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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which legislators had the most success with their bills?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success for Republican senators in passing bills was more rare.

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

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

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

Which legislators had the least success with their bills?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When were bills heard and when did they pass?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

Follow the Money: Tracking more than $607,000 in legislative campaign contributions from lawyers, legal groups

With nearly a quarter of the Legislature holding legal day jobs or with a J.D. on their wall, it comes as little surprise that law firms, legal groups and lawyers contributed more than $607,000 to legislative campaigns last cycle.

It was enough to make lawyers the seventh biggest “industry” in terms of legislative campaign contributions, though, amid the pandemic, it was still a slight drop from the $630,000 the group gave lawmakers in the 2018 cycle

These contributions favored Democrats by a margin of more than 3-to-1, likely buoying some Democratic campaigns in an election that saw the party’s hold on the Legislature slightly erode. 

Though Democrats maintained control of both chambers, Republicans gained one seat in the 21-person Senate and another three in the 42-seat Assembly. They trail 12-9 in the Senate, and 26-16 in the Assembly. 

In order to assess broad trends in campaign spending, The Nevada Independent categorized and analyzed more than 7,700 individual contributions of more than $200 made to sitting lawmakers in 2019 and 2020. 

These contributions capture nearly all campaign spending in that period, and more generally show to whom the largest contributions flowed and how much they were worth overall. 

The data in this story show only a slice of the campaign finance pie: 540 contributions from 172 contributors broadly fell under the umbrella of “lawyers and legal groups.” 

However, two legislators are not included in this analysis: Sen. Fabian Donate (D-Las Vegas) and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas). They were both appointed to fill vacancies in February, after contributions to lawmakers were frozen ahead of the start of the legislative session. 

Contributions overall favored Democrats $470,451 to the Republicans’ $136,880 — with Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), a deputy district attorney in Las Vegas, leading the way with $48,581 in legal-industry contributions. 

Unlike many of Cannizzaro’s major donors in other industries, however, no top donor gave her campaign the $10,000 maximum allowed under Nevada campaign finance law. The firm Lewis Roca led all of Cannizzaro’s legal donors with a $7,000 contribution, though the firm Holland & Hart gave $6,500 and four others gave $5,000.

Other top recipients were largely Democrats, including Assemblywoman and attorney Elaine Marzola (D-Henderson) with $45,800; Assembly Speaker and public defender Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) with $45,250; and Assemblyman and attorney Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) with $30,500.

Only one Republican (and the only non-lawyer among the top recipients), Sen. Heidi Gansert (R-Reno), made the top-five recipients with $29,450, and no other Republicans cracked the top 10. 

Unlike some other major industries, contributions from lawyers, law firms and legal groups were generally diffuse. Only six lawmakers received more than $20,000, with a median haul of $7,750.

Though the total amounts of legal donations received by lawmakers remained comparatively small, several of the biggest industry donors gave so much that they were among the biggest legislative donors of the entire cycle. 

That includes the top three donors — the trial lawyer’s PAC Citizens for Justice ($203,500) and the firms Lewis Roca ($103,000) and Kaempfer Crowell ($60,250). 

Together, those three donors combined for more than 60 percent of all legal or law firm money contributed last cycle. Expanded to the top 10 donors, big-money contributions greater than $5,000 accounted for nearly 79 percent of all industry donations. 

In all, the remaining 162 smallest donors gave $128,081 in the aggregate, or about 21 percent of the total. 

A trial lawyer PAC founded as a means to oppose corporate backed efforts at “tort reform” meant to restrict jury trials in civil cases, Citizens for Justice is often among the biggest legislative donors of any industry in any given electoral cycle. 

2020 was no different, as the PAC doled out more than $203,000 to 36 legislators. That money widely favored Democrats, who received $180,000 to the Republicans’ $23,500 in the aggregate, or a per-lawmaker average of $6,206 to just $2,257. 

Almost half of the total, $90,000, came in maximum contributions to nine different Assembly Democrats, including six lawyers — Frierson, Flores, Marzola, Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) and Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) — and three non-lawyers: Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas), Assemblywoman Brittney Miller (D-Las Vegas) and Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas).

Three more lawmakers, all Assembly Democrats, received $7,500, while the remaining 24 received $6,000 or less, with a median total of $5,000.

A large regional law firm with offices in five western states, including Nevada, Lewis Roca (formerly Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie) was among the top donors in any industry last cycle with $103,000 contributed across 55 legislators, though almost all of it came in comparatively small amounts. 

Those contributions also widely favored Democrats, who received about 2.8 times more than Republicans in the aggregate, $76,000 to $27,000. On average, it amounted to $2,171 for Democrats, and $1,350 for Republicans. 

No single lawmaker received the maximum amount from Lewis Roca, though Democratic leaders Frierson ($9,000) and Cannizzaro ($7,000) did receive substantially more than most other recipients. One legislator, Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, received $5,500, while the remaining 52 recipients received $4,000 or less.  

A Nevada-based firm with offices in Las Vegas, Reno and Carson City, Kaempfer Crowell gave legislators $60,250 in total last cycle, enough to make it the third largest legal donor with almost twice as much spent compared to the next-nearest donor. 

Like the rest of the industry, Kaempfer Crowell’s contributions favored Democrats, who received $39,000 in total compared to $21,250 for the Republicans. The difference was much smaller on average, however, with Democrats receiving just $1,258 to the Republicans’ $1,118. 

The firm’s contributions were universally small, in comparison to other major donors, and no lawmaker saw more than the $3,000-each given to Cannizzaro and Frierson. Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) followed with $2,500, though the remaining 47 recipients received $2,000 or less, including 24 recipients who received less than $1,000. 

Tim Lenard, Riley Snyder and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

As part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent will be publishing deep dives over the coming weeks into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see previous installments, follow the links below: 

Raiders ticket tax, affordable housing bills and conservative election proposals die at deadline

Hundreds of bills bit the dust on Friday, a deadline by which proposals needed to advance from their first committee or die, unless they have a special exemption.

Friday’s deadline day proved busy, with lawmakers passing out close to 120 bills or resolutions through marathon committee hearings, including measures abolishing capital punishment, imposing more gun control, allowing physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to people with terminal illness and many others.

But when the frantic, all-day rush of virtual committee meetings finally ended, more than 280 measures had failed to meet the deadline — nearly a third of the roughly 925 bills and resolutions introduced so far this session. Casualties included a host of affordable housing measures, ticket taxes on major sports teams, paying inmates the minimum wage, Republican-backed election bills and a bevy of other dashed legislative dreams.

While the concepts could always reemerge as amendments to other bills or entirely new legislation in the remaining 52 days of the session, here’s a look at some of the ideas that appear to be in the legislative graveyard. 

Raiders included in ticket tax

Tickets for Raiders and Golden Knights home games are exempt from a 9 percent Live Entertainment Tax on tickets, but an effort to bring them into the fold appears to be dead.

Sen. Dina Neal said she sponsored SB367 to create parity between those teams and other live events such as Cirque du Soleil shows. She said she doesn’t see a policy reason for the loophole, and argued it would only get harder to impose the tax on the teams’ tickets in the future as they started bringing in even more revenue.

But representatives from the teams argued that axing the exemption would violate the agreement on which the teams based their original moves to Nevada. They also speculated that subjecting teams to the tax would discourage more from relocating to the state.

More teeth in the public records act

In spite of a last-minute push from open government advocates, a bill to stiffen penalties for government agencies that violate the Nevada Public Records Act failed to survive the deadline.

The measure, AB276 from Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas), would have allowed records requestors who prevail in a lawsuit be awarded twice the cost of their lawsuit. Local governments fiercely resisted the push, saying it would invite lawsuits.

"Even though this is disappointment ... I'm going to continue during my time here in the Legislature to continue to fight for that principle ... to make sure that our government is as open and accountable to the people as possible," Matthews said in an interview. 

Minimum wage for inmates

Lawmakers failed to advance SB140, a bill from Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) that would have required the state pay minimum wage to inmates. 

During a hearing, former inmates testified that they sometimes made a dollar for an hour or even an entire day of work.

The bill also aimed to put inmates on a more solid footing ahead of their release. It would have limited deduction from prisoners’ wages to just family support and victim restitution and created an Offenders’ Release Fund so wages earned behind bars could be used when they leave.

COVID rule-free zones

A proposal to designate special zones within businesses for people who are vaccinated or recovered from COVID to mingle unbothered by government COVID-prevention rules failed to gain traction in the Legislature. The bill, SB323, was sponsored by Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden).

