Nevada’s mining industry association president questioned Gov. Steve Sisolak on his plans to spend a massive influx of pandemic-related federal dollars, as the state’s chief executive continued his statewide listening tour at the group’s monthly meeting.
During Thursday’s online “Hard Hat Chat,” Sisolak and state Treasurer Zach Conine answered questions on how the state’s $6.7 billion share of American Rescue Plan (ARP) dollars will go toward health care, education, housing and infrastructure for Nevada. Sisolak promised to take the needs of all communities across the state into account, including the multibillion mining industry that employs nearly 15,000 people, saying he wanted a “recovery as strong and equitable for everyone.”
Following the success of a mining tax bill passed in the waning days of the 2021 legislative session, industry leaders are hopeful that the governor will welcome them into the decision-making process again.
That bill, AB495, is estimated to raise around $170 million in new tax revenue over the two-year budget cycle from an excise tax on gold or silver mining companies that report more than $20 million in annual gross revenue. Nevada Mining Association President Tyre Gray said that the tax revenue will be collected from about 20 mining companies and will be deposited into the state’s education fund starting in July 2023.
Though the countercyclical mining industry has prospered during some of the state’s toughest economic times, Gray added that the coronavirus pandemic still affected miners, just differently than workers in other industries.
“All of us count our blessings every single day for working in mining, where we didn't have as many disruptions within the actual job market,” Gray said at the meeting, “but there were substantial disruptions along the supply chain.”
As for pocketbook issues such as health care and education, Gray said employees of mining companies have often dealt with a lack of access. Miners are typically provided health insurance through their employer, but might not have access to enough doctors in the rural parts of Nevada — where much of the state’s mining industry is located — to set up an appointment. Likewise, those communities might not have access to enough educators to meet students’ educational needs.
Conine suggested creating “retention and recruitment pools” to provide incentive to younger physicians to start their practices outside of the state’s urban areas in order to meet community medical needs. As for teacher shortages, Sisolak said remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic shows that teachers could work from one city to teach students in another.
Gray told The Nevada Independent that he thinks ARP funding would be well spent on continuing environmentally sound extraction as well as on efforts such as Mining the Sun, an initiative that turns electrical infrastructure on old mine sites into solar fields.
“It's always important to recognize that mining is the first link in the supply chain for solar panels, for electric vehicles, and all of the technology that we want in order to be able to lessen our footprint,” Gray said.
He also hopes to see more diversity in the industry through programs like Mining Vegas for Talent, which recruits individuals from lower socioeconomic areas in the city to pursue mining as a trade instead of college.
Despite the recent disclosure that the Nevada mining joint venture Nevada Gold Mines donated $750,000 to a political action committee supporting Republicans in the 2020 election cycle, the Nevada Mining Association says it does not plan to endorse candidates in the 2022 election. Gray said it will financially contribute to those in 2022 who take the time to learn about mining not “as a guy with a pickaxe and a grizzled beard” but as a modern industry.
“What's most important to us — and I would say even frankly probably to any business and industry out there — is really to have candidates who are pragmatic and who are willing to listen,” Gray said.
Maxine Redstar’s office on the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation sits in a valley surrounded by mineral-rich mountain ranges that stretch past the Oregon border, only a few miles to the north.
It’s May, and after a short spurt of precipitation in an otherwise record dry year for Nevada, the valley has turned pastel-green with sagebrush dotting the land. Near the administration building and Redstar’s office, a sign is planted in the ground. It reads: “Keep Your Aboriginal Rights!!”
Redstar, as chairwoman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe, is at the center of a fight over a planned lithium mine in Thacker Pass, Peehee mu’huh in Paiute. Part-administrator and part-spokesperson, her phone rings often, and documents are scattered across her desk.
Long before Redstar heard of Thacker Pass, she was following the national news about clean energy. Now the news has come home. The rural communities that encircle Thacker Pass, the site of a major lithium mine, are at the frontlines of an energy transition from climate-warming fuels, coal mining and combustible engines to solar energy, lithium mining and electric vehicles.
The project, approved by federal land managers in January, spans 17,933 acres. Some of that land will be used for exploration. The mine itself — an open pit and processing facilities — would be built on about 5,545 acres of federal public land with an expected lifespan of 41 years.
For many residents, one mine is enough of a concern. But several companies have mineral rights in the area, clear into Oregon, and this sparsely-populated section of the Great Basin could soon become a booming mining district. There is exploration for gold too, Redstar notes.
“We see on this mountainside here, they’re doing exploratory drilling,” Redstar said. “Well, they found gold. So now what? Where are we going to be sitting ten, fifteen years from now?”
Indigenous peoples have relied on Thacker Pass for food and traditional medicine, including toza root and old-growth sagebrush, which is used to make tea. Last month, a group of tribal members opposing the mine wrote a public statement about the land’s spiritual significance.
“In addition to environmental concerns, Thacker Pass is sacred to our people,” they wrote. “Thacker Pass is a spiritually powerful place blessed by the presence of our ancestors, other spirits, and golden eagles – who we consider to be directly connected to the Creator.”
After federal land managers approved the mine in January, members of tribes from across the Great Basin began visiting the mine site, where protesters have set-up a 24/7 encampment.
In the months since Redstar was seated as the tribal chairwoman in December 2019, she has followed through on a petition, signed by tribal members, to disengage with Lithium Americas, the company behind the Thacker Pass mine, which was fast-tracked through an environmental review process during COVID-19. But state and federal officials have backed the project — and it is a major deposit, projected to yield 66,000 tons of lithium per year when fully operational.
“We’re just somebody little that’s trying to preserve what we have,” Redstar said last month. “Do we stand a chance? You know, that’s the big question. We’re going to give it our best shot.”
Redstar’s rhetoric is measured, and she tries to approach issues with an open mind, having to balance the interests of all tribal members. She said “there’s a mix” of opinions about the mine, with one group pushing to prioritize the economic opportunity that lithium extraction might offer.
“I’m not going to put a price on culture,” she said. “I’m not going to put a price on tradition. But we’re a small tribe. We’re an indigent tribe. So it’s hard to balance. It’s hard to balance that.”
“I respect the voice of our older members of the tribe,” Redstar added. “But I also have young people that are looking for guidance, that are looking toward being here for a very long time.”
In the communities closest to the mine, opinions about the project range from active opposition to quiet support. Many people are resigned, feeling that the mine can’t be stopped, that their concerns are small in the national push to secure a domestic lithium supply chain for batteries.
Everyone is watching for what happens next. There is little doubt the mine is going to change the area. The small town of Orovada sits at the base of the Santa Rosa Range and straddles both sides of U.S. 95. Almost every truck going to Thacker Pass has to travel through Orovada, where there is a gas station (with an electric-vehicle charger), a community center and a school.
Driving through Thacker Pass, cars often come to a halt to let cattle cross the highway. On the other side of the pass, the one-lane road becomes unpaved and rough. The road opens up into Kings River Valley, an agricultural community that sits at the base of the Montana Mountains.
The mine will bring in dozens of trucks to haul rock and chemicals. Workers will be bussed into the area from Winnemucca about 65 miles away. Parents are worried about traffic (exiting U.S. 95 is unsafe and local residents say transportation officials have done little to help). To deal with safety, the mine has offered to pay to relocate Orovada’s K-8 school. Given the costs for land and new construction, estimates for the new school range from about $10 to $12 million.
Ranchers are worried about water and wildlife. One rancher is taking his concerns to court and challenging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s decision to approve the mine. A coalition of environmental groups filed a similar lawsuit, a case that has led to a delay in excavation plans.
“People don’t live out here for any other reason than just the fact that it’s peace, it’s quiet,” said Stacey Edwards, part of a concerned citizens group and a fifth-generation Nevada rancher who is raising her family in Orovada. “There’s not a van or a car that drives by that you don’t know.”
“It’s going to change a lot of our everyday lives,” she added.
A small community, and that’s fine
The signs of a changing climate are everywhere this year. Drought has made it harder to earn a living as a rancher in the Great Basin, an environment where water was already scarce. On a morning in May, Dusty Edwards, Stacey’s husband, moves an irrigation line with his son Rhett.
This is one of the worst drought years Dusty can recall, and it’s critical to use water wisely.
Stacey Edwards, born and raised in Orovada, met Dusty Edwards in Boise. They moved back to Orovada to raise their family, and Dusty took a job ranching with Stacey’s father, Ron Cerri. She said that sometimes she feels her kids are missing out on the opportunities that other kids have in big cities. But growing up as part of a ranching family in Orovada, she says, can make a person.
“You have to be self-sustainable,” she said. “You have to know how to take care of yourself.”
Her daughter Addyson gets up early to feed her horse and two steers, hauling red buckets out to them before she goes to the Orovada School, the same school Stacey went to. Addyson also feeds five dogs and two cats. Her horse is named Mandy. The steers are Bingo and Angus.
“We’re not going to stop it,” Stacey said of the mine at Thacker Pass, which is across the valley. “There’s not a person in this world that can convince me that we are. I think that the need for it is there. I understand that the need for it is there. But you have to be able to also live with it.”
Edwards is a member of Thacker Pass Concerned Citizens, a community group formed by local residents of Orovada and Kings River Valley. The group has organized regular public meetings at the community center gym. State environmental regulators have presented at the meetings to go over the permitting process — so have the county superintendent and mine representatives.
The meetings can get testy, and skepticism is often expressed in the form of questions. In late April, when an executive from a trucking company, Savage Services, came to talk about their practices for hauling molten sulfur, local residents peppered him with a long list of questions.
