Power Play: How Southwest Gas beat back efforts by environmentalists to start moving Nevada away from natural gas

In early 2021, with the legislative session only a few weeks away, Scott Leedom, the director of public affairs for Southwest Gas, reached out to the city of Mesquite with two requests for Mayor Al Litman. 

One was to speak at a virtual employee event extolling the benefits of natural gas, according to emails obtained by the Climate Investigations Center, a fossil fuel watchdog group. The second request was to review a draft letter that a pro-gas coalition of business and labor groups, organized by the company, was planning to send to Gov. Steve Sisolak. 

Mesquite was no stranger to Nevada’s largest natural gas utility — in 2018, the state’s Public Utilities Commission authorized the company to expand service to the rural community, leading to the installation of 28 miles of natural gas pipeline serving hundreds of residential homes and businesses. Litman called it a “game-changer for Mesquite” at the time, and in an interview, he said natural gas was important for economic development. Companies wanted natural gas. 

“We worked closely with them,” he said of the utility. “They’ve been a great partner to work with. To see it go the opposite direction before it really got underfoot, it’d be a disaster in our city.”

A final version of that letter, obtained through a public records request filed by The Nevada Independent, was finally sent to the Democratic governor on Feb. 21. It was signed by Litman, the mayor of Elko, six chambers of commerce, 17 trade groups and two unions (though one of the unions, IBEW Local 1245, said it was mistakenly included as a signatory).

Over six pages, the letter advocated for continued use of the fossil fuel, and raised concerns about Sisolak’s recently adopted climate strategy, which emphasized the need to plan for a transition away from natural gas to meet the state’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The letter, and the groundwork that went into crafting it, reflect the gas utility’s full-court press attempt to push back against legislation — and broader policy efforts by the Sisolak administration — aimed at transitioning from natural gas to electric appliances in buildings. 

Their efforts, so far, have worked.

In late March, Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) introduced legislation (AB380), modeled after Sisolak’s climate strategy, requiring gas utilities to go through a more rigorous planning process before expanding their infrastructure. But the bill, backed by environmental groups, met a groundswell of opposition and skepticism from lawmakers in both parties. It failed to advance past a legislative committee deadline and died weeks after it was introduced.

The utility didn’t get everything it wanted. A bill proposed by Southwest Gas and carried by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro also died by that first committee deadline on April 11. The legislation (SB296) would have allowed the gas utility to replace thousands of miles of pipelines, a program that environmentalists said would cost billions and undermine the state’s efforts to address climate change.

Although Democratic lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a 2050 net-zero emissions goal two years ago, the two pieces of legislation — and the debates around them — show that tensions remain in the party (which controls both the legislative and executive branches) over how to best move forward on facilitating a transition toward decarbonization.

Those tensions were exploited by Southwest Gas, which entered the 2021 Legislature knowing it was in for a fight. Beyond solidifying rural support in Mesquite and Spring Creek, a community outside Elko, Southwest Gas upped campaign contributions, built an influential coalition with affiliated interest groups and doubled its lobbying team.

Natural gas interests also made public shows of charity to minority legislative caucuses during the COVID-19 pandemic, and helped orchestrate a well-coordinated media campaign defining AB380 as banning “natural gas appliances in homes and business” — a characterization that the bill’s drafters dispute.

Similar battles are playing out in statehouses across the country. As local governments have pledged to curb greenhouse gas emissions, utilities like Southwest Gas have lobbied state lawmakers to preempt those efforts. Last year, Arizona Gov. Doug Doucey signed legislation, backed by Southwest Gas, prohibiting local governments from banning gas in new buildings.

Sisolak’s office did not take a position on the legislative efforts, when asked by The Nevada Independent, and officials from his administration testified in neutral on the bill. But on Friday evening, Sisolak issued a press release with statements from Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) affirming the state’s commitment to transitioning away from fossil fuels. 

“I appreciate the Nevada Legislature’s effort to kickstart the discussion on the issue and I believe further review by the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada would be appropriate to continue it,” Sisolak said. “This transition away from carbon is already starting, and it is critical that we take a deeper look and determine how we can protect hardworking families and businesses as it continues.”

For clean energy advocates, the failure to create a planning framework for transitioning away from natural gas marks a missed opportunity for the state to make good on its goals to lower emissions. But advocates and the utility agree on one thing: The issue is not going away. 

“We're going to have to make these changes if we want to meet our goals that the state has already put out there,” Cohen said in an interview after the bill died. “If we're going to get to clean power and zero greenhouse gas emissions, we're going to have to do something.”

Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) at the Nevada Legislature on Thursday, April 15, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Legislation from the state’s climate plan 

The legislation that would be introduced as AB380 made its public debut with an op-ed in The Nevada Independent on Feb. 9. Cohen, a soft-spoken Henderson Democrat in her fourth term in the Assembly, published the opinion piece arguing that an orderly transition away from natural gas would save ratepayers money and protect public health. 

It outlined broad plans for what would eventually become AB380 — requiring the natural gas utility file plans every three years with the state’s Public Utilities Commission to “prove that their spending plans will keep the gas system affordable and safe in a future where we use more electricity and less gas for our heating and cooking needs.”

Lauded at the time by fellow legislative and other high-ranking Democrats, the proposal was largely taken from the Sisolak administration’s climate strategy, a high-level document outlining pathways to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. The legislation received backing from major environmental groups, including the Nevada Conservation League and Natural Resources Defense Council.

In one of its 17 core policies, the climate report calls for phasing out natural gas hookups in homes and businesses over the next three decades. To do so, the report calls on policymakers to plan for transition by scrutinizing new gas infrastructure, to consider requiring all-electric in new buildings and to give customers more choice to switch from gas to electric appliances.

“While Nevada’s electricity sector transitions from fossil fuels to zero-emissions renewables, the state must also transition from fossil-fuel combustion in homes and commercial buildings in the form of burning gas for cooking, hot water, and space heating,” the report states.

Such a shift would mark a departure from the state’s relationship with Southwest Gas, the investor-owned utility which has served Las Vegas and Southern Nevada since 1954. The state’s laws, environmental advocates argue, currently favor the use of natural gas appliances.

Although only a handful of municipalities (led by Berkeley, California) have taken the full step of instituting a ban on natural gas hookups and requiring electrification in new construction, many others are considering ways to plan for a future with less natural gas.

In the weeks after AB380 was introduced, environmental advocates said that acting now was necessary to avoid continued build-out of fossil fuel infrastructure, keeping the state reliant on natural gas and ratepayers on the hook for the bill. 

“Responsible planning is making sure our gas utilities are spending ratepayer money wisely rather than spending customer money on construction projects that raise rates without being good ideas for the future,” said Dylan Sullivan, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Right now, even the most well-intentioned gas utility has a financial incentive to continue with old practices because they get money...by putting pipes in the ground," he added.

Construction on a Southwest Gas pipeline at a new home development in Las Vegas on Friday, April 16, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The gas utility’s legislative push

At the same time environmental advocates were working on writing AB380, Southwest Gas was circulating its own legislative proposal to create a statutory pipeline replacement program.

The utility’s proposal, similar to legislation that it tried to pass in 2019, would have allowed Southwest Gas to replace about 6,000 miles of vintage steel and plastic pipe, Leedom said in an interview earlier this month.

The company and a federal regulator, Leedom said, had identified the pipe materials as facing safety issues in high heat and acidic soils. Leedom said a program, in statute, was necessary to “proactively remove” older pipelines and replace them with newer infrastructure. 

