Indy Q+A: Higher ed chancellor on workforce 'misalignment,' diversifying faculty and whether Nevada was late to student vaccine mandate

After more than a year and a half of a thus-far unending global pandemic, colleges and universities in Nevada have slowly tipped the scales back toward the “new normal,” with the in-person college experience largely resurrected amid widespread vaccine access.  

But one year after taking the Nevada System of Higher Education’s top job, Chancellor Melody Rose says “we have to remember that we are still not in normal circumstances.” 

“I think about managing COVID as this incredibly high degree of difficulty,” Rose said. “And there's no playbook for it. No one has ever done this before in our lives. We can't go to our mentors, we can't go to other institutions and say, ‘Gosh, when you did this 20 years ago, how did it work out? What are the lessons advice for me?’ We are making up the playbook as we go”.

The Nevada Independent sat down with Rose on Monday to discuss the system’s response to COVID, her thoughts on efforts to create vaccination requirements for students and faculty, and how some major legislative changes from 2021 could shape the future of Nevada’s higher education system. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Let’s start with COVID, and certainly what’s on a lot of people’s minds, and that is the COVID vaccine mandate. In the run up to the decision by the Board of Health to mandate vaccines for students enrolling for in-person classes in the spring, we heard a lot of criticism from some students and faculty that there was no action on a mandate for the fall semester.

Was the vaccine mandate for students implemented too late? Should there have been some effort to get some kind of mandate in place for the fall, rather than the spring? 

I would say that on the day that the Board of Health voted to create a required student vaccine, 80 percent of American colleges and universities had not made a decision about the vaccine for students. So that puts us in the early adopters of that decision — not behind, not delayed — but in the early adopter camp. 

[When the Board of Health voted for a student vaccine requirement on Aug. 20, 740 colleges and universities had moved to implement similar mandates, according to a tracker of such mandates from the Chronicle of Higher Education. As of Aug. 31, that number had increased to 831. Those numbers are roughly 19 and 21 percent, respectively, of the more than 3,900 degree granting institutions recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.]

And so I think it's important to recognize that while there may have been some coverage of the colleges and universities that were really leading that conversation early, they were always doing so with an asterisk. Every one of them was saying, “we would like to have required vaccines for students if the following conditions are met,” right? And you're well aware of those conditions — action by the FDA to fully approve, action by either a board of health or a board of regents, depending on what your state statutes say around that issue. 

So those earliest systems that were getting headlines, I think we, somewhere in the narrative, we forgot to look at the fine print, and recognize that they were still taking very cautious steps in that direction. So today, we're among that first 20 [percent] who have gone that direction.

Relative to that fine print, your statements early on did reference the FDA approval as a potential legal roadblock. But that approval still was not in place when the Board of Health took its vote, so what was it about early August that the system was ready to move forward? 

I think we have to remember how fluid the situation is. If you look at what was happening in June, what was happening in the early days of July, we really understood nationally that we were in a pretty good position for fall semester, that the virus felt under control, and then bam, you get the Delta variant. And you get the Department of Justice, stepping in to signal that the FDA might move toward full implementation. 

So the landscape during a pandemic changes very quickly and in some cases, very dramatically. And you have to be prepared to pivot. And I think that's exactly what happened over the summer.

Are there any concerns at the system level that a significant number of students might disenroll because of the mandate? 

Oh, gosh, I would hope not. 

I'm a first-generation college student, and I've spent my life encouraging young people to get a degree, and to have the kind of transformational experience that I was fortunate enough to have. So I have a tremendous amount of compassion for those who have vaccine hesitancy, whether they're students, faculty, staff, general public, [I] really feel for folks that are going through those sentiments. 

But I think we've also arrived at a timeline that allows for implementation that isn't hurried, that can be thoughtful and measured and well supported by the evidence. So certainly, my hope is that we don't lose a single student over the vaccine requirement. 

And I think on the other side of the fence, you might retain some students who were worried about the campus not being vaccinated. 

The agenda for next week’s regents meeting includes an item that, if approved, would give your office the ability to draft a system wide COVID vaccine mandate for employees. But state employees, including NSHE employees, are already included under a state policy that requires either proof of vaccination or weekly COVID testing. 

Do you think there should be a faculty mandate? And if so, why do you think that NSHE should go one step further in implementing such a mandate? 

I'd actually like to back up your question and speak first to the governor's plan for employees. Because as we all know, for the past year and a half, most of the COVID policy has been guided by our governor and our role at NSHE has been to interpret that guidance for a campus application and provide guidance and make sure that we are in alignment with his direction. 

So I just want to pause because I have to give credit to my colleagues who are literally working around the clock right now to implement the governor's vision for “vax or test” for employees. And there's a tremendous amount of infrastructure that has to be created in order to fully adhere to that directive.

In fact, today, all employees across NSHE institutions will be receiving a confidential notice from their HR department about their vaccine status that we have on file to allow us to clean up that data, if there are any errors in that, before we move forward to asking unvaccinated folks to test. 

[An initial state deadline to require vaccination proof or testing for NSHE employees was delayed to the end of August, back from Aug. 15, to accommodate internal HR changes.]

So with that as the backdrop, and we certainly hope that through that direction from the governor, that more Nevadans on our campuses will get themselves vaccinated and will be safe and be able to protect face to face learning, as well as our economy. But the issue of employee vaccines is again, one that is a national conversation. 

This is uncharted waters. And it's important to recognize that when a governing body is considering something that is unprecedented, doing so through shared governance, through inclusion, listening to all stakeholders is a vital component to getting the policy. 

I think having this on the board's agenda in September is appropriate. It is timely, given the decision around students, that if we were going to say, “Gosh, we all need to be in this together,” doing so on the same timeline is prudent. 

The system’s budgets came out of this year’s legislative session a bit mixed, with more than $93 million in restored money for positions held-vacant through the pandemic, but another $76 million in cuts to operating budgets. 

One outstanding piece of the state’s budget picture is hundreds of millions in additional federal aid provided through the American Rescue Plan. What is your sense that that money could be used to make NSHE’s budget whole? And why, if it all, should lawmakers consider increasing higher ed budgets when they come back in 2023?   

I am a fierce advocate for making our budgets whole, and let me give a few more pieces of context to our budgets. So I have always said in higher education, a flat budget is a down budget, because your expenses are going to increase. So we need to recover that $76 million, because those are dollars that go to student services directly. This is money for advising, this is money for health centers, this is money for more instruction, so that you have a good student teacher ratio across the board. These dollars are about student success. 

It's also important to understand that our expenditures went up during the pandemic, not down because of all of the mitigation efforts that we had to go through. Student revenues went down, of course, and auxiliary revenues went down. 

And beyond that, to remember that another one of our functions is research and development. So there's a multiplier effect, when you invest in our research infrastructure, our labs, etc., our research faculty, they create tech transfer, they create new aspects of our economy that diversify our economy, so that the next time we're faced with a downturn of this magnitude, we have a more diversified economy than the one we had entering march of 2020. 

So those are some of the reasons. And I would say about the one-time monies that you're referring to, our conversation internally within the Council of Presidents is really, “How do we approach those one-time monies,” whether they're coming in through the state, or whether they're potential federal earmark opportunities. This is a once-in-a-career opportunity for us to create lasting investment in our students, staff and faculty — oftentimes through infrastructure,  because one-time dollars typically can't be used for operating, because that money is going to eventually evaporate. 

Lawmakers have long criticized the transparency of NSHE’s budget, including in the 2021 session, when Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) described the system’s budget frequently as “behind a curtain.” How would you respond to those criticisms?

I would push back to some degree because I also think Assemblywoman Carlton gave us a lot of compliments this session. And in fact, on the record, complimented [NSHE Chief Financial Officer] Andrew Clinger, who did a masterful job presenting our budget, and thanked him for his additional transparency and availability. And the feedback we got from many legislators was that it felt like a new day at NSHE, that there were new relationships forming, and that this was a positive direction that we would need to continue to move into. 

And in point of fact, I actually welcome the state's audit of NSHE [this year, lawmakers passed a bill, AB416, that authorized an audit of non-state funded NSHE budgets dating back to 2019]. In fact, I was present about a month ago for the initial meeting with the auditors and my NSHE team, and I really welcome their exploration. We're looking forward to that, and participating in that audit, because I think that that will be the definitive word. I think that having that audit completed collaboratively, will put this question to rest.

As a function of another bill, AB450, it’s possible that lawmakers may seek to revise the system’s funding formula in 2023. The last time the funding formula was debated in Carson City, those deliberations became a major source of tension between NSHE and legislators. If we do have that discussion again in 2023, what’s changed?

First of all, redoing a funding formula is not for the faint of heart, no matter who does it, and no matter when they do it — I've been through that in another state. It's a challenging environment. 

So I think we just have to appreciate the fact that that's complex. It's tense, because institutions don't want to lose out in the changes. And obviously, I would be a fierce advocate for all of the institutions advancing their position. 

So I think we just have to appreciate the circumstances. What I would say is that so much has changed in the 10 years since the funding formula was established. We've gone through the two worst economic downturns of our entire lives in 100 years, we've gone through a pandemic, the industry of higher education is going through humongous disruption and transformation. And we're really being called, appropriately called, to advance our workforce efforts and elevate them to a new position. 

