Fire managers prepare for summer blazes as the state faces severe drought conditions

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

I’m writing this newsletter from Winnemucca. For the past month, I’ve been reporting out a story on the Thacker Pass lithium mine, which the Trump administration approved in mid-January. 

I’m getting a lot of community perspectives about the project, which would be located outside of Orovada. On Monday evening, I attended a public meeting about having the mining company relocate and rebuild the Orovada Elementary School because of safety concerns with more trucks hauling materials and driving through the area. A lot of perspectives from parents. My story should be coming out in a few weeks. In the meantime, send me any thoughts you have about the project.

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

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


Nevada is facing its worst drought in two decades. 

Nearly 95 percent of the state is facing severe to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. In April, most of the Great Basin experienced above-normal temperatures with little precipitation. As with much of the West, Nevada saw well below-average rain and snow for the water year, which begins in October. Snowpack peaked early, and snow is melting quickly. 

Gina McGuire Palma, a meteorologist who forecasts fire in the Great Basin, presented those statistics at a media wildfire briefing last week. The dry conditions, she said, are important for the forecasts facing fire managers as they start planning for the warm summer months.

When it comes to fire and drought in the Great Basin, the story is complicated. Although drought means less moisture, it also means that low-elevation grasses are less abundant and productive. That’s important because those low-elevation grasses fuel many of the large-scale fires across the Great Basin. The amount of acreage burned and drought are not always related in the Great Basin. But that doesn’t necessarily mean less potential for a bad fire season. 

What it means is that in a drought year, like the one we are seeing, the fire risk tends to be in mid-to-higher elevation areas, McGuire Palma said at the briefing. Another big factor is where the fire is. A smaller acreage fire in a highly-populated area or in sensitive wildlife habitat can have long-lasting effects. And there have been notable fires during drought years before. 

Prior to the media briefing, state, federal and local agencies briefed Gov. Steve Sisolak about fire risks facing the state. At the briefing, Sisolak described wildfire as “one of Nevada’s most challenging issues,” but he said agencies are “better coordinated than ever before.”

Kacey KC, the state forester for the Nevada Division of Forestry, said that better coordination is important in the Great Basin, where much of the land is managed by a variety of agencies. The federal government manages about 85 percent of land within Nevada, and one agency, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, manages about 65 percent.

“We learned through many years of being jurisdictionally challenged that we had to work better together,” KC said. “And we actually also realized, awhile back, that not only do we have to be highly effective at wildfire suppression, but also need to work harder at really targeting our limited resources and funding at the areas that are most critical to reduce risk in.”

In all of this, humans play a big role.

Sisolak, in his remarks, underscored the effects that climate change is having on fires: “While wildfires are a natural part of Nevada’s landscape, the fire season is starting earlier each year and ending later. Climate change and cycles of drought are considered key drivers of this trend.” 

In addition to climate change, the vast majority of fires — about 67 percent — were linked to human activity last year. Sisolak implored residents to be aware of the risks of starting a fire.

“What we can do as residents in Nevada is be aware,” Sisolak said. 

More reporting on this from KNPR and the Associated Press. And tips for preventing fires.

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


CARSON CITY AND CONGRESS

A massive energy bill drops at the Legislature: Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) dropped a major energy infrastructure bill last week with less than three weeks left in the session, as my colleague Riley Snyder reported. The legislation, presented at a roundtable with Sisolak and NV Energy, aims to increase the state’s transmission capacity (crucial for putting more renewables on the grid) and to require more investment in charging for electric vehicles. Both are central to the governor’s climate strategy, and backers of the bill argue that it is vital in order to ensure the state plays a central role in the transition from fossil fuels toward renewable energy. 

  • Most environmental groups support the broad components of the bill: They want to see more deployment of renewable energy, and transmission is going to be an important element of that. At a hearing Monday, several groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Nevada Conservation League, came out in favor of the legislation. 
  • But some groups believe the legislation shortcuts comprehensive planning: For months, environmental groups have been pushing state agencies to identify land where energy development is appropriate and where it conflicts with other priorities, including recreation and wildlife habitat. They want to see policymakers working to prioritize new energy development, such as solar fields, on already disturbed land. The transmission lines matter, they say, because their alignment and siting often dictate where projects go. These groups want to see more comprehensive planning when it comes to building out a more renewable grid. Based on my reporting, they are not alone. Public land has many constituencies, and permitting conflicts are not limited to environmental issues.
  • There is also the question of regulatory oversight: The legislation dropped with only a few weeks left in the session. But given the presence of the utility at the unveiling of the complex bill, it is clear that it came out of negotiations between legislative leaders, NV Energy and the Sisolak administration. It’s worth noting that the Nevada Resorts Association came out in “technical opposition” because of the late bill introduction and sought changes that “retains authority and regulatory discretion to protect customers from increased rates and making projects more expensive than they need to be.”

Swamp cedar bill passes both houses: The Senate on Monday passed legislation to grant state protection to unique stands of low-elevation Rocky Mountain juniper trees in Spring Valley (known as Bahsahwahbee in Shoshone). The legislation, introduced by Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas), would protect the trees, known as the swamp cedars, that stand as a sacred and spiritual place for Shoshone and Goshute communities. Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) was the only Republican senator who voted in favor of the bill, despite making remarks that questioned the accuracy of accounts of massacres that occurred at Bahsahwahbee and angering Indigenous advocates, as my colleague Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez reported.

A few pieces of legislation I’m watching as the session nears a close:

  • AB356: Banning Colorado River water from use in irrigating decorative turf
  • AB349: Ending a loophole allowing “classic cars” from evading smog rules
  • AB148: Preventing “bad actors” from getting a new mine permit
  • SCR10: Creating an interim study on hydrogen and lithium as energy sources 
  • SCR11: Creating an interim study on Sisolak’s “Innovation Zone” proposal
  • AB95: Adding an Indigenous representative to the interim public lands committee
  • AB146: Establishing a right to clean water, aims to better regulate indirect pollution 
  • SB285: Better integrating bikes into our road infrastructure
  • AB97: Creating a working group to look at “forever chemicals” known as PFAS
  • SB430: Restructuring the State Infrastructure Bank to fund climate-related projects
  • SJR1, AJR1, AJR2: The mining tax resolutions. Anything could happen. 

(This is by no means exhaustive. Let me know what I’m missing here — daniel@thenvindy.com. h/t to the Nevada Conservation League, which puts together a weekly list of bills to watch). 

Reauthorizing the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto introduced legislation last week to fund environmental protection at Lake Tahoe. The legislation has the backing of the entire Nevada delegation, the Tahoe Daily Tribune reported last week.


WATER AND LAND

“We’re going to have one of the lowest runoffs that we’ve seen:” SFGATE’s Julie Brown writes about low elevations at Tahoe, with an interview from the Truckee River Water Master. 

Diving to clean-up Lake Tahoe trash: “A team of scuba divers on Friday completed the first dive of a massive, six-month effort to rid the popular Lake Tahoe of fishing rods, tires, aluminum cans, beer bottles and other trash accumulating underwater,” the Associated Press reports. 

Biden considers new sage grouse rules: Associated Press reporter Matthew Brown reported last week that the Biden administration is considering a temporary ban on new mining across certain areas of public land in the West as part of efforts to recover the imperiled Greater sage grouse, which has seen significant population declines over the last half-century. From the story: “The Interior Department review comes in response to a federal court order and is expected to cover millions of acres of sagebrush habitat considered crucial to the bird’s long-term survival.”

Tracking a federal wild horse adoption program: “...records show that instead of going to good homes, truckloads of horses were dumped at slaughter auctions as soon as their adopters got the federal money. A program intended to protect wild horses was instead subsidizing their path to destruction.” Incredible reporting from the New York Times’ Dave Philipps.

Federal regulators to rule on Tiehm’s buckwheat: “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to make a determination on the listing of a rare Nevada wildflower as an endangered species by the end of the month,” reports Jeniffer Solis with the Nevada Current.

Water data is as important as ever: An example from California. 

For the mappers out there: A new, peer-reviewed Colorado River map is out. 

For the mappers out there (Part II): What is a summit? Great New York Times piece.

ENERGY AND CLIMATE

Google’s big geothermal announcement: Google is partnering with energy startup Fervo to develop a “next-generation geothermal project” that would help the company power its data centers and infrastructure in Nevada. Fervo expects to begin adding geothermal energy to the Nevada grid in 2022, according to a Google blog post, and the company views the project as a crucial part in its transition toward meeting its “moonshot” carbon-free energy goals by 2030.

  • From Google’s blog post: “Not only does this Fervo project bring our data centers in Nevada closer to round-the-clock clean energy, but it also acts as a proof-of-concept to show how firm clean energy sources such as next-generation geothermal could eventually help replace carbon-emitting power sources around the world.” 
  • “Next-gen:” In the blog post, the project is referred to as “next-generation” geothermal, distinguished from conventional geothermal because it uses advanced drilling, fiber-optic sensing and data analytics (the press release mentions AI and machine learning). But the project appears to be one step in the company’s larger plan to make geothermal more viable. At a keynote for Google I/O, an annual developer conference, CEO Sundar Pichai said geothermal “is not widely used today, and we want to change that.” 
  • That last quote is a big deal: As I’ve written in this newsletter before, developers have long seen an opening to deploy more geothermal, and Nevada is uniquely positioned. It has expertise, with a top geothermal developer headquartered here, and according to the U.S. Geological Survey, high potential for more geothermal development. Having a major company make a high-profile investment in geothermal is pretty significant.

Bury power lines? News 4-Fox 11’s Ben Margiott asked a top NV Energy executive.

An important utility debate is brewing: Los Angeles Times reporter Sammy Roth writes about a national debate over whether utilities should be allowed to charge their ratepayers for trade association fees, especially when those trade associations engage in advocacy activities. 

Massive clean energy bill expanding transmission, electric car charging stations gets first hearing; resorts opposed

Heralded as a transformative step to move Nevada toward greatly reduced carbon emissions through massive expansions in transmission and electric vehicle infrastructure, state lawmakers heard the first details of the legislative session’s biggest energy policy bill with just two weeks to go before the end of session.

Sponsored by Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), SB448 would expand the state’s transmission infrastructure in line with NV Energy’s multibillion-dollar Greenlink Nevada initiative, along with requiring a $100 million investment in electric vehicle charging stations, expanding rooftop solar to multi-tenant and commercial buildings and proposing a host of other measures aimed at lowering carbon emissions and building up renewable energy infrastructure.

During the bill’s first multi-hour hearing on Monday in the Senate Growth and Infrastructure Committee, lawmakers and clean energy advocates were not shy about pouring praise on the legislation — ranging from NV Energy CEO Doug Cannon saying the bill “positions Nevada as energy leader in the western United States for decades to come” to Governor’s Office of Economic Development Director Michael Brown saying “448 will be one of those bill numbers that lives beyond legislative sessions.”

Support was not unanimous — several progressive and environmental groups warned that a large infrastructure project could harm fragile ecosystems, and the politically powerful Nevada Resort Association (which represents many casino resorts that have left regular utility service but remain as transmission-only customers) testified in opposition, wanting the state’s Public Utilities Commission to have more authority over the transmission build-out.

Brooks, who sponsored legislation raising the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard in 2019 and 2017, said those bills and past efforts were helpful first steps but that this legislation represented an attempt to “take a more holistic approach at carbon reduction planning for the electricity sector.”

“Imagine a world where in Nevada, we are making most of our own electricity with renewable resources, we're putting them in our vehicles, and we're driving our vehicles,” he said. “That closes the loop and keeps billions of dollars in our economy, and also makes it far more affordable for the individual who's driving the electric vehicle.”

SB448 has two main prongs — transmission and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

The transmission portions would help finish NV Energy’s proposed “Greenlink” transmission plan, which received initial, partial approval from the state Public Utilities Commission in March. The project would build two major transmission lines aimed at forming a “transmission triangle,” expanding and linking the current 235-mile, 500 megawatt “One Nevada Transmission Line” that links Northern and Southern Nevada. 

Brooks said expanded transmission capacity would not only build up grid resiliency beyond the current One Nevada line — pointing at the 2021 Texas electricity crisis as a warning — but would also allow Nevada to more cheaply import renewable energy produced in other states and help diversify the current fuel mix.

“If we just connect the dots with a few transmission lines, we could realize that economic opportunity of being the hub of the western grid, and we could realize the benefits that come with all of that energy that we can export and all that energy that we move through our state,” Brooks said. “The benefits are billions of dollars of economic activity in our state and billions of dollars of private investment in our state and renewable energy projects.”