To introduce its legislative proposal, Southwest Gas found one of the most powerful sponsors in the legislative building: the Senate majority leader. One day before Cohen introduced AB380, Cannizzaro introduced SB296, which included the utility’s pipeline replacement program. 

In the 2020 election cycle, Southwest Gas contributed $7,000 directly to Cannizzaro and $22,500 to her leadership PAC, while not donating to her Republican opponent, April Becker. 

“There's an important conversation about long-term planning for gas resources happening in the Assembly, and I'm looking forward to seeing how that turns out," Cannizzaro said in a statement  after the bill was introduced. "We want to be sure that any action we take provides Nevadans with safe, reliable infrastructure and aligns (with) state climate goals."

For environmental advocates, the utility’s pipeline replacement proposal underscored the need to more closely watch how Southwest Gas spent ratepayer money on infrastructure. Where the utility saw a program to enhance safety, environmental groups saw a bill that allowed a utility to double-down on fossil fuel infrastructure with little oversight. 

They said the utility should have the ability to fix leaky and unsafe pipes, but that it should be done on a case-by-case basis, considering the cost to customers. In December, Arizona’s elected utilities commission rejected a similar Southwest Gas proposal over concerns related to cost. 

“It's hard to imagine that bill being a top priority in a legislative session that is focused on the economic hardship of the past year,” Sullivan said in March. “This isn't the right time for a $3.7 billion giveaway to Southwest Gas because customers can't afford to pick up the bill."

Leedom rejected arguments that the investment in new infrastructure was unnecessary. 

“It’s not to harden the infrastructure,” he said. “It’s to address the safety concern, and it’s to enhance the safety and reliability to the benefit of our entire customer base.”

Both bills were the culmination of lobbying — the gas utility on one side and environmental groups on the other — that had been going on for months, and their fate foreshadows the tensions the state faces in implementing some elements of its climate strategy. 

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro speaks with the media inside the Legislature on Monday, March 15, 2021 in Carson City, Nev. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Framing a planning process as a ban 

As state officials have looked at ways to meet Nevada’s 2050 climate goal, Southwest Gas has taken an active approach in working to influence the state’s policy efforts.

Before the Sisolak administration released the climate report in December, an inter-agency team working to draft the strategy held a listening session on “green buildings.” When the topic of natural gas came up, it became clear that the utility had no intention of sitting on the sidelines.

Leedom cast policies that move away from gas in buildings as “premature and problematic.” Two of the utility’s staunch defenders, AARP Nevada and the Latin Chamber of Commerce, also spoke out against such proposals, citing the outsized impact it could have on jobs, low-income ratepayers and seniors on fixed incomes. 

The utility has argued that its infrastructure could be part of the solution, touting its efforts to move toward low-carbon fuels, including “renewable natural gas,” and other alternatives that could offset its carbon footprint. Southwest Gas takes issue with the climate strategy — and AB380’s — approach, which is to move toward electrifying appliances in homes and businesses. 

He said the company has hired a third-party to “outline what that pathway to netzero looks like for us.”

To push back, Southwest Gas borrowed a playbook that utilities have used in other states: building a coalition of business interests casting the fossil fuel as affordable and “clean,” despite the fact that a state fact-sheet notes that gas appliances can pollute indoor air quality.

Where AB380 looked to institute a planning framework, the utility reframed it as a ban.

Danny Thompson — the former head of the Nevada AFL-CIO and a lobbyist hired by Southwest Gas this session — published an op-ed in The Nevada Independent in mid-February, writing that AB380 would kill jobs, raise costs and put more strain on the electric grid.

A few days later, Latin Chamber of Commerce President Peter Guzman (whose organization lists Southwest Gas as a major sponsor) published an op-ed in the Las Vegas Sun indirectly calling Cohen’s proposal a risky action that “will make our economy and the burden to businesses and families even worse.”

“Forcing abuelo and abuela to make a choice between medicine and groceries or heating their home affordably in the winter is unacceptable,” he wrote.

Behind the scenes, Southwest Gas was engaged in a lobbying campaign aimed at driving opinion against Cohen’s bill and solidifying its business footing in the state.

Lobbyist registration records show the utility went from three registered lobbyists in 2017 and five in 2019 to 10 in the 2021 session. Four of those are with the firm of Greenberg Traurig, including former state Senate Democratic Caucus leader Alisa Nave-Worth. Two are longtime labor lobbyists — Thompson and Gail Tuzzolo.

Cohen, the bill’s sponsor, said the “sizable push in lobbying” became more noticeable as the session went on, even while she and advocates for the bill were actively working with the opposition to try to address any concerns with the concepts in the bill.

Even before the legislative session, Southwest Gas and other allies in the natural gas and petroleum industry were working to make inroads with lawmakers.

Last year, lobbyists representing the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) — a nonprofit trade association representing the petroleum industry in six western states — donated thousands of dollars worth of gift cards to both the Nevada Black Legislative Caucus and Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus to be distributed for help with COVID-19 relief efforts undertaken by lawmakers.

Southwest Gas, along with the WSPA, were invited to give presentations to both caucuses early in the legislative session. 

Heads of both of those caucuses — Assembly members Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) and Daniele Monroe Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) — strenuously denied that the assistance had any effect on the eventual fate of AB380 or other natural gas legislation. 

Donations made by the trade group benefited a grocery delivery service for COVID-19 positive individuals arranged by the Hispanic Legislative Caucus, and those made to the Black caucus helped purchase personal protective equipment and food at a senior living facility.

“Western States Petroleum helped us, local grocery stores helped us, churches helped us, nonprofits helped us,” Monroe Moreno said. “So if they want to draw a line, there’s going to be a whole bunch of lines drawn. There was a lot of need that was going on, and they were one of the companies that stepped up.”

In March, Southwest Gas and allies set up an advocacy Facebook page called the Coalition for Cleaner Affordable Energy calling for lawmakers and the public to oppose AB380. Though the group hasn’t run any ads, the page includes video testimonials from homebuilders, business groups (including the Latin Chamber) and union representatives (including Thompson).

Cohen said that the utility’s messaging was inaccurate, but nonetheless struck a chord with members of the public, lawmakers and interest groups concerned about potentially losing natural gas access or stoves in their own homes.

“For all those people who call and say ‘What's going on?’ and I can respond to it, I can't respond to everyone who's been to a website and gets incorrect information, and have the conversation to put them at ease,” she said. “So it definitely is difficult to respond to that when there is fear that is fueled by incorrect information.”

A Southwest Gas technician makes a service call in Las Vegas on Friday, April 16, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

One hearing, many revisions

The final version of what was to become AB380 underwent several changes before it was ever heard in a legislative committee on April 6. 

An initial version of the bill obtained by The Nevada Independent had three main components. It repealed a section of state law authorizing the expansion of natural gas infrastructure if it related to economic development, required the utility to submit an infrastructure plan to regulators that weighed decarbonization and set a state policy to gradually reduce greenhouse gas emissions from “combustible fuels” to 95 percent of 2016 levels by 2050.

After feedback from Southwest Gas and other groups, a conceptual, final amendment removed all references to the gradual emission reduction targets and many of the specific requirements for plans required to be filed with the PUC. Still, the legislation required the utility to undergo a comprehensive planning process meant to prepare for a future where more appliances got their energy from the electrical grid, not gas pipelines. 

