on the governing body. The council voted to hold a special election coinciding with the general election to determine his successor.

Seroka, a first-term councilman, ran a campaign largely tied to the contentious development project proposed for the shuttered Badlands Golf Course, which straddles the high-end Queensridge neighborhood in the western valley. The issue has sparked a series of lawsuits, some of which name the city as a defendant.

In December, former Assemblywoman and conservative activist Victoria Seaman — along with Kim Fergus and Ulrira Miyashiro — launched a recall effort against Seroka. Seaman told The Nevada Independent that the recall was the result of their unhappiness over his handling of the Badlands controversy.

The Laborers Local 872 was the main funder behind the Committee to Recall Councilman Steve Seroka and led a public campaign to get him out of office. Seroka, who was also the subject of a human resources complaint lodged by a female city employee, resigned in early March.

Now, eight candidates, including Seaman, are vying to fill the Ward 2 seat. The other candidates are:

- Patsy Brown (business owner)

- Bruce Feher (former real estate business owner)

- Hilarie Grey (managing director of corporate communications for Allegiant)

- Derrick Penney (owner and attorney of Penney Law Firm)

- Richard Plaster

- Michael “Mikey” Tomko

- Valerie Weber (former Assemblywoman)

Plaster and Tomko do not have campaign websites. They also didn’t answer phone calls seeking information about their professions.

Ward 2 covers the western end of the city, including parts of Summerlin.

Las Vegas City Council — Ward 3

Former Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz garnered 33 percent of the votes in the Ward 3 primary election, granting her entry into the general election. Melissa Clary, a project manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs, finished second in the race — but just barely. She only secured five more votes than former Rep. Ruben Kihuen.

Stil, it was enough to launch her into the general election, where she will face Diaz.

Melissa Clary

Originally from Menifee, California, Clary traded in horse-riding for neon lights after getting her degree in public administration from San Diego State University. She has always maintained a connection to public service, with previous jobs ranging from park and recreation management to work for the US Department of Veteran Affairs. She later obtained her master’s degree at UNLV.

While Clary does not have as long of a political resume as her opponent, she believes that an outsider can still make a difference.

“I knocked on over 3,000 doors personally, I write countless letters, and I’m connecting to people when I’m campaigning,” Clary said. “I feel proud that I’m showing that I will truly work for the people.”

Addressing homelessness and making the ward more attractive to businesses that want to set up shop there are of particular interest to Clary, who hopes to see older buildings in the area renovated. She said she wants to see the city made safer and maintain its cultural essence.

Olivia Diaz

Diaz resigned from her state lawmaker position to run for City Council and racked up numerous endorsements in the process, ranging from police and culinary unions to Nevada politicians such as Rep. Dina Titus and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.

The 41-year-old elementary school teacher has named homelessness and public safety as key issues as well and is open to expanding affordable housing and counseling to those affected by them.

“I’m a native born Las Vegan, and lived in Ward 3 for over 30 years,” Diaz said. “I know the problems it has and what needs fixing. I look forward to being the woman that makes that happen.”

During her time in the Assembly, Diaz helped fund the Zoom and Victory initiatives for at-risk youth and ESL school students. As Ward 3 is predominantly Hispanic, Diaz found it was important to teach children learning a new language how to understand concepts in English.

Diaz also is in favor of opening marijuana lounges within the city and is optimistic about the chances of an MLS expansion team that brings major business opportunities.

Negative campaign flyers targeting Diaz have been circulated in the downtown ward, claiming that the former assemblywoman "lied to voters," the Las Vegas Sun reported. EHB Companies, the developer affiliated with the divisive Badlands project in Ward 2, funded the political action committee that's distributing the flyers. A website affiliated with the flyer also falsely claims that Diaz is under investigation by the secretary of state’s Office.

Ward 3 covers portions of the city east of Interstate 15 and north of U.S. 95.

On second thought, maybe Barlow belongs at City Hall

Las Vegas City Hall

To start, a confession: I think I’ve been taking the dustups, blowups and outright screw-ups at Las Vegas City Hall too seriously.

Way too seriously.

I became convinced after learning of the latest eyebrow-raiser from the big glass house downtown that scandalized former Ward 5 City Councilman Ricki Barlow has returned from his short vacation at government expense to lobby his former fellow colleagues. How time flies. It seems like only yesterday that he was resigning in disgrace after getting caught by the FBI after converting $17,000 from his 2015 re-election campaign account for personal use and collecting another $49,000 in vendor kickbacks.

As part of a well-played plea deal, US District Judge Andrew Gordon on July 18 issued Barlow a one-year sentence that called for just one month of jail time followed by three months in a halfway house and eight more in home confinement with a $66,000 fine.