The other major portion of the bill would require NV Energy to propose and submit a $100 million spending plan for electric vehicle charging station infrastructure over the next two years, with a strong focus on historically underserved areas, outdoor recreation, transit agencies and fleet upgrades for state, local and federal governments.

Much of the three-hour hearing focused on the transmission aspects — a wide variety of groups testified in support including IBEW; businesses including Google, Ikea, Patagonia and Uber; Battle Born Progress and clean energy development groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, Nevada Conservation League and others.

Brown, who heads the state’s economic development arm, said corporations in and considering moving to Nevada were increasingly focused on renewable energy and meeting environmental goals, giving the state a potential leg up on business development if it further committed to renewable resources.

“For the first time, we sat with a manufacturer from the Midwest a few weeks ago, and they looked at us and the first question they had for us is they wanted to talk about renewable energy,” he said. “They wanted to know how we were producing it, how it was transmitted, what the prices were. That's a game changer. We've not had that before.”

Cannon, who helped present the bill, said completion of the Greenlink project would help create a “path forward for us to economically achieve the state's net zero carbon goals,” while opening up new areas for solar and renewable energy development currently cut off from transmission lines.

“We can produce energy in a lot of places in Nevada, but that doesn't do us any good if we can't get that energy from where it's produced to where it needs to be utilized,” Cannon said. “Transmission becomes the backbone that is necessary to fully utilize that energy.”

But that proposed infrastructure expansion attracted opposition from spokesmen for environmental groups including Basin and Range Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity who said they had strong concerns that the legislation allowed NV Energy to rush forward without enough time for environmental review or potential impacts.

“Instead of instructing state agencies to complete a clear-eyed, comprehensive review of where renewable energy might be appropriate in this state, SB448 would throw open the doors to our most wild and pristine landscapes and rely on the tender mercies of the market and fossil fuel companies like NV Energy to decide the fate of Nevada’s wildlands,” Center for Biological Diversity State Director Patrick Donnelly said.

Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), a former administrative attorney at the PUC, asked what would happen if the promised economic benefits don’t materialize — and how much risk was being shouldered by ratepayers.

Cannon responded that the Greenlink plan was “not a risk-free proposition,” but said the utility was prepared to move forward with the $2.5 billion infrastructure project immediately, noting that customers would not have to start paying for the project for several years and that any proposal by the utility would go through a contested hearing process before the PUC and ultimately have to be approved by the commission.

“There is no guarantee in this legislation that we will recover the dollars of this investment,” he said. “There's not. We have to proceed reasonably, and then we'll trust in the process on the back end that we have the opportunity to recover our investment and earn a reasonable return. It's kind of the regulatory compact that exists between the utility as a private entity and the state.”

But the proposed process in the bill attracted opposition from the Nevada Resort Association —  lobbyist Laura Granier said the group was in “technical opposition” because of the complexity of a bill introduced with only two weeks left in the legislative session. She said the association had proposed “clarifying changes” to the bill that would not affect the timeline but would ensure that the PUC “retains authority and regulatory discretion to protect customers from increased rates and making projects more expensive than they need to be.”

“The Commission needs the tools to keep an eye on that,” she said. “We're not saying that they shouldn't earn their return on investment, they should, but through the (Integrated Resource Planning) process they do get to recover costs.”

Both Brooks and Cannon said the bill would not have a sizable impact on utility customers — Brooks pointed to a slide showing the adoption of renewable energy increasing while average electric prices in the state had gone down. Cannon added that opening up transmission markets would help the state access lower-cost power from other areas, and that ratepayers wouldn’t see the cost of the expanded infrastructure until five or six years down the road.

NV Energy, in a filing submitted to the PUC as part of the initial Greenlink filing last month, estimated that customers in nearly all rate classes would see higher base power prices to help pay off the expansion of power lines. Cannon and others said in a previous forum on the bill that those estimates do not include potential benefits from increased transmission access.

Beyond transmission and electric vehicle charging, the bill also creates a Regional Transmission Coordination Task Force, a group of public and private industry officials tasked with helping the governor and Legislature determine the steps needed to join a western states regional transmission organization — an entity that coordinates, controls and monitors a multi-state electric grid. The legislation requires Nevada to join a regional transmission organization (RTO) by 2030, with options for the PUC to delay or waive the requirement.

The bill would also double an energy efficiency initiative for low-income customers from five to 10 percent of the utility’s overall energy efficiency plan, expand a state Renewable Energy Tax Abatement program to cover energy storage projects, reopen a discounted energy rate program that expired at the end of 2017 and require NV Energy to begin including a low carbon dioxide emission reduction plan in its triennial integrated resource plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their efforts, so far, have worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legislation from the state’s climate plan 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gas utility’s legislative push

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framing a planning process as a ban 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One hearing, many revisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting the stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indigenous leaders, environmentalists urge lawmakers to pass protections for sacred swamp cedars

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

A lot of news this week, and it’s only halfway over. On that note, a small piece of programming. As we spring forward into daylight saving time, so too is this newsletter. We are moving the run date for the Indy Environment newsletter up to Wednesday for the foreseeable future. 

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

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Most Rocky Mountain juniper trees grow at elevation. But near the eastern edge of the state, a  unique population of large juniper trees rest on a valley floor. For generations, the trees have lived in an area within Spring Valley, outside of Ely, that is known as Bahsahwahbee, or “the sacred water valley” in Shoshone. For Indigenous communities in the area, it is everything.

On Monday, Delaine Spilsbury, an Ely Shoshone elder, told lawmakers that the land is sometimes compared to Mecca or Vatican City. Bahsahwahbee is a ceremonial site for many communities in the area. It could also be compared to Wounded Knee. The land is the site of multiple gruesome massacres of hundreds of Indigenous people in the 1800s.

“But,” Spilsbury said, “I want to say that you cannot compare Bahsahwahbee to anywhere else. There is only one. And if the Swamp Cedars are gone from Bahsahwahbee, then it is all gone.”

The stands of unique juniper trees in Bahsahwahbee are described as the swamp cedars, and under proposed legislation, they could receive state protection, a measure widely supported by Indigenous communities and environmental groups during a hearing Monday evening.

Assembly Bill 171 would make it the state’s policy to protect the geographically distinct Rocky Mountain juniper population and make it illegal to damage the swamp cedars without obtaining a special permit from the state, similar to rules that govern other sensitive species. 

“When you get to this valley, you see how different and significant it is to have a stand of Rocky Mountain junipers thriving in this valley floor,” said Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsor and the chair of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources.

Watts said the bill’s language mirrors the protections given to distinct species for threats. Those designations are typically species-wide. But the proposed bill applies similar regulations, Watts said, to a subsection of the Rocky Mountain juniper population in Bahsahwahbee because of its importance to Indigenous communities and its unique presence in low-elevation habitat. 

Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, described the area as a sacred, spiritual and holy place for Goshute and Shoshone communities.

“My people were massacred in a very, very harsh way at swamp cedar,” Steele said. “Just like a seed, each one of those swamp cedars was fertilized by one of those that was massacred there. And through that, we live spiritually and connect with Mother Earth through them. And to destroy those trees would be an act of genocide.”

His message resonated with communities from other parts of the state. Marla McDade Williams, a lobbyist testifying on behalf of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said the ancestors of their Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe members “have been affected by issues like this throughout the history of this country.”

“That said, historical cultural areas of Nevada are important to all of us and we urge your support for AB 171,” McDade Williams said. 

If the legislation is approved, it would mark a significant moment for state law because it would be the first time a statute specifically protected a plant because of its cultural value. Watts said he saw the legislation fitting in with broader efforts to recognize Indigenous rights at the state level.

“One of the things I’ve been advocating for is addressing the long and painful history that our state and government has with Native American people,” Watts said in an interview Tuesday. “I think there’ve been a lot of instances, over time, including recently, where the cultural, spiritual beliefs of Native populations here have been overlooked or disregarded.”

Tribal leaders across northeastern Nevada stressed the importance of Bahsahwahbee, and the need for state protection. Although the land, controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, has several layers of protection, state protection would more concretely protect the plant. 

In the past, the swamp cedars faced threats from the proposed Las Vegas pipeline. For decades, the Southern Nevada Water Authority had sought permits to pump groundwater in Spring Valley and pipe it to Las Vegas. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which shelved its plans for the pipeline last year, has not taken a position on the legislation.

Several environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Nature Conservancy, the Nevada Conservation League, Great Basin Resource Watch and the Great Basin Water Network, supported the legislation.

In written testimony, the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said it supported the “spirit and intent” of the bill, but the agency raised concerns about precedent.

“We appear to be standing at the top of a long slippery slope,” Dominique Etchegoyhen, the agency’s deputy director. “There are innumerable important natural resources across this vast state, many of which are located on federal lands. These unique resources cannot all be individually recognized in state statute, each requiring a special permit issued by the State Forester Firewarden. The burden would simply be too great.”

But Etchegoyhen, in later testimony, said the state did support a second piece of legislation, AJR 4, an assembly joint resolution calling on the federal government to increase protections for the area.


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

A historic confirmation: Incoming Interior Secretary Deb Haaland made history as the first Indigenous person to serve in a cabinet-level position. The Senate confirmed Haaland to the position on Monday in a 51-40 vote. The Department of Interior oversees federal public land across the West, and the agency plays a decision-making role in everything from protecting sensitive ecosystems to permitting mines. The Interior Department is especially important in Nevada, where the federal government is responsible for managing about 85 percent of land within the state. 

  • Importantly, the agency oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That means “Haaland will also be responsible for upholding the government’s legally binding obligations to the tribes – treaty obligations that have been systematically violated with devastating consequences for life expectancy, exposure to environmental hazards, political participation and economic opportunities in Indian Country,” as reporter Nina Lakhani writes for The Guardian.
  • Soon after the election in November, the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada sent a letter of support to the incoming Biden administration for nominating Haaland. “As the leaders of sovereign tribal nations, we believe it is long past time that a Native American person serve as Secretary of Interior,” the Inter-Tribal Council wrote. After President Joe Biden nominated Haaland to lead the agency, we reached out to tribal leaders from across the state to talk about what her historic nomination meant. 

The mining tax debate: On Tuesday night, we hosted an IndyTalks panel on the debate in the Legislature over whether to change the constitutional cap on taxing mines. In August, legislators passed three resolutions in a special session that would increase how much the industry pays in taxes. Although legislators have not yet taken up the resolutions in this session, lawmakers are expected to weigh the proposals in the coming weeks. To amend the Constitution, the Legislature must approve the resolutions again. Then they would go to a vote in the 2022 general election.

All three resolutions kickstart the process of amending the Constitution. Two resolutions remove a 5 percent cap on the net proceeds of minerals and replace it with a 7.75 percent tax rate on gross proceeds, raising an estimated $541 million, with a portion of that revenue going toward education and health care or to Nevadans as a dividend. A third measure, cast as an “olive branch” to the industry, raises the net proceeds tax cap to 12 percent, but it is estimated to generate less revenue than the other proposals.

Our panel included Lorne Malkiewich, former Legislative Counsel Bureau director; Laura Martin, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada; and James Wadhams, a longtime lobbyist for the mining industry. Check out the full discussion here.

Sisolak on Blockchains and water: Last month, we reported on concerns, including from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, about acquiring the water needed for Blockchains LLC to develop a Smart City as part of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s “Innovation Zone” proposal. Last week, Sisolak’s spokesperson Meghin Delaney replied to two questions I sent to the office. Here they are:

  1.  Is the governor concerned about the environmental consequences of importing water? “Responsible and equitable use of Nevada’s water resources are top of mind and will be the focus of much work between all the parties involved before any approvals are granted.  An Innovation Zone developer will be required to navigate the same water use rules as any other developer in Nevada.”
  1. Has the state consulted with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe or considered their views? “The state is in the very early stages of a long-term project, and the state is committed to working with all stakeholders on the responsible development of the Innovation Zone. The door is always open to the PLPT to answer any questions the tribe may have about the proposal.”

Gold mining outside of Death Valley: The Los Angeles Times’ Louis Sahagún writes about Indigenous communities and environmental groups pushing back against a proposed gold mine near Death Valley. He writes that “environmental groups and tribal nations have drawn a line in the alluvial sands overlooking the community of Lone Pine, population 2,000, on the eastern flanks of the Sierra Nevada range: No mining in Conglomerate Mesa, not ever again.”