The final version of the legislation also sought to address equity concerns. It would have required regulators to investigate “strategies to limit the impact of a transition from the use of gas in buildings on low income households and historically underserved communities, including, without limitation, such persons who rent or lease their residence.”  

“We did a lot of work with the stakeholders, the gas utility, labor, and there were lots of meetings,” Cohen said. “We substantially amended the bill, taking their concerns in mind, things that we didn't necessarily think said or would do what they said they were concerned with, but we still took it out and made modifications. They still were against it.”

Even as amended, Leedom said “the bill was not a neutral natural gas study or planning bill.” He argued that the legislation pre-supposed that electrification was the best approach forward. 

During a more than two-hour hearing before the Assembly Growth and Infrastructure Committee earlier this month, lawmakers raised concerns about the amended version of AB380, echoing many of the arguments made by the natural gas utility and the coalition opposing the bill. 

The coalition had repeatedly argued that the effects of AB380 would disproportionately affect communities of colors, seniors and low-income households.

At the hearing, Southwest Gas CEO John Hester said the utility is “fully supportive of taking efforts in energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but we are also very concerned about the needs of our customers here in Nevada.”

Environmentalists and AB380 supporters argue that the pro-gas messaging ignores the health impacts of natural gas, the climate strategy and distorts the bill’s language, which specifically sought to ensure that there was an equitable transition for low-income households.

“It is absurd that they are weaponizing equity amidst a climate crisis,” Elspeth DiMarzio, an organizer with the Sierra Club, said in an interview last week. “Responsible energy planning was about making sure there was a plan to protect low-income communities down the road.”

Cinthia Moore, an organizer for pro-clean energy group EcoMadres, said the rhetoric at the hearing largely ignored the public health consequences of burning natural gas, noting that Latinos are more likely to suffer asthma attacks than white counterparts.

She said she understood the concerns legislators expressed, “but it’s important to have conversations with our communities about how we are moving away from the usage of natural gas and more toward electric — and it’s going to require a lot of work.” 

“I don’t see it as a ban,” she said of AB380.

Environmental groups also stress the cost of inaction. If there is no planning process in place, the natural gas utility could be permitted to continue expanding, leaving ratepayers on the hook for the costs of more fossil fuel infrastructure, even as the economy moves toward decarbonization. 

This is an argument that won buy-in from the state’ Consumer Advocate, Ernest Figueroa, who works within the attorney general’s office and represents ratepayers before utility regulators. 

“If the policy of the state, as outlined in the governor’s climate initiative, is to eventually transition away from the use of natural gas by 2050, then it is imperative, for economic reasons, that natural gas resource planning be implemented so that natural gas utility customers are not left with billions of dollars in stranded assets when that time comes,” he said during the hearing.

The bill was heard just four days before the deadline for first committee passage, and was at one point scheduled for a committee vote, but it was later removed from the agenda. 

In an interview, Monroe Moreno said she “didn’t have the votes to make it out of committee.”

SB296, backed by the gas utility, experienced a similar fate. Cannizzaro’s bill did not even get a committee hearing, a rare occurrence for legislation proposed by leadership.

“Just like so many things in this building, sometimes you can't exactly get to the right policy place,” she said in an interview on Wednesday. “There were just a lot of concerns that we couldn't quite...I don't know. So that one didn't make it.”

Cannizzaro was more direct in the press release Sisolak released on Friday evening.

“We are committed to taking action that supports the state’s Climate Strategy and puts us on track to meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals,” she said. “While we simply didn’t have the time for some of these tough, complex discussions this Legislative Session, it’s critical that we look at what the future will bring and prepare ourselves so that no Nevadan is left behind."

Frierson, as the Democratic leader of the Assembly, echoed the sentiment.

“As we know, the pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to our legislative process, making it a difficult environment for robust discussion and debate,” Frierson said in a statement released through Sisolak’s office. “And while some bills related to acting on climate change did not move forward this session, we no less remain committed to addressing the climate crisis and will continue to push Nevada to be a leader in the clean energy economy.

A construction crew works on a Southwest Gas pipeline at a new home development in Las Vegas on Friday, April 16, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Setting the stage

Litman, the mayor of Mesquite, said he was glad to see AB380 die in committee.

He believes that “natural gas is still the future for our community” and argued that cars are far more polluting. But he also said he recognizes that the issue is not going away anytime soon.

The state, he argued, is simply not ready for the transition contemplated in AB380.

“But it will be back,” he said. “I guarantee you that.”

Leedom said he expected the legislation to come back, too. 

“This isn’t the last time we’ll see electrification policies in the state,” Leedom said in an interview last week. “But again, we stand ready with the state and with other stakeholders to outline what an alternative path to a decarbonized future looks like.”

The Sisolak administration did not take a formal position on AB380, and a spokesperson for the governor said his office did not send a formal response to the pro-gas coalition letter. It was not until Friday evening that Sisolak released a public statement on the legislation.

Still, the administration has continued to stress the long-term need to transition buildings from natural gas. At the hearing for AB380, two state officials noted that AB380 was consistent with the climate strategy and appeared to rebut some of the gas utility’s claims.

The Nevada Climate Initiative also put out a fact-sheet in March, emphasizing the fact that methane gas contributes to global climate change and can cause indoor health problems. 

At the hearing, David Bobzien, who directs the Governor’s Office of Energy, said the state is willing to work with the company on alternatives, but he also noted that while there is some potential in low-carbon fuel alternatives like green hydrogen, there are some major limitations.

In past interviews, he has noted the need for a long-term transition toward electric appliances. 

For years, environmental groups have focused on pushing the state’s largest electric utility, NV Energy, to move toward a more renewable portfolio. They are continuing to do so, but they also plan to engage more on natural gas issues, including outside of the Legislature. 

DiMarzio said environmental groups can also do more to educate the public on natural gas. 

“We need to be really clear that natural gas is a fossil fuel,” DiMarzio said. “It is methane. It is bad for the environment. And it is bad for indoor air quality and health. There's a lot of education that needs to be done because natural gas is not natural at all."

Update: This story was updated on April 19, 2021 to include more information. The coalition letter referenced in this story, obtained through a public records request, includes IBEW Local 1245 as a signatory. A representative from IBEW Local 1245 clarified that the union was listed on the coalition letter in error. 

Indy Environment: Natural gas contributes to Nevada's emissions, and a fight over what to do about it is looming

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.

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


Last year, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed an executive order instructing state agencies to implement SB254, legislation requiring an annual report on fossil fuel emissions. Each report, according to the legislation, must include a list of policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The agencies are scheduled to send the first report to Sisolak by Dec. 1, and climate activists, policymakers and businesses across the state are paying close attention to the drafting process. 

For years, Nevada’s fossil fuel reduction efforts have primarily focused on cutting emissions in the electric sector. In recent years, attention has shifted to transportation. But another emissions source is starting to come under increased scrutiny: natural gas use in homes and businesses. 

Since September, state officials have hosted listening sessions to gather input on what should be included in the state’s strategy for meeting a zero or near-zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050. At a listening session last week, the tension over natural gas was on display.

Environmentalists stressed the need to transition away from natural gas and toward increased electrification in homes and businesses. Residential and commercial emissions accounted for about 10 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to a state report. 

“What’s the first rule for getting out of a hole? Stop digging,” Dylan Sullivan, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said during the meeting last week. “Nevada’s law currently favors natural gas expansion, asking very little of gas companies before they make huge pipeline investments that will have to be paid off by Nevadans for decades to come.”