It turns out, according to a fact sheet Savage Services left at a check-in table for the meeting, the company’s trucks transport about three million tons of molten sulfur each year. Its truck drivers, according to the fact-sheet, receive extensive training in safely transporting sulfur.
Yet residents have qualms about commercial trucks driving sulfur down U.S. 95 — where cars speed and there is no safe turning lane into Orovada. Once the sulfur reaches Thacker Pass, the mining company plans to make sulfuric acid needed to process the mined rock. For many, the sulfur plant, which requires a state air quality permit, gives them more pause than the mine.
The day after the meeting about trucking sulfur, Ron Cerri is sitting at home, getting ready to put out mineral supplements for his herd and visit his daughter’s family. Cerri is serving his second term on the Humboldt County Commission, and residents in the Orovada area often approach him with their concerns. The chemical plant, he said, “really has everyone’s attention.”
“It’s not so much the mine,” he said. “That’s my opinion, anyway.”
The community is grappling with how to move forward. The public meetings are a way to sort through their issues, and Terry Crawforth has taken on much of the work of organizing them.
Crawforth lives in Kings River Valley, and his home is one of the closest to the mine. Sitting on his porch, he gestures to the Montana Mountains behind him, the range where the mine would be located. It’s the mountains that prompted him to move here from Sparks after 42 years at the Nevada Department of Wildlife, including a term as director. The mountains are rich with wildlife.
In January, the state wildlife agency wrote in a comment letter that it believes the plan “will likely result in adverse impacts to wildlife, ground and surface waters, and riparian vegetation within and outside the project area. These impacts include effects to an array of species and will likely have permanent ramifications on the area’s wildlife and habitat resources.”
As local residents started to gather information, Crawforth said “the more concerned people got” about everything from air quality and wildlife to the school and transportation. He helped form the citizens group to advocate for residents. If the mine is coming, they want to be at the table.
For someone who wears a shirt that says “CAUTION GRUMPY OLD MAN,” he shows few signs of grumpiness. He is affable on a warm Sunday morning, and has a good sense of humor.
It’s not only this one mine. Local residents, he said, are concerned with what happens when more lithium claims are developed. There are claims throughout the Montana Mountains, and some of them are held by Lithium Americas. The company, for its part, has pledged to avoid blasting at higher elevations, where there is critical habitat for the iconic Greater sage-grouse (wildlife managers, Crawforth notes, call the Montana Mountains the “sage-grouse holy land”).
But people are skeptical of that promise. If demand for lithium continues rising, Crawforth and others believe there is going to be immense pressure to mine claims throughout the area.
State government officials view lithium mining as an economic opportunity, but residents said they are doing little to offset the effects on communities taking the brunt for the greater good.
“If you want to be the lithium capital of the world,” he said, “there’s a cost to that.”
“I think people here feel like they are treated like, ‘Well, it’s just a bunch of country bumpkins out in the wastelands in Nevada,’” Crawforth said. “And these people are not dummies. They have made a living for 150 years in some pretty harsh environment, actually.”
Down the street, Wendelyn and Martin Muratore have breakfast ready — homemade bacon, string hash browns, pancakes and eggs. They originally moved to Kings River Valley after living in California, but they still go back from time to time: They ship hay to organic dairies north of San Francisco. Hunters regularly stay with them when they get tags in the Montana Mountains.
Neither of them want to see the mine go in. Wendelyn has joined Great Basin Resource Watch, the mine watchdog group suing over the fast-tracked environmental review. And Martin rejects the mentality many state and county politicians have, especially in Winnemucca — that if you are not growing as a community, you’re dying. In the valley, he said, people don’t think that way.
“I don’t want any growth,” he says. “There’s no water for it, no need for it.”
A climate crisis and a lithium boom
Thacker Pass sits at the southern edge of the McDermitt Caldera, a vast geologic structure — the remnant of an extinct supervolcano that erupted roughly 16 million years ago. For decades, companies eyed this caldera in and around the Montana Mountains for minerals. First, Chevron came looking for uranium in the 1970s, and then, in the 1980s, the company turned to a search for lithium.
By the mid-2000s, exploration in the area kicked off again. Lithium Americas eventually picked up where Chevron had left off, assessing the feasibility of mining lithium from the volcanic clay.
During the nearly fifteen years since the company restarted exploration in the area, the global dynamics around lithium mining have changed. In 2015, the United States and other countries adopted the Paris Agreement as a global response to climate change. Since then, carmakers have committed to putting more electric vehicles on the road, driving up demand for lithium.
Today, Jonathan Evans, president and CEO of Lithium Americas, says young engineers contact him on LinkedIn every week. They want to work in an industry focused on climate change.
“This isn’t a gold mine,” he said in an interview. “This isn’t an oil refinery. It’s something [where] they can utilize their skill-sets, utilize their smarts, to address an issue that is dear to them.”
Quietly, over the past several years, the company has built-up its physical infrastructure within the state and has made in-roads with politicians. The company has an office in Winnemucca and two spaces in Reno — one is a process testing plant in a non-discrete one-story building.
Technicians at the testing facility put ore from Thacker Pass through mechanical and chemical processes to separate the lithium material from the clay. The process relies on methods that the company says are meant to reduce acid use and are less intensive than other types of mining.
Lithium Americas, in its mine plan documents, has emphasized that the company is working to be as efficient as possible with their ore, acid use and energy. At the testing facility, water and materials are squeezed out of the ore to the point that unused rock, or tailings, are bone-dry.
On the mine site, the company plans to operate a steam turbine and generate electricity using excess heat from the sulfur plant. Some of that electricity would be exported back to the grid.
Lithium Americas has also built out a political team. Last month, the New York Times reported that the company hired a D.C. lobbying firm that included a former Trump administration aide.
In January, Gov. Steve Sisolak touted lithium mining in his State of the State speech, arguing that “Nevada is home to the most accessible lithium reserves in North America.” The Sisolak administration has also offered financial support to the project. Last year, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development approved tax incentives worth about $8.6 million over 10 years.
Those tax incentives frustrated some local residents who felt that the state should not forgo any revenue at a time when funding was needed to build infrastructure for increased mining activity.
According to Evans, the company plans to answer those concerns and reinvest the tax incentive in the local community. Evans said that “the benefits of that should flow to the community itself.”
At meetings in Orovada, Tim Crowley, the former head of the Nevada Mining Association, has represented the company. He serves as Lithium Americas’ vice president of government and community relations for its Nevada division, Lithium Nevada Corporation.
In one meeting last month, as local residents and a group of protesters camping out at the mine grilled Crowely, he said the company’s internal canvassing had suggested widespread support.
“We know from canvassing this area and sponsoring the BuildNV program, that there are many people right from this community who are looking forward to this project,” Crowley said in April.
One of those supporters is Loyd Sherburn, a rancher in Orovada who sold water rights to the mining company. If the economy needs more lithium, he would like to see mining done in the United States, where there are stricter environmental standards than in other countries.
“I’m a firm believer that we should be energy [independent] in this country, and not dependent on someone else to shut something down because they go ‘Hey, we just took all the lithium from Argentina and you ain’t getting any more,’” Sherburn said. “So I see this project going in. I just want to see it done as environmentally-friendly and safely as we can for our community.”
The process testing facility helped convince Sherburn that the company’s model was sound.
“If they can duplicate what they showed me there, my big concerns about dirty air and dirty water have pretty well gone out the window,” he said. “Yeah, I don’t have any concerns.”
Sherburn has ranched in Orovada for more than four decades, and he understands where his neighbors are coming from. It’s on the top of everyone’s mind, and people are concerned about the changes the mine could bring. Sherburn said the mine might attract a few more people, but most workers, he thinks, will opt to live in Winnemucca. As for him, he plans on staying in town.
“As long as I’m alive, I plan on living and dying here,” he said.
Illyssa Fogel, the owner of the Diamond A Motel in McDermitt, a town next to the Oregon border and near the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, is another supporter of the mine. The proposal didn’t come as a surprise to her, either. Geologists have been staying at her motel for years.
Fogel, who has a law degree, was raised in the Reno-area, and she is worried about the effects of climate change. When Fogel bought the motel in the early 2000s, she had been living in Los Angeles. But having grown up in Nevada, she saw an opportunity for the border town to grow.
At the time, in the early 2000s when she purchased the motel and moved to McDermitt, Fogel was interested in developing a casino (Fogel had worked in casinos and also had been a lawyer for the Gaming Control Board). At one point, she owned the bar across the street from the motel. But her efforts to grow the town hit roadblocks. Now with a lithium mine coming, Fogel said she sees a new opportunity for economic growth — while tackling the climate crisis.
She has seen the climate change in the area, with warmer winters and warmer summers.
“It's my understanding that this is one of the largest, if not the second largest, lithium reserve on the planet, and certainly the biggest supposedly in the Northern Hemisphere,” Fogel said. “Why aren't we working on getting this out and getting rid of carbon emissions and all that kind of stuff?”
Lithium Americas also found an unexpected ally in Glenn Miller, a founder of Great Basin Resource Watch, one of the environmental groups suing over the mine in federal court. Earlier this month, Miller resigned from the group's board of directors.
Miller, who spent much of his career criticizing the mining industry, said he supports the mine because the U.S. needs a domestic supply of lithium to address climate change, which he views as the most serious environmental threat facing the globe. Compared to mining methods used for gold, he argued that the processes Lithium Americas plans to use are far more “benign.”
"From the technical perspective, I think this is a good mine and mining a deposit that is really important for the country,” said Miller, who taught environmental science at UNR for decades.
“Most environmental issues are a question of values,” Miller said.