A few things that I think are very hopeful about how the conversation would go. One, of course, is that we do have AB450. And that committee may, in fact, ask for a funding formula revision. I don't know yet, I mean, we haven't populated the committee, and it hasn't met yet. But certainly that is a potential outcome. 

Secondly, I will be presenting to the board in a couple of weeks, also, our vision for statewide strategic planning. And I think this is a critical component in answering your question of, you know, why would people get along better? Part of the beauty of going through a strategic planning process is you invite everyone to the table. So the vision for strategic planning that I'll present to the board and seek their input on in a few weeks, is what I would affectionately refer to as a “y'all come” strategic planning process. 

We will also, as an ancillary benefit, be developing friends and advocates. And so that if we went into the ‘23 [legislative] session with a request, say, for a funding formula revision or any other request, the concept would be that we would have developed the advocacy and the support for that request very intentionally in advance. 

AB450 is broadly tasked with putting together an interim committee to study the alignment between NSHE’s community colleges, their funding and their governance, and the state’s workforce development goals. However, the language of “alignment” presents a question of the negative, that there’s a misalignment in existing programs. Do you think that is the case? 

I think that our [community college] campuses, and I would include Nevada State College in this as well, which was formed for the very purpose of workforce, teachers and nurses predominantly, I would say that there are tremendous things happening in workforce on all of our campuses. What has not been done, to my knowledge, is really aligning the data about what is needed for workforce, and doing a gap analysis with that data against what we are currently offering. 

Under [Vice Chancellor for Workforce Development Caleb Cage’s] direction, we are already processing some of that data working very closely with [the Governor’s Office of Economic Development] to collect what they have and surfacing that so that we can map it onto our existing certificates, badges, associate's degrees and beyond. And that crosswalk is the essential component to understanding if there's a gap somewhere. 

And so if there are gaps that are surfaced through that data collection, that will provide us the direction we need to refocus or add things that are new for new industries that are just coming online. But it also will inform the funding conversation. And I think this is a critical component, that's important for the public to understand is that many of our workforce efforts that are non-credit bearing, they don't result in a degree [and] are not funded through the state appropriation. 

And so if we want to change that, if we want to increase our supply of those opportunities, those learning opportunities, one solution for doing that is to fund it. 

Looking at the system’s diversity, there is a wide gap between the diversity of faculty and students at NSHE institutions. As of 2018, NSHE’s own data show 67 percent of all employees were white, while just 43 percent of students were white. What’s the mechanism by which the system actually closes that gap?

Well, part of it is about changing the conversation and creating intentionality. I've seen this successfully happen at other institutions. And I think creating an intentionality and creating a plan, where we are holding ourselves accountable to the outcomes will be absolutely critical. 

And [it’s] recognizing that these things don't happen overnight. And we have a team from NSHE, participating in a national-level conversation with other systems to share best practices. And the first thing we're doing, of course, is collecting the data so that we know exactly where are the gaps, so that we can hold ourselves accountable for measurable improvements over time. 

And so then that gets to the strategies, right? How do you get there? How do you get a faculty and a staff that again, mirror our student bodies today and our student bodies of the future, because they're going to continue to become increasingly diverse. And that's, you know, there's no silver bullet, right? 

What I'll tell you is one of the techniques that I saw work very effectively at one of the institutions in Oregon, when I was Chancellor there, and that was on one campus, we had, at the time, a [Carnegie R1 very high research activity] institution focused on hiring senior faculty of color. So these are folks who are hired in with tenure. And then they become mentors, to the young folks coming up behind them, which I think changes the conversation. 

Now, I will tell you, that's an expensive strategy. And it's expensive because it costs a lot more to hire a senior professor than an assistant professor. So those are the kinds of things that our task force will be looking at, and analyzing and evaluating what makes sense for Nevada, what makes sense for our institutions. 

Lawmakers pump brakes on DMV plan to pay back $1 technology fees that were ruled unconstitutional

The Nevada DMV’s plan to pay back millions of collected $1 fees — charges declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court — is temporarily on ice after state lawmakers said they want additional buy-in on the plan.

Members of the Interim Finance Committee on Wednesday opted to not accept the agency’s plan to transfer $6 million in collected technology fee payments into a new refund budget account and attached disbursement plan. IFC Chair Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) lauded the proposal as a “creative solution” but said the committee wanted explicit approval from the court and state Senate Republicans (who filed the initial legal challenge over the fees).

“Once we pull the trigger on this, this work program, then it's out of our hands until it falls in our lap,” Brooks said.

The required payments are the result of a May decision by the Nevada Supreme Court finding that two taxes — the DMV $1 fee and a higher payroll tax rate — were unconstitutionally extended in 2019 beyond their set-in-statute expiration dates without a two-thirds vote, required for any tax bill passed by legislators. The lawsuit was filed by all members of the state Senate Republican caucus shortly after the close of the 2019 legislative session.

But while the Department of Taxation has made progress on refunding unconstitutionally collected payroll tax — reporting last week that it had refunded a total of $30.6 million to more than 22,600 businesses — the DMV has faced more roadblocks in its task to return millions of $1 transaction fees to customers.

Multiple legislative solutions to pay back the fees were proposed but ultimately dropped in the final days of the 2021 legislative session, with exasperated lawmakers finally deciding to give the DMV a $7.8 million check to pay back $5.9 million in transaction fees and related costs.

Nevada DMV Director Julie Butler briefed lawmakers on the agency’s plan — it would run a customer query and send postcards or a letter to all individuals who paid the technology fee in the 2021 fiscal year, giving them instructions on how to claim their refund. Those individuals could log onto a “secure website” and select their refund preference — either receiving it through an electronic transfer (Zelle), or opting for a paper check. 

Individuals also could opt out of receiving a refund and allow the DMV to keep the technology fee as a “donation,” and customers who did not respond within a certain amount of time would have their refunds kept in the state’s Unclaimed Property system. Those who paid multiple installments of the $1 fee (such as for multiple vehicles or trailers) would receive their refund and interest in a single payment.

Butler said those steps were necessary because the cost of simply sending a $1 paper check to affected customers in the state could end up costing close to $50 or $60 per check, and the agency wanted to give customers the option to opt-out after receiving several calls from customers indicating they were not interested in receiving a refund.

Asked whether the plan had the blessing of the court or attorneys for the state Senate Republicans who filed the initial lawsuit, Butler said their approval wasn’t necessary. She said she made an error in telling legislators in the final days of the 120-day session that any repayment plan needed the court or GOP buy-in, and that the agency wanted to move quickly to “get these refunds out to our customers as quickly as possible.”

“I do know our attorney has talked about our plan with opposing counsel, (but) whether or not they like the plan, it's really the department’s plan to comply with the court order,” Butler said. “We believe it's a good plan, and the more that we dither around with this, the longer it's going to take us to effectuate these refunds.”

But that course of action was questioned by Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), who said she wanted the buy-in from the Republicans who challenged the initial tax extension, lest they bring another lawsuit forward for not following the terms of the state Supreme Court’s order.

“I think we need to get everybody on the same page saying, ‘This is the way to move forward,’ so that we can get this finished and over and done with,” Carlton said. “We're already spending more money on it than we probably should, money that could be going to a lot of other places.”

Butler said she had spoken with Republican Senate Leader James Settlemyer (R-Minden) in May, but that his suggestions were untenable — issuing a credit on future transactions could end up benefiting new residents or other individuals who did not pay the fee, and the programming costs of adding a $1 credit to existing charges would cost “significantly more” than the plan proposed to legislators.

“We feel that this is the best solution in a bad situation,” she said.

Ultimately, Brooks instructed the DMV to bring the item back during the next IFC meeting, saying that more “conversations” needed to take place before he was comfortable moving forward with the plan.

“I think there is more work that needs to be done to give us the level of comfort we need to make sure that we're all on the same page, and that we are going to satisfy all parties involved, including the taxpaying Nevadans,” he said.

Higher education officials ended 2021 session with mixed budget news, prospect of another fight over removing regents from constitution

Administrators, officials and lobbyists in the orbit of Nevada’s higher education system shared a common refrain coming out of this year’s legislative session: It could have been worse. 

“I think relative to where we started the process, we ended up in a much better place,” Nevada System of Higher Education CFO Andrew Clinger said. “Now, I wouldn't say that we're in a great place. We're better than we were.”

When the dust settled, NSHE escaped with roughly $76 million in cuts to operational budgets, after another $93 million had been restored to institutional coffers through federal COVID relief dollars. It was a surprise boon and last-minute addback aimed at lifting a hiring freeze and avoiding the looming prospect of faculty layoffs. 

Even now, optimism remains high that lawmakers will use some of the roughly $2.7 billion in federal aid allocated to Nevada through the American Rescue Plan to erase some or all of the outstanding $76 million cut — though exactly how or when that could happen remains unknown. 

While the budget drew much of the attention during the session, lawmakers also passed dozens of higher-education related bills, including measures that formalized land-grant university status for UNLV, created fee waivers for Native students and began the process of amending the Board of Regents out of the state Constitution. 

