Every year, former prisoners participate in state-sponsored reentry programs and receive aid to help them transition into life outside of incarceration, but that help is all for naught if they cannot find housing, Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) said.
Her comments came Thursday during a heated Assembly Government Affairs Committee hearing of her bill, SB254, a wide-ranging measure aimed at strengthening anti-discrimination housing protections for formerly incarcerated individuals.
"There is a right to housing," Neal said. "It is in the best interest of the state to engage in this public policy and to take state action in regards to fairness and fundamental access to the ability to have a roof over your head."
The proposed legislation has attracted many opponents, including Assemblywoman Annie Black (R-Mesquite), who pushed back against Neal's arguments and said homeowners and landlords have property rights that the government must protect.
"There are cases where we should protect people's right to housing. But these people made a choice to break the law," Black said. "And I believe that we don't have a place to tell a private property owner who they can and can't rent to, whether we have done that historically or we haven't."
Neal countered, saying that the bill does not infringe on property rights and highlighted past cases of redlining and other examples of denied housing for people based on their skin color.
"You're telling me, as we move into 2021 ... that ex-felons, who have served their time, who we're putting government dollars into, they are the class of individuals we have no right to touch, they have no rights in this society," Neal said. "If that is the case, then keep them in prison. Because I don't understand why we're letting them out if we really feel that they have no value, and they are not worthy of a roof over their heads. That is the craziest thing to me."
Black responded that there had to be a balance.
"I do not want people to be relegated to living in a dark hole somewhere," Black said. "What I'm saying is I don't want it to be at the expense of people's property rights."
The bill, which passed out of the Senate along party lines with all Republicans in opposition, prohibits, with some exceptions, a landlord looking to rent or lease housing from:
Inquiring into an applicant's criminal history, conviction record or arrest record
Refusing to rent or negotiate a rental or lease agreement based on an applicant's criminal background
Publishing or releasing any notice that indicates a preference based on an applicant's criminal history
Evicting a tenant based on an arrest record or criminal history
Refusing to rent to someone because the prospective tenant received housing assistance funds, per a recently introduced conceptual amendment that excludes Section 8 housing assistance or benefits.
Exclusions within the bill would still allow landlords to conduct a background check to determine whether an applicant has committed arson, a sex crime or a violent felony — and subsequently refuse to rent to someone based on those criminal charges.
The ACLU of Nevada testified in opposition noting that protections in the bill for formerly incarcerated individuals are necessary, but said a compromise amendment from the Nevada REALTORS Association excluding single-family homes and landlords who rent out no more than four dwelling units and certain types of felonies could lead to modern-day housing segregation and does not fully recognize rehabilitation efforts.
During neutral testimony, Executive Director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance Emily Paulsen said that exclusion of Section 8 housing vouchers would adversely affect Nevada housing.
"We agree with Senator Neal that people with conviction histories and people in receipt of rental assistance are not less than. They should be able to have housing choice and not be limited to living in apartments," Paulsen said.
In an interview after the hearing, Neal said that everyone wants to see a perfect bill, but the exclusions in the amendment were an essential first step to passing legislation protecting former felons. Housing is not unique to this session, and discussion aimed at adding anti-discrimination protections is far from over, she said.
"We at least need to establish housing, to get it in the door, to talk about that, you do have a right to it," Neal said. "Just like health, just like water, you have a right to housing because it's a great stabilizer.”
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.
The vehicles streamed into the pickup lines on a recent Monday, some with popped trunks awaiting cargo.
In a North Las Vegas parking lot, they inched toward a white tent, where workers loaded brown boxes and white plastic bags filled with food into cars, trucks and SUVs. The assembly line-like operation outside the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas popped up in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown to help thousands of furloughed workers put food on the table.
A year later, it hasn’t stopped. Instead, the Culinary Academy expanded and began allowing all community members to access the roughly 40-pound batch of fruits, vegetables, grains and meat — complete with recipe cards — designed to feed families.
As of early March, the food assistance program had donated 11.5 million pounds of groceries, or the equivalent of about 35 million meals. On any given week about 6,000 to 8,000 vehicles roll through the drive-through-style line, and that figure doesn’t include deliveries made directly to those in need who cannot leave their homes or food distributed at smaller pop-up sties.
“I can tell you that the lines aren’t getting any shorter at all,” said Mark Scott, chief executive officer of the Culinary Academy. “...This past year is really a hole fairly wide and fairly deep for people, and it’s going to be a long time before people are able to dig out.”
But across town another pickup line was seeing equal, if not greater, activity — the passenger pickup area at McCarran International Airport. Hordes of flight-weary travelers, some donning face masks, scanned the line of cars as horns honked and doors opened and shut.
A year ago, this was not the case. The normal hustle and bustle of a busy airport had been swiftly replaced by an eerie quiet.
Now, the two pickup lines — separated by miles and purpose — nod to the region’s hopeful but challenged circumstances.
Nevada is, once again, healing, just as it did after the tourism industry was rocked by 9/11, the Great Recession and 1 October. Vaccination numbers are climbing, case numbers and hospitalizations remain relatively low and spring has brought forth not just tourists but an increasing sense of optimism about the future.
But the truth is Nevada’s healing has only ever been surface deep, its wounds still raw beneath and ready to break open at even the slightest injury.
Amid all the talk of economic diversification over the last decade, experts say Nevada has failed to invest in the necessary level of change to build a more stable economy. The memories of past economic devastation often quickly fade as Nevada once again returns to boom times and trusts the glittering lights of the Las Vegas Strip to save it.
Some would say Nevada’s close relationship with business is what gives the state an edge. When Nevada struggled to secure necessary supplies for hospitals in the early days of the pandemic, for instance, gaming and mining companies donated millions of pieces of personal protective equipment, money and other resources through the governor’s private-sector COVID task force.
But Nevada’s reliance on industry to save the day has also time and time again left the state dependent and vulnerable. At first it was mining, an industry so valuable, and powerful, that it was granted a special, favorable taxation structure when the state’s Constitution was written in 1864.
Then it was the casinos, who have so wholeheartedly opposed industry-specific taxes that they have gone so far as to support a widespread tax increase that would equally affect all larger businesses in Nevada. There was Tesla, Faraday Future, the Raiders and, now, Blockchains, all enterprises touted as the state’s next economic cure-all.
In its nearly 157-year history, Nevada has been unable to shrug off being a company town. This time, it’s put the state in the impossible position of choosing between saving its residents from COVID or financial devastation.
Now, the question is whether, as the lights on the Las Vegas Strip grow brighter, Nevada will once again be drawn like a moth to flame or whether it will truly diversify its economy while fixing a long-ailing unemployment system. The question is what the future holds for Nevada’s workers — many of them workers of color — who are the lifeblood of the economy and the first ones to suffer when good times turn bad.
The question is whether history will once again repeat itself.
The shutdown was swift.
Six hours after Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on March 17 that nonessential businesses would be required to shut their doors to halt COVID-19’s advance on the state, all gambling activity statewide ceased. It was the first time Nevada’s lucrative gaming industry had been prohibited from operating since gambling was legalized statewide in 1931.
Other quintessential Nevada businesses, including strip clubs and brothels, and other everyday establishments, such as salons, gyms and malls, were given an extra 12 hours to wind down their businesses.
The decision hadn’t come as a shock to gaming establishments, many of which had been on multiple calls with the governor leading up to the decision and some of which had already been making plans to shutter operations in light of canceled bookings and an increasingly bleak future for the tourism industry. Billy Vassiliadis, longtime Las Vegas adman, estimated there was 80 to 90 percent agreement among the resorts by the time the governor made his decision that the shutdown had to happen.
Plus, some casino operators saw what was happening half a world away and started preparing. Casinos in Macao shut down for 15 days in February last year.
“I think we could see that it was going to be a very serious matter and definitely going to affect operations based on what we had seen happen in Macao,” said Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association. “But I don't think anyone knew just how big an impact there was going to be or that there would be extended closures.”
More than six months earlier, the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) had carried out “economic cycle planning,” preparations that recognized a 10-year streak of economic growth would inevitably come to an end and unemployment would grow. But the domino of casino closure announcements was ominous for then-director Tiffany Tyler-Garner.
“Over time, there's this growing concern of ‘oh my gosh, yet another employer is indicating that they're putting folks on leave’ … and that all those tens or hundreds, or whatever size those businesses were, were headed our way,” she said.
The prospect of shutting down the gaming industry was more complex than it perhaps appeared from the outside. For starters, some casinos scrambled to find padlocks to secure their entryways. Locks, as it turns out, were not a standard feature in the 24-hour establishments.