A tribe cancels its engagement agreement
Mercury was discovered outside of McDermitt in the early-20th century and was mined through the 1980s. The quicksilver mines that worked the deposit now sit dormant across the valley from the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe’s reservation. For years, the mines employed tribal members, bringing stable jobs but also leaving contaminated land and public health concerns.
Eddie Smart’s father mined for mercury, and he recounts a detailed history of the mines. There was the Cordero Mine and the McDermitt Mine, both considered to be top producers of mercury when they were operational. Each mine left a significant footprint on land that was taken from the tribe. The narrow dirt road to the Cordero mine passes a massive rust-tinted mine pit.
“We’ve been put through the test,” he said. “We’re still surviving.”
Earlier this year, Smart supported an effort to petition the tribal council to disengage with Lithium Americas. Under previous leadership, the tribe’s chairman had entered into an agreement with the company, even before federal land managers finished the mine permitting process. Lithium Americas had pledged to invest in the tribe’s workforce and bring high-paying jobs to the area.
Several tribal elders and traditional members felt blindsided by the agreement. They, and many Paiute and Shoshone peoples from across the Great Basin, said they did not give their consent.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t like it,” Smart said of Thacker Pass. “Traditional people.”
Several tribal members, like Smart, had family members who worked in the mercury mines, and they said they know of former mine workers who had cancer. Redstar, the tribe’s chairwoman, said her grandfather and father worked in the Cordero mine, which went online in the 1930s.
“My grandfather passed away from cancer, as did my grandmother,” Redstar said. “A lot of other family members passed away from that. It was unfortunate that the town, or whoever, did not inform them of the dangers of this, whereas now it’s a little different. You can go in and challenge that and say, ‘Hey, I want to know how harmful this is going to be.’”
Evans, the president and CEO of Lithium Americas, notes that the mines permitted today must comply with much stricter environmental regulations, including water and air quality permitting.
“A lot of those mines were developed and permitted in a different time,” Evans said, when asked about the shuttered mercury mines. “A lot has changed since then from a regulatory standpoint, from a community right-to-know standpoint and just from a government standpoint in general.”
The company says it remains focused on workforce development, and Evans wants economic benefits to go to tribal members. More than 40 tribal members have applied for jobs, he noted.
“We have ongoing dialogues with members of the tribe,” he said. “We’re committed to offer jobs to folks who want them and to offer the training required to be successful in those jobs as well.”
Billy Bell, a tribal councilman, started getting involved with the project in February. He learned that the tribe had not submitted comments as part of the federal environmental review process. Bell is not sure why, but he noted that the comment process was going on during the pandemic.
“They’d pretty much had everything shut down,” Bell said after a community meeting in April.
The environmental review, in certain areas, is vague, he said, and he has concerns about how federal land managers addressed cultural resources and water quality, considered alternatives and coordinated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to discuss endangered species.
Bell said he has heard both opposition and support from tribal members.
“I would generally say that it’s fairly equal,” he said.
But Bell, who voted to disengage with Lithium Americas, said it was not only the protests that swayed his opinion. He learned that the tribe had entered into the project agreement with the mining company in 2019, almost a year before the environmental review was completed.
“I had no idea what discussions they had or what they told them,” Bell said.
After the Trump administration approved the environmental review for the mine in January, two protesters, Will Falk and Max Wilbert, set up a camp at the mine site. When they first arrived at Thacker Pass, snow covered the ground. They have camped out there ever since — sometimes together, sometimes trading off, sometimes attracting visitors from across Nevada and the West.
Wilbert and Falk oppose the mine in the strongest terms. They believe the energy transition is built on a false premise. For them, Thacker Pass encapsulates the environmental impacts of green energy: Is disturbing land and wildlife to mine lithium for electric vehicles truly clean?
“I feel pretty terrible because the planet’s being killed,” Wilbert said, walking near the camp. “But I also feel like we’re further along now than we imagined we would be. I mean, when we started this campaign, there was a big element of just jumping off a cliff for us, because it was literally Will and I hopping in our cars and driving out here to camp on the side of a mountain.”
Over the past several months, Falk and Wilbert have launched a social media campaign that has attracted media attention from across the country. Falk wrote regular op-eds about their opposition to the mine that were published in The Sierra Nevada Ally, a regional nonprofit outlet.
On the ground, Falk and Wilbert worked with tribal elders, and they have helped to organize a coalition that has included organizers from the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-May, they are meeting with about a dozen tribal elders on the reservation. Elders and traditional members have formed a group known as the People of Red Mountain, Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu in Paiute. Falk, an attorney, has helped advise them.
Inelda Sam’s home, where the meeting takes place, is near the tribal offices on the reservation. Outside her home, wild horses are grazing by the road nearby. Sam sits at the end of a table next to Josephine Dick. The tribal elders said the protesters have provided important support.
“They’re supporting us,” Dick said. “So we’re supporting them too.”
Sam said that they are also getting support from Indigenous communities, long on the frontlines of mining, from across the region. The People of Red Mountain, Sam said, would like to see the tribal council do more to actively oppose the mining project. She is worried about the long-term impact that more mining will have on the community and the tribe’s traditional practices.
Lewey Sam, a tribal member, said he does a lot of hunting at Thacker Pass. He said the mine is going to disrupt wildlife in the Montana Mountains, home to deer, sage-grouse and rabbit. Sam said that hunting there was a part of how he — and many other tribal members — were raised.
“That’s the way I was raised, and that’s the way it’s going to be as long as I’m alive,” he said.
Over the past several months, their opposition has gained more momentum with coverage from national media outlets. Earlier this month, several tribal members traveled to Reno for a protest with more than a hundred supporters. Brian Thomas, chairman of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, was one of several leaders who spoke at the protest.
Thomas said federal land managers, including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, should have consulted with his tribe, and he hopes to raise the issue with Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, who was sworn in earlier this year as the agency’s first Native American leader.
“Believe me that we’re going to overcome this,” he said.
An encampment, meetings and lawsuits
The organizers of the Protect Thacker Pass camp plan to continue protesting at the mine site, and they are asking their supporters to be ready to block construction equipment. Even though mine construction could be many months away, Lithium Americas had been planning to begin initial excavations and diggings, associated with cultural resources work, as early as June 23.
But Falk, at the June 12 rally in Reno, was already looking beyond the delay: “We really need people to consider whether they can come up to camp, whether they can come up to Thacker Pass to put their bodies on the frontlines in case we have to stop any sort of construction equipment from digging up cultural resources, from destroying the land at Thacker Pass.”
Evans said that the company respects the right to protest.
“They’re free to protest — as we move forward as well — but as long as it doesn’t imperil the safety of our workers, the community or anyone else involved in the project,” Evans said.
But Lithium Americas remains committed to bringing the project online, and the company is finishing up state environmental permitting and state permitting to use its water rights.
“Our hope is that in the first half of next year, we’re moving forward,” Evans said.
The company is now proactively reaching out to the community. It recently hired professional facilitators from a firm in Colorado to interview local residents about their concerns. Cerri, the Humboldt County Commissioner, has pushed for negotiating a Good Neighbors Agreement, a binding legal contract that would help the community hold the mining company accountable.
Cerri said he was glad to see Lithium Americas more engaged. When the company first came to discuss its plans and the mine’s impacts, some people in the community felt talked down to.
“They were trying to tell us what was best for us,” Cerri said. “We didn’t need to hear that.
“We had to push pretty hard to get them to start coming to some of these meetings,” Cerri said last month. “They still didn’t think we were serious. Then, of course, some of the efforts by the protesters out there have also benefited us in the respect that it’s gotten their attention, and I think they realize that they need the community’s support for this mine to be successful.”
Evans said the company wants to partner with the community and is willing to make upfront investments. He pointed to relocating the school as an example of that commitment.
“There were concerns about traffic and the school,” he noted. “We’ve already come forward [and] we’re interested in replacing that school and moving it, if that’s what’s needed.”
Even as the company makes more commitments, there is still distrust about the mine.
Parents, county staff and educators gathered for a community meeting in mid-May to discuss plans to rebuild and relocate the school. Some worried that the school might not fix the larger issues associated with the mine — the concerns with more traffic and environmental impacts.
After the meeting, Jeannie Mertens, who runs an auto care shop in Orovada, said that her big concern is traffic, and she would like to see the mining company pay for a new bypass road.
“You know what? It’s appreciated that they want to do anything at all,” Mertens said. “But they want to spend the money on the school because it is way cheaper than building a haul road.”
It’s important, she said, for the community to reach a mutual agreement with the mine.
“If this mine doesn’t go, the next one will, because there are claims all over there,” she said.
Whether or not — and when — the mine is constructed could be decided by a federal judge.
Two ongoing lawsuits are challenging the federal government’s approval of the mine, claiming that the fast-tracked environmental review did not fully consider the lithium mine’s impacts. The lawsuits, and ongoing state permitting, could delay mine construction and ultimate operations.
In February, four groups — Western Watersheds Project, Great Basin Resource Watch, Basin and Range Watch and Wildlands Defense — filed suit over the federal environmental review.
John Hadder, the executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch, said that the organization is not opposed to all lithium mining. But he said regulators should not shortcut the permitting process, which is meant to consider a project’s impact on the environment and communities.
“If we’re going to move forward with a new era of increased mining, we have to recognize that there are communities that are going to be disproportionately affected by these policies, and that has to be kept in mind in how we move forward,” Hadder said. “What is a just transition?”
The second lawsuit was filed by Ed Bartell, an Orovada rancher.
On a cool morning in late-April, Bartell opens a gate that leads into Pole Creek, one of the two streams that is mentioned in the lawsuit. The whole landscape changes around the water, and the sun is glistening off the stream. The lower section of Pole Creek is narrow, but Lahontan cutthroat trout, an endangered species and the Nevada state fish, has been observed in parts of the stream. In the past, the Nevada Department of Wildlife has monitored Pole Creek for trout.