Drought across the West: “The Western US is in the midst of yet another dangerous dry spell. The drought has been building over the past year, and since November, a greater stretch of the West has been in the most severe category of drought than at any time in the 20 years that the National Drought Mitigation Center has been keeping records,”  Lili Pike writes for Vox in an article that makes the connection to climate change. 

New report calls for stronger climate action: “A new analysis finds that Nevada is not on track to meet its 2050 greenhouse gas reduction targets absent stronger clean energy policies,” Jeniffer Solis reports for the Nevada Current. “The analysis by research firm Energy Innovation — based on a state-specific version of the firm’s “energy policy simulator“— shows that without additional action Nevada’s emissions will actually increase 12 percent by 2050 as fossil fuel use outpaces solar power and electric vehicle growth.”

30 by 30: The Sierra Nevada Ally’s Brian Bahouth has a good piece about testimony in the Legislature on a resolution supporting the conservation of 30 percent of the state by 2030.

Thacker Pass, lithium and mining: Grist’s Maddie Stone writes about the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine, approved in the final days of the Trump administration. From the story: “The controversy over Thacker Pass highlights a much bigger challenge the Biden administration will have to grapple with in order to quickly transition the U.S. economy to carbon-free energy sources: How to acquire the vast mineral resources that are needed, such as metals needed for batteries, like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, without sacrificing biodiversity or the health of communities living nearby mining projects.”

Something to watch: “As part of its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has identified more than 2,000 MW of new renewable energy generation in southwest Nevada that would help California achieve its climate change goals,” Gridliance announced in a press release this week. More to report on this in the coming weeks.

Cortez Masto introduces Clark County lands bill to expand Las Vegas footprint, designate public land for conservation

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

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

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Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto introduced long-awaited legislation Wednesday that would change the way public land is managed in Clark County, creating a path to grow the Las Vegas metro area toward California while setting aside land for conservation and recreation.

The introduction of the legislation comes almost three years after the Clark County Commission, then-chaired by Gov. Steve Sisolak, asked the state’s delegation to introduce a public lands bill. 

For years, elected officials, county staff and real estate developers have predicted a demand for more developable acreage with the Las Vegas area, encircled by federal public land, forecast to grow. In an interview, Cortez Masto said the bill looks to balance new growth with conservation.

Cortez Masto said she worked to answer the question: “‘How do we find a balanced approach?”

She said the goal, drafting the bill, was “that we actually look to diversify our economies through this bill, that we build more affordable housing but that we also then continue to preserve the outdoor spaces that we have across Southern Nevada for outdoor recreation and conservation.”

“That’s why it took us some time to really talk with folks, engage the cities, engage the county and make sure that everybody had an opportunity to weigh in,” she added.

The bill, as introduced, would open up a large stretch of federal public land, running south along the I-15 corridor toward Jean and the California border, for potential commercial and residential development. It also opens up public land near Indian Springs, Laughlin and the Moapa Valley.

At the same time, the legislation proposes conserving about 2 million acres of public land. The bill would establish 337,406 million acres of wilderness in the county and protect about 1.3 million acres of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness. The refuge is the largest in the contiguous United States and has faced recent threats with the Air Force looking to expand a training range. The bill would also set aside about 350,000 acres of land for wildlife habitat.

In Nevada, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversees about 67 percent of the land. As a result, the federal government — and Nevada’s congressional delegation — play a role in how land is managed. Accordingly, the bill proposes changes to land management across the county.

It would convey 41,255 acres to the Moapa Band of Paiutes, whose lands originally consisted of more than two million acres in 1874 and were substantially reduced by Congress one year later. The bill would also convey public land currently leased for municipal use (parks, schools, etc.). 

How the legislation came to be is the result of a long, arduous and often controversial process. The county’s original proposal took heat from environmental groups. It protected a fraction of the acreage that Cortez Masto’s bill does and was viewed by several groups as subverting the spirit of the Endangered Species Act. In October 2019, 14 groups sent a letter of concern to the delegation.

Then there was a wait. A discussion draft came out in January 2020, and Cortez Masto signaled that the bill would be introduced in December. In that time, Cortez Masto’s office reached out to dozens of groups to make changes to the county’s original proposal. When the legislation was introduced on Wednesday, my inbox is proof that many groups, though not all, were in support.

The county put out a supportive press release. The homebuilders. The commercial real estate developers. The Nevada Conservation League. Friends of Nevada Wilderness. Save Red Rock. 

Shaaron Netherton, executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said that the bill “would be the single largest designation of wilderness acres in the state’s history, ensuring continued public access to these lands and critical wildlife habitat and cultural resource protection.” 

But some environmental groups remain skeptical of the tradeoffs in the bill: future sprawl for conservation. Patrick Donnelly, state director for the Center of Biological Diversity, said the bill was an improvement over what the county had originally proposed. But he said he rejected the premise that conserving more land would offset the environmental impacts of increased sprawl.

Donnelly said in an email that the growth pattern contemplated in the bill “perpetuates a pattern of development that has brought our society to the brink of ecological and climate collapse.”

Dexter Lim, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement Las Vegas, echoed these concerns.

“Our current reality of environmental crises have intrinsic roots in the irrevocable effects of urban sprawl,” Lim wrote in a statement. “Continuing this practice over more sustainable and land-efficient strategies such as infill development is ignorant of the intersectional climate, housing, and transportation injustices that already plague residents of Clark County.”

While the earlier iterations of the legislation did not address climate change, Cortez Masto’s bill does include a provision aimed at climate action. The legislation would allow funds generated through the sale of public land to benefit projects to address climate change in Clark County.

What’s next? Cortez Masto said that the entire delegation supports the proposal. The senator said the bill could potentially move as part of other congressional legislation or independently. 

She also said she expects to continue hearing from constituents about the legislation. 

“This draft that we're going to put out now, I'm sure there are some people that have not had a chance to see it,” Cortez Masto said. “We're open to making sure it gets in front of them, and if they have thoughts on something in this draft, we're open to listening to them as well.”

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


THE LEGISLATURE

Blockchains, Sisolak and a new city: During a roundtable on Friday, my colleague Michelle Rindels asked the governor about environmental concerns, specifically related to water, in his administration’s legislative effort to create Innovation Zones. The proposed legislation would allow a technology company to develop a self-governing community near Reno. Sisolak said the company would be required to find water for the project. The company has, as we reported. The plan is to import water from rural Nevada, raising several environmental and equity concerns.

Where the wild things are: April Corbin Girnus writes in the Nevada Current about legislation, backed by the state’s natural resource agency, that would limit the public release of information on sensitive species: “State officials contend they are trying to protect species. Environmental groups fear the state is aiming to protect proposed industrial developments from public scrutiny.”

Fixing injustices in geographic naming: Lawmakers are considering a bill that would give Indigenous communities more representation in naming geographic places. As my colleague Jazmin Orozco-Rodriguez wrote in our legislative newsletter Monday, “Native voices could be given more prominence in such decisions if the Legislature approves AB72, which would add a Nevada Indian Commission member to the state geographic names board.” On a related note, if you are not already subscribed to our biweekly legislative newsletter, you should sign up here.

Is the mining industry paying its fair share? My colleague Riley Snyder talked with Nevada Mining Association President Tyre Gray about efforts to change limits on the mining tax. 

Spending big: Nevada Gold Mines, a joint-venture between Barrick and Newmont, donated $500,000 to a PAC affiliated with Sisolak. The PAC gave money to Senate Democrats as the Legislature is looking at increasing mining taxes. My colleague Jacob Solis has a story on it. 

WATER AND LAND

Supreme Court rules on domestic wells: The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Nevada’s top water regulator in a long-running and closely-watched dispute over domestic wells in Pahrump, Robin Hebrock reports in the Pahrump Valley Times. For background on the issue, I wrote a piece back in 2018 looking at some of the complexities (and misinformation) around the issue.

The Colorado River negotiating table: Colorado River water users are set to begin discussing how to manage the watershed as the climate changes and populations continue to grow. Luke Runyon reports for KUNC on the conversations about what the negotiating table might look like. 

ENERGY AND CLIMATE

A Nevada lithium mine and a new rush: A second lawsuit was filed last week challenging the Trump administration’s decision to permit the Thacker Pass lithium mine north of Winnemucca, Brian Bahouth reports for the Sierra Nevada Ally. Last month, High Country News reporter Maya Kapoor and photographer Russel Albert Daniels wrote about the project in the context of a rush to develop lithium mines in the Western U.S. and Nevada. This story is definitely worth reading. 

  • Reuters reporter Ernest Scheyder explores the tensions around permitting mines and supplying the raw materials needed to transition the economy away from fossil fuels.
  • USDA puts brakes on land transfer for Arizona mine, the AP’s Felicia Fonseca reports.

Could it happen here? Is Nevada's power grid prepared for more extreme heat waves? Is it prepared for climate change? Utility regulators are investigating that question, my colleague Riley Snyder reports following the winter storm in Texas that led to a devastating power crisis.

OUTDOOR RECREATION

Outdoor recreation hit by COVID-19: Despite anecdotal evidence that more and more people are turning to the outdoors during the pandemic, the recreation industry in Nevada ended last year with 3,600 fewer jobs, according to a new report. Mike Shoro reports for the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “State officials had previously suggested the pandemic had accelerated the growth pattern. The new report suggests that may have been true in some cases, but not all.”

Lake Tahoe ski resort sued over 2020 avalanche: “The widow and a friend of a man killed in an avalanche at a Lake Tahoe ski resort last year have filed separate lawsuits accusing the resort of negligently rushing to open the slopes in unsafe conditions for a holiday weekend that’s typically one of the busiest of the season,” Scott Sonner writes for the Associated Press.

What to watch in the 2020 primary election: Assembly and state Senate races

The inside of the Nevada Legislature during State of the State

When the dust settles on the June 9 primary election, Nevadans will have a good sense of who’s going to win about half of the seats up for grabs in the statehouse.

Party control of the Legislature is always a major objective for lawmakers in both parties, and the 2021 session will give lawmakers and Gov. Steve Sisolak the once-in-a-decade chance to redraw district boundaries during the redistricting process. 

It’s a process that could help lock in party advantages for congressional representatives, legislators and other elected officials for the next ten years (although a group is attempting to qualify a constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting commission). Democrats control more than two-thirds of Assembly seats and are one seat shy of a supermajority in the state Senate. 

But candidates facing a massive variable — a global pandemic that has canceled the traditional trappings of a campaign, diverted attention from elections and spurred a shift to a virtually all-mail voting system with unpredictable turnout patterns.

“Under normal circumstances, a good pair of running shoes and the money to print up campaign literature could potentially be enough for a candidate to win a race simply by outworking their opponent,” said Eric Roberts of the Assembly Republican Caucus. “The old saying goes, ‘If you knock, you win.’ In 2020, that is all out the window.”

Largely unable to talk to voters at the door during the crucial weeks leading up to voting season, candidates can communicate through mail pieces — if they can drum up the money to pay for it. Businesses such as casinos that typically make sizable donations in state-level politics have seen their revenue flatline, and the effect ripples to candidates.

There are phone calls, political text messages and email missives. But what some observers think could make a difference is how well candidates leverage social media and digital advertising. 

A new challenge is the sudden shift to voting by mail. Up to this point, voting in person has been the method of choice for Nevadans, with the majority of those voters opting for a two-week early vote window.

This time, voters are receiving ballots in the mail more than a month before Election Day, elongating the voting period. With weeks left to go, tens of thousands of Clark County voters have already turned in their ballots, for example.

With ballots arriving in all active voters’ mailboxes — and in Clark County, even those deemed inactive — more people may be inclined to participate in what is usually a sleepy contest. Nevada and national Democrats filed but later dropped a lawsuit against state election officials after they agreed to send ballots to “inactive” voters, who are legally able to cast a ballot but have not responded to change of address forms sent out by county election officials.

“Truly the unknown is this vote by mail universe and who’s really going to take advantage of it, who does it leave out, how do you communicate to a universe that is 10 times bigger than what you thought you were going to have to communicate with,” said Megan Jones, a political consultant with close ties to Assembly Democrats. 

Of the 42 seats in the state Assembly, almost a quarter will be decided in the primary election. Four races will actually be decided in the primary — including three incumbent Republicans fending off challengers — because no other candidates filed to run in those districts. Another five races will effectively be decided in the primary, given vast disparity in voter registration totals making it all but impossible for the opposing party to gain a foothold. 