Always a natty dresser, Barlow looked great in a pinstripe suit during his decade on the council. Presumably he was just as stylish in whatever outfit he wore during his proverbial spa treatment at the federal detention facility in Pahrump.

Barlow’s offense wasn’t exactly Watergate, but his decision to grab kickbacks from a vendor – one associated with an FBI undercover agent – was a sign law enforcement suspected a deeper pattern of corruption at work. Don’t be surprised to learn some day that similar deals were waved in front of other elected officials or that Barlow was suspected of making bigger scores.

After completing his obligations to the government, Barlow didn’t seek a fresh start in a new town. On Aug. 14, presumably online because he wasn’t available in person, Barlow registered LV Access LLC with the secretary of state’s office. In January, he registered as a city lobbyist and found clients waiting to hire him.

In retrospect, Barlow probably felt comfortable skimming from his campaign fund. He easily won re-election in 2015 with 65.8 percent in a race that drew just 4,527 voters.

It’s not like Barlow was alone in causing concern for council-watchers.

As a member of the state Assembly in 2014, current City Councilwoman Michele Fiore was exposed for having more than $1 million in personal and business liens from the IRS. More recently, the Las Vegas Review-Journal barbed Fiore for using campaign funds to augment approved international travel as a representative of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. No matter, she remains a rising star on the council and a favorite of politically active Laborers Local 872.

Did I mention she also tried to give the city manager a shove into the private sector?

Whether Fiore’s controversies add up to something worth monitoring all depends on whether you take your city government very seriously. But I’ve begun to believe you don’t.

Although Ward 2 City Councilman Steve Seroka resigned from office shortly after a column in The Nevada Independent raised the specter of his role in a human resources complaint, his replacement is sure to play a pivotal role in the future of a controversial multimillion-dollar condominium development that has generated costly litigation for the city. That might also be worth watching if folks can tear themselves away from their “Game of Thrones” and “Big Bang Theory” after-parties.

Mayor Carolyn Goodman has proven one of the great Las Vegas cheerleaders and easily won a third term in continuation of the family City Hall dynasty. She’s set an example for courage in her fight against breast cancer.

But her judgment when it comes to accepting campaign contributions has courted controversy. Chief among her problematic political donors:  Japanese Ponzi-scheme king Edwin Yoshihiro Fujinaga, whose Las Vegas-based MRI International Inc., bilked $1.5 billion from foreign investors. When Fujinaga donated $50,000 to Goodman’s campaign prior to his 2015 indictment, she declined to return it.

Who knows, maybe that just makes her a savvy businesswoman.

The city really does do serious business. Its budget for the fiscal year ending June 30 was approximately $1.5 billion. It’s a good thing it employs many capable people in key positions, ones who don’t forget whose money they’re spending and manage to refrain from slurping up kickbacks.

In other news, the city’s general election is set for June 11.

Although I sound like one of those hand-wringing rubes, this is the point in the column where I remind the reader that citizens who aren’t bothered by shoddy ethics and strange goings-on enough to cast a simple ballot probably deserve the government they get.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

Major gun bill to drop local government firearm regulation, add 'Red Flag' and gun storage components

Various handguns as seen on display inside Discount Firearms & Ammo in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2018.

Senate leaders plan to put a waiver and heavily amend Democratic Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui’s bill to ban bump stocks and allow local governments to preempt state gun laws, amid concerns from labor unions that the bill could scare a national firearms tradeshow away from Las Vegas.

No work session or committee vote was held on AB291 on Friday, but the bill is expected to receive a waiver from legislative deadlines for continued work and a future amendment — agreed to by several gun safety groups — removing language allowing local governments to preempt state gun laws and instead replacing it with “red flag” provisions, which allow law enforcement and family members to request a court order temporarily seizing an individual's firearms. It’s also likely to include aspects of Democratic Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo’s bill creating criminal penalties for negligently storing or leaving a firearm where a child can access it.

"At the request of Everytown and other organizations I have decided to remove the pre-emption language from AB291," Jauregui said in a statement. "This is too important of an issue for me to risk moving forward without the support of a broad coalition. The provisions relating to blood alcohol content and banning bump stocks will move forward, and I am looking at other fixes to improve gun safety in our communities such as extreme risk legislation."

Jauregui, a survivor of the October 1 mass shooting, presented the original bill before a joint Assembly and Senate Judiciary Committee on April 1, and it passed the Assembly on a party-line 28-13 vote on April 23.

But the bill has hit a snag in the Senate, as a number of labor organizations have begun raising concerns that allowing local governments to pass more restrictive gun laws — a concept publicly embraced by Clark County Commission members Tick Segerblom and Justin Jones —  would cause the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s annual SHOT show in Las Vegas to move to a different municipality.