Sullivan and other environmentalists said they are not advocating for a ban on current gas use, rather a transition. They want the state and regulators to consider the climate effects of natural gas use and whether it is prudent to continue making investments borne by utility ratepayers.

The argument mirrors two ideas floated in a greenhouse gas inventory released by the state earlier this year. One suggests providing incentives to convert existing natural gas appliances (stoves, water heaters and furnaces) to electric appliances. The second proposal suggested evaluating the feasibility of freezing or limiting gas connections at new homes or businesses. 

Both proposals have put Southwest Gas, Nevada’s largest gas utility, on alert. 

“Policies that have been proposed that move away from the direct use of natural gas in homes and businesses we feel are premature and problematic for many reasons,” Scott Leedom, the utility’s director of public affairs, said last week, saying that a transition could be costly. 

And the utility came to the meeting with some support. Both the Latin Chamber of Commerce and AARP Nevada raised economic concerns about how proposals affect jobs and ratepayers. 

But Elspeth DiMarzio, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said the focus right now is not on a ban. It is on adding regulatory oversight and providing consumer choice in a way that she said would ultimately benefit utility ratepayers.

“The first step is giving customers a choice,” said DiMarzio.

She said gas should not be the default option. Consumers, she said, should be able to choose whether to have electric or natural gas appliances. And regulators should weigh both options. 

Not only is this tension over natural gas use playing out in drafting the state’s climate plan, the utility and environmental groups are gearing up for the issue to arise in the legislative session.

Leedom, in an interview, said the utility is working with contractors and labor organizations on legislation to create a pipeline replacement program. Such legislation, he argued, could create jobs and lead to reductions in greenhouse gas by replacing pipes more prone to leaks.

That makes some environmental groups wary. Sullivan said an infrastructure expansion could be laying the pipe “to lock Nevada into decades” of a reliance on natural gas use.

In interviews, DiMarzio and Sullivan both stressed that gas utilities do not currently have to go through the same rigorous planning processes that electric utilities must undergo at the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada. They said utility regulators should be required to evaluate natural gas expansions in a way that considers input from the public.

Everyone agrees on one thing: The issue is here, and it’s not going away. 

The utility does not plan to sit on the sideline.

Leedom said he wanted the utility to have a “seat at the table” as state officials and others “consider these policies either in the upcoming legislative session or in other sessions.”


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

NDEP halts asphalt plant: State environmental regulators issued a stop work order for a Carson City asphalt plant after it was cited for several violations, including lack of monitoring. Anne Knowles with the Nevada Appeal reported that the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection’s decision to shut down emission units at the asphalt plant came after complaints from Mound House residents that the facility emitted smoke and odorous air. In recent years, the division has assessed fines and repeatedly cited the asphalt plant for violations. 

‘Sitting on’ the National Climate Assessment: A climate scientist at the University of Illinois is concerned that the Trump administration is delaying a mandatory climate report and said the 2020 election is likely playing a role, Scott Waldman reports for E&E News. The scientist, who co-led the fourth National Climate Assessment, said the administration has yet to put out a call for researchers to compile the next climate assessment, due in 2022. The assessment, produced every four years, is a vital tool for policymakers and the public in evaluating the risks posed by climate change.

Judge rules, land agency side steps: A federal judge in Montana ruled in September that the acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, William Perry Pendley, could not serve in the position because his tenure likely violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. Pendley, as with other Trump appointees, was never confirmed by the Senate. How did the agency respond to the ruling? The New York Times’ Lisa Friedman reports that the agency tweaked Pendley’s title at the bureau. And as Jacob Fischler reports for the Nevada Current, the court action could put several agency decisions in jeopardy, including one to approve a massive solar project outside of Las Vegas. 

Critical mineral executive order: “Last week President Trump signed an executive order declaring a national emergency and authorizing the use of the Defense Production Act to speed the development of mines. The law was used earlier this year to speed production of medical supplies amid the pandemic,” Alistair MacDonald with the Wall Street Journal reports.


“Root cause analysis:” Three agencies in California have examined the causes of the state’s rolling blackouts during a heat wave that strained energy resources across the West, including in Nevada. Los Angeles Times’ Sammy Roth reports that the preliminary report cast blame on a combination of factors: poor planning, market design and climate change. 

Climate change voters: “The number of Americans as a whole who worry about climate change is rising. But the issue is most important to the nation’s youngest and newest voters, who will face worsening consequences of the crisis throughout their lifetimes if emissions aren't significantly addressed,” Erin Stone writes in an excellent Arizona Republic piece on first-time voters and climate change in the battleground state. Also: Pew came out with a new analysis this week on climate change and the election. It found that a majority of registered voters say climate change will be a very or somewhat important issue in the election.

Question 6: My colleagues Riley Snyder and Joey Lovato put together an important explainer on the only renewable energy measure on the ballot this cycle. Question 6, a petition first approved by voters in 2018, would require utilities to have a renewable portfolio of 50 percent by 2030 by generating more renewable energy or purchasing credits. After the first passage of the ballot initiative, the Legislature adopted a similar standard in 2019. Still, the measure would put an increased renewable standard in the Nevada Constitution. As a result, it must be voted on a second time. 

IndyFest: Over the weekend, we hosted our first annual IndyFest, a daylong virtual event on a wide range of political and policy topics. I moderated a panel looking at what we know and how we can plan for the effects of climate change on water across the state. If you missed the event, all of the IndyFest panels are available for purchase online with sales supporting our journalism.

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.

Law and profits: Marijuana industry flush with lawyers, in spite of Bar’s warnings

Woman holding money at dispensary

There are scores of standout names among the well over 1,000 owners and officers of marijuana businesses that have sought or won licenses in Nevada.

There are former high-ranking state lawmakers, philanthropists who sit on the boards of prominent charities and real estate developers who have left their fingerprints on casinos and shopping plazas throughout the state. There are well-known lawyers and judges and former law enforcement officers.

The mix reflects the high bar that Nevada officials set for entering a heavily regulated market for a substance that still remains illegal on the federal level. Among other things, business entities seeking a medical marijuana license in 2014 were required to have at least $250,000 in liquid assets and enough resources to cover a year of operations.

Below are some of the more recognizable lawyers and community pillars who are, or have been, involved in the state’s marijuana business. Look out for coming installments of “The Cannabis Files” for more notable names from The Nevada Independent’s ownership analysis.

Mynt dispensary in Reno

Mynt dispensary in Reno is seen on Nov. 9, 2019. Photo by Mark Hernandez.

LAWYERS

State records show that at least 60 people who are owners or board members of marijuana companies that sought licenses in Nevada are lawyers. That’s not counting the many lawyers who do not have a personal stake in the business but serve cannabis clients, including in the numerous lawsuits swirling over the latest state dispensary licensing round.

It’s indicative of the complexity of running a marijuana business.

“The marijuana industry, more than nearly any other industry, requires thoughtful and strict compliance,” explained Bob Groesbeck, an attorney and co-owner of the Planet 13 Dispensary who formerly served as mayor of Henderson. “Attorneys have, by necessity, been involved [in] every step of the process.”

But the widespread involvement of attorneys wasn’t — and still isn’t — clear-cut, considering marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. After Nevada lawmakers authorized medical marijuana dispensaries in 2013, lawyers wondered whether conduct even distantly related to cannabis might run afoul of Nevada lawyers’ Rule of Professional Conduct 1.2, which prohibits assisting a client in conduct that violates the law.