Budget woes blunted, but not erased

When the legislative session began in early February, vaccinations had only just begun in earnest. Among the many unknowns at the time, it remained unclear when — and by how much — the state’s precarious revenue outlook would rebound after a devastating 2020. 

Amid that uncertainty, Gov. Steve Sisolak proposed a two-year budget that skimmed 12 percent off state agency budgets. That included NSHE, where 12 percent over two years amounted to a cumulative $169 million in cuts. 

At the time, the 12 percent figure, combined with several key restorations of tens of millions in capital project funding, was seen as something of a win. Budgets fell by roughly 19 percent in 2020 by the end of last year’s special legislative session, but several administrators, system officials and lobbyists expressed relief at the time that the governor and lawmakers declined to go even further in dipping into higher education coffers to fill severe budget holes elsewhere. 

Through the course of the 2021 session, higher education advocates were concerned that legislators might use higher education budgets as a release valve. And at multiple junctures, lawmakers on key budget committees pressed higher education officials for more information on individual budget accounts, and asked why formula-based funding tied to student credit-hours, referred to as caseload growth, was increasing even as enrollment numbers fell. 

“I've said this to almost every NSHE advocate and lobbyist that I have ever met with, that I appreciate where they are, [but] that if I have a choice between kindergarteners and college kids, I'm there for the kindergarteners,” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said during a May committee meeting. “They need my voice, they need our voice.”

Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton in the Legislature in Carson City on Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Clinger and system Chancellor Melody Rose argued to legislators that the increase came because formula budgets lagged the current budget cycle by roughly two years, and the increase was in essence a built-in “catch-up” mechanic. 

That question came in addition to claims from committee members that NSHE was better positioned to absorb cuts in large part because of federal aid dollars set aside specifically for colleges and universities through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). 

Created as part of the original CARES Act and boosted twice by federal relief measures in December and again as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), HEERF ultimately funneled more than $369 million to NSHE institutions, with a little less than half — $160 million — set aside for student financial aid. 

In documents presented to the committee in the waning days of the session, Clinger argued that the HEERF money had only offset deep revenue losses at individual institutions, essentially covering massive budget holes created by empty dorms, unfilled stadium seats and unbought parking passes. Clinger said the HEERF allocation would not cover the sum total of expected revenue losses and a 12 percent across-the-board cut. 

Even now, as the widespread lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and the expansion of vaccination programs are buoying state and local economies, Clinger told The Nevada Independent that revenue projections have yet to change. The latest round of HEERF money allocated through the ARP will still be set aside to cover expected losses in non-state funding. 

The biggest budgetary win for NSHE came in the final days of the session, when budget committees opted to fully restore personnel budgets and added back roughly $93 million dollars in an effort to unfreeze hundreds of vacant positions across all eight institutions. 

However, lawmakers left another $76 million in operational cuts in place while also instituting a handful of fee waiver bills. Most notable among the waivers was AB262, which essentially waived tuition and fees for members and descendents of any federally-recognized Indian tribe or nation in Nevada. 

The fee waivers were hailed by Native leaders as critical expansions of educational access, and saw support from both UNR and UNLV. After AB262 was signed by the governor, Nevada Indian Commission Executive Director Stacey Montooth said the measure “exponentially broadened” the futures of the state’s Native Americans. 

But NSHE officials and members of the Board of Regents have raised concerns that such waivers were delivered to the system as “unfunded mandates” with fiscal impacts that are difficult to quantify because of the impact on future revenues, ultimately compounding operational cuts.  

“So [the Legislature] cut the budget, and then tell higher ed that they have to give certain students free or reduced tuition,” Regent Jason Geddes said in an interview. “And most of [the waivers] I'm very favorable about, and I've supported, like AB262, but it is tough to balance.”

Faculty labor priorities see mixed results

As lawmakers mulled the budget, faculty advocates sought action on a number of their own labor priorities with mixed results. 

In the win column, legislators approved language that allowed regents to implement the first permanent merit-based pay raise funding pool in more than a decade. 

Under a policy later approved by regents during an early June meeting, institutions will use a 1 percent pool from their budgets to fund performance-based pay increases, functionally replacing a state-funded 2 percent pool that was eliminated as part of Recession-era cuts 12 years ago.

Representatives with the Nevada Faculty Alliance (NFA), including UNLV’s Doug Unger, called the change “a victory” and “a long time coming,” pointing to the pool as a key factor in helping address issues of salary compression and worsening faculty morale.  

UNLV campus on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Even so, the NFA’s main priority, SB373, struck a logjam in the Senate Finance Committee, where it ultimately died without receiving a second hearing.

A measure that would have granted Nevada higher education faculty collective bargaining rights under state law, SB373, was pitched by NFA leaders as a necessary step toward removing control of the current bargaining process from NSHE and the Board of Regents. 

“The problem with that is that our employers, who are the Board of Regents, both write and interpret the rules of engagement for collective bargaining,” Kent Ervin, Vice President of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said. “And we have no way of going to an outside group for mediation or arbitration for efficient resolution of any disputes.”

Under the current system, faculty can collectively bargain under NSHE code, just as CSN faculty did last year. However, such bargaining units are unable to directly negotiate with the state for pay and benefits, leaving them unable to ask for the 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) raise offered to certain state employee unions. 

“It’s rather ironic that at the same time, our collective bargaining bill, to give us the right to negotiate under the state system, was not passing through the Legislature, we were told that, ‘well, unless you have a collective bargaining agreement with the state, you can't get this higher COLA, you have to have the agreement first,’” Ervin said. “And yet, we have no way in statute to have that agreement.”

And while faculty fears over impending layoffs were allayed by the restoration of personnel budgets, other compensation cuts remain in place. That includes deep cuts to the Public Employees Benefits Program (PEBP), including reductions in life insurance benefits and the wholesale elimination of long-term disability insurance.

The expected pain from those cuts was partially mitigated with the surprise addition of a premium holiday. But with the enrollment period for the current fiscal year already come and gone, Ervin and other faculty advocates are still “cautiously hopeful” that lawmakers could use federal relief money to plug holes for the 2023 fiscal year. 

The Accountability Question

Each of the last three legislative sessions has had a similar yet distinctive throughline: a visible lack of trust between key legislators and NSHE, its chancellor and the Board of Regents. 

The history of tension between the Legislature and the regents spans decades. Unlike many other states, the Board of Regents that govern higher education in Nevada are written directly into the Constitution with the power to control not only universities, but also community colleges. Critics of the board have often charged that it and NSHE at large have wielded that constitutional status as a legal shield, at times casting itself as a fourth branch of government in legal disputes with the Legislature. 

The relationship deteriorated quickly and severely in the wake of a 2016 scandal that saw then-Chancellor Dan Klaich ousted over the revelation that his office had misled legislators during the high-stakes revision of the system’s funding formula in 2012. 

The incident and other lingering divisions between legislators and the regents finally led to 2017's AJR5, which sought to expand legislative oversight by pulling the Board of Regents from the state Constitution entirely. 

After four years of winding through the legislative process, AJR5 became Question 1 on the 2020 ballot. But after all those years, including a year of full-throated public campaigning, Question 1 was rejected by voters by a narrow margin of just 3,877 votes out of more than 1.2 million ballots cast. 

Just five months after the ballot question failed, lawmakers introduced and passed SJR7, a legislatively-proposed constitutional amendment that would remove the Board of Regents from the state Constitution, in essence mirroring Question 1 with a handful of small tweaks.

Like AJR5 before it, SJR7 would need to secure passage from both houses in another legislative session before it could head to the voters for final approval in 2024. The measure cruised easily through both the Assembly and Senate, encountering only a bit of late-session resistance from a small bloc of 11 conservative Assembly Republicans — far short of the 22 votes needed to block the measure. 

Lawmakers on the floor of the Assembly inside the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, April 15, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Question 1’s backers have coalesced around SJR7, now armed, they say, with the knowledge of why Question 1 failed at the ballot box. 

“I think there's just significant evidence that can't be ignored that the public was very, very confused about it,” said Warren Hardy, a former state senator and lobbyist with the nonprofit Council for a Better Nevada, which funded efforts supportive of Question 1 on the 2020 ballot. “And so being as close as it was, I feel like having a question clarified and very specific about the fact that it just simply looks at taking the regents out of the Constitution, but yet doesn't change any of the statutory provisions related to how they're elected or anything.”

The question of whether the regents should be enshrined in the state Constitution has also been linked to a related but separate question: Should the regents be elected at all? 

Both sides of that issue have argued that the possibility of appointing, rather than electing regents — which is not a policy addressed either by Question 1 or by SJR7 — should not be part of the debate over the regents’ constitutional status. 

Even so, the two issues have so-far been inextricably tied together, both in opposition rhetoric and in the Legislature. 

In the midst of the second round of discussions in 2019, then-Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse — a co-sponsor of AJR5 — proposed SB354. It was a sweeping measure that would have completely overhauled the makeup of the Board of Regents (if Question 1 on the 2020 ballot were to pass), dropping the number of regents from 13 to nine and splitting the board between just five elected regents and four appointed by the governor. 