Casinos also had to quickly devise plans for counting and safely storing cash, either on site or transferring via armored trucks to banks. Sandra Douglass Morgan, former chair of the Gaming Control Board, said regulators were fielding call after call from casino operators who wanted to ensure they were in compliance with all the logistical and accounting matters. At the same time, gaming properties were handling people-centric problems, such as notifying and accommodating hotel guests and standing up employee assistance programs for the wave of people facing sudden furloughs.
“If we had to do it all over again, obviously we would have said, ‘Okay, you have a week to close,’ to make sure all that information was put into place, but we didn’t at the time,” Morgan said. “But everyone was very understanding.”
State officials within the Department of Business and Industry, meanwhile, scrambled to help other businesses figure out whether they were considered essential and, therefore, whether they were required to shut down. The initial list of essential businesses Sisolak announced could remain open was specific, if incomplete: Grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, hardware stores, truck stops, daycares, gas stations and health facilities.
That left the rest of the non-casino businesses in somewhat of a grey area. Workers at the Tesla Gigafactory, Allegiant Stadium and several marijuana dispensaries reported for work as usual on March 18, unclear whether their employers would be sending them home at noon.
Clarification came that afternoon — an hour after businesses were supposed to close — in the form of a “Risk Mitigation Initiative” document, which outlined 20 essential services and sectors. Among them were ones the governor hadn’t mentioned the previous night, including veterinarian services and pet stores, laundromats and dry cleaners, and auto repair services. Construction and mining businesses were, separately, granted permission to remain open as well.
But, at the time, there was little to no federal guidance about how essential businesses ought to remain open safely to protect themselves, their workers and their customers. So, state officials hurried to come up with their own guidelines. Terry Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state ended up being about two or three weeks ahead of the federal Department of Labor in the guidance it released for Nevada businesses and employees.
“Businesses can’t wait three weeks,” Reynolds said. “They need to know what they need to know quickly.”
Some of the issues state officials grappled with included how to keep small banks, which were legally required to stay open during the shutdown, running when their employees fell ill, and how to help restaurants safely pivot to a takeout model as dine-in operations closed. Reynolds said some restaurants were able to successfully shift their operations.
“Others did not shift very well,” he added. “It was very unfortunate because I think a lot of those may not come back at all.”
Echo & Rig, a popular steakhouse near Summerlin, saw a massive uptick in customers visiting its on-site butcher shop during the initial shutdown period when only takeout was allowed, chef and owner Sam Marvin said. But that alone didn’t spare the restaurant from feeling the sting of no in-person dining.
At least half the Las Vegas restaurant’s employees were furloughed, and Marvin said a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established early on in the pandemic to help small businesses make payroll, “made the difference in us surviving or not surviving.”
The restaurateur doesn’t hold a grudge against state officials. Compared with California, where he operates two restaurants, Nevada gave a much earlier green light to some in-person dining when the state started to reopen. Because of all the uncertainty surrounding the virus initially, Marvin said he didn’t disagree with the shutdown, though he acknowledges his opinion may differ from others in the restaurant industry who couldn’t hang on financially.
“How can you disagree if you don’t know better?” he said. “Better safe than sorry.”
Echo & Rig’s furloughed employees were just a small slice of the hundreds of thousands of employees who lost their jobs almost overnight, pushing Nevada unemployment to levels worse than those seen during the Great Depression. In April, more than 28 percent of Nevadans were unemployed, up from 3.6 percent in February.
Those hundreds of thousands of newly jobless Nevadans quickly overwhelmed the state’s unemployment system, which was accustomed to handling about 2,500 initial claims a week but received more than 92,000 as the shutdown began. In the past year, half a million Nevadans have collected at least one week of unemployment benefits out of a workforce of 1.5 million, and the agency has received nearly two million initial applications for benefits.
“We were in response mode, without knowing exactly what the floor or ceiling would be,” Tyler-Garner said.
DETR’s problems were numerous, including a staff that had atrophied over the past decade as the federal government drew down funding. Issues as small as a vacation payout to a claimant would trigger “adjudication,” or an analytical review, but Tyler-Garner estimates only about seven people in the agency were qualified to manage that step when the crisis hit, for example.
Early on, the federal government answered pleas to support gig workers ineligible for traditional unemployment by creating the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, but Nevada officials feared that adding PUA programming into the brittle system processing traditional claims would crash it and cut off claimants already receiving benefits. They bought a separate software product to administer PUA in the name of speed and IT stability, but it created a bifurcated system that bedevils claimants to this day.
Mike Powers, a guitarist who worked for a talent agency that dispatches musicians for gigs ranging from conventions to sidewalk entertainment, is one of them. From the first day he applied to PUA, the system flagged his Social Security number as tied to another existing claim, and he believes he’s stuck in limbo a year later because someone in California filed a fraudulent application in his name.
Every day is a financial emergency, he says, but he holds out hope that he’ll someday emerge from the Byzantine system and claim the tens of thousands of dollars he believes he’s owed.
“I would hate to think that I was so close to solving the riddle and then, you know, it did not happen,” he said.
Much of the messaging from Sisolak early on was about the public health crisis at hand and flattening the curve of what was at the time an unknown and deadly virus. But to the quarter of Nevadans who were unemployed and struggling to wend their way through the bureaucratic nightmare that was the state’s unemployment system, it often felt like they were being left behind.
Joshua Meltzer, 29, worked as a singing gondolier at the Venetian and switched to the business side of live entertainment just before the pandemic hit. But a year later, he hasn’t been paid unemployment, and after months of trying to make it with the help of friends, he left the state for Minnesota and is working a clerical job to make ends meet.
He described the last year as a financial, emotional, philosophical and spiritual crisis all rolled into one. He’s always seen government as a force for great good, but its inability to help him has challenged that belief.
“I feel betrayed, in a way, by Nevada, which has been a place of … rejuvenation,” he said. “If that community doesn't take care of its own in crisis, I don't know if that can be my long term home anymore.”
Claimants have also criticized elected officials’ handling of the situation, from the governor failing to mention the unemployed in certain press conferences to formulaic responses when claimants poured out their hearts in desperate emails to their congressional representatives.
“The best thing you can do is just listen better and realize that there are people that are truly hurting,” Powers said.
Reflecting back on his public communications to unemployed Nevadans, Sisolak said he “tried to speak to their plight.” He also said he wishes the state had an “army of people” to quickly work through the hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims that poured in, noting it can take up to an hour for a state worker to process some of the more complex claims.
But, mostly, he blamed yearslong underfunding and neglect of the state’s unemployment system. During a period of record low unemployment in 2019, DETR told lawmakers that after years of successive budget cuts, it was struggling to handle its call volume and expected to be able to handle only 2,800 phone calls a week in 2020.
During the pandemic, a single claimant from Dayton reported calling DETR 2,200 times during a two-week period in April, and many others reported placing hundreds of fruitless calls a day.
“You've got a system that was basically ignored session after session after session,” Sisolak said. “Then when suddenly you're hit with a pandemic that you get claims that are 20, 25 times what you are normally getting, no system is going to work under that situation.”
To make matters worse, state officials were also tasked with sifting fraudulent claims from the legitimate ones. While DETR hasn’t quantified how many illegitimate claims were approved and how much the state paid out on those claims, they estimate they prevented billions of dollars of fraudulent payouts through blocking payment on hundreds of thousands of claims on which they couldn’t verify identity.
As of March 4, DETR reported there were 306,632 claims with pending identity issues that are suspected to be fraudulent. At least another 437,000 PUA claims were denied over identity verification issues in two rounds of mass disqualifications last year.
“The amount of fraud that was happening was unconscionable,” Sisolak said.
But a focus on fraud has had unintended consequences for claimants. Amber Hansen, an administrator of a popular Facebook group for PUA claimants, said it casts a stigma on PUA applicants “that we’re fraudulent … some of us are inherently bad.”
“We still do have people that have eligible claims, and that need to be helped,” she said. “We have to kind of move off that issue.”
Jason Guinasso, a Reno attorney who studied DETR’s backlog as a court-appointed special master last year, said the unemployment agency has erred too much on the side of trying to control fraud, and is making policy “based on the exception, not the rule.” He compared it to a department store assuming all its customers showed up to steal.
“Imagine if they ran their store based on trying to stop shrinkage, and that's all they cared about,” he said. “Your experience going to Macy's to buy a dress would be a lot different than it would be if they were running their store to cater to the majority of people [who] are not there to steal.”
The governor praised the staff at DETR, which increased the number of people working on unemployment issues threefold by January and had many staffers working overtime to process unemployment claims under immense pressure, scrutiny and even threats, including to the director of the department. But he also acknowledged the state’s shortcomings.
“Could we have done a better job? Certainly we could have done a better job,” Sisolak said.