An additional seven Assembly members did not draw a re-election challenge and will win their seats automatically. These include Democrats Daniele Monroe Moreno, Selena Torres and Sarah Peters, and Republicans Tom Roberts, Melissa Hardy, Jill Tolles and John Ellison.

Of the 10 races in the state Senate, only one — the Democratic primary in Senate District 7 — will be determined in the primary election as no candidates from other parties filed to run for the seat. Two Senate members — Democrats Chris Brooks and Patricia Spearman — did not draw challengers and will automatically win their seats as well, while another three candidates have effectively won because of the voter registration advantages their party has in their district.

To help make sense of where the most intriguing races of this election will be, The Nevada Independent has compiled this list of races we’re keeping a close eye on, both for the storylines in the individual contests and how the outcomes could shift the balance of power heading into the critical 2021 legislative session. Additional information on these races and more can be found on The Nevada Independent’s Election 2020 page.

Senate District 7

This race is at the top of our watch list not only because it will be decided in the primary — all Democrats and no Republicans filed to run for the open seat — but because it pits two Assembly members against a former head of the state Democratic Party who has the support of the sitting Senate Democrats.

Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel has a wide lead in the money race for the seat, which is held by termed-out Democratic Sen. David Parks. Stakes are high for the two Assembly members in the race, who are giving up their current seats to bid for the Senate seat.

Spiegel raised nearly $32,000 in the first quarter, twice that of former three-term Nevada State Democratic Party Chairwoman Roberta Lange, a Senate caucus-endorsed candidate perhaps best known for presiding over Democrats’ divisive 2016 presidential nominating process. Spiegel spent even more — $36,000 in the last quarter — and has a massive war chest of $208,000 on hand.

Spiegel, who describes herself as an “e-commerce pioneer” and now owns a consulting firm with her husband, chaired the Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee last session. She has endorsements from the Vegas and Henderson chambers of commerce. 

Lange, a retired teacher and union negotiator and now executive at a company that runs neighborhood gaming bars, has backing from the Senate Democratic Caucus, the Nevada State AFL-CIO, the Nevada State Education Association and the Culinary Union.

Trailing in the money game is Democratic Assemblyman Richard Carrillo, who only raised about $4,500 in the latest quarter. He’s spent nearly $16,000 in that timeframe and has about $26,000 in the bank.

Carrillo, a contractor who owns an air conditioning business, did not chair an Assembly committee last session and shares the AFL-CIO endorsement with Lange.

The district includes portions of the eastern Las Vegas Valley and Henderson. It has almost twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.

Assembly District 2

Republicans are looking to keep control of this Summerlin Assembly seat this election after Assemblyman John Hambrick, who has represented the district since 2008, was termed out of office. Hambrick, 74, missed most of the 2019 legislative session because of health-related issues with both himself and his wife, who passed away in July.

The Assembly Republican Caucus has endorsed Heidi Kasama, managing broker of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices-Nevada Properties, as Hambrick’s successor, as has Hambrick himself. Kasama has lived in Las Vegas since 2002 after starting her career as a certified public accountant and real estate agent in Washington. So far, Kasama has raised about $124,000 and spent about $19,000.

But Kasama faces four other Republicans in the primary: Erik Sexton, Jim Small, Taylor McArthur and Christian Morehead. Of those, Sexton, who works in commercial real estate, has raised the most, about $69,000 over the course of the cycle. Sexton has been endorsed by Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore and former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon.

Jim Small, a retired member of the U.S. Senior Executive Service, has raised about $56,000 over the course of the cycle. Small has been endorsed by former congressional candidate and businessman Danny Tarkanian and conservative commentator Wayne Allyn Root, among others.

The other two Republican candidates in the race — McArthur and Morehead — have raised no money.

The Alliance for Property Protection Rights PAC, which is funded by the National Association of REALTORS Fund, has also inserted itself into this primary, sending negative mailers highlighting Sexton’s DUI arrest last year and accusing Small of having a “hidden past” as a “liberal Democrat,” while in other mail pieces boosting Kasama’s “strength,” “courage,” and “optimism.”

Meanwhile, both Sexton and Small have been punching back at Kasama for her ties to the REALTORS in other mail pieces. 

In one, Small argues that Kasama financially supports Democrats because the Nevada Association of REALTORS donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates in 2018, the year she was president of the association. In another, Sexton criticizes the National Association of REALTORS’ budget, which was created when Kasama served on the association’s finance committee. 

Whoever wins the Republican primary will have a good shot at winning this lean Republican seat, where 37 percent of voters are Republican and 34.7 percent are Democratic. The Assembly Democratic Caucus has not endorsed in the primary, though journeywoman electrician Jennie Sherwood was backed by the caucus in the general election last year and is running again this cycle. Three other Democrats are also running for the seat: law school student and former cancer biology professor Radhika Kunnel, Eva Littman and Joe Valdes.

Of the four candidates, Kunnel has raised the most, about $27,000 between this year and last year, while Littman has loaned herself $25,000, Sherwood has loaned herself $5,000 and Valdes has raised $100.

A tenth candidate in the race, Garrett LeDuff, is running with no political party and has raised no money so far in his race.

Assembly District 4

The Nevada Assembly Republican caucus is looking to win back this swing seat lost to Democrats last election cycle by backing a political newcomer, Donnie Gibson, who will first have to defeat a primary challenge from former office-holder Richard McArthur.

Officially backed by the Assembly Republican caucus, Gibson is the owner of both a construction and equipment rental company, and sits on the board of several industry groups, including the Nevada Contractors Association and Hope for Prisoners. During the first quarterly fundraising period, he reported raising just over $51,000 and has nearly $86,000 in cash on hand.

But Gibson faces a tough challenger in former Assemblyman McArthur, who has served three non-consecutive terms in the Assembly; two terms between 2008 to 2012, and then one term between 2016 and 2018. He raised just $520 during the first fundraising period, but has more than $28,000 in available campaign funds. McArthur previously served with the U.S. Air Force and was a special agent for the FBI for 25 years.

Democratic incumbent Connie Munk did not draw a primary challenger, and reported raising more than $52,000 during the first fundraising period. Munk flipped the seat to Democrats in 2018, defeating McArthur by a 120-vote margin out of nearly 30,000 votes cast. 

Assembly District 7

Democrat Cameron “CH” Miller, who most recently served as Nevada political director for Beto O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaigns and has had a 20 year career in the entertainment industry, is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus for this North Las Vegas Assembly district. The seat is held by Assemblywoman Dina Neal, who is running for state Senate.

While Miller has been endorsed by most of the Democratic-aligned organizations — including SEIU Local 1107, the Nevada State Education Association, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union, NARAL Pro-Choice Nevada and the Nevada Conservation League — his one primary opponent, John Stephens III, has been endorsed by the Nevada State AFL-CIO.

Stephens is a former civilian employee of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, former steward for the Teamsters Local 14 and a self-described political scientist, writer, exhibitor and Las Vegas library employee.

Miller has raised about $21,000 so far in his campaign, while Stephens has not reported raising any money.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary is likely to go on to win the general election against the one Republican candidate in the race, former Virginia Beach police officer Tony Palmer, as the district leans heavily Democratic with 54.3 percent registered Democrats, 22.7 percent nonpartisans and only 18 percent Republicans. Palmer has raised about $2,000, mostly from himself, in his bid.

Assembly District 16

Four Democratic candidates are running in this open seat after Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, who has represented the district since 2012, opted not to run for re-election. 

The Assembly Democratic Caucus has not endorsed any candidate in the race. Cecelia González and Russell Davis have so far split the major endorsements from Democratic-aligned groups. Both candidates were endorsed by the Nevada State AFL-CIO, while González was also endorsed by the Nevada State Education Association, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League, and Davis was endorsed by SEIU Local 1107. 

González, a community activist who plans to begin a doctoral program in multicultural education at UNLV in the fall, has raised a little more than $5,000 in her campaign, while Davis, a two-decade Clark County employee and SEIU member, hasn’t reported raising any money.

A third candidate in the race, online finance professor Geoffrey VanderPal, has loaned himself a little less than $4,000 in the race, while Joe Sacco, a union trade show and conventions worker with IATSE Local 720 and a REALTOR, has raised about $500.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary is likely to win the general election against the one Republican in the race, Reyna “Alex” Sajdak, as Democrats have an overwhelming voter registration advantage in the district, representing 47.1 percent of all voters. Nonpartisans make up another 27.3 percent, while Republicans represent only about 18.2 percent.

Sajdak has loaned herself only $260 in the race and received no other contributions.

Assembly District 18

Assemblyman Richard Carrillo has opted not to run for re-election to this East Las Vegas Assembly seat, which he has represented since 2010. He is running for state Senate.

Venicia Considine, an attorney with Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus for the seat and has been endorsed by SEIU Local 1107, Nevada State Education Association, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League.

However, she faces three other Democrats in the primary, including Char Frost, a former campaign manager and legislative staffer for Carrillo; Lisa Ortega, a master arborist and owner of Great Basin Sage Consulting; and Clarence Dortch, a teacher in the Clark County School District.

Considine has raised nearly $24,000 in her bid so far, while Ortega has raised a little less than $17,000 and Frost has raised about $8,000. Dortch has not yet reported raising any money.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will go on to face Republican Heather Florian in the general election, though they are likely to win as Democrats hold a 24-point voter registration advantage over Republicans in the district. Florian has not yet reported raising any money in the race.

Assembly District 19

Assemblyman Chris Edwards is running for a fourth term in this rural Clark County Assembly district, but he faces a challenge from Mesquite City Councilwoman Annie Black, who is running to the right of the already conservative Edwards. Black most recently ran for Nevada Republican Party chair, losing to incumbent Michael McDonald.

So far, Edwards has raised about $17,000 in his re-election bid, to Black’s $2,600, which includes a $1,000 contribution from Las Vegas City Councilwoman Victoria Seaman and a $500 contribution from former Controller Ron Knecht.

Whoever wins this primary will go on to win the general election in November, as there are no Democrats or third-party candidates in the race.

Assembly District 21

Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, who has represented this seat since 2016, is not seeking re-election this year and is running for the Nevada Supreme Court. The Assembly Democratic Caucus has endorsed attorney Elaine Marzola to replace him.

Marzola has received most of the Democratic-aligned endorsements in the primary, including from the Nevada State AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League, while her one Democratic opponent in the primary, David Bagley, has the backing of the Nevada State Education Association. 

Bagley is the director of operations for the stem cell diagnostics company Pluripotent Diagnostics and was also Marianne Williamson’s Nevada state director for her presidential campaign last year.

Marzola has raised about $44,000 in her race so far, while Bagley has raised $20,000 in in-kind contributions from himself.

The winner of the Democratic primary will go on to face Republican Cherlyn Arrington in the general election. Arrington ran for the seat in 2018, losing to Fumo by 12.6 percentage points. Democrats have an 8 percentage point voter registration advantage in the district over Republicans. Arrington has raised a little less than $15,000 so far, including a $4,000 contribution from herself.

Assembly District 31

Former Republican Assemblywoman Jill Dickman hopes to reclaim a seat she held for one term and lost by fewer than 50 votes in 2016. But the manufacturing business owner is in a three-way primary, most notably with Washoe County Republican Party treasurer Sandra Linares. 

The Washoe County seat is held by Skip Daly, a four-term Assembly member who works as the business manager for Laborers Local 169 and has several notable endorsements from organized labor groups, including the Nevada State AFL-CIO and the Culinary Union.

Republicans have a registration advantage of more than four percentage points, but nonpartisans also make up about 21 percent of the swingy district.

Dickman raised just $116 in the first quarter of the year but has more than $99,000 cash on hand for the race. Linares, an educator and Air Force veteran, reported raising more than $24,000 in the first quarter but has about $20,000 in her war chest.

The other candidate in the race is Republican David Espinosa, who has worked in the information technology sector and served on boards including the Washoe County Citizen Advisory Board. He reported raising $7,000 in the first quarter of the year and has about $500 on hand.

The winner of the three-way contest will face off against Daly, who does not have primary challengers. He raised $31,000 in the first quarter and has $98,000 cash on hand.

Assembly District 36

Appointed to fill the seat of brothel owner Dennis Hof — who won this Pahrump-area seat in 2018 despite dying weeks before the election — Republican Assemblyman Gregory Hafen II is facing a primary challenge from Dr. Joseph Bradley, who ran for the district in 2018.