Property taxes

A bill that received an icy reception for proposing a property tax floor increase, only received one hearing and did not live to reach the Senate floor.

The Nevada Association of Counties (NACO) brought forward SB10 to address local government shortfalls stemming from unexpected dips in property tax revenues.

Under current law, property taxes are capped at a certain percentage, with the goal of protecting property tax payers from burdensome increases year-over-year. Those caps can vary between zero and 3 percent for residential and zero and 8 percent for non-residential properties. The bill would have removed the ability for caps to drop below 3 percent and place a ceiling of 8 percent on tax caps for non-residential properties. 

Opponents criticized the measure as an overstep of government authority in the wake of an economically devastating pandemic.

Affordable housing

Three bills vehemently opposed by developers and development authorities quietly faded away after their first hearings.

Lauded by supporters as an opportunity to better understand Nevada’s rental market and take aim at bad-actor landlords, AB332, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno), would have required the Housing Division of the Department of Business and Industry to establish a landlord registry containing a landlord's first and last name, information on rental units the landlord owns and rent prices.

But the bill failed to advance after receiving heavy opposition from landlords.

AB331 and AB334, aimed at giving local governments the ability to raise money to support affordable housing projects, received heavy pushback from developers who said that the legislation would increase developers' fees and further negatively affect the market. 

AB334, sponsored by Assemblywoman Shondra Summers Armstrong (D-Las Vegas), would have given local governments the option to require developers to follow inclusionary zoning policies. That means stipulating that a certain percentage of new construction has to be affordable for low-income households — or developers must pay a fee to avoid those requirements. 

The bill would also have given municipalities the option to adopt fees referred to as linkage fees, ranging from $0.75 to $10 for each square foot of commercial or residential development.

Democratic Assemblywoman Elaine Marzola's AB331 asked larger cities and counties to establish five-year goals for preserving and producing affordable housing. 

Housing developers launched an advertisement campaign against the two bills the week of the hearing, pushing lawmakers to oppose the legislation.

Developers, real estate companies and PACs funded by those entities contributed more than $1.3 million to lawmakers campaigns — the most money any single industry donated to state legislators. 

Natural gas planning & upgrading energy efficiency 

A bill by Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) requiring natural gas utilities to go through a comprehensive planning process aimed at a long-term transition away from natural gas failed to pass out of committee.

The bill, AB380, was heavily opposed by Southwest Gas and allies who claimed the bill would effectively end residential and commercial use of natural gas in the state.

Another bill requiring NV Energy to make a greater investment in energy efficiency programs, SB382, also failed to make it past the deadline. NV Energy opposed the bill, and said advocates should go through other avenues at the state Public Utilities Commission to accomplish their goals.

Reining in tax incentives for businesses

AB449, proposed by Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, attempted to balance out billions of dollars offered to corporations in the form of abatements or subsidies. 

Bemoaned by development authorities, the bill would have limited the Governor's Office of Economic Development's suite of tax incentives and required that businesses receiving tax incentives make payments into a state fund for affordable housing.

It marked the latest effort by Benitez-Thompson and other legislative Democrats to improve the state's at-times criticized collection of incentives and abatements to businesses that meet certain capital investment, job creation or minimum hourly wage targets. Former Gov. Brian Sandoval set up most of the incentive programs, but some Democrats (and at times, Gov. Steve Sisolak) have criticized the office for being too generous with abatements.

Republican election bills fall flat

Entering the 2021 session, many Republican lawmakers said that one of their top priorities would be to shore up election security and undo many of the mail voting changes implemented ahead of the 2020 election.

But after Friday, the vast majority of those proposals lay in the scrap heap, with most not even receiving a hearing.

The casualties were numerous In the Assembly and included bills repealing expanded mail voting (AB134), requiring proof of identity before voting (AB137, AB163), requiring the registrar of voters in major counties be elected (AB297), and a proposal amending the Constitution to require the Legislature and not the Supreme Court canvass the vote (AJR13).

In the Senate, Republican-backed election bills not receiving a committee vote before the deadline included measures implementing voter ID requirements and ending ballot collection from non-family members (SB225), as well as a bill expanding mail-in voting but limiting deadlines more stringently than what Democratic lawmakers have proposed (SB301).

Right to repair

A “right to repair” bill that would have made it easier for independent repair shops to fix phones and laptops failed to make it past the deadline.

AB221, from Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), would have required manufacturers produce documentation and the parts and tools necessary to diagnose, maintain and repair electronic devices with values ranging from $100 to $5,000.

While environmentalists praised it as a way to reduce waste in landfills, technology companies argued it could create privacy risks and that an independent repair shop could do serious damage to a device even under the bill’s specifications.

Community college system

Even though the concept of breaking the Nevada System of Higher Education into two entities earned a mention in the governor’s State of the State address in January, a bill to carry out the concept never got a hearing.

Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) had carried the bill, SB321, that proposed a Nevada  System of Community Colleges governed separately from the state’s universities.

Curbing governor’s emergency powers

Republicans were largely unsuccessful in their efforts to curb the governor’s emergency powers. AB93 and AB373, both of which would have made disaster declarations terminate after 15 days unless the Legislature extends them, failed to get hearings.

Members of the GOP have chafed against Gov. Steve Sisolak’s current state of emergency, which has lasted for more than a year.

Abortion notification

The Democrat-controlled Legislature did not entertain AB176, a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Alexis Hansen (R-Sparks) that would prohibits a doctor from performing an abortion on a minor until 48 hours after her parents or guardians were served a notice of the procedure in person or through certified mail. 

Permanent Daylight Savings Time

A bill that would do away with sleep-disrupting time changes never got a hearing this session. SB153 from Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City) would have called for Nevada to stay on Daylight Savings Time year-round, although it was contingent on the state of California enacting similar legislation.

Natural gas legislation looks to implement state climate strategy, faces opposition from utility

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

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

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Last year, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s administration released a climate strategy that emphasized the need for a long-term transition away from using natural gas and the need to start planning now.

Much of the state’s efforts around climate change have focused on transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables in how electricity is produced (most of the state’s power still comes from natural gas). But the climate strategy was significant because it singled out another area where natural gas is predominant: It’s still the default option for cooking and heating in homes and businesses. 

In order to meet the state’s statutory goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, the climate strategy said policymakers need to plan out an equitable transition away from indoor natural gas by scrutinizing new utility infrastructure, giving customers a choice to switch to electric appliances and giving utility regulators more oversight over the planning process. 

Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) is sponsoring a bill, AB380, that aims to do that. At its core, the legislation would require gas utilities to go through a comprehensive planning process meant to consider the effects of decarbonization on their operations and ratepayers.

The legislation also directs state utility regulators to compile one or more reports on the role of gas utilities in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, how to ensure a safe and reliable grid with fewer customers paying for the system and strategies to ensure that the transition is equitable.

On Tuesday afternoon, the legislation got its first public airing in a hearing that stretched on for more than two hours. Supporters of the bill, including the Nevada Conservation League and the Natural Resources Defense Council, argue that planning for a long-term transition from natural gas is a necessary and common sense approach. Without planning today, they argued, ratepayers could be saddled with paying off unnecessary gas infrastructure for years to come.

Consumer Advocate Ernest Figueroa, who represents ratepayers in proceedings before utility regulators, said in testimony that he supported the legislation and agreed with that assessment. 

If it’s the state’s policy to transition from natural gas by 2050, Figueroa said “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.”

None of this is happening in a vacuum. Policymakers from cities and states across the country have increasingly looked at indoor gas use with more scrutiny as they address climate change. And the efforts have come up against opposition from utilities and an industry that says it wants to be part of the solution, as it makes the case for continued — and in some cases expanded — natural gas use, arguing that switching to electric will be more costly. 

On Tuesday, Southwest Gas, the state’s largest gas utility, testified in opposition. 

CEO John Hester noted that the utility, with expansions in Mesquite and Spring Creek, supports economic development and argued that the company is already highly regulated. 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.”

NV Energy, which supplies natural gas to buildings in Northern Nevada, also came out against the bill. CEO Doug Cannon said the utility, which stands to gain from electrification, supports the concept of a gas planning process, but he said it should not be tied to specific policy outcomes.

For months, Southwest Gas has deployed a full-court press lobbying strategy, building a coalition with concerns about strategies mentioned in the state climate plan and AB380. 