As spring pushed toward summer and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 started to decline, the number of people unemployed because of COVID-19 creeped higher. Pressure mounted on Sisolak to start reopening the state’s economy. Leaders in some local jurisdictions signaled they weren’t going to wait for the governor’s lead, touting their own plans for reopening.
At the end of April, Sisolak announced the state would begin an “active transition” toward reopening that would start with some of the safest businesses, including indoor retail spaces, before progressing to the riskier establishments, such as casinos. At the time, he credited Nevadans’ “incredible discipline” in halting the spread of the virus.
The casinos had a model for reopening: Macao. Casinos in the special administrative region in China had already opened their doors again. But when they did, it was with significant capacity limits, social distancing at table games and slot machines, temperature checks and face masks. Resorts in Las Vegas could essentially take the Macao playbook, make a few adjustments for scale, and put it into practice.
Casino floors — known for their winding paths that keep gamblers wandering and shoving money into slot machines — would have considerably more elbow room. The Gaming Control Board issued a policy document in May spelling out some of the new rules of the trade.
Table games now have player limits: six people for craps, three for blackjack, four at roulette and poker tables. Some slot machines, meanwhile, were placed in an extended hibernation to make way for social distancing. Conversations also occurred around how to disinfect gaming chips without compromising their integrity.
And then there was the human aspect.
The Culinary Union lobbied hard for the approval of SB4 during a special legislative session last summer. The bill, which passed and was signed into law by the governor, shields many Nevada businesses from frivolous lawsuits related to COVID-19 — but only if the companies adhere to the strict, government-imposed health and safety protocols that prevent spread of the virus. Union officials pushed for the measure in honor of Adolfo Fernandez, a utility porter at Caesars Palace who died in June after falling ill with COVID-19.
Despite the bill’s passage, the union wants to see more done to protect hospitality workers, many of them on the front line interacting with people who have traveled to Las Vegas. D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, the parent organization of the Culinary Union, said he was unhappy that food service and hospitality workers weren’t prioritized higher up in the state’s vaccination schedule. Casino workers in Clark County did not become eligible for vaccines until Thursday.
He framed it as both a safety and equity issue.
“Who are workers on the frontlines?” he said, referring to the union’s membership. “They’re predominantly female and people of color.”
For Las Vegas, as a tourist destination, the focus was not only on safety but how to effectively communicate to tourists how seriously the industry was taking precautions. This wasn’t the first time the city had to pivot its branding strategy. In the years after 9/11, the “What happens here, stays here” slogan was born. In the wake of 1 October, it was, “#VegasStrong” and a message of resilience.
But the city had never had to market itself in the middle of an ongoing public health crisis. In the weeks before casinos reopened, cases had been fluctuating. In early June, right around when casinos opened, cases started to climb.
"This one, you didn't know where we were going,” said Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, the ad agency for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It was like we were in this abyss, making decisions and consulting with folks with daily information that was fuzzy at best.”
The message Las Vegas ended up adopting was one that balanced safety with freedom. A weekend in Las Vegas, even with masks and social distancing, was still a lot more fun than a weekend stuck at home ordering DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats.
“We didn't need to have the old Las Vegas for them to feel free,” Vassiliadis said. “They just needed more freedom than the restrictions they had been living under for the previous three months.”
There was just one catch: Sisolak didn’t announce a statewide mask mandate until 20 days after casinos reopened. While employees were wearing masks, it was up to casino patrons whether to don that extra layer of protection. In mid-June, the Gaming Control Board issued an industry notice that required patrons to wear face masks at table games if there was no barrier or shield separating the players and dealers.
Even Caesar himself — the statue version, that is — wore a giant mask in a bid to encourage others to follow suit. By the second week casinos were open, Morgan, then the state’s chief gaming regulator, said it was clear many people weren’t heeding that advice.
“It was harder for casino staff to tell people to wear masks if it wasn't mandated,” she said.
The governor’s order, issued on June 24, turned the option into a requirement. But controversy surrounding the decision spilled into gaming properties where some security officers suffered injuries after upset guests lashed out when told to wear a mask, Morgan said.
“No one should have bodily harm being threatened because you’re just doing your job telling people to comply with the mask mandate,” she said.
Pre-opening visitor surveys showed it was a “much younger and more rambunctious crowd” that was eager to return to Las Vegas, Vassiliadis said. And those surveys were borne out in reality: The crowd that first returned to Las Vegas was made up of younger, healthier people who were less concerned about contracting the virus and more concerned about busting loose after months of quarantine, and low room rates meant that some of Las Vegas’s top properties were now affordable for younger people, particularly if they stayed two or three to a room.
In the wake of its reopening, Las Vegas saw fights, shootings and stabbings on the Las Vegas Strip. In response, resorts stepped up their security and the Las Vegas Metro Police Department increased its police patrols.
“Underscoring that's not tolerated here to a lot of those visitors, I think, changed the situation rather quickly,” Vassiliadis said. “I don't think we suffered any kind of reputational long-term hit. I know we haven’t.”
At the state level, the governor’s office sought to convey to surrounding Western states the tightrope Nevada was walking by trying to balance the state’s economic and public health needs. In some ways, Nevada needed the buy-in of surrounding states so that they would keep sending their residents to Las Vegas and not blacklist the state through a travel advisory.
Michelle White, Sisolak’s chief of staff, recalled having “candid, open conversations” with other members of the Western States Pact, a compact established early on in the pandemic between Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, about Nevada’s difficult situation.
“We have states around us who I think were exceptional in understanding the situation that we were in … and genuinely were rooting for us to be OK,” White said. “Being able to explain that to folks and talk through that I think was really, really helpful in our efforts.”
Still, at one point in early December, California — which is home to 1 in 5 visitors to Las Vegas — issued a travel advisory encouraging residents to avoid nonessential travel to other states; it was a little less a month after Sisolak had encouraged visitors to continue traveling to the state even as cases surged in Nevada.
“If there were times where [Western states] said, ‘You know, we're concerned for our residents in a surge and so we're going to require quarantine,’ that’s an acceptable, reasonable thing to do for other leaders who are concerned about their residents. The way it was discussed, at least, was never about in response to Nevada directly,” White said. “It was more of, ‘This is a step we're going to take, this is another mitigation measure we're going to take to try to slow the spread and the surge.’”
For other businesses, reopening would bring with it a host of questions: Would employees have to wear masks? Could they hold meetings in person? What happens if an employee tests positive for COVID-19? There were also industry-specific considerations. How should salons disinfect their equipment? Could movie theaters open their snack bars? Would vehicles need to be sanitized at car dealerships between test drives?
To answer those questions and more, the state authored a series of reopening guidelines. Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state got feedback on reopening plans from a number of different industries, from the Retail Association of Nevada to the REALTORS.
“In most cases, they were extremely helpful in terms of giving us perspective on what to look at and what can be done to keep things going and what we needed to do, how we need to approach things in concert with the medical advice that we got,” Reynolds said.
But businesses had to make adjustments beyond those required by the state to stay financially afloat as they reopened under strict capacity limits. Echo & Rig, for instance, added more seating in a second patio area that had previously been largely unused and trimmed its menu — from 60 to 42 items — as a cost-containment measure.
Some menu items went up in price as well to balance the ripple-effect felt throughout the supply chain. Restaurants are still dealing with changes in where they’re able to source certain food items, he said. Some of their beloved vendors went out of business.
Marvin, the restaurant's owner, was pleasantly surprised by the number of people willing to venture out and dine at Echo & Rig once it opened its doors. He’s hopeful that customers, at his restaurant and other eateries, will continue to offer them patience — knowing that things will still look and feel a bit different because of safety protocols and other changes designed to keep the businesses viable.
Once businesses reopened their doors, the next challenge was enforcement. Reynolds said state officials took a “one, two, three” approach, giving businesses guidance on how to come into compliance on their first two visits before issuing citations on the third visit.
“A lot of businesses basically just needed a little bit of training on how to do things,” Reynolds said.
To date, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has conducted about 13,000 first visits to businesses. Compliance with the state’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols is about 92 percent in Northern Nevada and 90 percent in Southern Nevada, though Reynolds noted that compliance on first visits has been 100 percent most weeks since January.
Reynolds said that of the businesses found to be not in compliance with the state’s rules, he estimates only less than 10 percent were truly thumbing their nose at the state’s requirements.
“We were tough on the front end on a lot of these businesses, but I think now we’re seeing for the last six, seven weeks good compliance overall,” he said.
And some businesses that initially seemed uninterested in complying with the state’s guidelines eventually came around, Reynolds said. About $60,000 in health and safety-related fines were issued to Walmart before it came into compliance.
“All of a sudden, corporate culture came in and started working on it very strongly,” Reynolds said. “It just took time. Once they did, it grabbed hold and they’ve done well.”