Even though the bill failed to pass, it has since served as proof-positive among Question 1 skeptics that Legislators will likely attempt to appoint at least some regents should the legal bar be lowered and the board is removed from the Constitution. 

Vocal Question 1 critic and Regent Jason Geddes asked in an interview with The Nevada Independent, in light of moves by lawmakers to slash budgets, enforce fee waivers and audit system finances, “What is the overall intent, if not to make the board appointed, not elected?”

“I think [appointed regents] is still the through line,” Geddes said. “I don't think they should have brought [SJR7] this session. To me, it's somewhat dismissive of the electorate to say, ‘they just didn't understand it. and even though they voted it down, we're going to bring it back.’”

Proponents of SJR7 argue, just as they did with Question 1, that the entire debate is and should be about the accountability of the board to lawmakers. To that end, among the differences between last year’s failed ballot question and this year’s renewed joint-resolution is the addition of a Constitutional requirement for lawmakers to audit the higher education system every two years. 

Lawmakers would have the power to initiate an audit regardless of the passage of SJR7, and indeed moved this session to begin just such a process with AB416. But, Hardy said, the enshrinement of a legislative audit in the language of SJR7 was included because “the public overwhelmingly supported that provision.” 

“We started emphasizing a little bit because of the public interest that was in it,” Hardy said, citing internal polling and focus groups. “But certainly for the most part, when we were trying to figure out what people did and didn't understand about it, it was pretty clear that those who supported it understood [audits] and wanted it included.”

The broader question of accountability often dips deeper into something more foundational: Should Nevada overhaul the structures through which it governs higher education? 

One potential kickstart to discussions about new governance models could come from AB450, a bill backed by the governor and creating an interim committee tasked with examining whether governance and funding structures for Nevada community colleges align with broader workforce development goals. 

AB450 was the end result of a promise Sisolak made in his State of the State address in January, when he pledged to call on lawmakers to work with NSHE “to develop a framework to transition Nevada’s community colleges to a new independent authority that will focus on making Nevadans job ready.”

In the time since, the governor has at least twice called for increased community college funding — once during a post-session bill signing event, and again during a roundtable event with U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh last month. 

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, right, and Gov. Steve Sisolak announce a workforce grant during a roundtable at the College of Southern Nevada on Tuesday, June. 22, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

“I've always maintained — from my time on the Board of Regents to the [Clark] County Commission to now as governor — our community colleges are underfunded and underappreciated and overlooked, unfortunately,” Sisolak said during the roundtable.

What form such an increase would take is unclear. But should AB450 initiate new talks on a funding formula revision, higher education administrators said it is likely that any community college formula changes would ripple outward to the state’s four-year institutions, too. 

And while the bill is in a technical sense merely a study — often the death of lawmaking endeavors — Hardy said key provisions in AB450 mean the study committee will produce an actionable report come the next regular session. 

“This is the first step towards modernization,” Hardy said. “And we're very delighted that there's language included in there, this implementation language. That it is not just a study, but there's a provision that requires the group to come back with recommendations for 2023. So we think we can begin implementing these things as early as 2023.”

Land grant status, more policies pass muster

No single piece of legislation threatened to re-open regional wounds between UNLV and UNR in the early months of the legislative session like SB287

In the simplest terms, the measure sought to formalize UNLV and the Desert Research Institute as federally designated land grant institutions alongside UNR in statute, essentially firming up several legal opinions that held that UNLV and DRI were already land grant schools, as both were already part of the “University of Nevada” as described in the state Constitution. 

UNLV administrators and Southern Nevada boosters praised the measure as a necessary equalizer between north and south, a change they said could provide the state’s younger university the same opportunities afforded the venerable UNR. 

But many at UNR —  including university President Brian Sandoval, who vetoed a similar measure during his time as governor in 2017 — railed against the bill as potentially devastating to the university’s Cooperative Extension, which partners with county governments across the state to provide a host of popular programs.  

University of Nevada, Reno on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

In the end, the regional push-and-pull was for naught, as last-minute compromises gutted the original draft’s most controversial provisions. SB287’s final form left UNR’s funding for its Cooperative Extension untouched, while still allowing for formal legal recognition of UNLV and DRI as land grant institutions.

For the Council for a Better Nevada, also a major booster of the bill, Hardy said the goal for 2021 was securing formal land-grant status in Nevada law — not pursuing millions of dollars in funding made available to UNR through its operation of the Cooperative Extension, as the original draft did. 

“In retrospect, if I had to do it again, I would have only included section six that provision related to codifying land grants in the first place,” Hardy said. “Because that was the portion that we were interested in.”

The ultimate financial effect of SB287’s addition of grant application opportunities will likely take months or years to play out as UNLV and DRI faculty apply for the grants at issue. 

SB287 was only one of many higher education-related bills that survived the session. Other major legislation approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor includes: 

  • SB434: Restores $25 million in state funding for the medical education building under construction for UNLV’s nascent Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine. Originally allocated in 2017 but cut during the 2020 special session, Hardy said the money will go toward furnishing the interior once construction is complete. 
  • SB347: A wide-reaching bill that, among other things, directs the regents to create a sexual misconduct task force and create a system-wide campus climate survey, and also removes citizenship requirements for the Millennium Scholarship, Silver State Opportunity Grant and the Nevada Promise Scholarship. The measure was the end result of three bills — two addressing Title IX issues and a third focused on scholarship requirements — merged into one.
  • SB342: Allows the Board of Regents to give final approval to a 50-year partnership deal between the UNR Medical School and Reno-area health care giant Renown Health. Hailed as “transformative” by proponents, the deal was approved by regents in a 12-1 vote at their June meeting. 
  • SB128: Directs the state treasurer to conduct a study on the effectiveness of publicly-funded scholarships and grant programs. The study would evaluate a range of metrics, from the administrative costs of these programs to the short and long-term viability of publicly funded scholarships. 
  • SB327: Though not wholly related to NSHE, this bill in part expands definition of racial discrimination to include ancestry, color and certain traits like hairstyles. The bill also prohibits discrimination based on “traits associated with race” for enrollment in Nevada schools, including institutions under NSHE’s umbrella. 

Updated, 7/2/21 at 11:30 a.m. - This story was updated to include additional details on the Nevada Board of Regents as among the few elected boards nationwide, and to correct a transcription error. NFA Vice President Kent Ervin said "for efficient," rather than "or efficient."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No comment,” Carlton replied.

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

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

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

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

From health care transparency to a public option, lawmakers largely drilled into non-pandemic health care issues in 2021 session

When lawmakers kicked off their 120-day legislative session in February, the state was still recovering from a brutal winter surge of COVID-19, which saw a thousand new cases of the virus reported across the state each day.

Lawmakers early in the session came forward with some modest proposals to address the pandemic — including a bill to give workers paid time off to get vaccinated — but it was unclear at that point what COVID-19’s trajectory in the Silver State would be. With an influx of federal financial support boosting the state’s pandemic response, it wasn’t always easy to tell where lawmakers could be of most help. With sessions slated for only 120 days every other year, it also wasn’t clear they could craft policy responsive enough to the ever-changing needs created by the pandemic.

Instead, lawmakers generally focused on a host of other important, but perhaps less high-profile, health care proposals, from legislation to support the provision of telehealth services in the state, which became all the more popular during the pandemic, to a bill that would provide for Medicaid coverage of community health workers. They also honed in on data transparency, hearing bills that would make changes to the state’s drug pricing transparency program and establish an all-payer claims database in an effort to better understand the health care landscape in the state.

Lawmakers also took up a last-minute bill to establish a state-managed public health insurance option in Nevada, the second-ever to be approved in the nation. Despite reservations from Republican lawmakers — and even from some Democrats — the Legislature introduced and approved the bill in just a little more than a month with some strong-arming by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), who spearheaded the legislation. 

Behind the scenes, there were frustrations, though, among health care lobbyists. Industry lobbyists, for instance, were caught off guard that Cannizzaro hadn’t involved them in the process of developing the public option bill and dropped the proposal on them in the final weeks of the session.

“I can tell you that when there are very challenging things that occur within health care, when you lock us all in a room, we tend to find solutions,” Tom Clark, lobbyist for the Nevada Association of Health Plans, said during the bill’s first hearing.

Bobbette Bond, policy director for the Culinary Health Fund, also said it was difficult to craft good policy in a legislative environment so heavily shaped by the pandemic. For much of the session, the legislative building was closed to the public and committee meetings were only able to be attended virtually.

“It was hard to get revisions made. It was hard to have good conversations about what could be done. It was hard to build stakeholders,” Bond said. “It was hard to communicate, and I think the policy suffered for that.”

Bond also expressed dismay in the two-thirds requirement for passing tax increases, on the grounds that it has prevented lawmakers from tackling more ambitious health care legislation. Because there isn’t more funding to go around, including to support health care, she said lawmakers have turned to putting mandates on industry.

“The mandates … end up substituting for actual public health policy,” Bond said.