The federal-state conflict raised questions among local government attorneys about whether advising on sprinkler safety requirements in grow houses or the distance between a fire hydrant and a dispensary might be considered abetting actions that are federally illegal. Then-Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin told the Nevada Supreme Court in 2014 that some local governments were going without legal counsel or hiring out-of-state lawyers because of the ethical ambiguity.

"I hope you will approve or modify this, that I may have legal counsel as a representative of the public," Coffin told the court, according to The Associated Press.

In May 2014, the Nevada Supreme Court adopted a policy of allowing lawyers to advise clients on marijuana issues if the conduct was legal under state law. 

But advising a marijuana client is one thing; owning part of a marijuana business is another. That conflict came to the fore in 2016, when the state Bar asked the Nevada Supreme Court to adopt new language saying that participating personally in the marijuana industry “may result in federal prosecution and trigger discipline proceedings under SCR 111.”

Some owner-lawyers told the Las Vegas Sun they feared that the state would force all attorneys to either give up their law license or divest of their ownership in the marijuana industry, selling their stake potentially below market value. They also expressed frustration that the issue had not been resolved years earlier, before some got involved in the cannabis business in the first place.

The Nevada Dispensary Association urged a softer approach, arguing that “ownership in a [medical marijuana enterprise] does not ‘reflect upon the attorney’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness to practice law.’” Lawyer Eva Segerblom argued the policy would “be a direct interference with one’s right to earn a living.” Groesbeck, who wrote that he was proud of both his work as a lawyer and someone helping sick people access marijuana, asked the court to reject “draconian” rules on the matter.

“I do not believe I should be forced to throw away a law license that I have held and honored for over a quarter century simply because I have chosen to operate under a privileged license issued by the state,” he said.

In an order dated Feb. 10, 2017, the Nevada Supreme Court updated its Rules of Professional Conduct with the language, in spite of two justices suggesting wording that would offer more qualifications on the possibility of discipline.

“Because use, possession, and distribution of marijuana in any form still violates federal law, attorneys are advised that engaging in such conduct may result in federal prosecution and trigger discipline proceedings under SCR 111,” the current rule says. 

But the warning doesn’t appear to have triggered the disciplinary crackdown some feared, and many lawyers are upfront about their participation as owners in the industry, affirming the value that attorneys provide to the business.

Others have a less positive view of lawyer involvement. Steve Pacitti, an owner with Medical Cannabis Healing LLC, said his background is in working with businesses to ensure they have a viable corporate structure.

He thinks many attorneys who don’t have a corporate law background have migrated to the cannabis space because they see it as more lucrative and may be giving out bad advice that could lead to troubles down the road.

“The majority of lawyers got into the space opportunistically,” he said. “Because of poor structure and oversight, in addition to the incredibly poor and unrealistic statutory and regulatory framework around the industry, I anticipate a tremendous amount of litigation within many marijuana companies as investors find they are not being fairly treated by the operators.”

Here are some of the many lawyers who have applied for a license or have an ownership interest in a marijuana business:

Edward Bernstein, an owner with Silver State Wellness LLC and Paradise Wellness Center LLC, is a prominent Las Vegas-based attorney, philanthropist and television host known for his tagline “Enough Said, Call Ed.”

Several marijuana company owners are judges. James Bixler is an owner with Southern Nevada Growers Inc. who served as a judge in Las Vegas Justice Court and the Eighth Judicial District Court since 1980. While he retired in 2015, he became a senior judge who still presides over some cases. 

Neil Beller is a former owner with NCMM LLC, a cultivation company that unsuccessfully sought a retail dispensary license last year. He is a board member of New Horizons School, and is active at the synagogue Temple Ner Tamid, according to his website. He has also been a deputy district attorney and an alternate municipal judge.

Among the other lawyers are Michael Cristalli, a board member of Qualcan LLC. A lawyer with Gentile, Cristalli, Miller, Armeni, Savarese PLLC, his firm plays a prominent role in a case challenging the Nevada Department of Taxation’s distribution of 61 dispensary licenses issued in December 2018. The legal fight is still ongoing.

Then there’s Pacitti, an owner at Medical Cannabis Healing LLC and a Las Vegas lawyer. He specializes in negotiating and preparing trademark, copyright and rights of publicity licensing agreements for high-profile clients such as Shaquille O’Neal, Hulk Hogan and Andre Agassi. He negotiates celebrity appearances for various nightclubs and was instrumental in finalizing agreements with Mariah Carey, Nick Lachey, and others. He also represents world champion boxers. 

Parking space marked for Thrive Dispensary

A parking space outside the future Thrive Dispensary in Reno on Sept. 27, 2019. Photo by David Calvert.

COMMUNITY PILLARS

A reputable name was an important piece of winning approval before local government boards, and helped add legitimacy to an industry that was just emerging from the shadows. 

In 2014, applicants were asked to share with the state previous experience they had working in nonprofits or businesses, as well as past community involvement and a resume listing educational achievements. And they were evaluated on the amount of taxes or financial contributions the owners and board members made to the state over the last five years.

It was a system that favored wealthy and well-connected members of the community, although some of the “old guard” have stepped back from key roles in their companies and passed on responsibility to marijuana industry experts seeking to create multi-state, publicly traded chains.

Among the marijuana owners who are heavily involved in nonprofits in the community are:

Robert Ellis, who was previously an owner at Tryke Companies and is now a board member at Gravitas Henderson. Ellis owns R&S Investment Properties and is a prominent philanthropist who has been known to donate $200,000 in Christmas gifts to Southern Nevada children in a single holiday season. He and his wife have an elementary school in Henderson named in their honor, and were named “Distinguished Nevadans” by the NSHE Board of Regents in 2015.

Peter Guzman, a real estate broker and president of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce, is a board member with Deep Root Medical LLC. Guzman said that because he knew who was leading the group — Gary Primm, who has an extensive background in the gaming industry — he didn’t have hesitation about getting into the marijuana industry.

Guzman is not the only member of the group to have ties to the industry — former Latin Chamber President Otto Merida is an owner at Nevada Holistic Medicine LLC. 

Norberto Madrigal, a vice president of the Latin Chamber affiliated with Lunas, a family-owned construction cleanup company, is an owner with Herbal Choice Inc.

Other philanthropists round out the ranks of marijuana owners. Phillip Peckman, CEO of Peckman Capital Corporation, is an owner with Thrive Cannabis Marketplace. He’s been on the board of the Council for a Better Nevada, a group of community leaders that advocates on education and other policy issues, and is a supporter of The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

Julie Murray, who is also an owner at Thrive, is the head of philanthropy consulting firm Moonridge Group, and helped found the Las Vegas-based Three Square Food Bank.

Jody Ghanem, an owner at Wellness Connection of Nevada LLC, previously owned Radio City Pizza in downtown Las Vegas and is the development director at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in downtown Las Vegas. She is a former Rockette and came to Las Vegas in 1979 after being hired by Liberace. She was previously an advisory board member at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

Her late husband, Dr. Elias Ghanem, was known as a doctor to the stars including Elvis Presley and was chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, where he played a role in revoking Mike Tyson’s license to box after he bit Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Look out for the next installment of “The Cannabis Files” — a look at the politicians, gaming executives and developers involved in the industry. If you missed the kickoff, check out “Growing Pains,” an overview of the issues that have put Nevada’s cannabis industry at a crossroads.