Even as businesses began to heal, Nevada workers continued to struggle.
When nonessential businesses started opening in May and the 78-day casino shutdown lifted on June 4, it didn’t have the same lightswitch effect with unemployment. There were still 285,610 people seeking Nevada unemployment benefits the first week of March — nearly one in five people in the state’s labor force.
A report by the Anderson Economic Group, which has been following the economic effects of COVID-19, described the December jobs numbers as a “continued trend of lethargic recovery.” Between November and December, the leisure and hospitality industry lost 2,000 jobs in Nevada, though gains in other industries offset that.
Only about 50 percent of the members of the Culinary Union, which represents roughly 60,000 resort employees across the state, including guest room attendants, cooks and porters, have returned to work since last year, though their work hours may not be the same. At the height of the shutdown, 98 percent of the union’s members were furloughed.
“Our industry — the hospitality industry overall — has been the hardest hit,” said Taylor, UNITE HERE’s president, said. “Now, we always see signs of life coming back in certain areas, which is great, but until people feel very safe travelling, until they feel safe with indoor dining and staying indoors, it will be challenging.”
Mary Ann Bautista is among those who haven’t been called back to their union jobs. Before the pandemic, she spent 14 years as a buffet food server at The Strat.
As a single mother with several teenagers still living in the house, she said it has been difficult to make ends meet on unemployment benefits alone. Bautista has leaned on the Culinary Academy’s food assistance program for help over the past year. She longs for the day when she can resume her job.
“This is not our fault. We didn’t do this,” she said. “This is a pandemic. We didn’t ask for this. We work hard.”
DETR Director Elisa Cafferata said when she arrived at the agency in August, there were nonstop calls from constituents needing help and a major backlog. To this day, she said the applications haven’t tapered off as much as she expected.
“We've definitely made a lot of progress. There's still a lot of hard work to do,” she said. “The thing I'm most focused on is how do we sort of pivot and help people start thinking about going back to work.”
But the employment figures also highlight a troubling trend, said Brian Peterson, director of public policy and economic analysis with the Anderson Economic Group. In Nevada, nearly 74,000 people dropped out of the labor force completely between February and December of last year. These are people who have reported not actively looking for a job in the past four weeks.
“The big question is, what are those 74,000 people doing?” he said. “Have they become discouraged? Are they planning on waiting out the pandemic? My guess is that at least some of those 74,000 folks want to have a job, but they just haven't been able to find anything.”
There is a certain optimism within the resort industry about Las Vegas’s ability to once again come roaring back as a tourist destination.
Las Vegas has already, essentially, been at the capacity allowed under the state’s emergency directives for some of the recent three- and four-day weekends, Vassiliadis said. World of Concrete is slated to be the first major convention to return to Las Vegas in June, and Cirque du Soleil is hoping to bring back its aquatic acrobatics show “O” at the Bellagio by July.
Tourism officials say the old notion of Las Vegas — a great escape in the desert where fun and freedom trump judgment — could be the very reason it will bounce back more quickly than other destinations. Sure, it might currently lack some of the traditional offerings. Nightclubs, for instance, aren’t jam-packed with partygoers on the dance floor. But the sunshine, warm weather, dining and gambling options might be enough to lure travel-hungry guests, even if other entertainment options are somewhat limited.
“People want to see family and then they want to get away, and when they want to get away, Vegas tops that list,” said Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Of course, this all boils down to people’s willingness to travel. Vaccine deployment will play a crucial role boosting that confidence level, state leaders say. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t exactly given would-be tourists its blessing. The nation’s top health authority recently issued guidance discouraging travel among fully vaccinated people — a point that has received pushback from some within the travel and health industries.
Plus, it’s unclear whether COVID-19 cases will remain at their current plateau or see a springtime surge as a result of the increasing spread of variants and loosening restrictions. In Las Vegas, tourism outpaced projections when casinos initially reopened last summer but then took a nosedive toward the end of the year as coronavirus cases multiplied again.
“I'm pretty optimistic about the direction we're headed in now,” Hill said. “But we didn't anticipate the extreme nature of the spikes that we saw around Thanksgiving and Christmas and how much damage that did to the economy here.”
Another variable: the return of business meetings and conventions, which boost the economy during off-peak travel seasons. There’s even hope that some conventions might return to Las Vegas in the second half of 2021 and then return during their normally scheduled time in early 2022.
The Las Vegas they return to, however, will likely look a little different. Resorts have more eagerly embraced new technologies, such as remote check-in and keyless hotel room entry. In the case of MGM Resorts, a partnership with Clorox as the resorts’ “official guest disinfectant and hand sanitizer brand” is now a selling point.
Jim Murren, former CEO of MGM Resorts, envisions Las Vegas marketing itself as the “preeminent health safety tourist destination in America” — even beyond what resorts are already doing.
“When you do that ... we rip conferences and conventions away from Atlanta and Miami and New York and Chicago and Dallas and LA,” Murren said. “If they have a choice of listening to Lady Gaga in LA versus Vegas, and we can market that it’s safer to do it here, they’re going to come here.”
There is, however, less optimism about the future beyond the Las Vegas Strip. It’s not that state officials don’t believe Nevada’s economic situation will improve across the state — they do — but they worry about the small businesses and workers getting left behind.
Lawmakers have taken steps to help, including authorizing $100 million for the Pandemic Emergency Technical Support (PETS) grant. They hope $10,000 or $20,000 cash infusions backed by federal dollars will keep thousands of small businesses alive.
“It's always easier to keep what you've got … You're so much better off doing that and trying to spur new startups,” said Bob Potts, deputy director with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “The recovery side of things — that has to be paramount.”
Sisolak is hopeful he will be able to work with the Legislature to fix the longstanding problems with the state’s unemployment system. A computer modernization project that could cost up to $50 million is on tap for the next few years pending availability of funding, and a “strike force” led by former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley made extensive recommendations for how DETR could be better prepared to scale up staffing if another crisis hits as suddenly as COVID.
“Prepare for war in times of peace,” Tyler-Garner advised. “I couldn't underscore more the need to ensure that we're always planning to strengthen our systems, because we never know what the demand might be in the future.”
But there’s also an acknowledgement among many in the state that Nevada’s problems run deeper, and that recovery cannot begin and end with Nevada’s tourism industry, or even with fixing the state’s unemployment system. The goal, they believe, has to be a long-term fundamental shift in thinking about the state’s economy. Murren, who became the CEO of MGM Resorts during the Great Recession, recalled seeing the “economic, social, mental, physical devastation of our community” because of Nevada’s reliance on one industry for a significant chunk of its tax revenue.
“Here we are again, and what did we learn? It seems very little,” Murren said. “Whenever things are doing well here in our state, there seems to be this expectation that they'll always be that way and that we should just not rock the boat.”
Tyler-Garner said before the pandemic, she had been working on how DETR would respond to problems that lurked just below the surface of the state’s illustrious unemployment rate: Wage stagnation. Jobs without adequate benefits. Dramatically higher unemployment in subgroups such as the formerly incarcerated.
“Some of the families that were already working two or three low wage jobs ... I shudder to think of what is happening to those families right now,” she said. “Those segments of our community were invisible.”
For Buckley, who runs Legal Aid of Southern Nevada as her day job and has seen the agency deal with a record of nearly 163,000 clients in 2020 in a region of a little more than 2 million, the pandemic has highlighted the need to invest further in the safety net and — deeper than that — Nevada schools.
“I think that key leadership throughout our state do recognize our shortcomings and are working on plans to change our over reliance on gaming and hospitality,” she said. “But as many have pointed out, it means more of an investment is needed in education and in our schools, to allow us to compete.”
That’s, in part, why the governor’s private-sector COVID-19 task force, which has in the last year helped the state secure personal protective equipment, ramp up testing, build out a contact tracing app and bridge the digital divide for students, plans to focus next on workforce recovery. Nevada was also one of nine states awarded up to $100,000 in grant funding through the National Governors Association to help states prepare for a post-COVID economy.
But Murren, who chairs the task force, believes economic diversification will only happen in Nevada if and when the state chooses to make a significant investment into the quality of life of its residents, including supporting education, health and safety, the elderly and homeless individuals. And he believes it will take the support of everyday Nevadans, too.
“What makes me incredibly angry is that so many people move to our state to avail themselves to our lifestyle, to our weather, to our natural beauty, to our entertainment, to what is great about Nevada, but they don’t contribute to it,” Murren said. “The will of the people seems to be that we don’t want taxes, or little taxes, or we don’t want to raise any revenue, any form of proper investment. Then, you get what you get in Carson City as well.”