The Culinary Health Fund, which is the health insurance arm of the politically powerful and Democratic-aligned Culinary Union, did, however, continue to play a significant role in shaping health care policy this session with Democrats remaining in control of both chambers of the Legislature. Other industry representatives, who often work collaboratively with Democratic lawmakers but more often align with Republicans on business priorities, had less of an upper hand.

Mike Hillerby, a longtime lobbyist on health care issues in the state, said Nevada loses “a lot of subtlety in the public policy debate” when the discussion is “driven by the relationship between a couple of unions and a couple of hospital chains.”

“That drives so much of what we do, and it's so contentious. Look at balance billing from 2019. Look at some of the stuff this time, and everything's driven by that. That's not indicative of the market and the rest of Nevada. That's not indicative of what's happening with providers and patients and payers in rural Nevada, in the Reno area, and yet so much of it is driven by that and that financial reality, that bargaining relationship, those contractual relationships,” Hillerby said. “We just lose a lot of the subtlety and the ability to make better decisions.”

Here’s a look at some of the health policies that passed this session and others that didn’t.

Gov. Steve Sisolak signed several pieces of public health-related legislation into law in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Public option

The highest-profile piece of health care legislation to pass this year, SB420 — Nevada’s public option bill — was introduced with just a little more than a month left in the legislative session by Cannizzaro, the Senate majority leader. Proponents were quiet about the legislation for the first couple of months of the session until Cannizzaro was asked by a reporter in mid-April about the proposal and health care lobbyists started receiving briefings from consultants on the concept.

The bill, which builds upon previous public option proposals introduced in Nevada in 2017 and 2019, aims to leverage the state’s purchasing power with Medicaid managed care organizations — private insurance companies that contract with the state to provide coverage to the state’s low-income population — to get insurers to also offer public option plans. The plans will resemble existing qualified health plans on the state’s health insurance exchange, though they will be required to be offered at a 5 percent markdown with the goal of reducing the plans’ premium costs by 15 percent over four years. The plans won’t be offered for sale on the exchange until 2026.

The proposal cleared both the Senate and Assembly on party line votes and was signed into law in early June by Gov. Steve Sisolak, making Nevada the second state in the nation after Washington to enact a state-based public health insurance option into law. Colorado became the third state to establish such a policy in mid-June.

Though the legislation was heavily opposed by the health insurance industry — with some groups running ads and sending mailers opposing the proposal — Cannizzaro muscled the bill through the Legislature as the clock counted down to the end of the 120-day session. The bill easily cleared the Senate — where Cannizzaro, as majority leader, controls which bills come to the floor — and Democratic leaders in the Assembly threw their support behind the bill shortly thereafter, setting aside concerns about whether the bill can accomplish its goals of improving health care access and affordability.

“It's not a secret I have been skeptical of this bill from the very beginning, but I've seen the amendments, and I have talked to a number of the different proponents of the bill and opponents of the bill on it,” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said in late May, shortly before allowing the bill to be voted out of her committee. “I feel much more comfortable knowing that, in the future, the people that are in this building now that do come back are well aware of what's going on, and I trust them to make the best decisions they can to protect the constituents of this state.”

In her remarks, Carlton was referring to the long runway the bill establishes before the public option actually goes into effect, leaving time for the state to conduct an actuarial study to figure out whether the bill actually accomplishes the goals it sets out to and two legislative session in 2023 and 2025 for lawmakers to make any tweaks to the policy as necessary.

Heather Korbulic, who as head of the state’s health insurance exchange will have a key role in shaping the policy’s implementation, has said she plans to bring stakeholders together to “outline the actuarial study and conduct a meaningful analysis of the public option as it relates to every aspect of health care throughout the state.” 

Richard Whitley, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said in an interview earlier this month that the public option isn’t “a single solution” but “does definitely enhance the opportunity for individuals to gain access to health care.”

“I think of this as an option for coverage,” Whitley said. “It definitely enhances that overall framework of health care coverage.”

Nuclear medicine technologist Vanessa Martinez, views scans at Lou Ruvo Center of Brain Health, on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Transparency and data efforts

For the last two legislative sessions, lawmakers have focused on prescription drug cost transparency, passing a first-in-the-nation diabetes drug transparency law in 2017 and expanding that law to include asthma drugs in 2019. This year, lawmakers built upon those transparency efforts by passing legislation requiring transparency from more portions of the health care industry.

This year, lawmakers approved a bill, SB40, to establish what’s known as an all-payer claims database — a state database of claims of medical, dental and pharmacy services provided in the state. The law requires all public and private insurers regulated under state law to submit their claims to the database and authorizes insurers governed by federal law — such as the Culinary Health Fund — to submit their claims to the database. A similar bill proposed during the 2019 legislative session failed to move forward in the final minutes of that session, though the concept was revived by the Patient Protection Commission, which brought SB40 forward this session.

The bill, however, required extensive work when it got to the Legislature, with state Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) taking the bill under her wing as chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and working with industry advocates — including the Nevada Association of Health Plans, the Nevada State Medical Association and the Nevada Hospital Association — to finalize the legislation.

“We knew the bill was going to pass, at some level ... so we wanted to make sure that the information that was going to be collected was accurate, was consistent with what was required in other states that had all-payer claims databases and also to learn from what those other states had done so we wouldn’t make the same mistakes,” Clark, the Nevada Association of Health Plans lobbyist, said. “Fortunately, Senator Ratti and others were good to work with and we’re comfortable with the way the bill passed.”

The legislation additionally makes data contained in the all-payer claims database confidential, meaning that it is not a public record or subject to subpoena, and specifies how the information contained in it can be disclosed. It can be shared in de-aggregated form to state or federal government entities, including the Nevada System of Higher Education, and any entity that submits data to the database. Anyone else looking to obtain the data can only receive it in aggregated form by submitting a request to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Lawmakers also built upon the diabetes and asthma drug transparency bills passed in 2017 and 2019, respectively, by expanding the universe of drugs the state imposes transparency requirements on. SB380, which was proposed by an interim committee created during the 2019 session to study prescription drug costs, requires the state to compile a list of prescription drugs with a list price that is more than $40 for a course of therapy that has undergone a 10 percent price increase in the preceding year or a 20 percent increase in the two prior years.

The legislation requires drug manufacturers to submit a report to the state explaining the reason for the price increase and explaining the factors that contributed to the price increase. Meanwhile, pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, the middlemen in the drug pricing process, are required to submit their own reports with certain data about the drugs, including rebates negotiated with manufacturers and the amount of the rebates retained by the PBM.

The state’s drug transparency program will also, for the first time, have funding behind it, utilizing dollars that have been collected in the form of fines paid by companies for not complying with the state’s drug transparency law. The Department of Health and Human Services put a $780,000 fiscal note on the bill to allow state health officials to transfer the existing drug transparency database to the state’s Enterprise Information Technology Services Division and hire a pharmacist and management analyst to manage the drug transparency program.

SB380 was, however, only one of two bills put forward by the interim prescription drug committee to pass this session. The other was SB396, which allows the state to establish intra- and interstate drug purchasing coalitions with private entities. 

The three bills that did not pass were:

  • SB201, which would have licensed pharmaceutical sales representatives
  • SB378, which would have required at least half of the health plans offered in the state by private insurers to provide prescription drug coverage with no deductible and a fixed copayment and limit the total amount of copayments insured individuals are required to pay in a year 
  • SB392, which would have licensed PBMs and created additional rules for how PBMs can operate.

Nick McGee, senior director of public affairs for PhRMA, the drug industry advocacy organization, in an email expressed disappointment that lawmakers pursued SB380 this session while not advancing the other proposals out of the interim committee. PhRMA did, however, in the end testify in neutral on SB380.

“We are disappointed that the legislature overlooked this opportunity to address patients’ concerns related to their ability to afford and access the medicines they need,” McGee said. “Instead, lawmakers pursued onerous reporting and unnecessary registration requirements that won’t do anything to help patients afford their medicines and fail to provide transparency into why insurers are shifting more and more costs on to patients.”

Bond, the policy director for the Culinary Health Fund, which played a key role in bringing the 2017 bill to fruition, described SB380 as a “step forward,” though she said the bill didn’t end up “as strong as we would have liked.”

“It’s incremental, and it’s progress,” she said.

Lawmakers did not advance SB171, sponsored by state Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City), which would have barred most insurance companies from implementing copayment accumulator programs for any drug for which there is not a less expensive alternative or generic drug. Such programs prevent drug manufacturer coupons from applying toward patients’ deductibles and maximum out-of-pocket costs.

The Legislature additionally made a budgetary change to boost transparency, approving a request from the Department of Health and Human Services to centralize its data analysis efforts within the office of Data Analytics within the Director’s Office, while the Patient Protection Commission, which is focusing on health care spending and costs, was transferred from the governor’s office to Director’s Office as well.

Whitley, the department’s director, framed the reshuffling as an effort to bring together disparate health data collection and analysis efforts, adding that the pandemic showed the kind of real-time data the department could provide, as in the case of its COVID-19 dashboard, among other dashboards it now maintains.