In February, the utility helped organize a coalition letter to the governor’s office with the header “Clean. Affordable. Natural Gas.” Last week, a new group, the Coalition for Cleaner Affordable Energy, began posting videos from business groups campaigning against the legislation. Many of the business groups featured in the videos testified against the bill at Tuesday’s hearing.

Southwest Gas is advocating for its own legislation, SB296, which would allow gas utilities to apply with state regulators to replace existing infrastructure and recover costs through a monthly rate. Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) introduced the proposal in March.

David Bobzien, who directs the Governor’s Office of Energy, and Kristen Averyt, the state’s climate policy coordinator, testified in neutral on the legislation. But both officials noted that the climate plan calls for a transition away from natural gas that will require a planning process.

“The intent of AB380 is consistent with the state climate strategy in that it addresses the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas in order to meet our state’s 2050 net-zero emissions target,” Averyt said.

At the hearing, lawmakers from both parties expressed major questions about the impact of AB380, raising concerns about costs and higher rates for low-income households. For about an hour, lawmakers on the Assembly Committee for Growth and Infrastructure questioned the bill sponsors with concerns that AB380 could disrupt reliability and have a disproportionate impact on low-income households, seniors on fixed incomes and underserved communities. 

The legislation’s sponsors noted the costs of inaction and said that the proposed bill language asks state utility 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’ll be writing more about natural gas and lobbying efforts over the next few weeks.

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


THE LEGISLATURE

Water authority looks for a turf removal law: Toward the end of a long committee hearing on two controversial state-backed water bills Monday, the Southern Nevada Water Authority made some big news. The authority testified in neutral on AB356, one of the bills being pushed by the Nevada Division of Water Resources, and then went on to propose an alternative:

  • The proposed bill, AB356, seeks to establish a conservation credit program that state water officials argue would create an incentive to use less water. But the bill faces broad opposition from agricultural interests and conservationists who are concerned that such a program is out of step with how water is managed on-the-ground and could potentially lead to speculative behavior. Enter the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
  • After lawmakers heard opposition to AB356, a water authority lobbyist, Andy Belanger, asked the committee to consider an amendment to the bill or separate legislation for its own conservation initiative. The water authority, for weeks, has indicated that it was seeking a legislative vehicle to remove unused turf by the end of 2026. 
  • Across the Las Vegas Valley, there are about 5,000 acres of non-functional turf — grass that is decorative and used for landscaping in medians, along sidewalks or in entryways to communities. “It is purely for show,” Belanger said. “And it is a luxury our community can no longer afford.” Non-functional turf is a leading driver of water use across the Las Vegas Valley, and while the water authority has long offered incentives to remove grass at residences, it has run into some opposition with HOA boards and other hold-outs. 
  • Backing from groups: The water authority’s push yesterday came with buy-in from key groups. The Vegas Chamber, the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association, the city of Henderson and the city of North Las Vegas all backed the water authority’s proposal at the hearing. And shortly after the hearing ended, the Center for Biological Diversity put out a statement in favor of the water authority’s proposal. 

Farmers, conservationists criticize water banking bill: The AP’s Sam Metz has an update on another bill (AB354), which the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources heard Monday. Rural water users, agricultural interests and conservationists expressed concerns that a bill to create “water banks” had not been fully vetted and could lead to unintended consequences. 

Closing the classic car loophole: My colleague Jannelle Calderon offers an update on efforts to fix a loophole in the state’s Emissions Inspection System that allows drivers to register a car as “classic,” evading smog emission standards, even when it is not in fact a “classic” car. 

A good roundup from KNPR’s Heidi Kyser on what to watch in the Legislature. 

Couldn’t drag me away: My colleague Riley Snyder found that of all the proposed legislation in Carson City, a resolution on wild horses has generated the most opinions (by quite a bit).


WATER AND LAND

Colorado River cutbacks: Excellent reporting by The Arizona Republic’s Ian James on how hydrology in the Colorado River, driven by climate change, is setting the stage for mandatory cuts. The story explains what the cutbacks will mean, and it is a must-read for understanding the road ahead on the Colorado River. From the article: “Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir on the river, has declined dramatically over the past two decades and now stands at just 40% of its full capacity. This summer, it’s projected to fall to the lowest levels since it was filled in the 1930s following the construction of Hoover Dam. The reservoir near Las Vegas is approaching a threshold that is expected to trigger a first-ever shortage declaration by the federal government for next year, leading to substantial cuts in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.”

Great piece from Aspen Public Radio on the role that soil moisture plays in water supply. 

'Mediocre' water year wraps up for Tahoe, Truckee basins (via the RGJ’s Amy Alonzo)

Nevada facilities to get Interior funding: “One of several investment projects in Nevada will be $5 million to modernize infrastructure at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and improve access to drinking water for visitors, concessioners and employees,” Jeniffer Solis writes for the Nevada Current. Because of declining reservoir levels on Lake Mead, the project will relocate the Callville Bay water intake barge and also improve service roads to the new site.

Greater sage-grouse declines: A comprehensive USGS report shows significant declines in Greater sage-grouse populations over the past six decades and a nearly 40 percent population decrease since 2002. Last week, a federal judge struck down a project to allow more grazing in an area identified as high-quality sage-grouse habitat, the AP’s Scott Sonner reported. 

What to watch in the Legislature as lawmakers weigh changes to natural gas regulation, mining oversight and water law

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

As I sat down to write this week’s newsletter, I checked my outline only to realize that many of the stories I’m following right now have something to do with the Legislature — in one form or another. Almost halfway through the legislative session, I decided it was time for an update. 

This week’s newsletter is going to take on a different format today. I’m going to start it with a few takeaways from the session so far. This is in no way fully comprehensive of the legislation out there, and I plan to write more on these issues over the coming weeks. If you have any thoughts on any proposed legislation or see any interesting bills, email me at daniel@thenvindy.com

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


1) Legislation to regulate natural gas: The fight over how to transition away from natural gas is coming to the Legislature. The contours of the debate were drawn last year after Gov. Steve Sisolak’s administration released a state climate strategy calling for a phased transition away from using the fossil fuel in homes and businesses. Now there is proposed bill language. 

On Tuesday, Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Las Vegas) introduced AB380, legislation that requires utilities to undergo more rigorous regulatory planning and decrease building emissions by 95 percent by 2050. As former Las Vegas Sun scribe Miranda Wilson writes for E&E News, Southwest Gas and business groups plan to oppose the legislation. A similar coalition sent a letter to Sisolak last month with concerns about the climate strategy’s plans around natural gas. 

On Tuesday, several environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nevada Conservation League and the Sierra Club, put out a press release in support of the bill. 

Since October, Southwest Gas has said they planned to pursue legislation that would allow the utility to replace pipelines and infrastructure. Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) introduced SB296, which would allow gas utilities to apply to utility regulators for gas infrastructure modernization plans and recover costs through a monthly rate.

2) Changing mining oversight: A few weeks before the Legislature convened on Feb. 1, the seven commissioners who oversee the Nevada Division of Minerals held a public meeting to discuss legislation that the mining industry was closely monitoring: three resolutions to raise  taxes. The commission wrote a letter saying the mining tax resolutions were not in the state’s interest, and the commissioners recommended the formation of a task force to study the issue.

The division, a non-cabinet agency, has a dual mandate. It is charged with regulating oil, gas, geothermal and lithium brine exploration. At the same time, it educates the public about mining, provides information about the industry, and advocates on policy. The division’s oversight board, comprising commissioners with backgrounds in extractive industries, advise the governor and the state on policy related to the industry. AB240 aims to separate those two functions.

The proposed legislation, which had its first hearing this week, would dissolve the Division of Minerals and fold its regulatory function into the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, which oversees hardrock mine permitting. The Governor’s Office of Economic Development, which serves as a clearinghouse for industry, would assume the division's other roles. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) introduced the bill. At a hearing on Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Nevada Conservation League supported the measure, arguing that it would reduce the influence of the industry in crafting regulations and state policy. 

But environmental groups were split. Great Basin Resource Watch, a mining watchdog group, and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada argued against the bill because it would dissolve an oversight board that last met in 2015 and currently has no members. A Sisolak spokesperson said the governor has received applications and plans to make appointments.

The division, the Nevada Mining Association, the Nevada Mineral Exploration Coalition and the Women’s Mining Coalition argued against the bill, questioning why a change was necessary.

Another bill, AB148, introduced by Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno), prohibits so-called “bad actors” — corporations or executives who have defaulted on mine-cleanup obligations in the past — from obtaining a permit to engage in mining and exploration activities in Nevada. 