Nevada’s budget was already slim to begin with, and it became even slimmer when lawmakers cut nearly a billion dollars from the state’s budget over the summer. That included hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on health care and education. Though Nevada received nearly $25 billion in federal aid in the last year, state officials felt like they were constantly worrying about how to pay for needed services.
“Nevada doesn’t have a huge safety net to provide on the best of days, and that’s the reality of it,” said White, the governor’s chief of staff. “That’s the hard reality of it.”
That reality is visible in places like the Culinary Academy’s parking lot. Its food distribution operation is called Helping Hand, and Scott, the organization’s CEO, said it’s not time to let go yet. The Culinary Academy anticipates providing food assistance to needy families through the end of the year in some form.
Scott knows community members remain appreciative.
It’s not uncommon, he said, to find notes of gratitude waiting in the vehicles’ trunks.
When the dust settles on the June 9 primary election, Nevadans will have a good sense of who’s going to win about half of the seats up for grabs in the statehouse.
Party control of the Legislature is always a major objective for lawmakers in both parties, and the 2021 session will give lawmakers and Gov. Steve Sisolak the once-in-a-decade chance to redraw district boundaries during the redistricting process.
It’s a process that could help lock in party advantages for congressional representatives, legislators and other elected officials for the next ten years (although a group is attempting to qualify a constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting commission). Democrats control more than two-thirds of Assembly seats and are one seat shy of a supermajority in the state Senate.
But candidates facing a massive variable — a global pandemic that has canceled the traditional trappings of a campaign, diverted attention from elections and spurred a shift to a virtually all-mail voting system with unpredictable turnout patterns.
“Under normal circumstances, a good pair of running shoes and the money to print up campaign literature could potentially be enough for a candidate to win a race simply by outworking their opponent,” said Eric Roberts of the Assembly Republican Caucus. “The old saying goes, ‘If you knock, you win.’ In 2020, that is all out the window.”
Largely unable to talk to voters at the door during the crucial weeks leading up to voting season, candidates can communicate through mail pieces — if they can drum up the money to pay for it. Businesses such as casinos that typically make sizable donations in state-level politics have seen their revenue flatline, and the effect ripples to candidates.
There are phone calls, political text messages and email missives. But what some observers think could make a difference is how well candidates leverage social media and digital advertising.
A new challenge is the sudden shift to voting by mail. Up to this point, voting in person has been the method of choice for Nevadans, with the majority of those voters opting for a two-week early vote window.
This time, voters are receiving ballots in the mail more than a month before Election Day, elongating the voting period. With weeks left to go, tens of thousands of Clark County voters have already turned in their ballots, for example.
With ballots arriving in all active voters’ mailboxes — and in Clark County, even those deemed inactive — more people may be inclined to participate in what is usually a sleepy contest. Nevada and national Democrats filed but later dropped a lawsuit against state election officials after they agreed to send ballots to “inactive” voters, who are legally able to cast a ballot but have not responded to change of address forms sent out by county election officials.
“Truly the unknown is this vote by mail universe and who’s really going to take advantage of it, who does it leave out, how do you communicate to a universe that is 10 times bigger than what you thought you were going to have to communicate with,” said Megan Jones, a political consultant with close ties to Assembly Democrats.
Of the 42 seats in the state Assembly, almost a quarter will be decided in the primary election. Four races will actually be decided in the primary — including three incumbent Republicans fending off challengers — because no other candidates filed to run in those districts. Another five races will effectively be decided in the primary, given vast disparity in voter registration totals making it all but impossible for the opposing party to gain a foothold.
An additional seven Assembly members did not draw a re-election challenge and will win their seats automatically. These include Democrats Daniele Monroe Moreno, Selena Torres and Sarah Peters, and Republicans Tom Roberts, Melissa Hardy, Jill Tolles and John Ellison.
Of the 10 races in the state Senate, only one — the Democratic primary in Senate District 7 — will be determined in the primary election as no candidates from other parties filed to run for the seat. Two Senate members — Democrats Chris Brooks and Patricia Spearman — did not draw challengers and will automatically win their seats as well, while another three candidates have effectively won because of the voter registration advantages their party has in their district.
To help make sense of where the most intriguing races of this election will be, The Nevada Independent has compiled this list of races we’re keeping a close eye on, both for the storylines in the individual contests and how the outcomes could shift the balance of power heading into the critical 2021 legislative session. Additional information on these races and more can be found on The Nevada Independent’s Election 2020 page.
Senate District 7
This race is at the top of our watch list not only because it will be decided in the primary — all Democrats and no Republicans filed to run for the open seat — but because it pits two Assembly members against a former head of the state Democratic Party who has the support of the sitting Senate Democrats.
Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel has a wide lead in the money race for the seat, which is held by termed-out Democratic Sen. David Parks. Stakes are high for the two Assembly members in the race, who are giving up their current seats to bid for the Senate seat.
Spiegel raised nearly $32,000 in the first quarter, twice that of former three-term Nevada State Democratic Party Chairwoman Roberta Lange, a Senate caucus-endorsed candidate perhaps best known for presiding over Democrats’ divisive 2016 presidential nominating process. Spiegel spent even more — $36,000 in the last quarter — and has a massive war chest of $208,000 on hand.
Spiegel, who describes herself as an “e-commerce pioneer” and now owns a consulting firm with her husband, chaired the Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee last session. She has endorsements from the Vegas and Henderson chambers of commerce.
Lange, a retired teacher and union negotiator and now executive at a company that runs neighborhood gaming bars, has backing from the Senate Democratic Caucus, the Nevada State AFL-CIO, the Nevada State Education Association and the Culinary Union.
Trailing in the money game is Democratic Assemblyman Richard Carrillo, who only raised about $4,500 in the latest quarter. He’s spent nearly $16,000 in that timeframe and has about $26,000 in the bank.
Carrillo, a contractor who owns an air conditioning business, did not chair an Assembly committee last session and shares the AFL-CIO endorsement with Lange.
The district includes portions of the eastern Las Vegas Valley and Henderson. It has almost twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.
Assembly District 2
Republicans are looking to keep control of this Summerlin Assembly seat this election after Assemblyman John Hambrick, who has represented the district since 2008, was termed out of office. Hambrick, 74, missed most of the 2019 legislative session because of health-related issues with both himself and his wife, who passed away in July.
The Assembly Republican Caucus has endorsed Heidi Kasama, managing broker of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices-Nevada Properties, as Hambrick’s successor, as has Hambrick himself. Kasama has lived in Las Vegas since 2002 after starting her career as a certified public accountant and real estate agent in Washington. So far, Kasama has raised about $124,000 and spent about $19,000.
But Kasama faces four other Republicans in the primary: Erik Sexton, Jim Small, Taylor McArthur and Christian Morehead. Of those, Sexton, who works in commercial real estate, has raised the most, about $69,000 over the course of the cycle. Sexton has been endorsed by Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore and former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon.
Jim Small, a retired member of the U.S. Senior Executive Service, has raised about $56,000 over the course of the cycle. Small has been endorsed by former congressional candidate and businessman Danny Tarkanian and conservative commentator Wayne Allyn Root, among others.
The other two Republican candidates in the race — McArthur and Morehead — have raised no money.
The Alliance for Property Protection Rights PAC, which is funded by the National Association of REALTORS Fund, has also inserted itself into this primary, sending negative mailers highlighting Sexton’s DUI arrest last year and accusing Small of having a “hidden past” as a “liberal Democrat,” while in other mail pieces boosting Kasama’s “strength,” “courage,” and “optimism.”
Meanwhile, both Sexton and Small have been punching back at Kasama for her ties to the REALTORS in other mail pieces.
In one, Small argues that Kasama financially supports Democrats because the Nevada Association of REALTORS donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates in 2018, the year she was president of the association. In another, Sexton criticizes the National Association of REALTORS’ budget, which was created when Kasama served on the association’s finance committee.
Whoever wins the Republican primary will have a good shot at winning this lean Republican seat, where 37 percent of voters are Republican and 34.7 percent are Democratic. The Assembly Democratic Caucus has not endorsed in the primary, though journeywoman electrician Jennie Sherwood was backed by the caucus in the general election last year and is running again this cycle. Three other Democrats are also running for the seat: law school student and former cancer biology professor Radhika Kunnel, Eva Littman and Joe Valdes.
Of the four candidates, Kunnel has raised the most, about $27,000 between this year and last year, while Littman has loaned herself $25,000, Sherwood has loaned herself $5,000 and Valdes has raised $100.
A tenth candidate in the race, Garrett LeDuff, is running with no political party and has raised no money so far in his race.
Assembly District 4
The Nevada Assembly Republican caucus is looking to win back this swing seat lost to Democrats last election cycle by backing a political newcomer, Donnie Gibson, who will first have to defeat a primary challenge from former office-holder Richard McArthur.