The environmental review, relying on data from a mine consultant, argued that mine activities would have no effect on the species, a claim that environmental groups dispute in their lawsuit.
And some ranchers feel that federal regulators are applying a double-standard when it comes to protecting threatened wildlife, like the trout. They note that, for years, the same land managers have emphasized the need to protect habitat for sensitive species, including the sage-grouse.
Bartell points out several places where the environmental review misclassified resources in the area. He is also concerned that mining activity will affect the local hydrology, which is sensitive to significant changes. Bartell and another rancher are challenging the mine’s water permits.
“It was really frustrating how quickly it got rushed,” Bartell said of the mine permitting.
Bartell understands the demand for lithium, but he said the Thacker Pass mine presents too many concerns. He is worried about the potential for pollution and the disturbances to wildlife.
“Obviously we need lithium mining, but it needs to be done in a sustainable way,” he said.
Nevada Independent photographer David Calvert contributed to this report.
Update: An earlier version of this story identified Glenn Miller as serving on Great Basin Resource Watch's board of directors. This story was updated on June 21, 2021 at 9:01 a.m. to indicate that Miller, a founder of the group, resigned earlier this month.
State lawmakers voted Monday to advance a major mining tax package that will allocate a combined $500 million to public education through new and extended mining taxes and federal COVID relief dollars — pushing the compromise package through the legislative process quickly on the final day of session.
The Assembly vote on AB495 was 28-14, with all Assembly Democrats and two Assembly Republicans — Jill Tolles and Tom Roberts — in support. In the Senate, four Republicans — Ben Kieckhefer, Heidi Seevers Gansert, Scott Hammond and Keith Pickard — joined Democrats to pass the bill in a 16-5 vote, sending the bill to Gov. Steve Sisolak for approval.
The bill, introduced late Saturday and heard for the first time on Sunday, involved a complicated trade of bills — including commitments to kill certain bills and pass others — and some challenges reining in the multiplying requests of lawmakers being courted for votes. An amendment to Democrat-sponsored SB292 that eliminates provisions allowing for straight-ticket voting was one of the Republican-favored elements of the deal.
The bill, which creates a new excise tax on annual gold and silver mine gross revenue above $20 million, is expected to eventually direct up to $500 million to education — including $200 million in federal COVID relief dollars and the rest through new and redirected taxes on the mining industry. It also restores funding to Opportunity Scholarships, a private school scholarship program supported by private donations made in exchange for tax credits.
An amendment adopted shortly before the floor vote in the Assembly allocated an additional $15 million in federal funding for learning loss at charter schools; charters were previously set to be excluded from the pot of money. Groups such as the Nevada State Education Association teacher’s union have opposed more allocations for charter schools, which they say are exempted from too many accountability rules.
But Republicans have advocated for those schools, including in a bill, SB463, that will apply $3.8 million to hold a dozen charter schools harmless from funding drops they otherwise would have experienced in the transition to a new funding formula. Tolles also said some charters experienced similar closures of in-person learning during the pandemic.
“There was significant learning loss. They could utilize that help as well,” she said in an interview.
Passage of the bill out of both chambers was lauded by Nevada Mining Association President Tyre Gray, who said in a statement that the legislation “encapsulates what is possible when we stop worrying about north or south, urban or rural, teacher or miner, and remember our commonalities.” The Clark County Education Association — a key booster — tweeted that a “bipartisan relationship made this possible.”
And in a joint statement with Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, Sisolak called the legislation “one of the most significant steps our State could take on our road to recovery.”
“Today's historic vote was only made possible thanks to the partnership of education leaders, business and industry, a bipartisan group of legislators, stakeholders and community members,” Sisolak said in a statement. “Our comeback will be strengthened by the continued collaboration and efforts of all Nevadans committed to working together for our families and a brighter future.”
Prior to the vote, Tolles and Roberts spoke with The Nevada Independent about their rationale for the votes, stressing that they had not only gained concessions in exchange for their pledge to support the tax, but also had an opportunity to improve education funding without overly burdening one single industry.
“For the mining industry, the caveat was everybody that is impacted agrees to it. There are no loss of jobs, there's … no loss of revenue to counties. And so the industry says we want this, that's a condition for us,” Roberts said.
The Nevada Mining Association on Sunday night made it clear in a tweet that they were in support of the bill, and association President Tyre Gray sat at the presenter’s table with Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson during the hearing for the bill.
Through the session, both lawmakers have struck a more moderate tone than others in the Assembly Republican caucus. Roberts, a former assistant sheriff with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, is planning to leave legislative service and run for Clark County sheriff in 2022.
For her part, Tolles said her entire rationale for getting involved in politics was to advocate for education — saying the combination of industry buy-in for the bill and the fact that proceeds would go to education checked all of her boxes.
“I'm not going to be in politics forever, but I'm always going to be a human being and a wife and a mom and a professional and a member of my community,” she said. “And so every decision that I have to make can't be about whatever is going to happen in the future, it has to be about whether or not I feel good about what's right in front of me and how I feel about it when I'm looking back at my life.”
Both lawmakers said that bill language adding back funding authorization to the Opportunity Scholarship program — a tax credit program offering private school tuition grants for low-income families — was a key element of negotiations, and said future discussions on the scholarship program have been promised.
Tolles wanted the scholarship program, which now counts only a little more than 1,000 enrollees and is at less than half its original size, not to be so restrictive and to ensure continuity of funding through budget cycles, so that parents with children enrolled in the program have more certainty year-over-year rather than having to face fears every two years about being dropped from the program.
“The way that the system, as I understand it works right now, is that every two years, it's a fight just to maintain,” she said. “And so that's very traumatic for those kids, and those families, to feel like it's essentially their version of an eviction moratorium like every two years.”
The bill does not guarantee that the scholarship lasts beyond the coming biennium, but does lift provisions from 2019 that did not allow new students to enroll.
Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas) said in a speech on the Assembly floor that his Republican colleagues’ decision to support a tax hike “in exchange for concessions so modest as to be insulting is simply astonishing to me.”
“Spending more money without enacting any structural reforms or accountability measures has never solved our educational problems,” he said.
Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) said when evaluating good tax policy, one question she asks is “are the people who are going to be taxed understanding of that tax, and ... do they share those principles enough that they come in support?”
“We have that in Assembly Bill 495,” she said. “In this building, it is a rare thing to get consensus. It is even more rare when we get it around policies such as this. This is long overdue.”
Four Senate Republicans crossed party lines to support the bill on Sunday evening, easily clearing the required two-thirds majority just a few hours after the Assembly passed the bill.
Kieckhefer, who is termed out of office after this session, said in a floor speech that the bill represented the “art of legislating in a single bill,” representing a compromise of things he strongly supported and strongly opposed.
“While there are plenty of reasons that I could point to to vote against this bill, I think the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks,” he said. “And when you get to this place, I think it's important to try to find a way to say yes to help people, and that's what this bill does.”
Seevers Gansert also pointed to the enhanced education funding in the bill, touching not only public education but also charter schools and Opportunity Scholarships, as the reason for her support. Pickard said he was troubled by “special interests” using the initiative petition process to “put pressure on us,” but said he would support the bill because of the additional funding for education.
Hammond said the process of getting to the vote “was a rocky one,” but said he ignored pressure from “outside interest groups and disaffected third parties” and voted to advance the policy because he agreed with the merits of the bill.
“While I don't expect the ... naysayers who don't even bother to read the legislation to keep their opinions to themselves, I will be voting yes, for all of our state’s students,” Hammond said. “I urge my colleagues to join me, because even if it's only one student, it’ll change their life without ever even knowing it and that's worth it.”
But five Republican senators voted against the bill, with several raising concerns with the rushed process that brought the legislation forward. Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) said he had wanted to see a credit offsetting any increased collection of the existing net proceeds tax on minerals against the new excise tax, and said it was “unfair to ask any one industry to come to the plate.”
“Education needs to be borne by all of us, not one single industry,” he said. “I think they were forced to be here, and forced to support this bill.”
Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) also raised similar concerns about the industry-specific tax, saying that the state’s gaming industry had long skated by without paying its fair share to education, saying it would “allow the very people that have not paid enough consistently to get away with it once again.”
“(For) all but a handful of us in this room, the people that are going to pay this tax, they are not our constituents. They are mine. It's very easy to tax people that actually are not even in your district.”
Reporter Tabitha Mueller contributed to this report.Updated at 4:34 p.m. on 5/31/21 to add comments from floor speeches. Updated again at 7:30 p.m. to include details from the Senate vote.
A major bill, aimed at directing about $500 million in mining revenue and federal aid to public education and staving off politically perilous 2022 ballot questions, began its race against the legislative clock late Sunday with a broad coalition of mining interests, progressive advocates and the Clark County teacher’s union on board.
The bill, AB495, was heard in a joint Senate-Assembly budget meeting on Sunday evening ahead of a crucial legislative period — the 120-day session ends Monday at midnight, and the bill must still clear the Assembly and Senate with a two-thirds majority vote, requiring at least some Republican buy-in. The bill passed out of the Assembly Ways and Means committee late Sunday on a party-line vote.
The bill is much more than just a tax increase. In addition to creating a new excise tax on gold and silver mine total revenue above $20 million — a provision that is estimated to bring in between $150 to $170 million over the biennium — the bill redirects existing mining taxes to education alone. It also allocates $200 million in federal funds to address learning loss, makes changes to Medicaid and restores funding to a private school scholarship program supported by private donations made in exchange for tax credits.
Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) framed the bill as the product of compromise between divergent interests, saying that many provisions had left those involved “holding their nose and nodding their head.”
“This is, I believe, a reflection of collaboration that in my career has seldom been seen,” Frierson said.
Presenting the bill alongside Frierson was Nevada Mining Association President Tyre Gray, and a representative from the largest player in the mining industry — Nevada Gold Mines — also testified in support.
“Mining is a willing payer to achieve these goals,” Gray said. “Though mining alone cannot solve the structural fiscal and funding issues of the state of Nevada, it is within our DNA to be first at the table and be part of the solution.”
Also at the table was Clark County Education Association Executive Director John Vellardita, whose presence has implicit election implications. Frierson said passage of the bill would result in lawmakers not advancing any of the three proposed mining constitutional amendments approved in the 2020 special session, and the teacher’s union is expected to withdraw its 2022 ballot petitions aimed at increasing gaming and sales taxes if the legislation passes.
Vellardita said earlier this spring that the union wasn’t “wed” to its ballot measures and would embrace an alternative if “it satisfies what we think needs to be done,” although he didn’t name a number at that time. At the hearing, Vellardita referred to his union’s effort to “force a conversation around investing” and lauded the bill as a historic investment in base per-pupil funding.
“I think the most significant thing that's out of this piece of legislation is a dedicated funding stream for K-12. Is it enough? No, but it's a start,” Vellardita said at the hearing.
The new tax envisioned by the bill is an excise tax levied on gross revenue of gold and silver mines in the state. The rates would be set at 0.75 percent on revenue above $20 million and up to $150 million a year, and at a 1.1 percent rate for any revenue above $150 million.
The bill also allows for deductions — including for proceeds deriving from federal land that is also a military base — and sets a calculation for determining gross receipts, which is similar in structure to the one related to Nevada’s Commerce Tax (a levy on annual revenue over $4 million that was approved in 2015).
In a diversion of an existing tax revenue stream, the bill directs money from the net proceeds of minerals tax to the state education fund rather than the general fund. Vellardita acknowledged it was possible lawmakers could use the mining money to supplant existing general fund contributions to education, but said lawmakers would face pressure not to do that from voters who expect meaningful improvement in schools.
And in a likely nod to needed Republican support, the bill will also add back $4.745 million in tax credits for the Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides private school tuition grants to eligible low-income children but is fiercely opposed by many progressive groups who see it as sapping money from traditional public schools. The program, which serves just over 1,000 students, was severely curtailed in the 2019 Legislature and closed to new enrollees — Frierson at the time argued that an annual 10 percent growth factor built into the program would quickly build to “simply unsustainable” levels.
During the hearing on Sunday, Frierson said the number of students in the program had “dropped off significantly faster than I think we anticipated last session, and so we are now within the parameters of that program.” He characterized the bill not as an expansion of the program, but as maintenance of 2019 levels.
The legislation would also direct the Commission on School Funding to explore new options for public education revenue. A report from the commission that was released last month suggested sales tax and property tax as the best mechanisms, but Frierson opposes altering the sales tax, and he said he didn’t want to “presuppose” what the commission might recommend based on AB495’s directive.
“This bill is the beginning of a conversation and we are not going to stop calling for stable funding for education in this state,” Frierson said.
In the meantime, the bill also calls for the appropriation of $200 million in federal COVID relief funds for COVID-related learning loss programs for school districts, including tutoring, summer school programs, extended learning and enrichment programs and support for at-risk students. The bill includes charter schools as a potential recipient of the funds, but Frierson said they would be removed in an amendment.
Another planned amendment to the bill will also charge the commission with exploring the issue of school board composition — a subject Frierson and other lawmakers have championed in efforts to make more school board members appointed.
Additionally, the bill appropriates $600,000 per year to the Silver State Opportunity Grant Program — the state-supported needs-based financial aid program. That allocation would restore funding to levels approved in 2019.
Another section would include aspects of Republican Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer’s legislation authorizing Medicaid reimbursement for personal care services. Frierson said that language was “something that I think collectively, folks thought was worthwhile as being a part of this package.”
Progressive supporters of the bill highlighted the need to fund education in Nevada, praising the measure as a necessary step toward helping students succeed, but lamented that lawmakers did not consider AJR1, proposed during the special session.
“While we maintain that AJR1 from the 32nd special session would have been the ideal solution to raising revenue this session,” said PLAN lobbyist Christine Saunders. “This deal is a start to addressing the privileged position mining has held in Nevada’s tax code until now.”
Amanda Hilton, the general manager of Robinson Nevada Mine, a copper mine operating out of White Pine County, choked up as she testified in support of the measure. She said that the bill will not only enhance the industry’s investment in education, but it will also protect the economic vitality of Eastern Nevada.
“I sit here before you today representing the 600 miners at Robinson and my White Pine County community,” Hilton said. “This legislation will keep our miners working within the economic engine of our community.”
Brian Mason, the vice-chairman of the Shoshone-Paiute tribe, was the only caller in opposition. He said that he was “disappointed” that tribes were not included in the discussion and that state dollars should be allocated to help “poverty stricken” reservation communities. The Nevada Republican Party also submitted a letter in opposition.
If the measure fails to advance, the electoral consequences will be felt on the 2022 ballot. Frierson has vowed to advance one of the proposed mining tax resolutions if the deal falls through, and Vellardita said after the hearing that the teacher’s union was prepared to spend up to $10 million in the 2022 cycle to try to pass the gaming and sales tax initiatives — estimated at one point to raise a combined $1.4 billion.
Vellardita said he was optimistic about the bill’s chances — saying it represented significant compromises on all sides, while noting the union’s initial funding ask from the mining industry was closer to $400 million over the biennium. Despite that, he said the potential for things to go haywire over the final hours of the session remained high.
“The shit drops, it's anybody’s game,” he said in an interview. “Everybody that is potentially the deciding vote has a self-inflated view of value, and they try to trade it. And that's what you're seeing right now. So do I think it's there? Do I think it's possible? Absolutely.”
With a little more than 48 hours left before the session must end, lawmakers are introducing a bill that would implement a new tax on the mining industry and a host of other provisions that are part of an apparent session-ending deal expected to prevent proposed constitutional amendments on mining from heading to the ballot.
The bill, AB495, was introduced late Saturday in the Assembly, marking the work product of days of furious, behind-the-scenes negotiations between Democratic legislative leadership, Gov. Steve Sisolak and representatives from the mining industry, teacher’s unions and other powerful political players. It’s been scheduled for a hearing on Sunday.
Introduction of the bill was met with praise, sometimes guarded, by progressive groups, the state mining association and the Clark County Education Association. The measure faces a somewhat perilous path to passage given that it requires a two-thirds majority vote with only two days left in the legislative session.
In an interview late Saturday, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) said he estimated that the bill would raise about $170 million in new tax revenue over the two years of the budget cycle, which along with other included tax changes would allocate more than $300 million to public education by the next biennium. Frierson said passage of the mining tax deal would mean “we don't have ballot measures” on the 2022 ballot modifying the constitutional cap on mining taxes.
“I think this will reflect a compromise that hopefully everyone can live with,” he said.
The measure would create a new excise tax on the gross proceeds of profitable gold or silver mining companies that report gross revenue greater than $20 million annually, at a rate of 0.75 percent on any revenue reported between $20 million and $150 million, and at a 1.1 percent rate at any revenue above $150 million. The bill sets forth a formula on gross revenue computation and deductions that can be counted against the revenue figure in the bill.
Revenue from the new mining excise tax will be temporarily deposited in the state’s general fund and begin to be deposited in the state education fund beginning in July 2023. It sends the state portion of the existing net proceeds of minerals tax into the state education fund instead of the general fund.
In a statement, Nevada Mining Association President Tyre Gray gave a tentative blessing to the proposal, noting the bill would represent a 100 percent increase in “mining’s contributions to the state,” but marked a compromise that only arrived “after deliberative conversation between Governor Sisolak, legislative leadership, and mining.”
“Unlike other recent revenue sources, these dollars will go entirely to education, while also ensuring that Nevadans remain employed, rural counties remain funded, and mining operations remain viable,” he said.
The bill also includes a grab bag of other provisions. It sends $200 million from the state’s allocation of federal COVID-19 relief funds to the Nevada Department of Education for grants that could support programs to compensate for learning loss during the pandemic in a matching funds-style arrangement.
“You leverage some of the school funds that are being allocated directly to the district with these funds to go to Read by Three and things like that,” said Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas).
Roberts and Frierson both said they expected that proposed ballot measures proffered by the Clark County Education Association that would raise the sales and gaming tax would be dropped — Frierson said he expected that a separate bill granting the teacher’s union explicit permission to withdraw the ballot initiatives would be introduced in the coming days.
Roberts said the new mining revenue would go to raise base per-pupil funding.
“It's a move in the right direction. It starts to get us to where we can climb up the ladder on national average for education funding,” Roberts said. “This is all dedicated to the base. And so I think we'll see some positive results.”
The bill calls on the Commission on School Funding, which has helped guide the implementation of a new education funding formula, to investigate possible sources of revenue for public schools and to submit it to the governor and Legislature by 2023.
The bill lays the groundwork for Medicaid recipients to directly receive reimbursements for personal care services. Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) has long championed that concept to supplement the rate Medicaid already pays for such services.
And in a likely olive branch to Republicans, the bill authorizes the extension of $4.745 million in tax credits for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program — which offers students from low-income households scholarships to attend private schools. Roberts said he expected subsequent legislation would authorize more spending for the program.
The bill also removes language from 2019 that largely blocked new students from enrolling in the scholarship program by limiting it to students who were already enrolled and for whom there was enough money expected to be available to support the student until they graduated.