Jodie Snyder, Riley Snyder, Michaela Chesin, Taylor Avery, Trey Arline and Zach Murray contributed research to this project.

Indy 2020: Candidates flock to Las Vegas for gun forum; Warren places seven-figure pre-caucus ad buy

Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Your Nevada 2020 election newsletter. Please read, forward and subscribe.

Good morning, and welcome to Indy 2020, a biweekly newsletter focused on the 2020 presidential election in Nevada. A reminder that email subscribers get early access to this newsletter, so be sure to subscribe and tell your friends. It’ll be peachy.

The top 10 Democratic presidential contenders are preparing to return to Las Vegas on Wednesday for a presidential gun safety forum sponsored by the advocacy groups Giffords and March for Our Lives and hosted by MSNBC. It’ll be a somber occasion: Today is the two-year anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting, which killed 58 and injured more than 800. While in town, California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg will meet with nurses and first responders at UMC — the only Level 1 trauma center in the state — and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker will host a conversation on everyday gun violence with students. 

Not all events will be just focused on guns, though. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will attend a town hall on medical debt, Medicare-for-all and Social Security, and former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will host dueling rallies at the same time Wednesday night in Reno and Carson City, respectively. As always, the Indy will be there covering it all, so keep checking the website for updates.

Please reach out to me with any tips, story ideas, comments, suggestions, and your favorite xkcd comic at megan@thenvindy.com.

Without further ado, a download of the recent 2020 happenings in Nevada.

WHAT THE INDY IS WATCHING

Warren places seven-figure ad buy in Las Vegas: The Massachusetts senator has dropped nearly $1.2 million to reserve pre-caucus airtime in Las Vegas and Reno, according to an unaffiliated Democratic operative tracking the ad buy. ($864,000 of that is in Las Vegas, according to recently filed reports with the Federal Communications Commission.)

The buy — which runs from Jan. 27 to Caucus Day, Feb. 22. — comes as part of an overall $10 million-plus ad buy in early states announced by Warren’s campaign last week. (Thanks to my eagle-eyed colleague Riley Snyder for flagging that the FCC reports posted.)

Polls, polls, polls: A CNN poll over the weekend puts Biden and Sanders neck-and-neck in Nevada at 22 percent each, and Warren just behind them within the margin of error at 18 percent. Harris trails at 5 percent, with Buttigieg and billionaire Tom Steyer each at 4 percent. A Suffolk/RGJ survey from last week had only slightly different results, with Biden at 23 percent, Warren at 19 percent, Sanders at 14 percent, and Harris a distant 4 percent.

There’s a slight shuffling among the top three contenders, but what’s becoming clear is this: Support is consolidating around Biden, Warren and Sanders, which will only make it increasingly more difficult for Harris, Buttigieg or any of the lower-tier candidates to gain ground not just in the Silver State but nationwide — even with robust campaign operations.

The blue firewall in Clark County grows: Statewide voter registration totals for September will post soon here, but numbers out of Clark County show that Democrats have a 134,000-person lead over Republicans, and nonpartisans and other third-party registrants are only behind the GOP by a little less than 4,000. We’ll see how the new statewide totals shake out, but by the end of August, Democrats had a 73,392-person, or 4.6 percentage point, lead over Republicans statewide.

For comparison, Democrats had a 5.1 percentage point advantage over Republicans when the red wave of 2014 swept the state — and many Democrats didn’t turn out to the polls. During the blue waves of 2016 and 2018, Democrats had a 6.1 percentage point and a 4.8 percentage point lead over Republicans, respectively. The tl;dr — voter registration numbers matter, but you also have to get those voters to the polls.

Our freelancer Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez also took a look at efforts on the ground to register historically underrepresented groups on National Voter Registration Day.

Biden on impeachment: Biden returned to Las Vegas on Friday and attended his first public event since the House launched its impeachment inquiry. At the event, Biden said that President Donald Trump violated his oath of office, put at risk national security and “abused” the power of the presidency and taxpayer dollars. Biden said it was  “not surprising” that he had become “the object of [Trump’s] attention” but that his job is to “make sure above all else we beat Donald Trump.” He also attended an evening fundraiser with businesswoman Heather Murren, who is also the wife of MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren, and Democratic donor Stephen Cloobeck. Read more here.

Harris hosts tele-town hall: Harris hosted a Nevada-specific tele-town hall last week where she said that the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump would be a “full and righteous airing” of what she described as the “corruption and misdeeds” of the president and his administration. More from me here.

Mayor Pete goes north: Buttigieg met with housing advocates, joined a picket with striking members of the United Auto Workers Union and held a rally over the weekend during his first visit to Northern Nevada since launching his presidential campaign. Buttigieg’s team has been quickly ramping up its operations in Nevada, and he became the first candidate to file paperwork to participate in Nevada’s Democratic caucuses at the Nevada State Democratic Party’s Keep Nevada Blue dinner this weekend. Indytern Mark Hernandez covered it all.

Steyer was also in Reno for the Democratic party dinner. He hosted a town hall and met with UAW members on strike while in town as well. Self-help author Marianne Williamson did not attend the dinner but was in Las Vegas last week, speaking at an event on keeping children safe with actor Richard Dreyfuss and meeting with voters at two yoga centers.

Booker on Desert National Wildlife Refuge: Following in the footsteps of Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker came out in opposition to a proposed military expansion into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas on Public Lands Day, Sept. 28. The military’s proposal would remove nearly 300,000 acres from the largest wildlife refuge in the contiguous United States. “We owe it to future generations to balance the needs of military readiness and conservation to respect and protect the cultural heritage and wildlife on these public lands. I believe all stakeholders, including tribal nations, should be consulted in any plans for the refuge," Booker said in a statement. (The announcement came even as Gov. Steve Sisolak declined over the weekend to take a firm position on the issue.)

Endorsement tracker coming soon: You’ve gotten to know and love our candidate tracker — and soon the Indy will be launching a presidential endorsement tracker. Keep an eye out in the next week or so for its launch.

CAMPAIGN NUGGETS

Staffing changes and office openings

  • Buttigieg’s team has now hired 35 staff members in Nevada and plans to have 10 offices open by the middle of this month, including in Carson City, Fallon and Pahrump. The South Bend mayor has also brought on Travis Brock, former executive director of the Nevada State Democratic Party, as his national caucus director and Juan Carlos Perez as national Latinx engagement director.
  • Harris’s campaign hosted a Reno office opening on Sept. 19 attended by Washoe County Recorder Kalie Work, who is backing the California senator for president. Her team also put on a number of events for Hispanic Heritage Month.
  • Warren will be opening three offices this month in Carson City, Elko and Southwest Las Vegas.
  • Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro brought on Megan Macias, who was previously an intern for the campaign, as regional organizing director.
  • Former tech executive Andrew Yang has opened his first office in Las Vegas and will soon open one in Reno. His campaign also says it has plans to expand its Nevada team this month.

Early endorsements

  • Former Gov. Bob Miller and Reno City Councilman Oscar Delgado endorsed Biden for president.
  • Wells Mayor Layla Walz endorsed Buttigieg, as did dozens mayors across the country.
  • Former North Las Vegas City Councilman Theron Goynes and retired educator Naomi Goynes endorsed Booker.
  • Castro received five community member endorsements.