Officially backed by the Assembly Republican caucus, Gibson is the owner of both a construction and equipment rental company, and sits on the board of several industry groups, including the Nevada Contractors Association and Hope for Prisoners. During the first quarterly fundraising period, he reported raising just over $51,000 and has nearly $86,000 in cash on hand.
But Gibson faces a tough challenger in former Assemblyman McArthur, who has served three non-consecutive terms in the Assembly; two terms between 2008 to 2012, and then one term between 2016 and 2018. He raised just $520 during the first fundraising period, but has more than $28,000 in available campaign funds. McArthur previously served with the U.S. Air Force and was a special agent for the FBI for 25 years.
Democratic incumbent Connie Munk did not draw a primary challenger, and reported raising more than $52,000 during the first fundraising period. Munk flipped the seat to Democrats in 2018, defeating McArthur by a 120-vote margin out of nearly 30,000 votes cast.
Assembly District 7
Democrat Cameron “CH” Miller, who most recently served as Nevada political director for Beto O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaigns and has had a 20 year career in the entertainment industry, is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus for this North Las Vegas Assembly district. The seat is held by Assemblywoman Dina Neal, who is running for state Senate.
While Miller has been endorsed by most of the Democratic-aligned organizations — including SEIU Local 1107, the Nevada State Education Association, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union, NARAL Pro-Choice Nevada and the Nevada Conservation League — his one primary opponent, John Stephens III, has been endorsed by the Nevada State AFL-CIO.
Stephens is a former civilian employee of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, former steward for the Teamsters Local 14 and a self-described political scientist, writer, exhibitor and Las Vegas library employee.
Miller has raised about $21,000 so far in his campaign, while Stephens has not reported raising any money.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary is likely to go on to win the general election against the one Republican candidate in the race, former Virginia Beach police officer Tony Palmer, as the district leans heavily Democratic with 54.3 percent registered Democrats, 22.7 percent nonpartisans and only 18 percent Republicans. Palmer has raised about $2,000, mostly from himself, in his bid.
Assembly District 16
Four Democratic candidates are running in this open seat after Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, who has represented the district since 2012, opted not to run for re-election.
The Assembly Democratic Caucus has not endorsed any candidate in the race. Cecelia González and Russell Davis have so far split the major endorsements from Democratic-aligned groups. Both candidates were endorsed by the Nevada State AFL-CIO, while González was also endorsed by the Nevada State Education Association, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League, and Davis was endorsed by SEIU Local 1107.
González, a community activist who plans to begin a doctoral program in multicultural education at UNLV in the fall, has raised a little more than $5,000 in her campaign, while Davis, a two-decade Clark County employee and SEIU member, hasn’t reported raising any money.
A third candidate in the race, online finance professor Geoffrey VanderPal, has loaned himself a little less than $4,000 in the race, while Joe Sacco, a union trade show and conventions worker with IATSE Local 720 and a REALTOR, has raised about $500.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary is likely to win the general election against the one Republican in the race, Reyna “Alex” Sajdak, as Democrats have an overwhelming voter registration advantage in the district, representing 47.1 percent of all voters. Nonpartisans make up another 27.3 percent, while Republicans represent only about 18.2 percent.
Sajdak has loaned herself only $260 in the race and received no other contributions.
Assembly District 18
Assemblyman Richard Carrillo has opted not to run for re-election to this East Las Vegas Assembly seat, which he has represented since 2010. He is running for state Senate.
Venicia Considine, an attorney with Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus for the seat and has been endorsed by SEIU Local 1107, Nevada State Education Association, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League.
However, she faces three other Democrats in the primary, including Char Frost, a former campaign manager and legislative staffer for Carrillo; Lisa Ortega, a master arborist and owner of Great Basin Sage Consulting; and Clarence Dortch, a teacher in the Clark County School District.
Considine has raised nearly $24,000 in her bid so far, while Ortega has raised a little less than $17,000 and Frost has raised about $8,000. Dortch has not yet reported raising any money.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary will go on to face Republican Heather Florian in the general election, though they are likely to win as Democrats hold a 24-point voter registration advantage over Republicans in the district. Florian has not yet reported raising any money in the race.
Assembly District 19
Assemblyman Chris Edwards is running for a fourth term in this rural Clark County Assembly district, but he faces a challenge from Mesquite City Councilwoman Annie Black, who is running to the right of the already conservative Edwards. Black most recently ran for Nevada Republican Party chair, losing to incumbent Michael McDonald.
So far, Edwards has raised about $17,000 in his re-election bid, to Black’s $2,600, which includes a $1,000 contribution from Las Vegas City Councilwoman Victoria Seaman and a $500 contribution from former Controller Ron Knecht.
Whoever wins this primary will go on to win the general election in November, as there are no Democrats or third-party candidates in the race.
Assembly District 21
Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, who has represented this seat since 2016, is not seeking re-election this year and is running for the Nevada Supreme Court. The Assembly Democratic Caucus has endorsed attorney Elaine Marzola to replace him.
Marzola has received most of the Democratic-aligned endorsements in the primary, including from the Nevada State AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League, while her one Democratic opponent in the primary, David Bagley, has the backing of the Nevada State Education Association.
Bagley is the director of operations for the stem cell diagnostics company Pluripotent Diagnostics and was also Marianne Williamson’s Nevada state director for her presidential campaign last year.
Marzola has raised about $44,000 in her race so far, while Bagley has raised $20,000 in in-kind contributions from himself.
The winner of the Democratic primary will go on to face Republican Cherlyn Arrington in the general election. Arrington ran for the seat in 2018, losing to Fumo by 12.6 percentage points. Democrats have an 8 percentage point voter registration advantage in the district over Republicans. Arrington has raised a little less than $15,000 so far, including a $4,000 contribution from herself.
Assembly District 31
Former Republican Assemblywoman Jill Dickman hopes to reclaim a seat she held for one term and lost by fewer than 50 votes in 2016. But the manufacturing business owner is in a three-way primary, most notably with Washoe County Republican Party treasurer Sandra Linares.
The Washoe County seat is held by Skip Daly, a four-term Assembly member who works as the business manager for Laborers Local 169 and has several notable endorsements from organized labor groups, including the Nevada State AFL-CIO and the Culinary Union.
Republicans have a registration advantage of more than four percentage points, but nonpartisans also make up about 21 percent of the swingy district.
Dickman raised just $116 in the first quarter of the year but has more than $99,000 cash on hand for the race. Linares, an educator and Air Force veteran, reported raising more than $24,000 in the first quarter but has about $20,000 in her war chest.
The other candidate in the race is Republican David Espinosa, who has worked in the information technology sector and served on boards including the Washoe County Citizen Advisory Board. He reported raising $7,000 in the first quarter of the year and has about $500 on hand.
The winner of the three-way contest will face off against Daly, who does not have primary challengers. He raised $31,000 in the first quarter and has $98,000 cash on hand.
Assembly District 36
Appointed to fill the seat of brothel owner Dennis Hof — who won this Pahrump-area seat in 2018 despite dying weeks before the election — Republican Assemblyman Gregory Hafen II is facing a primary challenge from Dr. Joseph Bradley, who ran for the district in 2018.
Hafen, a fifth generation Nevadan and general manager of a Pahrump water utility company, and has been endorsed by multiple sitting Republican lawmakers, the National Rifle Association and was named “Rural Chair” of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign in Nevada.
Hafen has raised nearly $89,000 since the start of the election cycle, including $26,600 in the last reporting period, and has more than $55,000 in cash on hand.
His primary opponent is Bradley, a licensed chiropractor and substance abuse specialist with offices in Las Vegas and Pahrump. He ran for the seat in 2018, coming in third in the Republican primary behind Hof and former Assemblyman James Oscarson.
Bradley has raised more than $68,000 in his bid for the Assembly seat since 2019, and had more than $43,000 in cash on hand at the end of the reporting period.
Bradley’s campaign has tried to tie Hafen to Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, who as a member of the Clark County Commission voted on a replacement candidate after Hof’s death. Sisolak did vote to appoint Hafen to the seat, but the decision was essentially made by the Nye County Commission because of Nevada’s laws on appointing a new lawmaker after an incumbent leaves office or passes away. Hafen was appointed to the seat with support from 16 of 17 county commissioners in the three counties that the Assembly district covers.
Because no Democrats or other party candidates filed to run in the district, the winner of the primary will essentially win a spot in the 2021 Legislature.
Assembly District 37
A crowded field of well-funded Republican candidates are duking it out in a competitive primary to take on incumbent Democrat Shea Backus, one of several suburban Las Vegas districts Republicans hope to win back after the 2018 midterms. Voter registration numbers in the district are nearly equal: 38.1 percent registered Democrats 35.7 percent registered Republicans and 20.5 percent nonpartisan.