The measure will also appropriate $600,000 per fiscal year for the Silver State Opportunity Grant, a state-supported needs-based financial aid program for higher education institutions. The bill as written appropriates $6 million per year, but that number will be revised down.
Progressive advocates have long described mining’s tax structure as a sweetheart deal that falls short of the industry paying its fair share. During a special session over the summer, lawmakers introduced three proposed constitutional amendments tinkering with the tax structure, but so far this session, there has been no action on those measures.
But the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, one of the most prominent voices for changing the tax on mining and a major proponent of one of the resolutions, AJR1**, called the compromise in the bill "a strong start to addressing the privileged position mining has held in Nevada’s tax code until now."
"While we will continue to push for what Nevadans truly deserve, this proposal will address the needs of the people in a meaningful way and allow our state the funding needed to maintain and build on critical public services immediately," said Laura Martin, the group's executive director.
The Nevada State Education Association teacher’s union called the proposed tax “a small down payment on our longstanding request,” but said much more was needed to reach a school funding level they would consider adequate.
“Even counting additional funding, significant new revenue sources will need to be developed to meet the [Commission on School Funding’s] recommendations moving forward,” the group said in a statement. “We hoped more progress would take place during this session.”
As lawmakers pursued a historic increase to the mining industry’s tax burden, mining companies and industry PACs combined to contribute more than $330,000 to their campaigns over the course of the 2020 election cycle.
That sum represents a roughly 32 percent increase from the 2018 cycle, making mining one of the few industries to spend more money rather than less amid the pandemic-triggered economic downturn.
Industry spending vastly favored Republican lawmakers, who received almost three times as much money as their Democratic counterparts, a cumulative $243,000 to the Democrats’ $88,000.
This spending came amid a backdrop of continued Democratic control of both legislative chambers — control that was weakened slightly by losses in a handful of competitive suburban districts. Republicans gained three seats in the 42-person Assembly and one in the 21-seat Senate, leaving the Democratic advantage at 26-16 and 12-9, respectively.
In order to assess broad trends in campaign spending, The Nevada Independent categorized and analyzed more than 7,700 individual contributions of more than $200 made to sitting lawmakers in 2019 and 2020.
The data in this story show only a slice of the campaign finance pie: 178 contributions from 18 unique donors fell under the umbrella of mining corporations, PACs or related individuals.
However, two lawmakers are not included in this analysis: Sen. Fabian Donate (D-Las Vegas) and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas). Both were appointed to fill legislative vacancies in February, after a freeze on legislative contributions had already begun ahead of the 2021 session.
These numbers also do not include candidates who lost their race for the Legislature, and may not represent the total spent by a given donor in the last election, but rather only the amount they spent on winning candidates.
As the cumulative totals might suggest, individual Republicans dominated the list of mining industry contributions. All but two of the top 15 mining recipients are Republicans, and of the 33 lawmakers who received just $5,000 or less in industry money, 26 were Democrats.
Even so, with few mining donors spending money at all, the top mining recipients did not receive particularly large sums compared to other industries. The top fundraiser, Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno), raised $25,500 in mining contributions from five mining donors: Nevada Gold Mines ($10,000), the Nevada Mining Association ($5,500), Comstock Mining ($5,000), Kinross Gold USA ($3,000) and Coeur Mining ($2,000).
Seevers Gansert was followed by Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) with $20,000; Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) with $17,500; Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas) with $16,500; and Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) with $15,500.
Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson followed close behind with $14,500 raised, making him the only Democrat in the industry’s top 10 recipients and the lone Democrat to receive more than $10,000 in combined contributions.
Overall, there were few mining related donors in 2020. Just 18 gave any money at all, and almost all of it was contributed by the biggest donors.
The top three — Nevada Gold Mines, the Nevada Mining Association and Cortez Gold Mine (owned by Nevada Gold Mines) — alone combined for almost 76 percent of the $331,780 total, while the top-five combined for almost 90 percent of all industry money contributed last cycle.
A joint venture between mining giants Barrick and Newmont, Nevada Gold Mines led all industry donors last cycle with $92,250 contributed across just 15 legislators.
Unlike most major industry-specific donors, nearly all of Nevada Gold Mines’ contributions went to Republicans, who received $85,000 to the Democrats’ $7,250. That gulf is so vast and Nevada Gold Mines gave to so few lawmakers that the average Republican received more money ($7,727) than all four Democratic recipients combined.
Also relatively unique in Nevada Gold Mines’ spending habits is the number of maximum contributions from the company. Nevada law limits donors to $5,000 per election (primary and general), for a total maximum contribution of $10,000 per cycle.
Such maximums are relatively rare, even among major donors, who frequently spend the maximum once or twice on party leaders or vulnerable candidates in swing districts before spreading out smaller contributions across a wider pool of candidates.
But Nevada Gold Mines contributed $10,000 to six lawmakers, all Republicans and all but one (Roberts) from Northern Nevada: Seevers Gansert, Roberts, Goicoechea, Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno), Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) and Assemblywoman Jill Dickman (R-Sparks).
Five other legislators — four Republicans and one Democrat — received $5,000, while the remaining three received $1,000 or less.
Though formally the third-largest donor, contributions made by the Nevada Gold Mines-owned Cortez Gold Mine function as an extension of that joint-venture, and as a result, as an extension of Barrick and Newmont. The mine reported $74,500 in spending across 24 legislators, which, when combined with Nevada Gold Mines, raises the joint-spending by Barrick and Newmont last cycle to $166,750.
That amount is slightly more than the $162,500 that Barrick and Newmont combined to spend on legislative elections in the 2018 midterms, before the creation of Nevada Gold Mines.
Much like Nevada Gold Mines, most of the Cortez mine spending flowed to Republicans, who received $55,000 to the Democrats’ $19,500. With another handful of Republicans receiving the maximum from Cortez, the average split per party also vastly favored GOP lawmakers, who received an average of $5,500 to the Democrats’ $1,393.
Those maximum contributions went to three Republicans — Hammond, Buck and Settelmeyer. Cortez otherwise gave $5,000 to five lawmakers (including two Democrats, Frierson and Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), while the remaining 16 recipients received $2,500 or less.
An industry association backed financially by a number of the state’s largest mining companies, the Nevada Mining Association combined to spend $85,500 across 41 legislators, or enough to make it the second-largest mining donor last cycle.
The sum is a sizable increase from the PAC’s spending in 2018, when it gave just $56,250 in the aggregate.
As an industry PAC, most of the association’s money came from the same companies contributing as their own entities. That includes Nevada Gold Mines (which gave the association $50,000), Newmont (which gave $20,000) and Coeur Mining ($10,000).
Unlike other industry donors, the Nevada Mining Association split its money almost down the middle of the two parties, spending $43,000 on Democrats and $42,500 on Republicans. On average, the split was still fairly close, with the average Democrat receiving $2,150 to the average Republican’s $2,023.
The two biggest beneficiaries of that spending were legislative leaders, with Cannizzaro receiving $9,000 and Frierson following with $6,500. The association’s spending was otherwise largely diffuse, with five lawmakers receiving between $5,500 and $3,500, and the remaining 34 receiving $2,500 or less.
Tim Lenard, Riley Snyder and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.
As part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent will be publishing deep dives over the coming weeks into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see previous installments, follow the links below:
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 email@example.com
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. AB240aims 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.
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.”
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.”
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:
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.
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 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.
Behind the Bar is TheNevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature.
In this edition: Recapping a Q&A with the head of the state mining association, how one lawmaker went viral on TikTok and details on a bill aimed at getting more Native American involvement in the naming of geographical places. Plus, a look ahead at this week’s major bill hearings.
Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. The newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.
I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that those headlines refer to the efforts from the 2020 special session and current legislative session to raise the constitutional cap on the net proceeds of mining taxes.
But all of those stories linked above are from a decade ago, when lawmakers and progressive advocates facing record budget shortfalls and a sluggish economy looked to the state’s countercyclical mining industry as a way to avoid massive revenue shortfalls.
Those efforts a decade ago fell short; the late Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce’s bill reducing the amount of deductions that mining companies could apply against the tax never passed out of committee in the 2011 session, and an effort to take the entire section on net proceeds out of the Nevada Constitution fell short on the 2014 ballot.
But I don’t think many involved in the conversation about mining taxes in 2021 will tell you that past will be prologue; the Legislature has changed tremendously over the past decade, with more and more of the state’s political power centered in Southern Nevada and away from mining-dependent rural communities.
If anything, the huge advertising and PR blitz that the Nevada Mining Association has embarked on between the end of last year’s special sessions and the 2021 session is proof enough that the industry is at least somewhat concerned that lawmakers could again push through a mining tax hike (though likely through the ballot box, as the two-thirds majority for a tax increase remains a high bar).
I was curious heading into session as to how the Nevada Mining Association would approach the still-pending proposed constitutional amendments, which is why I reached out to association President Tyre Gray for an interview (published today on our website).
Gray confirmed that the association is still “neutral” on AJR2, the “compromise” proposed constitutional amendment that was a product of negotiations between the industry and Speaker Jason Frierson.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in covering the Legislature, it’s that “neutral” testimony is rarely actually neutral. It seems clear that the mining industry still doesn’t really like the proposed tax changes. Gray said that the increased 12 percent net proceeds cap is still “beyond our comfort level as an industry” and would mark a “fundamental change to the mechanisms by which we're accustomed to being taxed in the state of Nevada.”
(Gray also mentioned a “trailer” bill that would change the net proceeds calculation — another piece of the mining taxation puzzle to keep an eye on.)