Hafen, a fifth generation Nevadan and general manager of a Pahrump water utility company, and has been endorsed by multiple sitting Republican lawmakers, the National Rifle Association and was named “Rural Chair” of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign in Nevada.

Hafen has raised nearly $89,000 since the start of the election cycle, including $26,600 in the last reporting period, and has more than $55,000 in cash on hand.

His primary opponent is Bradley, a licensed chiropractor and substance abuse specialist with offices in Las Vegas and Pahrump. He ran for the seat in 2018, coming in third in the Republican primary behind Hof and former Assemblyman James Oscarson.

Bradley has raised more than $68,000 in his bid for the Assembly seat since 2019, and had more than $43,000 in cash on hand at the end of the reporting period.

Bradley’s campaign has tried to tie Hafen to Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, who as a member of the Clark County Commission voted on a replacement candidate after Hof’s death. Sisolak did vote to appoint Hafen to the seat, but the decision was essentially made by the Nye County Commission because of Nevada’s laws on appointing a new lawmaker after an incumbent leaves office or passes away. Hafen was appointed to the seat with support from 16 of 17 county commissioners in the three counties that the Assembly district covers.

Because no Democrats or other party candidates filed to run in the district, the winner of the primary will essentially win a spot in the 2021 Legislature.

Assembly District 37

A crowded field of well-funded Republican candidates are duking it out in a competitive primary to take on incumbent Democrat Shea Backus, one of several suburban Las Vegas districts Republicans hope to win back after the 2018 midterms. Voter registration numbers in the district are nearly equal: 38.1 percent registered Democrats 35.7 percent registered Republicans and 20.5 percent nonpartisan.

Four Republican candidates filed to run in the district, including two former congressional candidates who have each raised more than six-figures in contributions: Andy Matthews and Michelle Mortensen.

Matthews is the former president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank and was former Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s policy director for his failed 2018 gubernatorial run. He has been endorsed by a bevy of Nevada and national Republicans, including Laxalt, several Trump campaign officials including Corey Lewandowski, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore and several current and former state lawmakers.

Matthews has also been one of the top legislative fundraisers during the 2020 election cycle, outraising all other Republican Assembly candidates including current office-holders. For the first reporting period of 2020, he reported raising nearly $35,000, but has raised nearly $189,000 since the start of 2019 and has early $115,000 in cash on hand.

Mortensen, a former television reporter who ran for Congress in 2018, has also been a prolific fundraiser. She reported raising about $12,500 during the first fundraising period of 2020, with more than $115,000 raised since the start of 2019 and had more than $92,000 in cash on hand at the end of the last reporting period.

But they won’t be alone on the primary ballot. Jacob Deaville, a former UNLV college Republican chair and political activist, has raised more than $19,600 since the start of 2019 and had roughly $9,400 in cash on hand at the end of the reporting period. Another Republican candidate, Lisa Noeth, has not filed any campaign finance reports.

The primary election winner will get to challenge incumbent Shea Backus, who wrested the seat from Republican Jim Marchant in the 2018 election by a 135-vote margin. She reported raising more than $52,000 over the first fundraising period, and has more than $108,000 in cash on hand. Backus, an attorney, did not draw a primary challenger.

Assembly District 40

Former Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill is making a comeback bid after serving one term in the Assembly in 2015 and losing re-election in a campaign focused on his controversial vote for Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s tax package.

Two-term incumbent Al Kramer decided at the last minute not to seek re-election in the district, which includes Carson City and portions of Washoe Valley. According to The Nevada Appeal, he said he and his wife need to take care of her 94-year-old mother in Ohio and attend to their own health issues, and will not be in Carson City often enough to serve in the Legislature.

O’Neill is a former law enforcement officer who previously served in the Nevada Department of Public Safety. But his path back to the statehouse is complicated by a primary challenge from the right from Day Williams, a lawyer who is running on a platform of repealing the Commerce Tax that O’Neill supported.

O’Neill has the fundraising advantage, raising more than $13,000 in the first quarter and reporting about $10,000 cash on hand. Williams reported raising about $2,300 and has about $1,200 in the bank.

Whoever wins the Republican primary is likely to win in the general — Republicans have a nearly 15 percentage point advantage in the district. The three Democrats in the race are former Carson City Library director Sena Loyd, software engineer Derek Ray Morgan and LGBTQ rights advocate Sherrie Scaffidi, none of whom have more than $500 cash on hand.

Other races that have a primary

  • Senate District 11: Republican Edgar Miron Galindo, who has been endorsed by the Senate Republican Caucus, faces off against Joshua Wendell. However, the winner faces an uphill battle against Democratic state Sen. Dallas Harris in the general election in this overwhelmingly Democratic district in Spring Valley, where Democrats have a 19.5 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans.
  • Senate District 18: Democrat Liz Becker, who has been endorsed by the Senate Democratic Caucus, faces Ron Bilodeau in the primary. The winner will go on to face Republican state Sen. Scott Hammond in this lean Republican northwest Las Vegas Assembly district, where Republicans have a 3 percentage point voter registration advantage over Democrats.
  • Assembly District 5: Republicans Mac Miller, Retha Randolph and Mitchell Tracy face off in the primary. But they’ll have a tough time in the general election against Democratic Assemblywoman Brittney Miller in this district, where Democrats have a 9 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans.
  • Assembly District 6: Democrat Shondra Summers-Armstrong is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus to represent this Assembly District that encompasses the historic Westside of Las Vegas. She faces one opponent, William E. Robinson II, in the primary. There are also two Republicans, Katie Duncan and Geraldine Lewis, who will face off in their own primary. The winner of the Democratic primary is all but guaranteed to defeat the winner of the Republican primary in the general election, as Democrats have a 52.5 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans in the district.
  • Assembly District 10: After being appointed to the seat in 2018, Democratic Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen is running for her first election in this overwhelmingly Democratic district, where there are more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans. Nguyen has one primary challenger, Jesse “Jake” Holder. The two other candidates in the race, Independent American Jonathan Friedrich and Republican Chris Hisgen, do not face primary challenges. Democrats are likely to retain control of this seat in November because of their overwhelming voter registration advantage.
  • Assembly District 14: Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton is running for her sixth and final term in this East Las Vegas Assembly district, where Democrats make up more than half of all registered voters. She faces a primary challenge from James Fennell II. The third candidate in the race, Libertarian Robert Wayerski, does not face a primary. With only 163 registered libertarians in the district, Democrats are all but guaranteed to hold onto this seat in November.
  • Assembly District 15: Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts is running for re-election in this East Las Vegas Assembly district. He faces a primary challenge from Democrat Burke Andersson. A third candidate in the race, Republican Stan Vaughan, does not have a primary. Democrats are overwhelmingly likely to win this seat in the general election as they hold a 30.8 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans.
  • Assembly District 17: Democrat Clara “Claire” Thomas is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus in this overwhelmingly Democratic North Las Vegas Assembly district and does not face a primary. Two Republican candidates, Sylvia Liberty Creviston and Jack Polcyn, will face off in June. However, Thomas is likely to win the general election come November because of Democrats’ voter registration advantage.
  • Assembly District 20: Democrat David Orentilcher is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic caucus but faces three other Democrats in the primary: Zachary Logan, Michael McAuliffe and Emily Smith. Whoever wins the primary is guaranteed to win the general election as there are no Republican or third-party candidates running in the race.
  • Assembly District 26: Republican Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner faces one Republican challenger, Dale Conner, in her re-election bid for this overwhelmingly Republican Assembly district where Republicans hold a 10.7 percentage point registration advantage over Democrats. Though one Democrat, Vance Alm, is running for this seat, Republicans are likely to hold onto this seat come November.
  • Assembly District 29: Democratic Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen is running for re-election to this Henderson Assembly district, where Democrats hold a narrow 5.6 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans. While she doesn’t have a primary challenge, she will face one of two Republicans, Steven Delisle or Troy Archer, in the general election.
  • Assembly District 30: Democrat Natha Anderson is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus to represent this Sparks Assembly seat where Democrats hold a 10.2 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans. She will face fellow Democrat Lea Moser in the primary. The winner is likely to win the general election over Republican Randy Hoff and Independent American Charlene Young because of Democrats’ significant voter registration advantage in the district.
  • Assembly District 35: Democratic Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow is running for re-election in this southwest Las Vegas Assembly district, where Democrats hold a 8.5 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans. She does not face a primary challenge. However, two Republicans, Jay Calhoun and Claudia Kingtigh, will face off in a June primary. Gorelow will face the winner of that primary, as well as nonpartisan Philip “Doc Phil” Paleracio in November, though she is likely to win because of the Democratic voter registration advantage in the district.
  • Assembly District 38: Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus faces a primary challenge from Jeff Ulrich in this overwhelmingly Republican rural Assembly district, where there are more than twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats.

Nevada Democrats are promising the most expansive, accessible caucus. What does the past tell about the future?

Democratic supporters cheer at the the Nevada Democratic Party election night event at Caesars Palace

When Harry Reid secured Nevada its third in the nation and first in the West spot in the presidential nominating process a dozen years ago, his pitch was simple.

Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to participate, don’t look like the rest of the nation. Nevada does.

The Silver State has held three early nominating contests since Reid’s successful pitch, and will hold its fourth in less than a month. But the culture of caucusing in Nevada is still young, especially compared to Iowa, which has held its first in the nation caucus for nearly a half century. In Nevada, it can be difficult to get people to turn out to events. And unlike the barnstorms across Iowa, most of the campaigning here is limited to the state’s two metro areas.

The caucus process, at its ideal, is an apparatus for party-building. You bring together a bunch of enthusiastic Democrats in a room with their neighbors and let them fight and scream and laugh over who ought to be the presidential nominee. You let non-Democrats show up on the day of the caucus to register and participate as well. You make people feel like they truly had a say in the process.

The Democratic Party talks a lot about building a bigger tent. But its caucus process hasn’t always been met with enthusiasm. The process of showing up in a room to publicly declare your support for a candidate is unfamiliar to those accustomed to the privacy of a voting booth. Plus, you can't just show up at your convenience. You have to arrive at noon on a Saturday and commit a couple of hours to the process.

Only about 27 percent of Democrats, about 118,000 people, showed up to caucus in 2008, and even fewer — 17 percent, about 84,000 — showed up in 2016. For scale, there are a little under 1.6 million people registered to vote in Nevada.

Who are those caucusgoers, though? Ask people involved In voter engagement efforts here, and they'll typically shrug.

But a Democratic voter database obtained by The Nevada Independent from the Nevada State Democratic Party hints at who the state’s Democratic caucusgoers are. The data suggest that many of them are female, older and live in the suburbs, with a significant concentration of caucusgoers in Northern Nevada. But there’s a caveat: The database only includes current registered Democratic voters who have previously caucused and is missing past caucusgoers who have either moved or let their voter registrations go inactive.

The shorter, simpler answer to who historically caucuses in Nevada is those who have had the incentive and the means to show up to a neighborhood caucus site at noon on a Saturday — like party activists — something the party is trying to change this year with the addition of four days of early voting across the state that will give caucusgoers an experience more akin to what they’re used to on Election Day.

“I think, typically, when we look at previous caucuses this was a one-day event where people who had the time and the ability to show up and participate for hours would be the individuals who would show up and participate for hours,” said Alana Mounce, executive director of the state Democratic Party. ”That’s why we’ve made these important changes.”

A desk and chair with Democratic party signs sitting on top.
The Nevada State Democratic Party met in the morning of National Voter Registration Day to trade notes and get ready to start going door to door in neighborhoods and areas across Las Vegas on Sept. 24, 2019. (Mikayla Whitmore/The Nevada Independent)

Who caucuses

The first thing to note about the Democratic voter database obtained by the Independent is its scope. The database includes about 67,000 registered Democrats who caucused in 2016, or about 80 percent of the total caucusgoers that year, and about 41,000 who caucused in 2008, or about 35 percent.

On their own, those numbers reveal just how difficult it is to convince people to caucus in a transient state such as Nevada. About 20 percent of Democratic caucusgoers from just four years ago are no longer part of the database, likely because they either moved or their voter registration has gone inactive. It’s a difficulty Mounce acknowledges.

“We are a transient state. People are coming in and staying and leaving and moving and changing their phone number,” she said. “That’s why we prioritize as a state party doing robust voter registration efforts this cycle, and that’s why we’re proud to offer same day voter registration for every part of our caucus process.”