Four Republican candidates filed to run in the district, including two former congressional candidates who have each raised more than six-figures in contributions: Andy Matthews and Michelle Mortensen.
Matthews is the former president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank and was former Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s policy director for his failed 2018 gubernatorial run. He has been endorsed by a bevy of Nevada and national Republicans, including Laxalt, several Trump campaign officials including Corey Lewandowski, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore and several current and former state lawmakers.
Matthews has also been one of the top legislative fundraisers during the 2020 election cycle, outraising all other Republican Assembly candidates including current office-holders. For the first reporting period of 2020, he reported raising nearly $35,000, but has raised nearly $189,000 since the start of 2019 and has early $115,000 in cash on hand.
Mortensen, a former television reporter who ran for Congress in 2018, has also been a prolific fundraiser. She reported raising about $12,500 during the first fundraising period of 2020, with more than $115,000 raised since the start of 2019 and had more than $92,000 in cash on hand at the end of the last reporting period.
But they won’t be alone on the primary ballot. Jacob Deaville, a former UNLV college Republican chair and political activist, has raised more than $19,600 since the start of 2019 and had roughly $9,400 in cash on hand at the end of the reporting period. Another Republican candidate, Lisa Noeth, has not filed any campaign finance reports.
The primary election winner will get to challenge incumbent Shea Backus, who wrested the seat from Republican Jim Marchant in the 2018 election by a 135-vote margin. She reported raising more than $52,000 over the first fundraising period, and has more than $108,000 in cash on hand. Backus, an attorney, did not draw a primary challenger.
Assembly District 40
Former Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill is making a comeback bid after serving one term in the Assembly in 2015 and losing re-election in a campaign focused on his controversial vote for Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s tax package.
Two-term incumbent Al Kramer decided at the last minute not to seek re-election in the district, which includes Carson City and portions of Washoe Valley. According to The Nevada Appeal, he said he and his wife need to take care of her 94-year-old mother in Ohio and attend to their own health issues, and will not be in Carson City often enough to serve in the Legislature.
O’Neill is a former law enforcement officer who previously served in the Nevada Department of Public Safety. But his path back to the statehouse is complicated by a primary challenge from the right from Day Williams, a lawyer who is running on a platform of repealing the Commerce Tax that O’Neill supported.
O’Neill has the fundraising advantage, raising more than $13,000 in the first quarter and reporting about $10,000 cash on hand. Williams reported raising about $2,300 and has about $1,200 in the bank.
Whoever wins the Republican primary is likely to win in the general — Republicans have a nearly 15 percentage point advantage in the district. The three Democrats in the race are former Carson City Library director Sena Loyd, software engineer Derek Ray Morgan and LGBTQ rights advocate Sherrie Scaffidi, none of whom have more than $500 cash on hand.
Other races that have a primary
Senate District 11: Republican Edgar Miron Galindo, who has been endorsed by the Senate Republican Caucus, faces off against Joshua Wendell. However, the winner faces an uphill battle against Democratic state Sen. Dallas Harris in the general election in this overwhelmingly Democratic district in Spring Valley, where Democrats have a 19.5 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans.
Senate District 18: Democrat Liz Becker, who has been endorsed by the Senate Democratic Caucus, faces Ron Bilodeau in the primary. The winner will go on to face Republican state Sen. Scott Hammond in this lean Republican northwest Las Vegas Assembly district, where Republicans have a 3 percentage point voter registration advantage over Democrats.
Assembly District 5: Republicans Mac Miller, Retha Randolph and Mitchell Tracy face off in the primary. But they’ll have a tough time in the general election against Democratic Assemblywoman Brittney Miller in this district, where Democrats have a 9 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans.
Assembly District 6: Democrat Shondra Summers-Armstrong is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus to represent this Assembly District that encompasses the historic Westside of Las Vegas. She faces one opponent, William E. Robinson II, in the primary. There are also two Republicans, Katie Duncan and Geraldine Lewis, who will face off in their own primary. The winner of the Democratic primary is all but guaranteed to defeat the winner of the Republican primary in the general election, as Democrats have a 52.5 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans in the district.
Assembly District 10: After being appointed to the seat in 2018, Democratic Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen is running for her first election in this overwhelmingly Democratic district, where there are more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans. Nguyen has one primary challenger, Jesse “Jake” Holder. The two other candidates in the race, Independent American Jonathan Friedrich and Republican Chris Hisgen, do not face primary challenges. Democrats are likely to retain control of this seat in November because of their overwhelming voter registration advantage.
Assembly District 14: Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton is running for her sixth and final term in this East Las Vegas Assembly district, where Democrats make up more than half of all registered voters. She faces a primary challenge from James Fennell II. The third candidate in the race, Libertarian Robert Wayerski, does not face a primary. With only 163 registered libertarians in the district, Democrats are all but guaranteed to hold onto this seat in November.
Assembly District 15: Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts is running for re-election in this East Las Vegas Assembly district. He faces a primary challenge from Democrat Burke Andersson. A third candidate in the race, Republican Stan Vaughan, does not have a primary. Democrats are overwhelmingly likely to win this seat in the general election as they hold a 30.8 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans.
Assembly District 17: Democrat Clara “Claire” Thomas is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus in this overwhelmingly Democratic North Las Vegas Assembly district and does not face a primary. Two Republican candidates, Sylvia Liberty Creviston and Jack Polcyn, will face off in June. However, Thomas is likely to win the general election come November because of Democrats’ voter registration advantage.
Assembly District 20: Democrat David Orentilcher is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic caucus but faces three other Democrats in the primary: Zachary Logan, Michael McAuliffe and Emily Smith. Whoever wins the primary is guaranteed to win the general election as there are no Republican or third-party candidates running in the race.
Assembly District 26: Republican Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner faces one Republican challenger, Dale Conner, in her re-election bid for this overwhelmingly Republican Assembly district where Republicans hold a 10.7 percentage point registration advantage over Democrats. Though one Democrat, Vance Alm, is running for this seat, Republicans are likely to hold onto this seat come November.
Assembly District 29: Democratic Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen is running for re-election to this Henderson Assembly district, where Democrats hold a narrow 5.6 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans. While she doesn’t have a primary challenge, she will face one of two Republicans, Steven Delisle or Troy Archer, in the general election.
Assembly District 30: Democrat Natha Anderson is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus to represent this Sparks Assembly seat where Democrats hold a 10.2 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans. She will face fellow Democrat Lea Moser in the primary. The winner is likely to win the general election over Republican Randy Hoff and Independent American Charlene Young because of Democrats’ significant voter registration advantage in the district.
Assembly District 35: Democratic Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow is running for re-election in this southwest Las Vegas Assembly district, where Democrats hold a 8.5 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans. She does not face a primary challenge. However, two Republicans, Jay Calhoun and Claudia Kingtigh, will face off in a June primary. Gorelow will face the winner of that primary, as well as nonpartisan Philip “Doc Phil” Paleracio in November, though she is likely to win because of the Democratic voter registration advantage in the district.
Assembly District 38: Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus faces a primary challenge from Jeff Ulrich in this overwhelmingly Republican rural Assembly district, where there are more than twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats.
A year after legislative Republicans became close to an endangered species after widespread 2018 electoral defeats, the party’s attempted comeback was boosted by candidates in several key races outraising incumbent Democratic lawmakers during the last year.
Details from the 2019 contribution and expenses reports, due on Jan. 15, detailed how much legislative incumbents and candidates raised over the last calendar year and painted a more hopeful picture for Republicans in several “swing” Assembly races, with a more mixed view in competitive state Senate seats.
Although there are 63 seats in the Legislature — 42 Assembly members and 21 senators — actual control of the body, or more likely whether or not Democrats have a two-thirds majority (required for passing any increase in taxes) in either body, will likely come down to just a handful of competitive seats up in 2020.
Changing the balance of the state Assembly, where Democrats enjoy a 29-13 seat advantage, could be the best ticket for Assembly Republicans. In at least three races — Assembly Districts 4, 29 and 37 — Republican candidates reported raising at least six figures and each substantially outraised the Democratic incumbent in the seat.
Only 10 seats are up for election in the Senate, with members serving staggered four-year terms. Democrats control 13 seats — one shy of a super-majority — but have not endorsed candidates in the two most likely pick-up districts; Heidi Gansert in Senate District 15 and Scott Hammond in Senate District 18. And those incumbents will start with a significant financial advantage — Gansert raised $245,000 in 2019, and Hammond also pulled in $107,800.