Upcoming visits

  • The Giffords and March for Our Lives presidential gun safety forum hosted by MSNBC is happening on Wednesday. Ten candidates will be in town for the forum — Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Castro, Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sanders, Warren and Yang — and also attend a bunch of ancillary events scheduled around the forum on Wednesday and Thursday. Check out our 2020 Candidate Tracker for the full details.
  • Warren will return to Las Vegas to march in the Las Vegas Pride Parade on Oct. 11.
  • Buttigieg will keynote Battle Born Progress’s annual Celebrate Progress event on Oct. 22.
  • Castro will speak at the People’s Forum on Oct. 26 at the East Las Vegas Community Center.

Surrogate stops

  • Amy O’Rourke, wife of Beto O’Rourke, made her first solo trip to Nevada, hosting a conversation on gun safety with Moms Demand Action and the National Organization for Women and meeting with members of the Latin Chamber of Commerce’s Professional Mujeres Group.
  • Rep. Ro Khanna campaigned on behalf of Sanders in Reno over the weekend. He joined a canvass launch and spoke at the Nevada State Democratic Party’s Keep Nevada Blue dinner.
  • Carolyn Booker, mother of Cory Booker, was also in Reno for the Democratic party dinner over the weekend. She attended a canvass launch, a Washoe Dems meet-and-greet and a community breakfast while in town.
  • Douglas Emhoff, Harris’s husband, was at a Truckee Meadows river cleanup, a lunch with UNR students and a phone bank in Reno over the weekend. He also stopped by the Democratic party dinner.
  • Maya Rupert, Castro’s campaign manager, toured a resource center for homeless youth, opened a Reno campaign office and attended a “Women of Color” coffee before attending the Democratic party dinner Saturday night.
  • Rep. Barbara Lee was in Southern Nevada for Harris over the weekend, launching a phone bank kick off, meeting with women leaders, and attending a canvass kick off. Rep. Ruben Gallego, Harris campaign manager Juan Rodriguez and labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta are all slated to travel to Nevada on Harris’s behalf later this month.

Other election news

  • Biden’s campaign is co-hosting a “Vegas Strong” blood drive in partnership with IBEW Local 396 on Wednesday.
  • Several Nevadans who have not yet endorsed for president — including Attorney General Aaron Ford, DNC Committeeman Alex Goff, and two assemblywomen — took to Twitter to make their pitches for why Booker should remain in the presidential race and urged people to donate to help him reach his $1.7 million fundraising goal by the end of the month. Booker announced on Monday that he has met his goal and will stay in the race.
  • DNC Chair Tom Perez attended a Spanish-language caucus training with Rep. Dina Titus and Nevada State Democratic Party Chair Will McCurdy on Monday at Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 525.

DOWN BALLOT NEWS

Navy veteran, ex-congressional staffer formally launches CD4 bid: Charles Navarro launched his bid for Nevada’s 4th Congressional District Thursday, joining a widening field of Republican hopefuls looking to flip the seat red in 2020. My colleague Jacob Solis has more.

OTHER REQUIRED READING

  • Housing troubles seep into 2020 campaign (AP)
  • In Las Vegas, Joe Biden’s sister dismisses calls to impeach Kavanaugh (CBS News)
  • Las Vegas police investigate a break-in at GOP headquarters (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Updated 10-1-19 at 8:21 a.m. to correct that Castro campaign manager Maya Rupert did not attend a United Auto Workers picket as planned on Sept. 28.

Federal grant will pay police officers to meet with suspected youth gang members after school hours

The Clark County School District administrative offices on Monday, Jan 16, 2017.

The Clark County School District (CCSD) Board of School Trustees is accepting a subgrant of nearly $150,000 to combat gang activity starting this fall.

The board unanimously approved the award as part of its consent agenda, with no discussion, in a meeting on Thursday. It’s part of a larger $1.2 million grant from the federal Department of Justice that Nevada applied for with the stated goal “to dismantle MS-13, disrupt illegal enterprises, incarcerate MS-13 members and affiliates, and eliminate the threat of crimes committed by MS-13.”

About $100,000 will go to pay overtime and benefits to officers over the three-year grant period, with the rest going to cellphones, laptops and radios for the participating officers, according to district documents.

“Officers plan to meet with suspected juvenile gang members or potential recruits and their parents to identify and correct gang activity as an alternative to enforcement,” the district said in a statement announcing the grant. “(School district) officers will participate in the program on weekends and evenings to avoid affecting staffing the school day.”

Asked for further detail on how the officers will identify and interact with the participating youth and their families, a district spokesman referred a reporter back to the district’s written statement.

The overall grant, which the state applied for under the administration of then-Attorney General Adam Laxalt, drew criticism from lawmakers at a meeting earlier this summer who said it seemed to be linking unaccompanied, asylum-seeking minors with crime. Democratic Sen. Yvanna Cancela said she was concerned based on the wording of the grant application that the focus was targeted at Latinos and MS-13 rather than the gang problem at large. 

Other subgrantees include The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, UNLV, the Latin Chamber of Commerce and the Southwest Gang Information Center, a group headed by a professor and Fox News contributor who has advocated for more vetting of unaccompanied youth from Central America, saying they have “brought tangible fear and carnage throughout American communities.” 

Lawmakers also questioned the inclusion of the Latin Chamber among the recipients because that group is geared toward businesses. Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office said the chamber would help with mentoring and culturally specific programming.

Ford and his staff stressed to lawmakers and in a subsequent interview with The Nevada Independent En Espanol that the grant was sought by his predecessor, and he didn’t want the use of the grant funds to suggest he believes immigrant children coming to the U.S. without their parents are driving gang violence.

“My administration is going to use those funds, but I don’t want anyone to think that I think there’s a connection between unaccompanied minors — that they are in MS-13,” Ford said in Spanish on the Cafecito con Luz y Michelle podcast. “We don’t want anyone to be in a gang, so we’re going to use those funds to help everyone.”

The right way to protect patients and hospitals

Two empty beds in an emergency room

By Peter Guzman

Few issues affect Nevada’s residents and businesses more than the rising cost of health care. Under the larger umbrella of health care is a lesser known, but just as pressing issue that also affects patients and families struggling to keep up with these increasing costs. Surprise medical billing is a problem here in Nevada and across the country—which is precisely why it is up to our elected officials in Washington to fix it. However, Congress must solve this problem without creating new roadblocks that impede access to quality care.

If you have ever received out-of-network care at an emergency room or hospital, you’ve likely already been affected by surprise medical billing—just like 57 percent of Americans, according to a University of Chicago study. It happens weeks after receiving care as patients already struggling with illness or other medical issues are slapped with excessive bills demanding payment for the cost of care not covered by their insurance plan. It can even happen at an in-network facility if the doctor treating you happens to be out-of-network, which is a fairly common occurrence.

We can all agree that no one should be put into this position, least of all vulnerable patients. Fortunately, for its part, Congress does seem to recognize this problem and is working to pass legislation that removes patients from the equation altogether. However, some of the proposed solutions on Capitol Hill would have unfortunate, unintended consequences that would actually threaten access to health care for many patients, particularly those living in rural parts of the state and country. 

For example, one bill—S. 1895, the Lower Health Care Costs Act—would seek to remedy the surprise billing situation through a dangerous approach known as “benchmarking.” This method would essentially lead to government rate-setting, in which the federal government would set rates for out-of-network payments to physicians. In business, we call this government intrusion into the free market—and it never ends well. 