The database is also a snapshot in time of the present day, revealing details about where past caucusgoers currently live, their current age and their sex. That means someone who caucused in 2016 in Las Vegas but has since moved to Reno would show up in the dataset under their Northern Nevada address. (The dataset doesn’t include race or ethnicity because those details aren’t captured on voter registration forms.)

But the data offer some helpful perspective on where caucusgoers may have caucused in the past and other characteristics about them.

For instance, five of the nine Assembly Districts in the Reno-Sparks area rank among the top 10 in the state for the most caucusgoers from 2016. The other top ranking districts were all in the suburban parts of Southern Nevada, including Henderson, Summerlin and the Southwest. The Assembly Districts with the fewest number of caucusgoers from 2016, by contrast, were all either deep blue districts in Southern Nevada with significant communities of color, including East Las Vegas, the Historic West Side and Chinatown, or ruby-red districts in rural Nevada.

That there would be low turnout in the rural portions of the state makes sense. Fewer registered Democrats live there. What’s less expected is the lower turnout among districts that have long been Democratic strongholds.

There are a couple of ways to read the data out of those districts. It could reveal the challenges that campaigns historically have had in getting underrepresented communities out to caucus. Or, if even if the missing data disproportionately come from those Assembly Districts, it could indicate the challenges in ensuring Democrats in those communities remain actively registered and are re-registered as they move.

Brian Shepherd, chief of staff for SEIU Local 1107, noted the difficulties the union had in getting low-propensity voters, particularly in communities of color, to engage in the caucus process four years ago.

“One of the first challenges we had was not just teaching people how to caucus, it was teaching people that the caucus was for them,” Shepherd said. "A lot of low-income and Latinx households, there was this belief that we ran into that caucusing was for people really active in the party. So we had to do a whole series of education with folks around ‘everybody gets to go caucus.’”

Mounce acknowledged that there are “a lot of various reasons” that there could be fewer registered Democrats who caucused in 2016 in those districts.

“I think you have to remember that this data is more like a sample size,” Mounce said. “It’s just this one marker in time.”

The data also point at the strength the die-hard Democratic party activists may have in certain pockets of the state, such as in Northern Nevada, and how campaigns may have strategically allocated their resources to get them to turn out.

“Democrats in Washoe County, I think, are incredibly engaged. I think we have the same case in Southern Nevada, but I think it is a little less transient,” Mounce said. “Perhaps that has something to do with Democrats in Northern Nevada appearing to show up in higher numbers, but I think a lot of this is campaigns prioritizing and working on turning out caucusgoers for their candidates as well.”

The dataset also suggests that Democratic caucusgoers tend to be older — something that also is true in regular elections — though, again, the data reflect caucusgoers’ current age and not the age they were when they caucused and, therefore, is skewed older. Prior caucusgoers also tended to be overwhelmingly female — 61 percent female to 39 percent male in 2008 and 56 percent female to 42 percent male in 2016 — which is also generally true in traditional elections.

The addition of early voting

What none of the data do, though, is tell us who will turn out to caucus next month.

The party has taken steps in the past to try to make the caucus more accessible by offering presidential preference cards in Spanish and providing several at-large caucus precincts on the Strip to allow casino workers to easily caucus while on shift. But this year for the first time, the party is adding four days of early voting all across Nevada, from the East Las Vegas Community Center to the Eureka Opera House.

People who decide to vote early will cast their presidential preferences — ranking up to five candidates — and that information will be shared with their home precinct on Caucus Day. Bottom line: Their votes will be counted just as if they had been there to caucus in person.

“I’m excited about the early voting, I think for people like me it’s been really helpful because it gets more of our folks engaged. Our folks have full time jobs and could work on the weekends as well, I think just the nature of the state and the folks we have here,” said Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress. “It makes it easier to participate when that function exists, always. We see that during regular voting.”

No one knows exactly how it might affect turnout, though, and party officials haven’t been willing to even give a rough estimate of how many people they think might show up to caucus this year. Early voting in traditional primary and general elections is by far the most popular method of voting here, with more than 550,000 people, or 57 percent, of voters casting ballots early in Nevada’s 2018 midterm election.

"Because we’ve never done it before, there’s no baseline,” Mounce said. “The goal for us is, are we providing as many options and locations for as many Nevadans to participate as possible to achieve our goal overall of an expansive, accessible and transparent process?”

Laura Martin, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said that people have long complained to her that the process isn’t democratic. Her response is that they haven’t been meant to be.

“It’s hard for people with disabilities who can’t stand. It’s hard for people with children. It’s a long afternoon. It’s hard for people who work a job that doesn’t have predictable scheduling, maybe at the last minute you’re scheduled for a shift. But it’s not meant to be democratic,” Martin said. “The parties control them. The caucuses were meant for the hardcore activists of the party to nominate someone to represent them. I think sometimes people need to recognize that. It’s not that I agree with that. I just recognize it’s the hard core activists who would skip work to pick a nominee.”

One area where the party believes early voting may help significantly with turnout is among young people. Mark Riffenburg, the state director of NextGen America, which focuses on outreach to young people, agrees.

NextGen, which is one of only a few groups in Nevada doing non-candidate specific voter engagement work ahead of the caucus, is planning to get at least 2,000 young people to pledge to participate in the caucus next month. And he’s optimistic about the addition of early voting this year.

“I think what probably goes without saying is the turnout in 2016 for the caucus was obviously smaller than what you’d expect from a more pure voting kind of thing. The caucus format, while certainly it is good for party building and other political elements, isn't necessarily the most straightforward,” Riffenburg said. “I think when most people and young people in general think about voting, they think about showing up to their polling place, casting a ballot and calling it a day.”

To that end, the party is offering early voting at all three College of Southern Nevada campuses and UNLV from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Feb. 18, and four days of early voting at UNR, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 15 through Feb. 18.

“The fact that there’s early voting on college campuses is a very good thing for the process,” Riffenburg said. “I think as progressives we’re always fired up about making voting as easy as possible for folks.”

He said that NextGen is still planning to put together a “barebones” training on how to caucus on Caucus Day. But so far, he said the younger voters engaged by his team seem to be leaning toward early voting.

“It’s the simplest option for young people, and it’s going to give them a better experience,” Riffenburg said. “I think if we have more folks there, better for us, better for them.”

Carlos Escoto with Mi Famila, tries to register shoppers outside Cardenas Market during the first day of early voting on Saturday, May 26, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Boosting diversity in the caucus

Other voter engagement organizations are looking forward to the addition of early voting as well, and eyeing how that could boost turnout among specific voter groups who have historically been underrepresented in elections. 

Alma Delia Romo, Nevada state coordinator for the Latino voter engagement nonprofit Mi Familia Vota, said that the organization’s canvassers have been highlighting early vote locations at a Cardenas Market, a Latino grocery store, in East Las Vegas and the East Las Vegas Community Center. 

“It is definitely accessible for the working class, for people who have two jobs, who have a family. It definitely helps for the early voting because you don’t have to go there and be there the entire day,” Romo said. “You can go in and out as simple as that.”

She added that Mi Familia Vota also plans to co-host a series of Spanish-language caucus trainings with the presidential campaigns over the next few weeks to boost Latino turnout. Nearly 30 percent of Nevada’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.

“It can be complicated,” she said. “Getting rid of that language barrier really helps, and you can reach out to a lot of folks in a lot of different communities.”

The Asian American Pacific Islander Democratic Caucus has been engaging in similar work, recently hosting a mock caucus focused on young Asian American voters, and for the first time, the state Democratic Party will offer presidential preference cards in Tagalog. Organizers in the AAPI community, which represents about 10 percent of the population in Nevada, are hoping that AAPI voters will represent about 6 percent or 7 percent of Democratic caucusgoers this year; they made up about 3 percent of caucusgoers in 2008 and 5 percent in 2016.  

By contrast, Native American organizers in Nevada have been significantly ramping up their voter outreach efforts ahead of the caucus and, more generally, before the general election. Four Directions, a Native voter engagement organization, co-hosted a presidential candidate forum with Nevada’s tribes at UNLV earlier this month, and even hosted a Native-specific caucus training. Indigenous people make up nearly 2 percent of the state’s population, with significant pockets living on reservations in rural Nevada.

Other groups are focused on other pockets of voters, including LGBTQ Nevadans, climate change voters and union members.

The Human Rights Campaign, which has a total of five staffers in the state, recently co-hosted two LGBTQ focused caucus trainings in Las Vegas and Reno in coordination with the state Democratic Party and is focusing on turning some of the 650,000 people in Nevada they have identified as so-called equality voters to turnout to caucus next month.

“Our biggest priorities are voter turnout, voter education and voter recruitment,” HRC state director Briana Escamilla said. “Making calls to members, supporters, equality voters about if they’re caucusing, when they’re caucusing, organizing around those issues more than any specific candidate.”

At the same time, the Nevada Conservation League and its Latino-engagement focused arm, Chispa, are hosting caucus trainings for their members as well in both English and Spanish for the first time ever this year, as the issue of climate change has grown in importance to voters over the last four years. According to the Nevada Conservation League, 37 percent of their members caucused in 2016, and they’re hoping even more of their 33,000 members will show up to caucus this year.

“I think it’s important that we create a space where Nevadans that care about climate can make their voice heard,” said Andy Maggi, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League. “We can train them about how to caucus, but how to talk about climate change while you’re caucusing and how that’s impacting your decision on who you’re caucusing for as the next president.”

Some of Nevada’s unions, meanwhile, have hosted presidential candidates for roundtables and forums and are hosting caucus trainings for members, but have largely — with the exception of the Clark County Education Association, which endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders this month — stayed on the sidelines in the race.

Shepherd, the chief of staff for SEIU Local 1107, did however acknowledge that the union’s efforts will likely ramp up significantly should the union endorse.

“There’s no doubt if we endorse it would sharpen our efforts on member turnout and participation,” Shepherd said. “Right now we’re doing general education on the process and around the presidential campaign.”

At the heart of these voter engagement efforts is a core belief, about the importance of diversity and ensuring that the group of people who picks the next Democratic presidential nominee is as representative as possible. That means both promoting Nevada as the first truly diverse state to participate in the presidential nominating process and making sure that the Nevadans who caucus are representative of their state's diversity.

“I do think that, as corny as it sounds, I do think the road to the White House does go down Las Vegas Boulevard. Our state represents as closely to the demographics of the rest of the country as any other primary state,” Martin said. “We have rural. We have urban. We have a strong Latino population, a growing Asian population, black communities, new immigrants, fourth generation Nevadans. We represent the entire cross section of the country.”

Update 1-26-19 at 8:32 p.m. to correct that the early voting site at UNR will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. all four days. The Nevada State Democratic Party's website previously incorrectly listed that the early voting site would be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the final day of early voting.

Indy 2020: With less than two weeks until Iowa, the final countdown begins

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


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

Some brief news before we get going. The Indy — i.e. me — is hitting the road to Iowa and New Hampshire. I’ll be there for a few days before the Feb. 3 caucus and Feb. 11 primary, bringing you all the news you need to know from a Nevada perspective. Let me know what kind of stories you most want to hear out of Iowa and New Hampshire at megan@thenvindy.com. (If you know any former Nevadans who live in Iowa and New Hampshire, I’ll take that too!)

Also currently taking winter clothing recommendations.

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


TOP OF MIND

Ad tracker 2020: Another bit of news for you! The Indy has launched a brand new campaign ad tracker for the 2020 cycle. We’ll be archiving and categorizing ads by candidate, issue, race, party, the group paying for it, tone, medium and language. We know we’re going to miss some here and there, so feel free to send me over an email at megan@thenvindy.com with anything you notice that’s missing.

Steyer climbing in Nevada? In case you missed it, billionaire Tom Steyer has apparently had a sudden surge here in Nevada. He leapt to third place, tied with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 12 percent support, in a Fox News poll released a little more than a week ago, which was followed up by a RGJ/Suffolk poll showing him tied for fourth with former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 8 percent support. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden came in at 23 percent, followed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at 17 percent in the Fox poll, while Biden and Sanders were closer in the RGJ/Suffolk poll at 19 and 18 percent support, respectively. Warren came in at 11 percent support in the latter poll.

Since the polls have come out, Steyer’s campaign here has been trumpeting its outreach program, and Steyer himself spent a couple of days in the state, attending the second-ever Native American Presidential Forum, an immigration roundtable with Mi Familia Vota, a Culinary Union town hall and an event on climate justice with Chispa, the Latino organizing program within the League of Conservation Voters.