3) Fixing the “classic car” loophole: We’ve all seen them out on the road. The “classic car” that resembles no such thing but allows its driver to pay a lower price for registration and avoid smog testing. AB349, a bill introduced by Watts on Monday, aims to close that loophole. The bill would limit the “classic car” designation for antique cars not used for everyday transportation. 

As my colleagues wrote earlier this week, AB349 would do a number of other things related to vehicle emissions: “It would also make some changes to the regulations for people who test exhaust emissions and authorize the DMV to establish a remote sensing system for exhaust emissions in Clark and Washoe counties. It also raises the fees assessed on businesses that conduct smog tests. The bill also exempts new motor vehicles from having to undergo a smog test until their fourth year of life. Current law requires it after the second year of life.”

4) A water authority bill? The Colorado River picture is bleak. Most of the watershed, the main source of Las Vegas’ water supply, is facing extreme or exceptional drought. Consumptive use, the amount of water Las Vegas uses from the Colorado River each year, ticked up in 2020, according to a slideshow the Southern Nevada Water Authority presented to its board of local government officials last week. And the water authority has a serious message: Conservation.

It’s not a new message (see the Ryan Reaves ad), but the water authority is doubling-down on efforts to remove non-functional turf (ornamental grass in medians, next to sidewalks, etc…) in a world where incentives alone might not be enough. In testimony this month, a water authority lobbyist said the agency was potentially looking for a legislative vehicle that would require local governments and agencies to write regulations for removing non-functional turf. 

Why that was necessary became more clear at the water authority board meeting last Thursday. Turf removal programs — even when incentivized or subsidized — can run into opposition from HOAs and other entities, despite the fact that most HOA residents support “smarter landscapes” (yes, the water authority conducted a survey on it). Fixing the issue might require legislation.

5) Changes to water law: For more than two years now, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has contemplated legislation that would change the statutory qualifications for serving as the state engineer, Nevada’s top water official and administrator of the Division of Water Resources. Under the law, the position requires the person holding the position to be a licensed Professional Engineer, or a P.E. But according to the state agency, that requirement can limit the applicant pool for a job that is not exclusively focused on engineering. 

SB155, which came out of the interim Legislative Committee on Public Lands, would change the qualifications for the position. The legislation would require the state’s top water regulator to be “experienced and competent in water resource management and conservation” and to “have a demonstrated ability to administer a major public agency.” But it would exempt the official from the professional engineer requirement if a deputy in the division was a licensed engineer. 

Brad Crowell, who leads the natural resources agency, said that the proposed measure would “expand the pool of qualified applicants” to those with technical expertise in other areas of water management. At a hearing Thursday, the legislation was met with opposition from a wide range of water users and groups. A hydrologist for Kinross Gold and the Nevada Mining Association testified against the bill, as did the Great Basin Water Network. Groups raised concerns that the legislation could open up the hiring process to appointments driven by politics.

In a closing statement, Crowell said there were “more red herrings and conspiracy theories” than constructive feedback in the testimony. A spokesperson for the agency declined to provide information on what the “conspiracy theories” were and what outreach the state had done to fill recent vacancies but pointed The Nevada Independent to Crowell’s testimony.

On Monday, the Legislature introduced two additional bills on behalf of the state agency that seek to make changes to water law. AB354, described in the bill text as the Nevada Water Banking Act, allows for the creation of water banking programs. Another bill, AB356, would create a program for water conservation. Both are bills worth watching during the session.

Another bill, introduced by Peters, aims to regulate water quality pollution from indirect sources, such as chemical runoff, motor oil and fertilizers. Indirect pollution, known as nonpoint or diffuse pollution, is a leading cause of water quality issues in Nevada and the U.S. AB146 had its first hearing last week. Most of the people who testified agreed that nonpoint source pollution is a problem, but agricultural interests and municipal water users raised concerns about the bill. 

6) The Innovation Zone proposal: We’re continuing to follow the legislative effort to establish “Innovation Zones,” which would let developers with large land-holdings break off from existing counties and form new local governments. As we reported Monday, the building trades signaled their support for the plan. And Elko County, in a meeting last week, flagged several concerns


Here are a few other stories I’m watching this week:

What climate change means: One of the most informative parts of the state’s climate strategy, released last year, was a chapter that focused on what science tells us about the many ways climate change is affecting — and will continue to affect — Nevada. As someone who often researches this topic, it is valuable to have the science in one place. This week, the Nevada Climate Initiative released a fact-sheet summarizing those findings. 

Utility regulators approve NV Energy transmission line: “NV Energy's proposed Greenlink transmission line and renewable energy initiative has received approval from Nevada's utility regulators,” Matthew Seeman reports for KSNV in Las Vegas. “The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada approved moving forward with the plan, which aims to accelerate the development of clean energy on public lands, a spokesperson for NV Energy said Monday.”

Nye County gets a grant for environmental workforce development. (Pahrump Valley Times)

Nevada Gold Mines eyes growth: “An intensive strategic review by executive teams from Barrick Gold Corp. and Nevada Gold Mines has confirmed the enormous geological potential of the NGM properties and outlined key development projects,” the Elko Daily Free Press reports.

Seepage from the Truckee Canal: The city of Fernley is suing federal water managers over plans to line the Truckee Canal. As Scott Sonner reports for the Associated Press, “lawyers for the town a half-hour east of Reno have filed a new lawsuit accusing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation of illegally failing to consider the expected harm to its municipal water supply and hundreds of private well users who tap into the groundwater based on what they say are binding water allotments, some dating to World War II.”

Apple completes solar project in Reno: “McCarthy Building Companies recently completed construction of the Turquoise Solar Project in Washoe County, Nevada,” writes Kelly Pickerel in Solar Power World. “The 61-MWDC solar farm is located on approximately 180 acres in the Reno Technology Park — a 2,200-acre industrial park shared between Apple and Turquoise Solar, who own approximately 1,600 and 600 acres, respectively.” 

Behind the Bar: Read by 3 cuts, builders back Innovation Zones, inside the home builders ad campaign, and a watered down first responders bill

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

In this edition: Is this the session lawmakers find a funding solution for the Millennium Scholarship? (No). Plus, it’s another deadline day, the future of Read by 3, building trades back Innovation Zones, major changes to a mental health hotline bill for first responders and details on an affordable housing campaign backed by the home builders.

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

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


Near the end of his 1999 State of the State address, Gov. Kenny Guinn shared a major announcement: His administration would use its sizable share of the national tobacco settlement to fund a universal scholarship program for graduating high school seniors.

That program — dubbed the Millennium Scholarship — was promoted as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide Nevada’s children with the means to advance their education in a way never thought possible.”

“Using 50 percent of the settlement money to fund these scholarships, and reverting the unused portion of the initial years to an endowment fund, will enable us to fund these scholarships in perpetuity,” the governor said at the time. “Without an increase in taxes.”

More than two decades later, the program has become an unabashed success, helping more than 143,000 Nevada students pay for college over its 21-year-existence.

But continued success of the program (as well as Nevada’s population growth over the last two decades) has left the state in an uncomfortable position — the program has grown so large that it now takes general fund (i.e. tax) dollars to continue funding it.

Former Gov. Brian Sandoval started allocating general funds to the program in 2013, and every session since then has seen the state chip in more general fund revenues to help keep the scholarship program afloat. Gov. Steve Sisolak’s 2021-23 budget calls for a hefty $44 million one-shot appropriation for the scholarship program.

Discussion around finding a more permanent and reliable funding source for the scholarship program isn’t new — it came up in 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Now, in 2021, lawmakers are prepared to finally figure out the funding solution for the scholarship program. The only problem is that solution will have to come next session, in 2023, and only maybe.

Any progress on a permanent Millennium Scholarship funding solution will have to come from SB128, a bill sponsored by Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) that would create an interim study focused on ways to improve the scholarship program (as well as the Promise Scholarship and Silver State Opportunity Grant).

“At some point, we have to find a permanent solution for funding these scholarships, but before we can have that discussion, we need to make sure that they're being run as efficiently and that they're accomplishing what they need to,” Denis said during the Thursday hearing.

The study will focus on both student outcomes of the scholarship programs, as well as a “comprehensive evaluation of the short-term and long-term financial viability” of the programs, as well as estimated cost of administering them in the future. It’ll be overseen led by state Treasurer Zach Conine’s office and funded out of the state college savings endowment account. 