If you’re confused or would like to know more about the mining taxation debate beyond the normal talking points, (incoming cheap plug alert) The Nevada Independent is hosting a free panel on the topic on March 16, with longtime mining lobbyist James Wadhams, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada Executive Director Laura Martin and former Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Lorne Malkiewich.
The event is being hosted by my talented colleague Daniel Rothberg and Editor Jon Ralston — you can see the event details on this page.
— Riley Snyder
Assemblywoman goes viral with legislative TikToks
With members of the Legislature now born as recently as 1996, it was only a matter of time that TikTok would come into play in Carson City.
Torres, 25, says her motivation for starting with TikTok came from the high school students she teaches at Mater Academy in East Las Vegas. After the riot in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, when she asked if they had seen the news, they said they heard about it on TikTok.
“I could see that, in reality, TikTok is the form of information for this generation of high schoolers and also for college students,” she said in a Spanish interview with The Nevada Independent En Español. “Why don’t we use TikTok to inform the community how the Legislature works?
Even Hafen, the youngest Republican in the Legislature, is getting some residual fame.
“It’s kind of surprising. I was like, ‘Oh. Wow. Cool,’” Hafen said. “I’m still trying to figure out what TikTok exactly is, so when I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”
— Michelle Rindels & Riley Snyder
State seeks increased participation from tribal members in naming of places
In 2019, the Nevada State Board on Geographic Names renamed a mountain peak in the Great Basin National Park christened after Confederate President Jefferson Davis to Doso Doyabi, meaning “white peak” in Shoshone.
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. The Assembly Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing for the bill last week.
“This is designed to provide more opportunities for our Native citizens to be able to participate in this important name process,” said Cynthia Laframboise, state archives manager at the Nevada State Library.
The bill would add yet another seat at the table for tribal citizens as the board already includes the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, which includes representatives from all 27 tribes.
Laframboise said that the board is seeking the additional representation because it has not always been successful in getting feedback from tribal members, and pointed to a gap in access to technology.
“I do appreciate the efforts, especially considering that many of these places had names before other communities came in and ‘officially’ named them,” said Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas), who is also the committee chairman.
Assemblyman Jim Wheeler (R-Minden) raised a concern that an even number of members on the board could lead to split votes, and asked how such a situation would be resolved.
“I've been on the board for nine years, and we've never had a situation where we've even had anyone disagree with the name. It's always been unanimous,” Laframboise said.
One supporter called in to remind the committee that Nevada was originally the territory of the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe.
“Many historical names used by the tribal people were replaced by settler names, and having representation on this group will contribute to enriching Nevada’s history with accurate representation,” said Marla McDade Williams of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
— Jazmin Orozco-Rodriguez
UPCOMING BILLS OF NOTE
Bill hearings on a cannabis testing database, disclosure of election-related text messages, requiring children stay in car seats longer and a budget hearing for the state’s beleaguered Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) are likely to draw much attention during the upcoming fifth week of the Legislature.
Below, we’ve listed out the hearing times and short descriptions for those high-profile measures. They’re accurate as of Sunday afternoon, but are subject to change at any time (given that the Legislature is exempted from Open Meeting Law.) For links and times to watch committee meetings, check out the Legislature’s website.
Here’s what to watch this week in the Legislature:
Monday, 1 p.m. - Senate Education reviewing SB118, which establishes the Nevada First Scholars Program to provide extra support to first-generation and low-income students within NSHE
Tuesday, 9 a.m. - Assembly Government Affairs reviewing AB143, which requires development of a statewide plan to deliver services to human trafficking victims
Tuesday, 1 p.m. - Senate Revenue and Economic Development reviewing SB117, which requires statewide economic development plan to be updated at least every three years and seeks interim study on tax abatements and exemptions
Tuesday, 1:30 p.m. - Assembly Growth and Infrastructure reviewing AB118, requiring older children to use car seats and sit in the back seat
Tuesday, 4 p.m. - Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections reviewing AB166, which requires the disclosure of who is paying for election-related text messages
Wednesday, 8 a.m. - Assembly Judiciary reviewing AB149, which requires Cannabis Compliance Board maintain a database of testing results for cannabis products
Thursday, 8 a.m. - Assembly Judiciary reviewing AB141, which requires more notice for people before executing a no-cause eviction and would seal records of evictions carried out during pandemic
Thursday, 8 a.m. - A joint budget subcommittee is reviewing the DETR budget
What we’re reading
Another education must-read from Jackie Valley on how teachers are adjusting to classrooms “in the age of COVID-19”
Our roundup of pending election-related bills. Making the AB4 vote-by-mail provisions permanent has gotten a lot of headlines, but Sen. Roberta Lange’s straight-ticket voting and legislative vacancy changes bill would also be a huge change.
Somehow the plan to build a 36,000-person “Painted Rock Smart City” on undeveloped desert land near a business park “is everything that the environment absolutely needs.” Michelle Rindels reports on Gov. Steve Sisolak and fellow state leaders’ Friday roundtable on Innovation Zones.
Details on the bill that would prevent driver license suspension for unpaid tickets, via Jannelle Calderon.
Marijuana consumption lounges, which seem like the last place you’d want to be in a pandemic, are coming back this session (Las Vegas Review-Journal).
Legislative leaders say the next phase of “limited reopening” of the Legislative Building could come in mid-April (Associated Press).
In an obvious move to throw red meat to his base, Republican Senate Leader James Settelmeyer wants to change the formula for how home care workers (who are paid a national median wage of $12 an hour) are compensated under Medicaid (Nevada Current).
‘Pharmacy deserts’ may be contributing to vaccine inequities in Nevada (Nevada Current).
Details on the bill expanding eligibility for good time credits (Nevada Current).
Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 11 (March 12, 2021)
Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 14 (March 15, 2021)
Is Nevada’s mining industry paying its fair share of taxes?
How people answer that question says a lot about how people feel about the state’s mining industry — and how they might feel about any of the three constitutional amendments potentially headed to the ballot in 2022 that would increase limits on mining taxation.
In the months following the 2020 special sessions where those proposed constitutional amendments were passed, the Nevada Mining Association and its president, Tyre Gray, have been trying to influence the answer to that question — heavily promoting the industry in advertisements, social media and (virtually) in the Legislature.
This isn’t the first time mining has been in the hot seat — a similar debate played out a decade ago, when lawmakers at the time approved sending a proposed constitutional amendment eliminating the cap on net proceeds (the measure narrowly failed on the 2014 ballot).
(A quick recap on mining taxes. Nevada’s Constitution sets a 5 percent ceiling on the net proceeds of all minerals extracted in the state. Net proceeds are the dollar amount after taking the gross (total) value of all minerals extracted by a mining operation, and subtracting all the deductions for costs incurred during the mining process.)
But in 2021, with more and more of the state’s population and political power base far away from rural counties where the bulk of mining operations happen, that hot seat has begun to warm up again — especially with progressive groups again calling for the counter-cyclical industry to pay more in taxes during a fallow economic time for the state.
The Nevada Independent spoke with Gray for a 30-minute conversation on the mining industry’s priorities this session, and what it would consider a victory when lawmakers adjourn in about three months.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Where I want to start is getting a sense of where you (and) the mining association were at the end of the (2020) special sessions, especially the “policy focused” one where they had that whole debate and the three proposed constitutional amendments. Without relitigating all of those details, what kind of happened, how are you feeling, how was the industry feeling at the close of that special session?
When you reflect back on the special session, it’s kind of important to realize where we were as a state and as an industry. The state was shuttered, our biggest financial revenue generator and largest employer in the state was shut down, and these were times that we had not seen before.
But even with that, before even most people knew what COVID-19 (was) going back into January 2020, Nevada's mining industry had been engaging in conversations with legislators and with the governor's office because everybody knew that 2021 was likely going to be some type of a revenue session.
So we've been engaging and at the time — I was not in the chair, but that's at least what's been communicated to me — reaching out and starting to have soft conversations, ‘Hey guys, how are things looking and what are we doing’. And so there had been some level of conversation about there being the 2021 legislative session that would probably go with some type of revenue.
Now you fast forward into February and we find out that there's a pandemic on the way, and then you fast forward into March, and those conversations that started by (a) nice reach out, ‘Hey, what can we do’, all of our focus went into making sure that our people were safe, our citizens here in the state were safe.
And you fast forward from March, into the very first special session, I receive a phone call, and I'd been on the job for about five months at the time, and I receive a phone call out that I kind of expected would be coming and said, ‘Hey look, we're going to look at the mining industry to prepay it’s taxes’. And that's something that we expected. We’ve seen that happen on two separate other occasions, particularly when we've had economic downturns.
(Editor’s Note: Nevada lawmakers included a “prepayment” of two years worth of mining taxes in SB3 of the 2020 special session, worth an estimated $54 million in tax revenue.)
That is a very big give, period. Whenever you have an industry that prepays an obligation that requires some people to dip into savings, other people to do capital calls in order to do so, so it's not a small gesture, not a small give. We were willing to do that, and we came to the table prepared to do that.
Yet what we didn't know, were there were other pieces of legislation that were being discussed in those hallways, and again those halls were closed and the conversations were not happening between us and the legislators about what would eventually be a bill to try to eliminate some of the, as people refer to them, deductions, but they're really a computation of how you get from gross to net.
(Gray is referring to proposals that fell short during the 2020 special session to limit deductions that mining companies can use to offset their tax burden.)
So, we have that dropped on us and my record is pretty clear on that, I think I've received about three hours of notice on that before that was heard on the floor. And then we go into the second special session where then we have three joint resolutions. And two of those joint resolutions, AJR1 and SJR1, I had heard about them about a day to a day and a half before the policy session began.