“Usually people go, ‘We need more money.” Well, in government sometimes what you need is organizational structure,” Whitley said. “Putting data analytics all in one unit in my office … was really because of seeing all of the benefits that were coming out of monitoring the pandemic. That really served to inform what we could be doing.”

The Legislature also made a significant change to the Patient Protection Commission this session, transforming it from a largely industry-focused body to one instead made up largely of non-profit health industry representatives and patient advocates. AB348, sponsored by Carlton, requires the commission be made up of:

  • two patient advocates
  • one for-profit health care provider
  • one registered nurse who practices as a nonprofit hospital
  • one physician or registered nurse who practices at a federally qualified health center 
  • one pharmacist not affiliated with any retail chain pharmacy, or a patient advocate
  • one public nonprofit hospital representative
  • one private nonprofit health insurer representative
  • one member with expertise advocating for the uninsured
  • one member with expertise advocating for people with special health care needs
  • one member who has expertise in health information technology and works with the Department of Health and Human Services
  • one representative of the general public.

The bill also makes the Patient Protection Commission the sole state agency responsible for administering and coordinating the state’s involvement in the Peterson-Milbank Program for Sustainable Health Care Costs, a program that provides technical assistance to states developing targets for statewide health care spending trends. 

Health care industry representatives have, however, chafed at the reduction — or in the case of the drug industry, removal — of their representation on the commission. McGee, from PhRMA, said the change “[undermines] the ability of the commission to provide a comprehensive perspective.”

But Bond, a commission member whose ability to serve will be unaffected by the policy shift, said the change would give patients and consumers more of a voice.

“I understand the concerns about losing representation from the industry, but I also believe that industry has other places where they get represented,” Bond said. “They have the Nevada Hospital Association, the pharmaceutical industry has PhRMA. They get well represented in their core arena. Patients really don't have a core arena they can go to.”

The Patient Protection Commission’s other bill this session, SB5, also was approved by lawmakers, making a number of changes to telehealth in the state. That bill also contains a data transparency component, requiring the Department of Health and Human Services, to the extent money is available, to establish a data dashboard allowing for the analysis of data relating to telehealth access.

Another big bill that tried to tackle health care costs this session, AB347, sponsored by Assemblyman David Orentlicher (D-Las Vegas), died without receiving a vote. The ambitious bill, among other provisions, proposed establishing a rate-setting commission “to cover reasonable costs of providing health care services” while ensuring providers “earn a fair and reasonable profit.” The bill also would have raised Medicaid payments to Medicare levels via a provider tax.

Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital staff gather in the emergency room area in Elko
Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital staff gather in the emergency room area in Elko on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Antitrust in health care

Lawmakers approved two antitrust in health care bills this session. The first one, AB47, requires parties to certain reportable health care or health carrier transactions to submit a notification to the attorney general with information about the transaction at least 30 days before it is finalized. Reportable transactions include material changes to the business or corporate structure of a group practice or health carrier that results in a group practice or health carrier providing 50 percent or more of services within a geographic market.

The bill, which was presented by the attorney general’s office, also prohibits employers from bringing court actions to restrict former employees from providing services to former customers or clients under certain circumstances and bars noncompete agreements from applying to employees that are paid on an hourly wage basis.

The bill attracted opposition from the Nevada Hospital Association and the Nevada State Medical Association. During a May hearing on the bill, Jesse Wadhams, a hospital association lobbyist, thanked the attorney general’s office for working with them on the bill but said the association still could not support the legislation.

“We believe the policy itself comes from a faulty premise,” Wadhams said. “We believe policies should promote more physicians, more access to care and more investment in the health care community.”

Another bill, SB329, requires hospitals to notify the Department of Health and Human Services of any merger, acquisition or similar transaction. It also requires physician group practices to report similar transactions if the practice represents at least 20 percent of the physicians in that specialty in a service area and if the practice represents the largest number of physicians of any practice in the transaction. The legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas) and pushed for by the Culinary Health Fund, requires the department to publish that information online and write an annual report on that information.

Another section of the bill allows the attorney general or other individuals to bring a civil action against a health care provider that “willfully” enters into or solicits a contract that bars insurance companies from steering insured individuals to certain health care providers, putting health care providers in tiers or otherwise restricting insurers. It also makes such an action, known as “anti-tiering” or “anti-steering,” a misdemeanor. (A final amendment to the bill reduced the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor.)

“I think this is one of the early steps in what will probably be a national trend,” Bond, of the Culinary Health Fund, said in an interview. “I think contract provisions are going to become more and more antitrust looking.”

The bill was opposed by the Nevada Hospital Association and individual Nevada hospital systems and hospitals.

“The technical elements of this and eliminating antitrust provisions by themselves are not the problem we have with this bill — it is making sure that it doesn’t impede the open contracting that occurs otherwise in this highly competitive environment,” Jim Wadhams, a lobbyist for the hospital association, said during a May hearing on the bill.

Tristian McArthur cares for an infant inside the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Sunrise Hospital on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Medicaid

In perhaps the most substantial victory for health care providers this session, lawmakers rolled back a 6 percent Medicaid rate decrease approved by the Legislature during a budget-slashing special session last summer.

Legislative fiscal analysts projected the move would restore about $300 million in Medicaid funding both in the current fiscal year and in the upcoming biennium, including about $110 million in general fund spending.

“Nevada faced an unprecedented state budget crisis,” Bill Welch, CEO of the Nevada Hospital Association, and Jaron Hildebrand, executive director of the Nevada State Medical Association, wrote in a letter to the governor in May. “The work you did alongside the Nevada Legislature to restore funding to hospitals and providers will be instrumental in safeguarding the health care available to many Nevadans.”

Lawmakers made a number of other changes to Medicaid services as well, providing for coverage of doula services in AB256 and community health workers in AB191. The public option bill, SB420, also contained several Medicaid provisions, including one section providing that pregnant women are considered presumptively eligible for Medicaid without submitting an application for enrollment and another prohibiting pregnant women who are otherwise eligible for Medicaid to be barred from coverage for not having resided in the United States long enough to qualify.

On the mental health front, SB154 requires the state to apply for a waiver to receive federal funding to cover substance use disorder and mental health treatment inside what are known as institutions of mental disease — or psychiatric hospitals or residential treatment facilities with more than 16 beds. Medicaid has long been barred from paying for care in such facilities, but states were recently given the ability to apply to the federal government to cover these services through Medicaid via a federal waiver.

Lawmakers also approved AB358, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), which will allow for a more seamless transition of incarcerated people to Medicaid upon release from prison. The bill requires a person’s Medicaid eligibility to only be suspended, rather than terminated, when they are incarcerated and specifies that individuals who were not previously on Medicaid should be allowed to apply for enrollment in the program up to six months before their scheduled release date. The bill also requires eligibility for and coverage under Medicaid to be reinstated as soon as possible upon an individual’s release.

In a major victory for families of children with autism, lawmakers passed SB96, which boosts reimbursement rates for autism services.

A member of the Nevada National Guard places a swab in a container after performing a COVID-19 test at the Orleans on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Public health

Lawmakers, by and large, did not spend much time tackling the COVID-19 pandemic head on during their legislative session, likely a byproduct of how rapidly the situation has evolved over the last six months.

Legislators did, however, approve SB209, sponsored by state Sen. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas), which requires employers to provide paid leave to employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and requires the Legislative Committee on Health Care to conduct a study during the 2021-2022 interim about the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and make recommendations to the governor and lawmakers for the next legislative session in 2023.

They also passed SB318, also sponsored by Doñate, requiring public health information provided by the state and local health districts to “take reasonable measures” to ensure that people with limited English proficiency have “meaningful and timely access to services to restrain the spread of COVID-19.” 

Beyond COVID, the Legislature passed a number of other public-health related measures this session, including, notably, establishing a public health resource office within the governor’s office through SB424, with the goal of taking a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to public health in the state. 

Lawmakers also approved SB461, which requires the state to disburse $20.9 million of American Rescue Plan dollars to specifically to address needs spotlighted by the public health emergency including “mental health treatment, substance use disorder treatment and other  behavioral health services, construction costs and other capital improvements in public facilities to meet COVID-19-related operational needs and expenses relating to establishing and enhancing public health data systems.”

The Legislature additionally passed a few tobacco-related pieces of legislation including AB59, sponsored by the attorney general’s office, officially raising the tobacco purchase age in the state to 21 — the federal Tobacco 21 law went into effect in December 2019 — and AB360, sponsored by Assemblyman Greg Hafen (R-Pahrump), which prohibits people from selling, distributing or offering to sell cigarettes or other tobacco products to a person under 40 without first conducting age verification. Additionally, SB460, the budget appropriations bill, allocates $5 million for vaping prevention activities.

Lawmakers also approved SB233, sponsored by state Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City), which appropriates $500,000 to the Nevada Health Services Corps, a state loan repayment program for physicians and other health practitioners aimed at encouraging providers to practice in underserved areas of the state. The Legislature also approved SB379, a health workforce data collection bill that proponents say is critical for the state’s health professional shortage area designation. 

“It’s kind of nerdy, wonky data stuff, but those designations are really critical for Nevada, for loan repayment, for health service corps, for [federally qualified health center] and community health center designation and reimbursement and all sorts of stuff,” said John Packham, co-director of the Nevada Health Workforce Research Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. “We just need better data, period, on the workforce.”