Rusty McAllister, head of the Nevada AFL-CIO, said his union was officially neutral on the bill, but was aware that several of his affiliate unions — namely the Teamsters — had concerns that allowing local governments to preempt state gun laws could lead to the SHOT show leaving the state.

“I know that the SHOT show is set up by Teamsters and torn down by Teamsters, so of course they have an interest in the show from a work standpoint,” he said.

Other labor representatives were more direct.

“The SHOT show is scheduled to be the largest show in the next three years, as far as trade shows go,” Laborers Local 872 lobbyist Tom Morley said. “It’s 60,000 heads in beds, $30 million in revenue, $5 million in payroll for the Teamsters in that short span. Why are we going to push it to another market?”

The idea of preemption has also caused some concerns among law enforcement. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department lobbyist Chuck Callaway said the department was neutral on the bill but called preemption a “double-edged” sword with some minor benefits but could be logistically difficult to enforce in areas with multiple overlapping jurisdictions, such as Southern Nevada.

“Depending on the circumstances, you could have extreme agendas being pushed,” he said. “If you have the power, you could push an extreme agenda. It's a lot easier to pass something like that with seven people on a county commission than it is for 63 people in the Legislature.”

Callaway also repeated a possibility that the preemption provisions could be amended out and replaced with a “red flag” laws, which allows family members or law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily seize firearms from a potentially dangerous person. He said he wanted to see bill language first, but would likely be supportive of a measure after bringing his concerns to Democratic Sen. Julia Ratti, who sponsored a similar bill this session that died on the first legislative deadline.

Although no amendments have been offered yet on the bill, several supporters of the measure — including Battle Born Progress director Annette Magnus — said they believed the preemption language might be removed from the bill, a move that she said would severely water the measure down.

“We are disappointed with the process we’ve seen on the Senate side, and we are disappointed that this bill may change. I think we owe it to the victims of Route 91, 1 October shooting to do the right thing, and the right thing is to keep preemption in the bill,” she said. “By taking preemption out of this bill, you’re taking the teeth out. You’re taking the heart out.”

Elizabeth Becker, a volunteer with Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, said her group would still be supportive of the bill without preemption, and she said the addition of “red flag” provisions was also a boost to gun safety.

“I still support altering  preemption in the state,” she said. “The thing about red flag (laws) is that red flags save lives now.”

The group also shared results of a poll conducted by ALG Research finding 70 percent of Nevadans supported “red flag” laws, including 90 percent of Democrats, 52 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of independents. The poll was conducted with 601 likely voters between April 28 and May 1, with a 4 percent margin of error.

The bill has also been staunchly opposed by the National Rifle Association and a PAC founded by former attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt.

Medicare for All is not the answer

By Tommy White

Medicare for All or single payer insurance has become one of the most discussed issues by both politicians and pundits. The concept on a high level sounds good – everyone is insured and has access to medical care. However, when you break it down and take a closer look, the idea is not a good one.

Yes, every American should have access to affordable coverage and high-quality care, but we must be both cautious and creative at the same time in how this is achieved. Cautious that we don't create a fiscally unsustainable one-size-fits-all government-controlled health-care system. Medical decisions should always be in the hands of doctors and patients – not bureaucrats. Creative in our means of reducing out of pocket costs, increasing outreach and enrollment and protecting the benefits of those with pre-existing conditions.

Further, single-payer does not have a universal definition. Each person speaking about it defines it differently. And whereas supporters will claim large numbers of Americans support Medicare for All, what they don't say is that support drops considerably as more information is provided. Information such as MFA would lead to delays in care, would increase taxes – to a number or level no one can predict, would completely eliminate private and employee-sponsored insurance – not even a pretense of "if you like your plan, you can keep it" and that it would threaten the current Medicare program.

Instead of revamping the whole system, the concentration should be on improving what is currently in place – and generating more options. The needs of a millennial are different from the needs of the elderly. Just as there are different needs at different phases of life – there should be different health-care options available.

Approximately 10 years ago, we saw a need to make health care more accessible for our membership and their families. We opened a clinic specifically for the Laborers 872 and their families where the hours were flexible and quality care could be provided at little or no cost out-of-pocket. This led to the obvious result of our members having good care, but also reduced the number of work days being missed due to illness or inaccessibility of care and for the system as a whole, cut down on emergency room visits. Too often, people with no or inadequate health-care coverage use the ER as their primary care. This is costly for everyone!

We, at the Laborers 872, saw a need and provided a creative, cost-efficient option. We need our leaders and elected officials to now do the same for our country. 

Tommy White is the business manager and secretary-treasurer of Laborers Union Local 872.