Conine has been a vocal proponent of finding a permanent funding source for the program, and made what I think is a really good point back when I interviewed him on this topic two years ago — eventually, the size of the scholarship program is going to grow so large that it’ll be nigh impossible to avoid cutting it during any sort of budget downturn.

“Any solution that we can come up with that doesn't require general fund appropriations every year stops the Millennium Scholarship from having this possibility of being a random casualty of the budget process,” he said at the time.

— Riley Snyder


Read by Grade 3 is being downsized and diluted. A new bill would take us back to 2015

There’s no shortage of bad headlines about Nevada students’ academic performance, but reading has been a success story: fourth graders in the Silver State performed on par with their national peers in 2019 after being a year behind them in 2009, and their scores are among the fastest increasing in the country.

Many credit Read by Grade 3, an initiative authorized by the Legislature in 2015 that requires students to read at grade level by third grade, calls on schools to designate a literacy specialist to coordinate reading supports and provides about $62 million a biennium to make it all happen.

But funding was zeroed out during the summer special session, and Gov. Steve Sisolak’s recommended budget restores less than half of it. Because of a transition to a new funding formula, the money will also be sent to a large pot and redistributed to all students, rather than being earmarked for literacy in the lower grades. 

The arrangement is drawing criticism from several corners, including Republican senators Heidi Gansert and Ben Kieckhefer, who introduced a bill last week, SB273, calling for keeping Read by Grade 3 money in a separate account and requiring specific accountability for it. Gansert said she’s not necessarily opposed to the new funding formula overall, but is concerned about diluting the funding toward literacy and not establishing a special “weight” of funding for children who can’t read.

“This program is also focused on very young students versus the entire spectrum of age groups that are in K through 12,” she said in an interview. “Literacy is essential.”

The Nevada State Education Association teachers union argued that an unintended consequence of following through with the funding formula transition during a recession could erase progress Nevada has made since 2015 through “strategic investments” in student mental health, Zoom and Victory schools.

“The most important line of accountability between districts and the state is blurred,” said NSEA lobbyist Chris Daly. “While requirements may continue in statute, the impetus for districts to deliver on these legislative priorities is watered down.”

Federal funding might help bail to blunt the pain. Nevada schools are receiving $477 million from the late-December stimulus bill. 

But officials with the Nevada Department of Education weren’t able to answer any specifics during a Friday budget hearing about where those dollars, which were formally accepted by lawmakers in February, would be going.

“It will take us some time to go back and review each sub grant to identify specifically how each school district has chosen to invest those dollars, but that we'd be happy to provide that information to your staff,” said state Deputy Superintendent Heidi Haartz.

We’ve asked for them to copy us when they have an answer.

— Michelle Rindels


More support builds for Innovation Zones

Building and construction unions across the state are backing Blockchains LLC’s proposal to build a new city outside of Reno and accompanying legislation that would allow developers with large land holdings to establish “Innovation Zones,” autonomous local governments. 

On Thursday, two groups representing building unions in Southern and Northern Nevada put their weight behind the proposal, backed by Gov. Steve Sisolak, who pitched the “Innovation Zone” concept as a key economic development driver for the state’s post-pandemic recovery.

Economic impact studies, cited by Blockchains and the governor’s office, claim the company’s proposal to build a technology park and a new city of about 36,000 residents could create, over time, about 123,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs. An economic analysis also said the plan could generate a total economic impact of $16.4 billion.

Rob Benner, secretary treasurer of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Northern Nevada said in a press release Thursday that “Nevada Innovation Zones, and Blockchains' Smart City proposal specifically, have incredible potential to help Nevada thrive again.”

The trades council’s membership includes local unions that represent workers across the region. The Southern Nevada Building & Construction Trades Council also backed the plan.

The Southern Nevada Building & Construction Trades Council contributed a total of $27,250 to sitting Democratic lawmakers in 2020, according to an analysis by The Nevada Independent. The Building and Trades Council of Northern Nevada contributed $2,500 to Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro. 

Daniel Rothberg


Mental health support for first responders bill severely watered down

A bill that would have established a dedicated commission and hotline focused on mental health issues for emergency responders has been overhauled to severely limit the bill’s impact, after the Division of Public and Behavioral Health estimated the financial impact to be more than $1 million per budget cycle.

With a conceptual amendment from the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson), AB96 would no longer require the establishment of a hotline, and instead would just authorize government agencies that license and regulate first responders (including firefighters, police officers and emergency medical service providers) to contract a non-profit organization to carry out peer support counseling for those first responders.

“I'm just looking at the amendment, right. We're doing just a gut and replace,” Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) said during the bill’s first hearing on Wednesday. “It feels local governments have established relationships… This is definitely meant to kind of be complementary to anything that might be happening within a local entity already.”

With the amendment, the bill would only require the Division of Public and Behavioral Health to maintain a website with information for first responders about available peer support services. That would simply build off of what is already available to first responders in the state through the Nevada Peer Support Network — which offers peer support, mental health resources and toolkits throughout the state.

Cohen acknowledged that the slimmed down version of the bill is the result of a lack of funding. But it would still provide more structure to existing peer support provided to first responders in Nevada, and, as Cohen put it, “basically promote peer support for first responders.”

And though the impact of the bill is limited, those in the meeting discussed an important need to provide support for first responders.

“We have a lot of national data out there that tells us that our first responders are in crisis,” Benitez-Thompson said.

From June through February, a warmline for health care workers that is run by the UNLV School of Medicine received 30 calls. And calls for the Nevada suicide prevention Lifeline increased from 19,000 in 2019 to 21,000 in 2020.

— Sean Golonka


Home builders behind Facebook ads for affordable housing, praise Sisolak

With Nevada lawmakers debating dozens of proposals aimed at addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis, an advocacy group backed by the Nevada Home Builders Association has started running a social media campaign urging the governor and Legislature to “Do no harm.”

Nevada Housing Now, a self-described "grassroots arm of the Nevada Home Builders Association," has in recent weeks launched a digital ad campaign highlighting articles discussing Nevada's record-high rent prices, statistics characterizing the affordable housing crisis and messaging targeted at lawmakers not to make housing more expensive.

"Nevada Housing Now is a key stakeholder that helps promote legislation like SB 257, a measure that streamlines insurance requirements for multifamily for purchase developments," the group wrote in an emailed statement to The Nevada Independent. "We want to work with all advocates and stakeholders to solve Nevada's affordability crisis and assure the problem does not get even worse."

According to Facebook’s ad library, the group has spent more than $450 on the social media platform over the last week, and nearly $40,000 since the page was launched in 2019.

Charges also show that the Nevada Home Builders Association spent less than $100 on advertisements related to the Nevada Housing Now page, but Nevada Housing Now would not provide additional details on its connection with the Nevada Home Builders Association or further comment on its plans for the legislative cycle.

Nevada Housing Now isn’t registered as a political action committee with the secretary of state’s office. The group’s website describes the organization as a “coalition of more than 7,000 homeowners, renters, and homebuilding professionals and organizations including the Nevada Home Builders Association.”

The majority of the group’s advertisements feature statements thanking Gov. Steve Sisolak for protecting housing affordability during the pandemic.

"NHN applauds the efforts of Governor Steve Sisolak during the pandemic to not only keeping the employees in the homebuilding industry working, but also adding nearly 10,000 new homes to a shrinking supply of shelter," the group wrote.

Real estate companies, developers and PACs funded by those groups contributed more than $1.3 million to lawmakers' campaigns with funds from the Nevada Home Builders Association PAC making up 6 percent or $79,500 of that overall total and establishing it as the fourth-largest donor out of those groups for the cycle.

The Nevada Home Builders Association could not be reached for comment.

— Tabitha Mueller


Upcoming bills of note

Lawmakers heading into the eighth week of session have stacked their schedule with a bevy of high-profile measures, ranging from licensing cannabis-friendly events, increasing protections for tenants, upping the penalties for public record violations and making it easier for women to obtain birth control medication.

Below, we’ve listed the hearing times and short descriptions for those high-profile measures. They’re accurate as of Friday afternoon, but are subject to change at any time (given that the Legislature is exempted from Open Meeting Law). For links and times to watch committee meetings, check out the Legislature’s website.