Vitality Unlimited provides substance abuse treatment in Elko
Vitality Unlimited provides substance abuse treatment in Elko. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Mental health

While mental health advocates have become accustomed to making slim gains each legislative session, Robin Reedy, executive director of NAMI Nevada, believes 2021 was a good session for mental health.

“For once, it’s a long list. It’s just so amazing,” Reedy said of the mental health bills that passed this session. “Everything has just been an uphill climb constantly … but this year, oh my God.”

In addition to SB154, mentioned above, key mental health bills passed this session hone in on mental health parity (AB181), implement the 9-8-8 National Suicide Prevention Hotline (SB390), bolster crisis stabilization services in the state (SB156) and remove stigmatizing language from state law referring to people with mental illness (AB421).

Lawmakers also approved bills put forward by the regional behavioral health policy boards established during the 2017 legislative session, including SB44, which aims to smooth the licensure process to boost the number of behavioral health providers in the state, and SB70, which makes changes to the state’s mental health crisis hold procedures.

Reedy attributed the increased focus on mental health this session to a “perfect storm of things coming together.”

“I think it's incredibly sad that it took a pandemic for people to actually look more at mental health — when everyone was going through some form of anxiety or depression from being isolated, from not knowing what the future held, from it being just really untenable, and everyone has different levels of acceptance of those things, and living through those things, different levels of resilience,” Reedy said. “Suddenly it's like, ‘Mental health.’ We've been working on this forever. Finally.”

But Reedy said there’s still a long way to go. For instance, she wishes that SB390, which authorizes the state to impose a surcharge on certain mobile communication services, IP-enabled voice services and landline telephone services to fund the 9-8-8 line, would have capped that charge at 50 cents instead of 35 cents. She believes had the session been a regular session and had mental health advocates been able to pack the committee room with patients, they would have been able to get that fee cap increased.

“I just don't think 35 cents is going to be enough … We’re 51st in the nation [for mental health],” Reedy said. “I know telecommunications does not want to pay to fill the hole, but that means crisis lines are going to be busy.”

A medical staff member prepares a COVID -19 vaccine during the Amazon employees Covid-19 vaccination event at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in North Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Other health care bills

In addition to reigning in drug pricing costs, lawmakers passed several bills making changes to how Nevadans can access certain kinds of prescription drugs. SB190, sponsored by Cannizzaro, will allow pharmacists to dispense certain kinds of hormonal birth control directly to patients. SB325, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden), similarly allowed pharmacists to dispense preventative HIV medication, including PrEP.

Other prescription-drug focused bills passed this session include AB178, a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Melissa Hardy (R-Henderson) requiring insurers to waive restrictions on the time period in which a prescription can be refilled during a state of emergency or disaster declaration, and AB177, a bill from Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) aiming to expand access to prescription drugs in people’s preferred language.

Lawmakers also passed a number of other health care related bills including:

  • SB275, sponsored by state Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), modernizes state laws on HIV by treating the virus the same way as other communicable diseases
  • SB342, sponsored by the Senate Education Committee, puts the legislative stamp of approval on a major partnership between the UNR School of Medicine and Renown Health
  • SB290, sponsored by state Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas), makes it easier for certain stage 3 and 4 cancer patients to receive prescription drug treatment by allowing them to apply for an exemption from step therapy, which requires patients to approve that certain drugs are ineffective before insurance will cover a higher-cost drug 
  • SB340, sponsored by state Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas), provides for the establishment of a home care employment standards board
  • SB251, sponsored by state Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno), requires primary care providers to conduct or refer patients for screening, genetic counseling and genetic testing in accordance with federal recommendations around BRCA genes, which influence someone’s chance of developing breast cancer

Several health care bills also died with the end of the legislative session, including AB351, which would have allowed terminally ill patients to self-administer life-ending medication, and AB387, a midwife licensure bill.

Lawmakers accept $2.7 billion in American Rescue Plan funds; approve millions for homeowner assistance, education programs

State lawmakers have formally approved accepting Nevada’s $2.7 billion share of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, while also approving a slew of initial spending programs including more than $50 million to help low-income Nevadans pay for housing.

Members of the Interim Finance Committee met Tuesday to authorize the governor’s office to accept the full ARP allotment and designate allocations of more than $76 million in federal aid programs, including $39.5 million in rental assistance, $12.1 million in homeowner assistance and $13.9 million for the Department of Education to ensure federal relief funds are properly administered.

Tuesday’s meeting — the first interim meeting of legislators since the regular 120-day session ended last month — also served to outline how lawmakers and the governor’s office plan to spend the multibillion-dollar federal windfall. 

The vote taken by lawmakers (which also funds the $5 million in vaccine incentive prizes announced by the state last week) will place the federal dollars into an executive budget account, which lawmakers said they will use similarly to a reserve account and to fund proposed programs after gathering additional public input. The state set up an online portal to accept spending ideas from members of the public, members of executive branch agencies and state lawmakers, and IFC Chair Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) said it has received about 1,000 submissions since it opened in April.

Lawmakers stressed that the votes on Tuesday were not intended to leapfrog other priorities for the federal funds — including legislation passed just weeks ago requiring the state to spend $335 million of the allotment to pay back money borrowed from the federal government to sustain unemployment benefits and $54 million to modernize the state’s unemployment insurance system.

“This is the agreement that we have, and we just want to make sure it's very clear to folks that we can walk and chew gum and fix two or three problems at the same time,” Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said during the meeting.

Brooks said that the $2.7 billion was only a portion of the estimated $7 billion total in federal monies coming to the state in the form of direct grants to school districts, counties and cities, and myriad other programs. With all the different pots of money, he said lawmakers “want to make sure that there's no waste, and that it's going to the best and highest use, and there's no duplication.”

Here’s a look at some of the major funding allocations made by the committee on Tuesday:

Homeowner assistance program

Programs to help tenants catch up on rent have been up and running for the last year, but a vote on Tuesday gets the ball rolling on an entirely new, $121 million program to support struggling homeowners.

The Homeowner Assistance Fund is targeted toward property owners who have faced hardship since late January 2020 or after on account of the pandemic. Because the state needs time to set up a portal and put the project out to bid, it will probably take at least 90 days before applications are accepted.

Instead of being disbursed through the state and local government agencies, the fund will be managed by the Nevada Affordable Housing Assistance Corporation, which previously had been administering money from the U.S. Treasury’s Hardest Hit Fund that supported 18 states affected most by the Great Recession.

The Hardest Hit Fund was a $200 million program that ultimately supported about 8,000 individual homeowners. The new Homeowner Assistance Fund is expected to help about 6,800 households.

Carlton said federal COVID-19 aid had previously been reserved to help renters pay their landlords, on the understanding that tenants were exposed to the more immediate effects of the pandemic and mortgage forbearance initiatives would relieve pressure on homeowners. But she said many homeowners have been asking for assistance.

“Seeing a program come forward for homeowners is very gratifying,” she said.

Lawmakers approved spending 10 percent of the allotment to get the program up and running, with plans to build out technology infrastructure and ramp up staffing at the corporation that officials say is operating with a skeleton crew. The first initiatives are expected to be the Unemployment Mortgage Assistance Program — which would bring homeowners who are receiving unemployment benefits current on payments and help support a monthly payment — as well as a Mortgage Reinstatement Assistance Program geared toward people who have returned to work and need to get current with payments to avoid a foreclosure.

The unemployment program is expected to be capped at $54,000 per recipient, with the reinstatement program capped at $35,000 per recipient. But officials are eyeing a complete program limit of $100,000 per recipient, with the understanding that the program might evolve over time and people also could need principal reduction. 

Officials plan to get the word out through partnerships with housing counseling agencies, legal aid organizations and more than 100 mortgage servicers. The outreach involves coordinated mail campaigns that put special emphasis on hard-hit areas.

The program is expected to last for about five years. Some lawmakers questioned whether the estimated $17 million in administrative costs for the program was too high; officials said the costs stem from the complexity of complying with U.S. Treasury guidelines and the fact that applicants may need widely varying amounts of money.

Preparing for education spending

The committee also approved a round of allocations of ARP funds for the Department of Education that included nearly $14 million to ensure that federal relief funds for K-12 schools are properly administered.

“This is a whole new world for us,” said Carlton, who also serves as vice chair of the committee. “So we just want to be able to build in some of that transparency and ongoing communication between the department and IFC on how these dollars are spent in the future.”

In order to ensure the department’s spending of ARP funds is in compliance with guidance from the U.S. Treasury, the agency plans to use $431,000 of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to hire an “education programs supervisor,” who will help oversee the rollout of ARP funds over the coming years.

The additional funds for the department will go toward other temporary positions aimed at supporting the administration of ARP funds, as well as a few other small programs, including $400,000 to help the department in its transition to the new funding formula.

However, one project included within the department’s allocation of ARP funds was hotly contested during the meeting — a request for $10 million to contract with an external auditor who would help ensure the department remains compliant with ESSER and ARP requirements.