After the Culinary town hall, I asked Steyer what his plan was to ensure that his campaign can even make it to Nevada, when he has to go through Iowa and New Hampshire first. (Steyer’s hovering in the low single digits in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.)

“The plan is to do more stuff like this, is to try and get in front of as many people as possible and say exactly who I am, what I stand for, and what that means. When that happens, good things happen. So that's what's happened so far,” Steyer said. “I started late in July, my numbers have gone up consistently. My goal is to stay in front of as many people, and get in front of as many people, look them in the eye and have them look me in the eye, so I can hear what they're saying and they can hear who I am and what I'm saying.”

But he apparently is catching on here in Nevada, where it’s been hard to avoid the television ads, mailers and billboards that Steyer has spent millions on. Tom McGibbon, 68, a retired engineer who identifies as a lifelong registered Republican, told Indytern Shannon Miller at Steyer’s Chispa event that he’s still undecided between Steyer and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

“I want (someone) who can win. Passion speaks to me, I think it speaks to voters, and I think that (Steyer) showed a lot of passion in his comments tonight,” McGibbon said. “I would like to see that come through more in his marketing.”

Steyer clearly isn't relenting on Nevada though. He has nine events scheduled here this weekend, detailed later in this newsletter.

Mayor Pete donates to legislative candidates: My colleague Riley Snyder was going through the recent round of state campaign finance reports due last week when he noticed something unusual — a bunch of contributions from Buttigieg to state legislative candidates. In total, Buttigieg donated $34,000 to candidates, parties and advocacy groups during the fourth quarter of the year Nevada, according to a list provided by Buttigieg’s campaign.

The campaign made six $1,000 contributions, to U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, and the Senate and Assembly Democratic caucuses.

The campaign also made 19 $500 contributions and 20 $250 contributions to state lawmakers, constitutional officers, local elected officials and members of Congress. A few organizations — including the NAACP branches in Northern and Southern Nevada, NARAL, the Human Rights Campaign and the LGBTQ Center of Southern Nevada — as well as the Rural Democratic Caucus also received $500 donations.

The rest of the donations went to the Nevada State Democratic Party and the Washoe County Democratic Party.

Paul Selberg, Buttigieg’s state director, said in a statement that the donations show the campaign’s commitment to building Democratic infrastructure in Nevada and across the country.

“Pete recognizes that political change not only comes from the top of the ticket, but all levels of government,” Selberg said. “In 2020, we will finally turn the page on the Trump presidency and bring about real progress by electing Democrats up and down the ticket."

Democrats announce Caucus Day sites: The Nevada State Democratic Party announced last week more than 250 Caucus Day locations for the Feb. 22 caucus. They range from schools and community centers in suburban Nevada to sites on tribal reservations and in small cities far flung from the major population centers. Check out the full list of precincts here.

The party is also continuing its tradition of offering at-large casino precincts on Caucus Day for Strip workers to participate. This year, there will be seven sites — up from six in 2016 — at Park MGM, Mandalay Bay, Bellagio, Paris, Harrah's, Wynn and Rio. The details of those Strip caucus sites were first reported by CNN.

Casino workers will also be able to vote early at four sites on the Strip. There will be 24-hour voting at the Bellagio — from noon on Feb. 16 to noon on Feb. 17 — as well as two blocks of time on Sunday and Monday where workers can caucus at the MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay and Paris.


ON THE INDY

Presidential campaigns enter the home stretch: If you’ve been living under a rock for the last year and have paid no attention to the presidential election, then this is the story for you! All you need to know to get you up to speed on the upcoming caucus, including what candidates have been doing to make inroads here, how big their staffs are and how they’ve been resonating with voters here on the ground.

Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Steyer are the latest to court the Culinary: The three Democratic hopefuls became the fifth, sixth and seventh candidates, respectively, to appear before the Culinary Union over the last two weeks. The fellow moderates in the race came with pitches for a government-run health insurance proposal that would allow union members to stay on their existing plans. Spoiler alert: The union liked it. More on the Buttigieg and Klobuchar visits here and the Steyer visit here.

Buttigieg hopes to earn “credibility” with black voters: I sat down with the former South Bend mayor a little over a week ago to talk about his struggle to win over black voters, his standing in Iowa, and what the support of the Culinary Union would mean to him. All you need to know from our conversation here. (One small detail in that story worth noting if you’re keeping an eye on candidate momentum: Buttigieg’s most recent rally at Silverado High School was attended by more than 900 people, more than two-thirds of them first time Buttigieg event attendees, according to his campaign.)

Biden eschews being boxed in at a Latino town hall: The former vice president shied away from any firm commitments to pass comprehensive immigration reform in his first 100 days as president or appoint a certain number of Hispanics to his Cabinet at a Latino-focused town hall two weekends ago. More details on how that town hall went from me, plus a bonus story from the day before on Biden accusing President Donald Trump of “literally lying” about Iran from Indyterns Tabitha Mueller and Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez.

Democratic hopefuls court Indian Country: Though Steyer was the only one to appear in person, several Democratic presidential candidates appeared at the second-ever Native American Presidential Forum last week in Las Vegas. They talked about Native voting rights, land, health care and missing and murdered indigenous women. Indytern Shannon Miller was there.

Voter registration swelling as a result of automatic voter registration: Our four intrepid Indyterns took a look at the impact that Nevada’s new automatic voter registration ballot initiative, which kicked into effect on the first of the year, is having on voter registration. Previously, Nevada had an opt-in system to register to vote at the DMV, which has now been switched to an opt-out system. Details here.

Ivanka Trump goes to CES: The president's eldest daughter championed apprenticeships and encouraged employers to invest in their workers at the annual conference in Las Vegas, but her appearance sparked some controversy. My colleague Jackie Valley has more.


CAMPAIGN NUGGETS

Staffing changes and office openings

  • Four members of Biden’s national team — Laura Jimenez, national Latino vote director; Amit Jani, national AAPI outreach director; Shrija Ghosh, deputy national analytics director; and Nick Canfield, deputy national organizing director — have joined his team on the ground in Nevada.
  • Buttigieg’s team has brought on Devaki Dave as their Nevada APIA constituency director and Izack Tenorio as their Nevada Latino constituency director. Amy Adler, the campaign’s get out the caucus director, has moved from the team’s South Bend headquarters to oversee caucus operations here. (Adler graduated from UNLV, co-founded Students for Barack Obama at UNLV, and was the campaign manager for the Nevada Senate Democratic Caucus in 2010.)

New endorsements

  • DNC Committeewoman Allison Stephens, who previously endorsed Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro for president, is now supporting Warren in the race. This means Warren now has both the support of Nevada’s DNC committeewoman as well as its committeeman.
  • Warren also earned the endorsement of West Wendover Mayor Daniel Corona, another former Castro backer, as well as the support of state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, who had previously endorsed California Sen. Kamala Harris.
  • Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo told me recently that he has officially withdrawn his endorsement of Biden. Fumo is running for the Supreme Court, and judicial candidates cannot endorse.
  • The Clark County Education Association threw its support behind presidential candidate Bernie Sanders last week. The news was first reported by BuzzFeed but my colleague Jackie Valley has more. (Sanders also recently received a number of endorsements from college professors, educators and education leaders.)
  • The Clark County Black Caucus also announced it is officially shifting its support to Sanders, after previously backing New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who dropped out of the presidential race last week. The caucus had said it would support Sanders should Booker not garner enough support.
  • Former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones Blackhurst has endorsed Biden for president.
  • Former Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell has endorsed Buttigieg.

Upcoming candidate visits

  • Steyer has nine events planned in Nevada this weekend including a Reno small business walk, a meet and greet with business leaders in Reno, a Sparks office opening, a geothermal tour, a virtual town hall hosted by the Rural Nevada Democratic Caucus, an El Sol Community Reunion, and an environmental panel discussion. He'll also keynote Battle Born Progress’ 6th annual Progressive Summit at the CSN North Las Vegas Campus and attend SEIU Local 1107's Unions for All Summit.
  • Several Democratic presidential hopefuls will also appear by live stream at the Unions for All Summit this weekend.
  • The Clark County Democrats announced last week that Buttigieg was the first presidential candidate to confirm for their Kick Off to Caucus Gala on Feb. 15.
  • Biden will be in town starting Feb. 16 for the final stretch before the Feb. 22 caucus.

Surrogate stops

  • Steyer’s wife, Kat Taylor, was in Las Vegas on Jan. 8 to attend a Women’s Democratic Club luncheon, an AAPI women’s roundtable and a happy hour at Atomic Liquors downtown.
  • Castro was in Nevada on Jan. 10 and 11 campaigning for Warren, who he endorsed for president after dropping out of the race. Pulse Nightclub Survivor Brandon Wolf, trans Advocate Ashlee Marie Preston, and New York State Sen. Gustavo Rivera were also in Nevada that weekend campaigning for Warren.
  • Former Secretary of Labor and current Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis and Texas Congressman Filemon Vela were in Nevada the weekend of Jan. 11 and 12 to campaign for Biden. They attended various canvass kickoffs, roundtables and a Latino-to-Latino phone bank. (Solis will also be back this weekend to attend the SEIU summit on Biden's behalf.)
  • Ambassador Keith Harper, the first Native American to receive the rank of U.S. ambassador, campaigned for Buttigieg at the Native American Presidential Forum on Jan. 15.
  • Sanders Nevada state co-chair Amy Vilela and national surrogate Cori Bush attended the Women’s March in Southern Nevada on Saturday, in addition to attending a canvass launch and door knocking. They also hosted two screenings of Knock Down the House, a documentary about several 2018 primary campaigns that features Vilela and Bush.
  • Melissa Franzen, a Latina state senator from Minnesota, campaigned for Klobuchar at the Reno Women's March and attended a private meet and greet at Arrow Creek in Reno this weekend.
  • Nelda Martinez, former mayor of Corpus Christi, TX, campaigned on behalf of Buttigieg at the Reno Women’s March, while actress and comedian Cristela Alonzo campaigned there on behalf of Warren.
  • Fremont City Councilwoman Teresa Keng, campaigning on behalf of Yang, also joined the Women's March and other events in Reno, including a meeting with City Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus, a round table conversation with the Douglas County Democrats, and a canvass launch.
  • Rep. Mark Pocan, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House, campaigned for Sanders in Las Vegas on Monday, touring a dispensary with Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom.
  • Former U.S. Sen. and Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun will campaign for Biden on Jan. 25 and 26 in Las Vegas, including delivering remarks at the Battle Born Progress summit and an MLK Scholarship Banquet.
  • Castro will also return to Las Vegas this weekend to speak at the Battle Born Progress summit on Warren’s behalf. Jane Sanders, wife of Bernie Sanders, will also be in town to speak at the summit.
  • Lamell McMorris, founder and CEO of Perennial Strategy Group, former executive director and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and civil rights leader, will also speak at the summit on Buttigieg’s behalf.
  • Castro will return to Las Vegas this weekend to join the SEIU Local 1107 and Battle Born Progress summits.
  • California Assemblyman Evan Low, Yang’s national campaign co-chair, will campaign this weekend in Las Vegas at Chinese New Year celebrations, including the parade, and meet with veterans and AAPI small business owners.

Other election news

  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was back in Nevada on Friday to visit the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. Details from Indytern Kristyn Leonard in this tweet thread
  • Steyer’s campaign recently hosted several events as part of a “Black & Latino Empowerment Weekend,” including an interfaith community dinner, a black voters breakfast discussion and an economic empowerment roundtable.
  • The Nevada State Democratic Party hosted a mock caucus at SEIU last week in conjunction with the Asian American Pacific Islander Democratic Caucus, as well as two LGBTQ+ focused trainings in Las Vegas and Reno in coordination with the Human Rights Campaign. The party also plans to hold several rural Nevada caucus trainings this week, including in Pahrump, Tonopah, Dayton, Minden, Carson City, Virginia City, Fallon, Elko and Ely.
  • The state Democratic Party also recently hosted a weekend of volunteer training summits in Las Vegas and Reno, where nearly 500 Democrats showed up to get trained.
  • Klobuchar’s campaign is in the process of hosting ambassador trainings.

DOWN BALLOT NEWS

Lee faces ads from the left and the right: Freshman Democratic Rep. Susie Lee is the target of a new ad buy by the American Action Network, an outside group with ties to Republican leadership in the House, pressuring the congresswoman over her decision to vote in favor of impeaching Trump. My colleague Jacob Solis has more on this ad.