Here’s what to watch this week in the Legislature:

Monday, 8 a.m. - The Senate Commerce and Labor committee will hold a hearing on SB209, a bill from Sen. Fabian Doñate that expands the types of activities and reasons for an employee to request paid time off. It’d also require the Legislative Committee on Health Care to conduct a study regarding the long-term health implications of COVID on casino and frontline workers.

Monday, 9 a.m. - Members of the Assembly Government Affairs committee will hear AB187, which formally designates the month of September as “Ovarian and Prostate Cancer Prevention and Awareness Month” in Nevada. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson — who underwent treatment for prostate cancer complications last week — will present the bill.

Monday, 3:30 p.m. - Legislators in the Senate Growth and Infrastructure will hear details of SB232, which would generally require that any car traveling on a two-lane highway in the state has to keep its headlights on, regardless of the time of day.

Tuesday, 9 a.m. - Members of the Assembly Government Affairs committee will hold a hearing on AB276, a bill by Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas) that increases the size of court penalties in any lawsuit brought about over a delay or denial of public record requests.

Tuesday, 1 p.m. - The Senate Judiciary committee will hear details of SB223, which would prohibit those in the legal system from denying someone’s ability to serve as a juror on the basis of their race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age or physical disability.

Tuesday, 4 p.m. - Members of the Assembly Revenue committee will hold a hearing on AB322, which provides a licensing and regulatory structure for events where the sale and consumption of cannabis and cannabis products is allowed.

Wednesday, 8 a.m. - The Senate Commerce and Labor committee will hear details of SB190, a bill by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro that would create a standing order for birth control medication from the state’s chief medical officer — allowing women to get birth control without a prescription from their doctor, and still be covered by insurance.

Wednesday, 1 p.m. - Expect fireworks during the Senate Judiciary hearing on SB218, a bill by Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) that would make several tenant-friendly changes to state law. Those changes include a clearer definition of a “security deposit,” give tenants a chance to address any issues with a dwelling that could affect the security deposit before the end of a rental agreement, exclude “normal wear” from costs that can be taken from a security deposit, require a grace period on late payment of rent, prohibit application fees for prospective tenants, and also prohibit any fee charged to a tenant not explicitly authorized in state law. 

An empty hall reflected on photos of the Nevada's Senate majority leaders inside the Legislature on Monday, March 15, 2021 in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading

Lawmakers say they want to stop jailing people for traffic offenses — a practice one critic says is out of a Charles Dickens novel — but the bill faces a wall of local government opposition,  Michelle Rindels reports

Riley Snyder gets his hands on the official complaint against former lawmaker Alexander Assefa.

A citizen review board that’s supposed to monitor police misconduct rarely contradicts the police, the Review-Journal’s Art Kane finds. Martha Menendez, an Indy columnist and former member, called it “chummy” with the cops.

Things are getting increasingly serious with Republican former Assemblyman Brent Jones’ company Real Water — one consumer needed a liver transplant, and another woman blames the beverage for her sister’s liver failure death, the Review-Journal’s David Ferrara reports.

After the tragic deaths of five cyclists in December, Sen. Joe Hardy wants to bar cyclists from roads with speed limits of 65 mph or higher, but the cycling community is forcefully opposed. Via the Sun’s Ricardo Torres-Cortez.

The 90s-era policy of automatically referring youths accused of certain felonies to the adult system is one throwback that lawmakers want to get rid of this session (Nevada Current)

Do HOA foreclosures feed into systemic racism? Sen. Pat Spearman says yes (Nevada Current)

Vegas PBS’ Nevada Week digs into a Sen. Ben Kieckhefer-endorsed effort to make the state the Esports capital of the world.

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Remaining Bill Introductions Deadline: 0 (Monday, March 22, 2021)

First Committee Passage: 18 (Friday, April 9, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 70 (May 31, 2021)

Follow the Money: Breaking down $1.7 million in legislative campaign spending from PACs, political groups and politicians

The Legislature on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session in Carson City.

Of more than $10.6 million spent on Nevada legislative races in the 2020 cycle, no single group of donors, corporate or otherwise, spent more money than candidates, politicians and political PACs, which combined for more than $1.7 million spread across 61 of the state’s 63 lawmakers.  

That represents an uptick compared to 2018, when the same group of donors gave less than $1.4 million in the aggregate. 

Of these donors, dozens of candidate campaign committees — i.e. the formal fundraising accounts for each individual campaign — combined to be by far the largest single chunk with more than $931,000 contributed. They were followed by political groups and related PACs ($556,000), candidate-linked PACs ($117,500) and loans from candidates to their own campaigns ($113,366).

Broadly speaking, these contributions came in smaller chunks, and no single donor spent more than five figures in combined contributions. And, though the sum of these contributions has increased overall, many individual donors — especially issue-related or politically affiliated PACs — contributed less money than they did in 2018. 

In order to assess broad trends in campaign spending, The Nevada Independent categorized and analyzed more than 7,700 individual contributions of more than $200 made to sitting lawmakers in 2019 and 2020. 

These contributions capture nearly all campaign spending through that period, and more broadly show to whom the largest contributions flowed and how much they were worth overall. 

The data in this story show only part of the broader whole: 978 contributions from 271 unique donors fell under the umbrella of candidate or political PAC contributions. 

There are, however, two legislators not captured in these numbers, both appointed to their seats after the election and after a freeze on legislative contributions. They are Sen. Fabian Donate (D-Las Vegas), who replaced former Sen. Yvanna Cancela following her appointment to a post in the federal Department of Health and Human Services; and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas), who replaced former Assemblyman Alexander Assefa after he resigned amid a criminal probe into the misuse of campaign funds and a residency issue. 

No single lawmaker raised nearly as much as Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), who brought in more than $215,000 from 45 contributors for her highly competitive re-election bid last year. 

Almost half of that money — an even $100,000 — came from just 10 donors giving Cannizzaro the maximum of $10,000 allowed by state campaign finance law. Four of those max-donors — Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas), Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas) and Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) — were fellow legislative Democrats, while the rest came from former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and three more politician-related PACs. 

Those PACs include Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Sandstone PAC, Sen. Jacky Rosen’s Smart Solutions PAC and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s All for Our Country Leadership PAC.

Rounding out the list of top fundraisers are a number of other lawmakers who found themselves in extremely competitive — and consequently extremely expensive — elections. That includes Sen. Heidi Gansert (R-Reno), who raised $147,450; Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama, who raised $147,138, including roughly $119,000 in candidate loans; Sen. Carrie Buck, who raised $130,800; and Sen. Roberta Lange, who raised $113,650. 

All of those top fundraisers received a mix of PAC and campaign committee funds, though only one, Kasama, saw a massive fundraising boost from the addition of candidate loans made to her campaign. For the purposes of this analysis, those loans do not formally make Kasama a “contributor” like other major donors listed below, but still represent a massive influx of campaign cash relative to other campaign contributions. 

The near-$119,000 Kasama loaned her own campaign was so much that, if counted with other donors, it would make her the 10th largest legislative contributor in the entire election, sandwiched between the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association PAC ($119,000) and the public workers’ union AFSCME ($114,500). 

Unlike industry-related spending, contributions made from candidates, candidate PACs or political groups were largely diffuse, with no single donor giving more than five-figures (excluding Kasama’s candidate loans, which do not share the same fundraising role as other contributors listed here). 

Those top donors otherwise include a mix of politicians and issue-focused groups, including Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson with $68,000 contributed; the Humane Society-linked Humane Nevada PAC with $60,500; the Keystone Corporation, a Nevada-based conservative group, with $50,000; and the pro-Democratic Party, pro-abortion rights and pro-women candidates group EMILY’s List with $48,300. 

Below is a breakdown of spending from those top-donors. 

With generally little risk of an election loss in a deep blue district — Frierson has won each of his last three elections by between 16 and 20 percentage points — a non-trivial portion of the speaker’s sizable campaign warchest has, cycle by cycle, trickled down to a number of his fellow Democratic lawmakers. 

In 2020, that included contributions to 10 assembly colleagues and fellow legislative leader Cannizzaro, who received the maximum $10,000 from Frierson’s campaign. 

Other lawmakers receiving that maximum include incumbent Assemblywomen Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas) and Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson), as well as legislative newcomer Elaine Marzola (D-Henderson), with the remaining recipients all receiving $5,000 or less.    

A pro-animal rights PAC linked to the Humane Society, Humane Nevada PAC was unique among top politically affiliated PACs in its contributions to members of both parties. The group gave $60,500 spread across 33 lawmakers last cycle, with $45,500 going to 21 Democrats, and the remaining $15,000 going to 12 Republicans.  