Some lawmakers questioned whether the audit would be needed and how long the contract would take, while others expressed concern over giving the agency the full $10 million for a multiyear contract when the department still needs to reach an agreement with a third party to complete the audit.

“We totally appreciate the audit function,” Carlton said. “Not with the Department of Education, but with other departments, we've had problems where we've given it all to them and found out at the end that none of it worked. And we ended up in a lawsuit, and we had to fund it all over again.”

The committee settled on allocating $5 million for the contract, with plans for the department to come back to the committee when it needs the rest of the funding for the audit contract.

The IFC additionally approved $1.8 million for the department with the goal of identifying and supporting the needs of homeless students.

However, IFC Chair Chris Brooks questioned the breakdown of that allocation across different county school districts. The breakdown was not available for public viewing.

“Why does Carson City — a population of 50,000 people — get $170,000 and Clark (County) — population of two-point-something million — get roughly twice that $342,000?” Brooks asked.

Seng-Dao Yang Keo, director of the Office of Student and School Supports for the department, explained that districts are awarded the grants competitively based on a variety of factors that include percentage of youth who are homeless and county capacity for serving those youth, which is why “one might see the disproportionality.”

Through ARP funding for homeless children and youth, the state will eventually be getting another round of funding of nearly $5.3 million to support that same population.

Other allocations

The committee approved a wide swath of work programs during the Tuesday meeting, including a few smaller allocations of ARP funding.

One allocation of federal funds will grant the Nevada Arts Council nearly $800,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to help support non-profit arts organizations and individual artists as they recover from the pandemic.

The committee also approved $2.7 million to improve access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by bolstering the infrastructure of the program, which includes expanding the program’s call center capacity and reducing call center wait times. The allocation is meant to ensure benefits can better reach underserved communities.

Another allocation of a little more than $100,000 in ARP funds, along with more than $200,000 in CARES Act funding, will go towards setting up the Office of Small Business Advocacy, which was established by AB184 during the 2021 legislative session. The office is meant to provide assistance directly to small businesses owners, including connecting those owners directly to economic relief programs.

After some discussion, committee members approved an allocation of around $2.5 million in federal funds aimed at addressing health disparities among at-risk and underserved populations. Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) commended the Department of Health and Human Services’ ability to coordinate and work with a variety of stakeholders during the pandemic, but noted that “we also want to do a better job specifically on health equity, specifically on disparate impact.” 

DHHS officials responded that the department is looking at continuing to fund its Office of Minority Health and Equity and support its Minority Health and Equity Coalition. Tina Dortch with the office of Minority Health and Equity said that the office has been cultivating relationships in minority communities and will keep working with those communities. Dortch added that the additional funding will allow staff to continue to develop those relationships and build out existing programming.

Legislators on the committee also approved allocating $283,000 to the Department of Motor Vehicles for computer programming costs associated with legislation approved in the 2021 session, including measures decriminalizing traffic tickets (AB116), changes to special license plates for the Las Vegas Golden Knights (AB123) and the “Divine Nine” Black sororities and fraternities (SB163) and prohibiting the suspension of driver license fees by a court over unpaid fees or fines (SB219).

Updated on June 24, 2021 at 8:25 a.m. to correct the amount of funding allocated to the DMV for implementation of bills passed by the 2021 Legislature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which legislators had the most success with their bills?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success for Republican senators in passing bills was more rare.

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

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

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

Which legislators had the least success with their bills?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When were bills heard and when did they pass?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SENATE

Ben Kieckhefer: 36

Heidi Seevers Gansert: 33

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Goicoechea: 20

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

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

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

Joe Hardy: 17

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

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

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

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

Scott Hammond: 14

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

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

Keith Pickard: 6

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

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

Ira Hansen: 5

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

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

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

Carrie Buck: 3

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

James Settelmeyer: 2

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

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

ASSEMBLY

Jill Tolles: 92

Tom Roberts: 90

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Hardy: 82

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

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

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

Glen Leavitt: 55

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

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

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

Heidi Kasama: 52

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

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

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

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

Lisa Krasner: 36

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

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

Gregory Hafen: 30

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

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

Alexis Hansen: 18

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

Robin Titus: 5

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

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

Annie Black: 3

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

The Nevada Legislative Freedom Caucus

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

P.K. O’Neill: 19

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

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

Jim Wheeler: 6

Jill Dickman: 6

Andy Matthews: 5

John Ellison: 3

Richard McArthur: 3

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

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

Which Republicans broke up unanimous votes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Democrats dissented from their party?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

$15 million earmarks on American Rescue Plan funds

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

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

— Michelle Rindels

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

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

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

— Riley Snyder

Closing ‘classic car’ loophole

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

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

— Riley Snyder

Permanent expanded mail voting and ballot initiative withdrawals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Riley Snyder

Authorizing cannabis consumption lounges

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

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

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

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

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

— Michelle Rindels

Taxing and regulating short-term rentals

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

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

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

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

— Michelle Rindels

Bill removing citizenship requirement for higher education scholarships revived

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

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

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

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

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

It also addresses other higher education inequities by:

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

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

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

— Tabitha Mueller

Deportation defense funds

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

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

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

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

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

— Michelle Rindels

Transmission build-out, electric vehicle charging infrastructure bill passes

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

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

The measure previously passed unanimously out of the Senate. 

— Riley Snyder

Minimum energy efficiency levels for appliances

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

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

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

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

— Tabitha Mueller

Overhauling interim legislative structure

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

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

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

— Riley Snyder

Fifth time’s the charm to decriminalize traffic tickets 

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

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

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

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

— Jannelle Calderon

Nevada joins and leapfrogs primary states

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

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

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

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

— Jannelle Calderon

Allocating federal COVID aid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Michelle Rindels

DMV repayment

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

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

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

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

— Michelle Rindels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Riley Snyder

Public option likely all but a done deal after Assembly approves bill on party lines

Nevada’s bid to establish a state-managed public health insurance option appeared all but certain to become a reality late Sunday evening after the Assembly voted on party lines to approve legislation setting the process for establishing such a plan in motion.

The bill, SB420, cleared the Senate on party lines last week and now will return to that body on Monday to concur on an amendment that makes several minor, mostly technical changes to the bill and adds an additional appropriation to cover the costs of implementing the public option. Because the amendment was made with the blessing of Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsor, it is likely to clear the Senate without issue.

Once the Senate approves the amendment, the bill will head to the desk of Gov. Steve Sisolak for his signature. If he signs it quickly, Nevada will become the second state in the nation, after Washington, to approve a public option. (Colorado is also in the final stages of approving a public option bill.)

Sisolak has not taken a public position on the legislation, though it would be unlikely for the Democratic governor to veto the bill. Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, vetoed a different public option proposal in 2017 that would have allowed anyone in the state to buy into a Medicaid-like system of health insurance. At the time, Sandoval said the proposal was “moving too soon, without factual foundation or adequate understanding of the possible consequences.”

Since then, the Legislature has continued to consider establishing a public option, including approving an interim study in the waning days of the 2019 legislative session to look into the possibility of allowing Nevadans to buy into the state Public Employees’ Benefits Program.

SB420, now the third iteration of the public option proposal in Nevada, will require insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population to also offer a public option plan. The plans will resemble existing qualified health plans certified by the state’s health insurance exchange, though the legislation requires them to be offered at a 5 percent markdown, with the goal of reducing average premium costs in the state by 15 percent over four years. The public option will be available for purchase starting in plan year 2026.

Because the concept differs from the prior two public option proposals lawmakers have considered, no one yet knows for certain what kind of an impact the bill might have on reducing costs and expanding accessibility to health care, two goals that proponents have honed in on in advocating for the legislation. To that end, the bill requires an actuarial study to be conducted as part of the four-and-a-half year ramp up before the bill takes effect.

The bill also expands coverage for certain Medicaid services to the extent money is available, including community health workers and doulas.

The Assembly’s swift approval of the bill on Sunday came as no surprise after Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) and Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) threw their support behind the bill on Saturday after previously remaining mum on the topic. While health care industry representatives had angled to turn the bill into an actuarial study only — removing the portions of the bill actually setting the public option in motion — both Frierson and Carlton voiced comfort in the fact that the bill offers significant time before the public option is actually offered for purchase.

“This is a good first step. We're trying to get someplace. We know there's an issue. We're trying to address it. This is a long term process to get there,” Carlton said on the Assembly floor. “The part of the bill that I support the most is being able to get that actuarial study done, know where the state stands and for future legislators sitting in these seats to be able to make a decision. I'm not sure if this is the right way to go, but we're not going to know until we get the data, and that's the part of the bill that I truly support.”

Republican lawmakers have staunchly and uniformly opposed the bill, siding with industry concerns that the legislation will not only not achieve its goal of increasing health care access and affordability but that it will destabilize Nevada’s already fragile health care system. 

“If passed, the bill would mandate insurers to offer a public option and mandate physicians and hospitals to accept rates below cost,” Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington), a family practice doctor by trade, said on the floor. “Doctors will leave the state and hospitals will raise rates or cut critical elective services that are widely used by all. The net effect is less access to care and higher costs for the remaining Nevadans, just the opposite of what we should want.”