In the context of health care, putting the government in charge of determining and enforcing a one-size-fits-all payment rate for doctors would essentially ignore the fact that the cost of providing certain treatments and services may vary greatly from location to location and from facility to facility. That means many doctors would end up being short-changed for their services, and those financial losses would simply get passed on to the hospitals and emergency rooms that provide care for their communities.

In many cases, these hospitals and emergency rooms are just barely getting by as it is. The financial hit they would incur as a result of government benchmarking may prove too much for them to bear, leading to more hospital closures or consolidations. That would only further eliminate choice and threaten access to care for patients in Nevada and across the country. Yes, patients may be protected from surprise medical billing, but at what cost? There must be a better way.

And fortunately, there is. Another bill in the Senate—S. 1531, the STOP Surprise Medical Bills Act—takes a refreshingly different approach. Instead of encouraging government intrusion into the free market, this bill would employ an Independent Dispute Resolution (IDR) to resolve payment issues between health care providers and insurers. IDR is basically the same process that players and teams in Major League Baseball use to settle salary disputes. It incentivizes both sides to bring their best offers to the table and negotiate openly and transparently, with a final decision being made by an independent mediator. This is the fairest way to determine payments without jeopardizing access to care for anyone.

Our own senator, Jacky Rosen, is a cosponsor of this bill and supporter of the IDR process, and for that we should all be grateful. However, we need Nevada’s entire congressional delegation working hard to ensure the IDR framework in the STOP Surprise Medical Bills Act is included as part of any surprise billing legislation passed by Congress. It’s time to end surprise billing—but it must be done the right way.

Peter Guzman is the president of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce.

Community leaders invited to private briefing on K-12 funding formula overhaul amid delay in public release

Signs at teachers union rally

Members of Southern Nevada’s business, education and gaming communities are getting a private sneak preview of a massive and much-anticipated bill to overhaul the state’s funding formula this week, although no language from the bill has been shared publicly with only four weeks to go before the end of the legislative session.

Nearly two dozen people were invited by Bank of Nevada CEO John Guedry on Monday morning to attend a series of meetings during which economist Jeremy Aguero, who has been crafting the education funding overhaul at the behest of Democratic state Sen. Mo Denis, will present a bill draft, according to a copy of the email obtained by The Nevada Independent.

“Ultimately we would like to get a consensus or as near a consensus as possible to support this critically important effort to modernize our education funding formula for K-12,” the email said.

Those invited to the meeting include 22 elected officials, business and education leaders including Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mary Beth Sewald, Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara, Caesars Entertainment Executive Vice President Jan Jones Blackhurst, Boyd Gaming’s Bill Noonan, Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Latin Chamber of Commerce President Peter Guzman.

The meetings will be held Wednesday and Thursday mornings and Thursday evening at the Bank of Nevada’s offices in Las Vegas. Guedry said in a brief interview that the meeting would be an overview of the bill and that although the email referred to a "draft of the bill," participants would not see any draft language at the meeting.

Aguero did not immediately return calls for comment on Monday.

It’s one of the first signs of movement on the bill, which has been a source of frustration for many education advocates who think such a consequential policy overhauling the state’s 52-year-old education funding formula should have been revealed and debated sooner. 

Denis, in a brief interview Monday afternoon, described the series of meetings as akin to briefings that have already been given.

“We don't have any language, so it's not like we're talking specifics of the language,” he said, adding that everybody would eventually have the opportunity to see details and the media would get a briefing at some point. “We're not leaving anyone out. We're trying to include people.”

Democratic state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said she was “still working on all the details” and wasn’t sure if the meetings would be open to the public. She said the measure had not yet been introduced and said no bill language would be shared at the meeting.

“We’ll be talking about the process and major components that we’ve been working on,” Woodhouse said.

As for when the bill would be unveiled, Denis said it “could be any day … It's gotta be close.”

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro said she did not consider it unusual or atypical to hold meetings on the bill with private interests prior to it actually being released.

“I think there’s always conversations that happen between stakeholders in any piece of legislation, as you’re working through language and trying to make sure that the bill as it is coming out is in a good spot,” she said.

Updated at 3:22 p.m. to include information from John Guedry.

Follow the Money: Transition staff, employers gave more than $400,000 to Sisolak's campaign

To help prepare him to take the reins of government in January, Gov.-elect Steve Sisolak assembled a diverse transition advisory team composed of nearly three dozen elected officials, teachers, business leaders and other policy experts.

But some members of the transition team have also helped the soon-to-be governor in another way — by contributing to his gubernatorial campaign.

According to campaign finance reports filed with the secretary of state’s office, Sisolak received more than $400,000 from 14 members of his transition advisory team and their employers during the 2018 campaign cycle.

The vast majority of the donations from transition team members came from MGM Resorts, which through 32 different affiliates contributed $320,000 to Sisolak’s campaign, a significant chunk of the roughly $9.9 million in total he reported raising between 2017 and 2018. Denice Miller, a senior vice president of government affairs for the casino giant, is a member of the transition committee.

Sisolak announced the full 31-member “transition advisory” committee in late November, chaired by Democratic Rep. Dina Titus and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve and consisting of gaming, labor, other elected officials, teachers and education leaders. The group held its first meeting on Dec. 7.

“Every member of this team brings a unique experience and view to the table and together, they will help me as I build an administration,” Sisolak said in a statement at the time. “By bringing people together from day one, we can deliver real solutions for Nevada families.”

In a statement, Sisolak spokesman Grigsby Crawford said members of the governor-elect’s transition committee were selected based on their talent and various viewpoints.

In assembling his transition advisory committee, Governor-elect Sisolak brought in a talented and diverse group of Nevadans from a wide range of industries and walks of life,” he said in an email. “They've accomplished a great deal for this state already, and the governor-elect couldn't be happier or more proud to have them helping as he builds his administration.”

Although Nevada law caps campaign contributions from a single entity at $10,000 per election cycle, big businesses such as MGM Resorts — or even the former companies of jailed gambler Billy Walters — effectively ignore the caps by making the contributions through affiliated companies or LLCs.

The next largest contributor is Caesars Entertainment executive Karlos LaSane, who gave $1,000 to the campaign with another $25,000 contributed by the gaming company. Three other transition team members gave $10,000 to Sisolak’s campaign: Nevada State AFL-CIO, former Sandoval Chief of Staff Gerald Gardner and attorney John Bailey.

Campaign contributions made by other members of Sisolak’s transition team were relatively small. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo contributed $5,000, and Nevada Resorts Association head Virginia Valentine, Latin Chamber of Commerce President Peter Guzman and Reno City Councilman David Bobzien’s campaign all chipped in another $1,000.

Duncan Lee, president of RDL Investments and a member of the Asian Chamber of Commerce, also contributed $5,000 to Sisolak’s campaign on August 21. Lee is the only member of Sisolak’s transition team to have also served on Sandoval’s 2010 gubernatorial transition team.

Sixteen of the transition team members did not make any contributions to Sisolak’s campaign.

JT Stepleton, a researcher at the National Institute on Money in Politics, said in an interview that the nexus between campaign contributions and gubernatorial transition teams hadn’t really been tracked, but that it would be a cause for concern if donors were given an outsized role in determining appointments on regulatory boards.

“It’s also a matter of what role they have in the transition team, and if they have a say in who regulates gaming,” he said. “How much say did they have in who would be appointed, that raises some red flags in a lot of cases.”

The 19-member transition team of Attorney General-elect Aaron Ford contributed just $4,500 between individuals and their employers to the Democrat’s campaign, a small slice of the roughly $2.2 million he raised over the last two years.