A new PAC to the 2020 cycle — it was created in 2018 but did not spend any money until last year — Humane Nevada’s contributions were also generally small, rarely exceeding a few thousand dollars. Among its recipients, no legislator received the maximum contribution amount and only two — Cannizzaro ($7,500) and Frierson ($5,000) received more than $3,500. 

A Nevada-based non-profit corporation organized in the 1990s around advocating for conservative policy, the Keystone Corporation has since served as a reliable donor for state Republicans. 

In 2020, that amounted to $50,000 spread across 20 Republican lawmakers, all but five members of the Legislature’s Republican caucus. And, as with a number of other major donors, Keystone’s biggest contributions flowed to some of the most competitive races. 

The two biggest recipients were Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas) and Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas), who each received the $10,000 maximum. Four Republicans — Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas), Assemblyman Richard McArthur (R-Las Vegas), Assemblywoman Jill Dickman (R-Sparks) and Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) — received $5,000, while the remaining 14 received $2,000 or less.     

A national group prioritizing the election of Democratic, pro-abortion women candidates, EMILY’s List is routinely among the top politically affiliated PAC donors in each Nevada election cycle. In 2020, those donations — split across both EMILY’s List and the EMILY’s List NF Fund PAC — amounted to $48,300 across just 10 legislators, all women and all Democrats. 

The four biggest recipients were Cohen ($11,500), Marzola ($10,000), Cannizzaro ($9,900) and Gorelow ($9,900), with the remaining six receiving just $1,500 or less. 

Still, that amount is roughly 37 percent less than EMILY’s list spent in Nevada in 2018, when its $77,000 total made it the spendiest single political group of the entire cycle.   

As part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent will be publishing deep dives over the coming weeks into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see previous installments, follow the links below: 

Tim Lenard, Riley Snyder and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

Follow the Money: Breaking down more than $1 million in union and labor group spending on legislative campaigns

As in most election years, no single group of political donors was a bigger booster for legislative Democrats than labor unions, which shelled out more than $1 million on legislative campaigns in 2020, of which roughly 94 percent went to Democrats. 

Still, it was a sharp drop in contributions from labor groups, which doled out nearly $1.4 million during the 2018 midterm elections and almost $1.7 million in 2016. 

In order to assess broad trends in campaign spending, The Nevada Independent categorized and analyzed more than 7,700 contributions of more than $200 made to sitting Nevada lawmakers in 2019 and 2020. 

These contributions capture nearly all campaign spending in the two-year cycle, and more broadly show to whom the largest contributions flowed and how much those contributions were worth in the aggregate. 

The data in this story represent a slice of the broader whole: 746 unique contributions from 63 donors — from union-controlled political action committees to a handful of individual union leaders — fell into the broad category of unions and labor.

There are, however, some points not captured in these data: 11 sitting legislators did not receive any contributions from union or union-affiliated donors. That group includes two Democrats — Sen. Fabian Donate (D-Las Vegas) and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas) — who were appointed after the 2020 election; one Democratic senator, Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas), who was not up for re-election and raised the least of any sitting lawmaker last cycle; and eight Republicans. 

Also excluded are any funds spent on losing candidates, a group that includes a handful of well-funded Democratic incumbents and challengers in highly competitive districts in both Reno and Las Vegas. 

Breaking down the top contributors

Unlike some other industries, where the largest contributions are clustered among a handful of wealthy donors at the top, labor contributions were largely spread across dozens of unions. Few groups gave lawmakers more than $50,000, and only one gave more than $100,000. 

Even so, taken together the top 10 donors still comprise a majority of all labor contributions, roughly 56 percent, with the bottom 53 donors making up the remainder. 

Among the smaller labor donors, many unions still gave in relatively large amounts, comparative to small donors in other industries. An additional 17 donors gave between $35,000 and $10,000, and just 13 donors gave less than $2,000. 

Below is a donor-by-donor breakdown of the three largest labor contributors. 

Leading the pack of PACs was the only six-figure union donor last cycle: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which cumulatively gave 31 legislators — all Democrats — $114,500. 

AFSCME has long been a campaign booster for state Democrats, most recently spending more than $3.7 million on Gov. Steve Sisolak’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign ahead of a push to allow state workers to collectively bargain in 2019. 

But even among AFSCME contributions given solely to legislators, spending dipped by roughly 25 percent in 2020, down from the $153,000 the union spent in 2018. 

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) — who spent much of 2020 locked in a highly competitive re-election campaign — was the only lawmaker to see a maximum $10,000 contribution from AFCSME. 

Three other legislators — Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) and Assemblywoman Elaine Marzola (D-Henderson) — received $7,500, while the remaining 27 recipients received $6,500 or less. 

The Service Employees International Union, which represents service employees and hospital employees, among others, contributed $75,500 to 25 Democrats last cycle, enough to make it the second-largest labor donor. 

Even so, SEIU’s legislative campaign spending dropped by nearly 29 percent in 2020, down from $106,000 spent in the 2018 cycle. 

Once again, Cannizzaro was the sole legislator to receive the $10,000 maximum from SEIU, with Frierson and Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas) following behind with $7,500 each. 

Five legislators — Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas), Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas), Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson), Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong (D-Las Vegas) and Assemblywoman Claire Thomas (D-North Las Vegas) — received $5,000, while the remaining 17 received $3,000 or less. 

The Nevada State Education Association, the statewide teachers union, came up as the third-largest donor last cycle, contributing $73,000 to 29 legislators (all Democrats). 

But amid widespread school closures and months of uncertainty over the future of in-person teaching, that topline figure is a sharp drop from similar spending in 2018, when NSEA contributed more than twice as much — $154,500 — spread across 35 lawmakers. 

In 2020, no legislator saw the maximum from NSEA, though Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Sparks) — who at one time led the Washoe County Teachers Association union —  did receive $9,000. Frierson and Assemblywoman Brittney Miller (D-Las Vegas) followed behind with $5,000, while the remaining 26 recipients received $4,000 or less.

Notably absent from the legislative fundraising rolls is the state’s other major education union: the Clark County Education Association, which gave just $5,000 to Sen. Mo Denis, the chair of the Senate Education Committee. 

Instead, much of CCEA’s fundraising — $190,000 in raw contributions and more than $107,000 in additional in-kind contributions — went to Strategic Horizons PAC, a group founded by the union in 2019 with the aim of drastically boosting state funding through tax increases. 

Breaking down the top recipients

Though legislative leaders often see more contributions than rank-and-file members, a disproportionately vast share of the union total went to the state’s two Democratic leaders — Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) — who combined to received more than 30 percent of all union contributions last cycle. 

Cannizzaro in particular, who led all recipients with more than $196,000 in union and labor contributions, was an outlier among both her fellow senators and all legislators taken together. Of more than $346,000 raised by state senators of both parties from labor groups, nearly 57 percent was raised solely by Cannizzaro. 

Overall, nearly all union-related contributions — roughly 94 percent, or more than $970,000 — went to legislative Democrats. Only a handful of public safety-related unions for police and firefighters gave to both Republicans and Democrats, and of those unions, only the Las Vegas Police Protective Association gave more to Republicans ($8,500) than to Democrats ($7,500). 

Over the coming weeks, as part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent will be publishing deep dives into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see previous installments, follow the links below: 

Tim Lenard, Riley Snyder and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

Open government advocates worry proposed legislation will conceal deliberations about environmental issues. That's only half of the story.

Trucks at mine site.

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

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

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The federal government requires them. Standard confidentiality clauses.

The agreements are rarely discussed. But they are central to SB77, a proposed state Senate bill that could exempt certain pre-decisional meetings and records involving environmental issues from the Open Meeting Law and Public Records Act. Eureka County, a main proponent of the bill, has argued a change is needed to comply with both the federal agreements and state law.

April Corbin Girnus wrote an excellent piece about the issue for the Nevada Current: Right now, counties are often hampered by confidentiality rules. To discuss issues, they are stuck between following (or breaking) the federal confidentiality agreements and the state’s transparency laws.

But open government advocates have argued that the proposed bill would limit transparency in a process that has real-world consequences — whether mines are approved or power lines are erected. Ahead of a recent hearing, a coalition representing environmental groups, civil liberty advocates and news organizations, sent an opposition letter that’s worth reading (here’s a link). 

It is worth noting, too, that Eureka County’s natural resource manager, Jake Tibbitts, said the county opposes changes to the Public Records Act, and he is working to amend the drafted bill.