At the same time, she’s also one of 17 swing-seat Democrats being targeted in a $2.2 million advertising campaign from House Majority Forward, a non-profit group linked to the Democratic Party’s House majority super PAC. Details on that here.

Lee raises more than $600,000 in Q4: Against that backdrop, Lee raised more than $600,000 in the last quarter of the year. The end-of-year total is $110,000 more than Lee raised in the third quarter. Jacob has more details here.

Meanwhile, Horsford raises nearly $500,000: Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford’s campaign has announced that he raised $455,000 in the last quarter of 2019, pushing his total fundraising for the year to more than $1.6 million. He has more than $1 million cash on hand. More from Jacob on that.

Republicans hold fundraising edges in key Assembly, Senate races: Several Republicans outraised incumbent Democratic lawmakers in the last year as the party attempts to make a comeback after the 2018 election. My colleague Riley Snyder has the details.

REALTORS diving deeper into legislative races: The Nevada Association of REALTORS® has contributed $2 million to political action committees to recruit real estate agents and back friendly candidates in state legislative races. Riley has more.

Ahead of the 2022 election, Sisolak raises more than $1.6 million: Riley also dove into the campaign finances of Gov. Steve Sisolak, who substantially padded his campaign account last year even though he’s not up for election for two more years. Details here.

Judicial candidates are starting to file: Indytern Kristyn Leonard takes a look at which candidates filed on the first day of the judicial filing period.

CCEA collecting signatures for two ballot measures: The union is circulating two ballot measures in an attempt to boost state education funding. If successful, the two measures would head to the Legislature for consideration in 2021, before appearing on the ballot in 2022. My colleague Jackie Valley has all the details of what’s going on, and how proposed increases in gaming and sales taxes are likely to fare.


OTHER REQUIRED READING

  • Bloomberg and Steyer count on cash to carry them to victory (AP)
  • Caucusing is complicated, so why do we do it? (PBS Newshour)
  • ‘Democrats designate Culinary – er, Strip – caucus locations’ (Nevada Current)

Updated 1-21-20 at 9:33 a.m. to correct that one of Buttigieg's staffers in fact did not graduate from Rancho High School, as the campaign had previously said.

Climate change, conservation and development: Reshuffling the deck on the Las Vegas lands bill

What is the Clark County lands bill really about? It all depends who you ask.

For more than two years, Clark County officials have worked on crafting a proposal to expand the federal public land available for development, while meeting their responsibilities to protect imperiled species such as the Mojave desert tortoise. In 2018, the County Commission voted to send the proposal to Congress with buy-in from developers but criticism from environmental groups.

In recent weeks, that criticism — that the bill would subvert environmental laws and undermine climate change efforts — has reached an apex, most notably during a heated KNPR segment.

U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is working to change the conversation, especially as it relates to conservation. To do that, the senator’s staff began floating legislative language — known as a “discussion draft” — Tuesday that aims to resolve some of the most controversial aspects of the county’s plan. 

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Cortez Masto said that the purpose of the discussion draft was to foster a new round of discussions that moves groups toward finding common ground. 

“It should go toward a final product that really does allow Clark County to plan for the growth in a sustainable, predictable and responsible manner, while also protecting our pristine lands and environment,” she said. “At the end of the day, the county has to plan. We have a growing community and population there. We need to make sure they have the ability to plan for that [and] be flexible in a state where 85 percent of the land is owned by the federal government.”

The proposal attempts to strike a balance. It aims to satisfy Clark County’s concerns over limits on future growth while addressing concerns from a conservation community with split opinions.

Still, the process is far from over. Negotiations over the proposed bill are likely to continue. The proposal is just draft legislation. It has not been introduced in Congress. Cortez Masto said that she plans to continue working with the delegation, the county and groups to craft final legislation. 

Shaaron Netherton, executive director for Friends of Nevada Wilderness, characterized the new draft as an improvement that protects more federal land, but she added that there is more work that needs to be done.

“It's complicated, and it takes time to work through all of the issues,” she said.

Although it could protect more than twice as much federal land from development, concerns remain over what the proposal might mean for growth and threatened species, namely the desert tortoise. The proposal also leaves room for Las Vegas to develop southward along I-15. Such a move, a new coalition of groups has argued, could amplify the effects of climate change. 

“While there are improvements from the county's disaster of a bill draft, this doesn't change the fundamental dynamic of allowing Las Vegas to sprawl outside the Las Vegas Valley," Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said Tuesday evening. 

Reshuffling the politics?

The new discussion draft, in many ways, is a response to nearly two years of criticism over the county’s original request, viewed by many groups as favoring development over conservation.

A map showing the boundaries of proposed conservation under the proposed discussion draft. (Courtesy of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto's office)

To offset additional development, the draft language would protect about 308,110 acres of public land as wilderness. It also expands the border of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area by 69,201 acres, preserving a popular recreation destination for climbers and hikers.

The bill would expand land for the Moapa Band of Paiutes by 41,228 acres. It floats the idea of creating a new national monument. And it conditionally protects another 353,716 acres of land.

It changed language around the Endangered Species Act that several groups, from the Center for Biological Diversity to The Nature Conservancy, were concerned could undermine the law. 

"It's an improvement, but we still have concerns," Donnelly said.

It removed language that concerned opponents of the Las Vegas pipeline, a proposal to pump groundwater from Eastern Nevada as a way to supplement the city’s Colorado River supply.

“What they have put together is really well-thought out and addresses many of the concerns that the conservationists raised with the draft,” said Justin Jones, a Clark County commissioner.

Map of public land.
A map showing the boundaries of federal public land available for development under the proposed discussion draft. (Courtesy of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto's office)

But some groups remained concerned that the legislation does not go far enough to address climate change. In fact, they argue the legislation could hinder the ability to tackle warming.

In a statement on Tuesday, Brian Beffort, director of the Sierra Club’s Toiyabe Chapter, thanked the senator for working to achieve a balance, but said he was concerned about the potential growth. 

The bill would open up more than 42,000 acres of federal public land in the Las Vegas Valley to potential development, while it would reduce the amount open to development in other areas. 

Industry groups, including the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association and the Henderson Chamber of Commerce, see a growing population on the horizon. Las Vegas is expected to add about 600,000 people over the next four decades. And they see themselves as landlocked. 

Federal land managers, namely the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, control most of the land around the Las Vegas Valley. With a growing population, industry groups argue that there is a need to free up new land to lower land prices, and in turn, attract new business and housing.

“We're a growing community,” Amber Stidham, director of government affairs for the Henderson Chamber of Commerce, said on Tuesday. “I understand the need for not becoming too much of a sprawled community. But the fact is that 85 percent of the state is public land. We are one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation. And we're surrounded by federal public land.”

The legislation would direct growth around the I-15 corridor toward California. 

Yet land use is tied to addressing climate change. And some groups worry directing growth toward the outskirts of the valley, rather than directing growth up, could only make addressing climate change that much more difficult.

“Las Vegas is already one of the fastest-warming cities in the nation, our air quality is among the worst in the nation, and our water future is uncertain at best,” Beffort wrote in an email after the discussion draft was released. “This legislation could be a vehicle for meaningful climate action. But in what we've seen so far, it isn't. We're afraid it's only going to make things worse.”

This tension over growth has been present from the start.

Clark County Commissioners during a board meeting on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A delayed commission vote

In 2017, representatives from conservation and environmental organizations huddled in an office at Clark County’s Department of Air Quality. It’s an agency that has a misleading name. 

For years, it has done much more than help regulate emissions from vehicles and industry. One example of its breadth: It is responsible for ensuring compliance with endangered species rules. For this reason, it is looking to restructure as the Department of Environment and Sustainability.

At that meeting in 2017, representatives from the conservation community were briefed on a new project. For several attendees of the meeting, it was the first time that they were hearing about the proposal. The department was seeking congressional legislation that would secure more land for development by adjusting the boundaries of federal public land within the county. 

Immediately, there were environmental concerns. The county’s plan would direct the trajectory of Las Vegas’ growth for decades. How would it affect federal public land used for recreation and conservation? How would it affect imperiled species, namely the declining Mojave desert tortoise population? Did it comply with the Endangered Species Act? The proposal could protect more federal public land. But was it long-lasting enough to offset the effect of new development? 

The groups were told that the County Commission would weigh the proposal at its next meeting.

That didn’t end up happening.

The groups were successful in delaying the county’s process. It wasn’t until June 2018 that the commission voted unanimously to move forward with the proposal. Once the vote happened, the county continued tweaking the bill as the delegation started looking at crafting its own draft. 

But by the time that vote came around, environmental groups found themselves with differing opinions. Most of them were opposed to the bill or neutral. Other groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, were vehemently opposed. Save added conservation and a few provisions, the Sierra Club said it was “a terrible step forward” (emphasis taken from the group’s comment letter). 

Two groups — the Nevada Conservation League and the Conservation Lands Foundation — commented in support of the proposal, arguing it was only a first step; things could change.

After the vote, groups began directing their concerns toward the delegation, and their positions revealed a significant tension over what environmental goals the bill should accomplish.

Homes under construction about two miles north of Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A more sprawling debate

Last week, a new coalition came to the table: the Nevada Climate Justice Coalition.

The coalition, comprising 350.org, Mi Familia Vota, Moms Clean Air Force, Ecomadres, PLAN, Sierra Club and the Sunrise Movement, formed in response to the county’s initial proposal. The goal of the coalition was to bring more urgency to the justice and equity issues associated with sprawl. And on Monday, the coalition released a letter to the delegation telling it to slow down.

Former County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani also signed the letter. Giunchigliani, who ran for governor in 2018, originally voted for the county’s proposal but has withdrawn her support.

The coalition recommended the delegation “postpone passing legislation that has the potential to expand Las Vegas’ footprint — and the associated climate and equity impacts — until strong sustainability, climate-resiliency and equity policies are in place at the county level.”

Their ask offers an alternative approach to the course many groups have been taking. 

If the bill is going to allow for the potential southward expansion of the Las Vegas Valley toward the California border, they want assurances in advance that the county will take climate change effects into account. How will more development increase the urban heat island? What will it mean to have more vehicles on the road? Will the county prioritize and incentivize infill first?

The proposed legislation expands the federal land available for purchase by developers. But it does not guarantee that all of that land — about 32,000 acres — will be sold to developers. 

“If this public lands bill moves forward, that does not mean the lands are going to be [sold],” said Stidham, with the chamber. “It means that we are providing more authority to the municipalities."

Andy Maggi, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League, said that it will be up to policymakers to ensure that climate change is taken into account. He added that “there is nothing in here that says the historic trends of Southern Nevada have to continue.”

But others believe that simply expanding the land available to developers, will squeeze natural ecosystems in an area where there is already increased development pressure on public land. 

Shaun Gonzales, who writes the Mojave Desert Blog and is on the board of Basin and Range Watch, said that environmentalists should not rely on politicians to check desert development.

“They can't guarantee who is going to be on that commission down the road,” he said. “Once the land is made available to developers, that begets its own political and economic pressures.”

Most groups agree that climate change should be part of the equation as the Las Vegas Valley looks at a growing population, but they ask whether the legislation is the right place to do that. 

Jocelyn Torres, Nevada director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, noted that jurisdiction is multi-layered when it comes to creating policy for an issue as systemic as climate change.

“I'm not sure all the answers are in this legislation,” Torres said. 

How the bill moves forward

None of this is happening in a vacuum. 

Across the state, counties from Pershing to Washoe are working on bills that would change the status of federal land within their boundaries. Those processes could lead to more conserved federal land for recreation and wildlife. They could also open more public land to development. 

At the same time, the military is proposing significant expansions of two testing ranges — one in Southern Nevada and one in Northern Nevada — that are used to train for modern air combat. 

In an interview with reporters last week, Rep. Mark Amodei proposed combining some of the legislation to make passage before Congress more likely. Amodei, in the interview, also warned that it would be more difficult to pass legislation after July 4th as attention shifted to the election.

When asked how the Clark County legislation could move through Congress, Cortez Masto said she was not sure how the legislation would proceed. Her focus, she said, is drafting a final bill.

“I don’t know how it’s going to move,” Cortez Masto said. “It’s important that we work with the county and local government and the stakeholders who are interested in working together to find common ground to come up with a final product. And then I will work with our delegation in finding a vehicle and figuring out how we pass it through Congress.”

Humberto Sanchez contributed reporting to this article.