And then AJR2 was the result of some conversation between the industry and the speaker (Jason Frierson), and we are appreciative to him for launching that. But yet the 12 percent is beyond our comfort level as an industry, because even though that only authorizes the constitution to raise up to that, as you can imagine when you're looking for financing and different things which are critical to the mining space...between the permitting process before a shovel even hits the ground in Nevada, A) you have to pay a reclamation bond, B) there is a seven- to eight-year time period between permitting and construction, and then there's another eight to 10 years for a project to actually start to become profitable.
So you know you're looking at most cases of a 15- to 20-year period before you start to see a return on your investment. To say the least, when we came out of those special sessions, we kind of felt like we had just walked out of a tornado, because it was very much not anticipated, some of the joint resolutions were not anticipated, particularly as to what they cover.
I mean, if we would have seen a joint resolution that sought to remove the mining industry from the Constitution which, again, we saw in the 2011 session, that would be something that, okay, we couldn't necessarily say that we were surprised about, but this is really a fundamental change to the mechanisms by which we're accustomed to being taxed in the state of Nevada.
So that was a lot there to digest. What I want to ask is about AJR2, and I believe you testified in the neutral position on AJR2 (in the 2020 special session).
If that measure was to come up again in the 2021 session, would you and the mining association continue to testify in neutral, or have you switched to opposition, knowing what you know now over the past several months?
(AJR 2 would raise the constitutional limit on the net proceeds of minerals from 5 to 12 percent, and require the minimum rate of the tax be equal to the property tax where the mining operation is located).
So at the moment, we haven't switched our position. We still remain neutral and really a lot of the conversation around AJR2 would have to do with the trailer bill that would eventually look at how much we would increase the net proceeds, but at the moment we remain neutral on the bill.
I know you probably don't want to talk about any personal discussions with legislators, but I've just noticed, I can go to basically any news website in Nevada, or, even in our newsletters, there's been a concerted effort by the mining association to do kind of a promotional blitz between the special sessions and the start of the legislative session.
Can you give any additional details on that campaign, any rough dollar amounts if you're comfortable sharing that, or any kind of rationale as to why this publicity campaign is coming out now?
Yeah, so I would say, I think maybe we're just noticing it right now. During the pandemic, the Nevada Mining Association took the time to look at its strategic plan, and out of its strategic plan, five pillars were revealed and two of those five pillars are particularly important to me. Number one being public outreach, and number two, being workforce development.
And so what we know around this is you know there's a saying by Nat Turner that says ‘Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity.’ And there are a lot of assumptions and frankly some just straight misinformation that exists out there around Nevada’s mining industry and so the opportunity to really be able to get out and share some of the information.
One of the things that most people are really surprised to find out is that mining is Nevada’s 12th largest industry in regards to GDP. A lot of times people will focus on, yes, the mining sector is a $7 billion industry in 2020. But by that nature that means that 11 (other industries) all the way up to one must have made at least $7 billion plus $1.
So, I really say that our blitz is really about making sure that we're able to build that bridge between reality and perception for people, so that there's an understanding of what Nevada’s mining industry is and what it actually does. We produce 20 minerals that are critical to life in the modern day world, and we do so by only disturbing roughly one half of 1 percent of land in Nevada. The fact that we're able to have the impact that we do here in the state, nationally, and globally by only disturbing that less than one half of 1 percent of land is incredible.
I want to give you a chance to address some of the things I've heard and seen from people who say that the mining industry in Nevada should be taxed more.
One of the biggest ones I've seen is that many mining companies and other countries pay a higher net proceeds tax rate, or just a higher tax rate in general than what they do in Nevada. Do you think that's an accurate statement to make? Are there any caveats that you think are important to add when people are looking at tax rates in Nevada versus other countries or states?
Yeah, I think that it's not apples for apples. I think it's important that when you look at other countries, versus a state, that it's important that when there is an agreement to pay a particular amount to a country, that is all that the industry pays in regards, usually to its obligation or tax burden. So, very much like here within the United States, we pay federal taxes just like everybody else does, so there is a large amount of compensation being remitted to the federal government and then we also have state taxes that remain here in the state of Nevada, so it's not quite an apples for apples comparison.
I think it's really one of those things where you really have to understand the nuance of what's being paid. So again, Nevada's mining industry pays every single tax, every other business here pays. That means we pay modified business tax, we pay sales tax, in fact, we account for nearly 10 percent of all sales tax collected in the state, paying over $120 million dollars a year in sales tax. We pay the Commerce Tax, if it's a tax that exists on property tax we pay property tax. If it's a tax that exists, we pay that, plus an industry specific tax.
Again, there's not a complaint around that. There's not a hesitancy around that payment, but it is one of those things where we do see some level of not treating mining always as a partner of the state. And that's not the state necessarily doing that, but there are people who don't see us as that partner, that good corporate citizen and steward that we really are.
It's really hard, when we hear people say mining doesn't pay its fair share. ‘We would like to see mining pay more,’ that is a different conversation than ‘mining doesn't pay its fair share’ because that, by its very means, means that mining isn’t paying enough. ‘Hey we have an industry here who might be able to help us out. Is there a way that you guys can help us out?’, versus, ‘You're not doing your part already, so come and do your part.’
Yeah, I asked that question because I was trying to give you a chance to address a concern I've heard, but I think the point you ended on is the next question I had, which is, there's a lot of conversation about ‘Is mining paying its fair share or not paying its fair share’. It sounds like you're saying, yes, we are paying our fair share, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the fair share (equals) paying more. There's a difference between what's fair, and what's possible for the industry. Is that accurate to say?
Yeah, I think that's accurate to say. So when somebody says, ‘Pay your fair share,’ if I were to ask you that, your natural response would probably be to say ‘Okay, what's my fair share?’
What industry within the state would you say their tax structure is what your tax structure should be? And so I think it's important to recognize that mining is the 12th largest industry in the state. We have the highest per-employee tax burden in the state.
So it's important to make sure that the narrative is one that is actually fair, if you will. Just define what a fair share is. That's never anything that's ever been defined and, even in my personal conversations with people before even I sat in this chair, and I would hear people say, mining doesn’t pay its fair share. What is that? I mean, if we could start to have a conversation about what that actually looks like, and for it to be fair, that means that everybody would be doing that, and then that to me a little bit of a larger conversation.
I think a lot of times people will point to mining, because it's easy. You get to see what we make. It's a publicly available report. Even when you compare that to the gross gaming report, the gross gaming report says, Clark County table games, X amount of dollars. It doesn't say what property, X amount of dollars, versus the net proceeds tells you exactly what property, tells you how much they made, how much it costs them to extract the mineral, and then how much they’re paying taxes on.
I think it's kind of important to make sure that what most people I think really have a frustration with is Nevada’s tax system as a whole. And that's why it's important to remember that Nevada is a property tax state. We were built on property tax and the second that we started kind of playing around with our property tax, today I believe we, we, abate somewhere close to $2.1 billion per biennium in property taxes.
So I think it's probably fair to say that the question of ‘Is mining paying its fair share,’ you view as sort of a flawed inherently question, because ‘fair share’ hasn't really been defined.
What I want to ask is, what does victory look like for you and look like for the mining association at the end of the legislative session? Is it, none of these proposed constitutional amendments passed? Are you happy with how mining tax is set up right now and are fine with no additional changes? What will make you happy if on June 1 the session ends, what sort of end status would you like to see as it relates to mining and taxation?
Well I would say what makes me happy is good policy. Good tax policy is meant to accomplish three things; continue to make Nevada's family stronger, continue to fund our government and continue to allow businesses to be healthy and thrive within our borders.
When you look at these three joint resolutions AJR1, and SJR2, it's easy to get caught up on the impact to the mining industry. But what's much, what kind of is getting unintentionally swept under the rug, is that this actually results in a loss of county funding. And that's the scary part to that to the family that's living in Ely who wants to be able to have their daughter there and easily without needing to go all the way down to Las Vegas to have their daughter.
So the impact to the industry is one thing, but the impact is going to be so much larger than to the industry. It really is those rural counties that depend on their portion of the net proceeds, with that money going away will be crippled. And what does that do to the urban counties that are now usually importers of tax.
Because again, I think it's important to recognize that most mining counties are exporters of tax revenue, to the point where we've even kind of changed our school funding formula in order to be able to capture more of those exported taxes from those communities. So, what happens when those counties are no longer able to be self-sufficient? Clark County and Washoe are going to have to start to divert more funds back to those counties, and so it creates a weird cycle of reversing the tables of flow.
So, for us, good policy is the easy answer to that, we are opposed AJR1 and SJR1, we are neutral on AJR2, but I believe that our legislators are smart enough, and they're willing, and we are willing, we've been at the table, to hopefully maybe come up with the structure and a solution, outside of those three joint resolutions.
So, if AJR2 were to pass out of this session and proceed to the ballot in 2022, would you be happy, or still neutral on June 1 when the session is over?
Well I think we would have to evaluate that at the top. Again, I think a lot of it comes down to financing of projects. And again, I know that sounds a bit of an evasive answer,
When you go to the bank and you're applying for a loan, the bank is going to always use the highest available amount of money that you might have to pay, in order to determine your creditworthiness.
And so, even with AJR2, banks and or loaning institutions, and capital calls, going out and trying to raise capital, they're going to evaluate it through the lens of 12 percent. Even if it came out to be 7 percent, that's still going to be the number that they will use to evaluate the project, because the ROI of the project is so far out, that there could be changes in between now and then.
And so that's really the concern about AJR2, is how it's going to impact the continued investment into Nevada around the mining community, and the cost of particular projects that today are probably viable, but if that percentage went up, might not be as viable.