“If this were to move forward, we're totally open to stripping out all of that,” he said.

What struck me was why this bill was proposed in the first place. When the legislation was floated last fall, it was the first time I had heard of these federal confidentiality agreements. Given the federal government’s large role in permitting projects, they struck me as significant. 

Before I get into that, some incredibly technical (but important!) background:

Every year, dozens of local governments, tribes and state agencies participate in what is known as the NEPA process. NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act. A lot can be said about it, but for now, the most important thing is that it requires federal agencies to analyze the environmental consequences of projects on federal land — and the outcome is significant. 

Nevada is about 85 percent federal land, so there are a lot of NEPA proceedings happening at any given time — and in many different corners of the state. When a federal agency starts the NEPA process, they invite local and state agencies to act as “cooperating agencies” during the crafting of an environmental analysis. It allows local and state agencies to convey opinions in an otherwise federal process. But there’s a downside: This is where confidentiality comes in.

These cooperating agencies — Churchill County or the Nevada Department of Transportation, for instance — must sign agreements with federal land managers, like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). But the agreements, a BLM spokesperson said, include standard language about confidentiality to prevent the “release of predecisional information or working documents.”

That puts a jurisdiction like Eureka County, an entity governed by three county commissioners, in a tough position. The county, at the center of the state’s gold mining activity, wants to have a say in the process for analyzing environmental impacts. To participate, they must agree to keep information confidential. At the same time, the Open Meeting Law requires that elected officials deliberate in public. But if they deliberate in public, they risk breaking the confidentiality clause. 

In 2009, the BLM chastised the county for doing just that: The Eureka Sentinel disclosed a report that showed pumping associated with a controversial molybdenum mine would have big effects on water. The disclosure suggested that the county broke its confidentiality agreement.

To avoid the issue, Tibbitts or one county commissioner typically represents the views of the county in the NEPA process. But state law limits their discussions with other elected officials. 

“It's been a whole struggle for me the whole time I've been here,” Tibbitts said.

This is especially a problem in rural counties that have small staffs or lack departments devoted to natural resources issues. Instead, a single county commissioner might take the lead in representing a county’s interests without being able to deliberate with their colleagues. 

But is Open Meeting Law the best venue by which to address the issue? That’s another question.

Open government advocates and environmentalists say no. They argue that a federal fix to the confidentiality language, stemming from the “deliberative process exemption,” might be needed. 

“The answer isn’t less transparency,” said Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The answer is more transparency. Let’s not make things worse.”

Donnelly sees SB77, as written, fitting into efforts to weaken state law around open government. 

He is also watching AB39, an Assembly bill that would exempt agencies from disclosing their deliberations prior to making a decision. Such a move would make it harder for the public to understand the interagency process, and in some cases the science, informing decisions.

“It would eliminate transparency,” he said. “Most public records requests I've ever done, which have resulted in important finds for our conservation campaigns, would have been exempted.”


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

CLIMATE CHANGE 

The Clark County Commission meeting. Yes, I’m aware that everyone tuned into the Clark County meeting on Tuesday for a different item: To watch the commissioners vote to change the name of the Las Vegas airport, currently dedicated to former Sen. Pat McCarran, a virulent and well-documented bigot. Now, with the FAA’s approval, it will be named for one former Sen. Harry Mason Reid. But all that to say, there was another big item on Tuesday’s commission agenda:

  • The Clark County Commission gave its unanimous approval to a climate action plan (here’s a link to the plan). It’s a major step for the state’s largest local government. With the majority of Nevada’s population, Clark County could play a key role in planning for more extreme heat and drought. “The impacts of climate change are very real and they are upon us,” commission Chairman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said Tuesday. “As a county set in the Mojave Desert, we know what’s at stake with our water and energy supply and intensifying heat island impacts. This plan recognizes those unique challenges.”

“First-hand experience:” Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson cited “Nevada’s diverse population and first-hand experience in issues relating to climate change, public lands, immigration and health care” as reasons why we have “a unique voice that deserves to be heard first” in nominating presidential candidates. Why we aren’t already first? I don’t know. POLITICO’s Tyler Pager and David Siders have more on that.

Natural gas in the Legislature: Gov. Steve Sisolak’s climate strategy recognized the need to transition away from natural gas to meet a goal of reducing total greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. As I’ve written about before, this issue is coming to Carson City. Earlier this month, Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) wrote an opinion piece for The Nevada Independent about why she is proposing legislation that would require gas utilities to undergo a more rigorous regulatory process when building new infrastructure. The bill would also require that state utility regulators study natural gas in the context of the state’s climate goals. Nevada’s largest gas utility, Southwest Gas, responded to the op-ed on Nevada Newsmakers last week. 

The natural gas PR-person Nextdoor: Mother Jones climate reporter Rebecca Leber digs into the tactics that the fossil fuel industry is using to influence customers to believe that natural gas stoves are preferable to electric stoves. The story includes an example from California, where an employee for a PR firm logged onto Nextdoor to stir up opposition to an electrification effort. Spoiler: There are Instagram influencers too. The reporting provides context for how the natural gas industry is doubling down on past efforts to sell gas stoves amid efforts to reduce fossil fuel use to combat climate change and a growing recognition of the health problems caused by indoor air pollution.

Texas, the electric grid, and climate change: The L.A Times’ Sammy Roth writes that “for all the differences between the events in Texas and California’s more limited rolling blackouts last year, there’s a common lesson: Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe as the climate crisis worsens. And the U.S. power grid is not prepared to handle the hotter heat storms, more frigid cold snaps and stronger hurricanes of a changing planet.”

WATER AND LAND

Shout it from the rooftop: You can’t build a new city without water. When I heard Gov. Steve Sisolak tout Blockchains LLC in his State of the State — with the words “smart city” — I could not help but ask about the water. We started digging, and what we found was that Blockchains, a big donor to politicians (and The Nevada Independent), wants to pipe water from rural Nevada. It scooped up water rights in northern Washoe County for more than $30 million and has also looked elsewhere, including in Humboldt County. The big takeaway here: Development of any sort, though especially a new city, is a question of natural resources as much as anything else. 

Rancher sues BLM over lithium mine: A Northern Nevada rancher is suing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over the Trump administration’s approval of the Thacker Pass lithium mine north of Winnemucca. The lawsuit alleges that the land agency’s approval, in the final days of the administration, violated environmental laws, the Sierra Nevada Ally’s Scott King writes.

Judge rules against lifting mining moratorium: “A federal judge on Thursday overturned a Trump administration action that allowed mining and other development on 10 million acres (4 million hectares) in parts of six western states that are considered important for the survival of a struggling bird species,” Matthew Brown reported for the Associated Press last week. A District Court judge ordered the Bureau of Land Management to reconsider the Trump administration’s decision, which did not fully consider how it would affect the imperiled Greater sage grouse.

The commission to study water law: A few weeks ago, we reported that Supreme Court Chief Justice James Hardesty planned to empanel a commission to study how water law is viewed in the judicial system and examine whether to create specialty water courts. An order requesting the creation of such a commission is now online, and a public hearing is scheduled for March 3.

Reno attorneys fined in Swan Lake flooding lawsuit: A Washoe County District Court judge fined City of Reno attorneys “$1,500 for failing to admit to facts in the Swan Lake flood case filed by Lemmon Valley residents,” Bob Conrad reported for This is Reno. “The sanction is on top of awarding more than $750,000 in damages to plaintiffs in the case. The award does not include attorney fees, which could double the amount owed to plaintiffs and attorneys.”

Contact tracing in wastewater: “Findings from wastewater testing suggest the U.K. variant of the coronavirus is circulating in Southern Nevada, according to one UNLV researcher, but the prevalence of the more contagious variant is unclear,” the Review-Journal’s Blake Apgar writes.

Some ranch sales are just out of this world.

OUTDOOR RECREATION

Boost in outdoor activities: The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) saw a jump in hunting and fishing license sales during the pandemic — and 2021 is expected to be better, Sudhiti Naskar reports for This is Reno. Our reporter Tabitha Mueller broke down the numbers in our legislative newsletter (you should sign up to receive it). “If there is a silver lining, it's in people's turning to nature for mental health, or physical health," NDOW Director Tony Wasley said in January.

Where to see dark skies: The Reno Gazette Journal has a few suggestions. 

Update: This story was corrected at 9:09 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18 to indicate that NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act, not the Nevada Environmental Policy Act, as an earlier draft stated.