Senate Democrats will also have to work to defend two competitive seats — Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s Senate District 6 and the open Senate District 5, vacated by termed-out Sen Joyce Woodhouse. They’ll also have to deal with a competitive, three-way primary in safely Democratic Senate District 7 between caucus-backed Roberta Lange and two long-time Assembly members, Richard Carrillo and Ellen Spiegel.
And with no major statewide or federal races (beyond congressional seats and the presidential election) on the ballot, it’s likely that more attention and funds will make their way to down-ticket legislative races, especially ahead of an expected redistricting after the 2020 Census that could determine the political trajectory of the state over the next decade.
Fundraising reports, especially those filed nearly a year before an election, aren’t a perfect barometer of the success of any particular candidate, but offer a helpful context in determining which races that individual parties determine to be the most winnable and whether or not individual candidates have the resources to compete in a down-ballot race. (It’s also worth noting that incumbents are disadvantaged in fundraising because of a legally required “blackout” period before, during and shortly after the 120-day legislative session).
On the flip-side, a close examination of major contributors can pull back the veil on which businesses or industries are trying to curry favor with lawmakers ahead of the 2021 legislative session.
Here’s a look at the financial status of major legislative races:
Major state Senate races
Although 10 state Senate races will be on the 2020 ballot, only a handful of races are likely to be competitive and shift the current 13-8 seat advantage currently held by Democrats.
A key battleground will be in Senate District 6, which is held by Cannizzaro, who narrowly beat former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman in the 2016 election. Senate Republicans have endorsed April Becker, a Las Vegas-based attorney. Democrats make up 40 percent of registered voters in the district, and Republicans make up roughly 32.8 percent of registered voters.
Cannizzaro, who also beat back a politically motivated recall attempt in 2017, starts the race with a significant financial advantage after raising more than $326,000 throughout 2019, spending just $22,000 and ending the reporting period with $531,000 in the bank. Her top donors include $30,000 from properties affiliated with the Las Vegas Sands and $10,000 checks each from the Mirage, Switch and the Home Building Industry PAC, as well as nearly $10,000 from Woodhouse’s campaign.
But Becker’s first campaign finance report isn’t shabby; she reported raising nearly $313,000 over the fundraising period (including a “written commitment” from herself for $125,000) and ended the period with $152,000 in her campaign account.
Top donors to Becker included several Republican senators ($10,000 each from James Settelmeyer and the Senate Republican Leadership Conference, $5,000 each from Ben Kieckhefer, Joe Hardy and former state Sen. Michael Roberson and $2,000 from Keith Pickard), as well as $10,000 each from Abbey Dental Center owner Sanjeeta Khurana, the law firm of Gerald Gillock & Associates and Nevsur, Inc. (owned by Bruce and Barry Becker ).
Another highly competitive seat is Senate District 5, where Woodhouse narrowly beat Republican candidate and charter school principal Carrie Buck by less than one percentage point in the 2016 election. Democrats make up 38.4 percent of registered voters in the district compared to 32.6 percent for registered Republicans.
Buck, who is running again and has been endorsed by Senate Republicans, reported raising nearly $63,000 and ended the fundraising period with nearly $58,000 in the bank. Her top donors were fellow Republican senators; $10,000 each from the caucus itself and Settelmeyer, $5,000 each from Kieckhefer, Roberson and Hardy and $2,000 from Pickard.
But Buck’s fundraising total was eclipsed by Democrat Kristee Watson, a literacy nonprofit program facilitator endorsed by Senate Democrats in October.
Watson, who ran unsuccessfully for a Henderson-area Assembly seat in 2018, reported raising nearly $87,000 through the fundraising period, with a significant chunk coming from transfers from other candidates and office-holders. She received $10,000 contributions each from a PAC affiliated with Cannizzaro and the campaigns of Sens. Woodhouse, Chris Brooks, Marilyn Dondero Loop, and $5,000 from the campaigns of Sens. Melanie Scheible, Julia Ratti and Yvanna Cancela.
Other potentially competitive state Senate races feature a lopsided fundraising advantage for the incumbent. Democratic Sen. Dallas Harris in Senate District 11 was appointed to fill the term of now-Attorney General Aaron Ford, and reported raising nearly $46,000 over the fundraising period ($65,000 cash on hand). Her Republican opponents, Edgar Miron Galindo and Joshua Dowden, raised only $7,250 and $ 11,500 respectively over the fundraising period.
Two Republican incumbents up for re-election also posted impressive fundraising numbers that far outstripped potential opponents. Gansert in Senate District 15 raised nearly $246,000 and has nearly $237,000 in cash on hand; potential Democratic opponent Lindsy Judd did not file a 2019 campaign finance report.
In Senate District 18, incumbent Hammond raised nearly $108,000 and has more than $91,000 left in his campaign account; potential Democratic opponent Liz Becker raised $21,700 in comparison and has just $11,200 in cash on hand.
One of the most intriguing legislative races could come in the three-way Democratic primary to replace longtime Sen. David Parks, who is termed out of his Senate District 7 seat. Two Assembly members — Ellen Spiegel and Richard Carrillo — are running for the seat, but state Senate Democrats have thrown their weight behind another candidate, former state party head Roberta Lange.
Lange — who only made her bid for the seat official in mid-December — reported raising more than $64,000 for the seat, essentially during only the last two weeks of December. Her major donors included $10,000 from Cannizzaro’s political action committee, and $5,000 each from six incumbent senators — Ratti, Brooks, Scheible, Woodhouse, Cancela and Dondero Loop. She also received $2,500 from Parks, $1,000 from former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s Searchlight Leadership PAC and $5,000 each from UNLV professor and former gaming executive Tom Gallagher and his wife, Mary Kay Gallagher.
But she faces a potentially tough primary fight from Spiegel, who raised $63,000 throughout 2019 and has nearly $213,000 in available cash on hand. Her top contributor was Cox Communications ($10,000 cumulative) but other top givers included the Nevada REALTORS PAC, pharmaceutical company trade group PhRMA, health insurance giant Centene and AT&T ($3,000 from each).
Carrillo lagged behind both Lange and Spiegel in initial fundraising reports. He reported raising $29,500 throughout the fundraising period, spending $37,600 and having just $17,000 left in available cash. His biggest contributor was the Laborers Union Local 872, which donated $12,500 through contributions by five affiliated political action committees. Other top contributors include tobacco company Altria and the political arm of the Teamsters Union ($5,000 each), and $3,000 each from Nevada REALTORS PAC and the Nevada Trucking Association.
Another major primary election is brewing between Republican candidates Andy Matthews (a former campaign spokesman for former Attorney General Adam Laxalt) and Michelle Mortensen (former television host and congressional candidate) in a primary for the right to challenge Assemblywoman Shea Backus in Assembly District 37.
Matthews raised a massive $154,000 over the fundraising period, the highest amount of any Republican Assembly candidate and the second most of any Assembly candidate behind only Speaker Jason Frierson.
He reported spending $23,800 and ending the period with more than $130,000 in available cash. His top donors included $10,000 combined from manufacturer EE Technologies and founder Sonny Newman, and $5,000 each from Las Vegas-based businesses Vegas Heavy Haul and InCorp Services, Inc.
Mortensen also posted a substantial fundraising total; more than $102,000 raised, $9,500 spent and more than $93,000 in cash on hand. Her major donors included primarily family members; her husband Robert Marshall and his company Marshall & Associates ($20,000 total), her father-in-law James Marshall ($10,000) and maximum $10,000 donations from several family members including Betty Mortensen, Tom Mortensen, Ryan Mortensen and Mila Mortensen.
Both Republican candidates outraised incumbent Backus, who raised nearly $25,000 during the reporting period and has nearly $64,000 left in cash on hand. Her top donor was Wynn Resorts, which gave her $5,000. Backus narrowly defeated then-Republican Assemblyman Jim Marchant in the 2018 election, the first time a Democrat won the district in four election cycles.
Another competitive primary is happening in Assembly District 36, where appointed Assembly Republican Gregory Hafen II is facing off against Joseph Bradley, who ran for the seat last cycle against former Assemblyman James Oscarson and famed brothel owner Dennis Hof, who won the primary but died before the election.
Hafen reported raising $62,000 over the fundraising period (including a $9,500 loan) and has nearly $47,000 in cash on hand. Bradley reported raising $54,000 and has $38,500 left in his campaign account.
Key Assembly races
Nevada’s Assembly Democrats hit a potential high-water mark in 2018, winning control of 29 seats for the first time since 1992 and gaining enough seats to relegate Assembly Republicans to a super-minority (fewer than two-thirds of members).
But in a handful of competitive Assembly seats currently held by Democrats, Republican candidates posted substantial fundraising totals that not only eclipsed but often lapped the amount raised by incumbent Democrats, giving Republicans a financial leg up in some of the state’s most competitive legislative districts.
In Assembly District 4, first-term lawmaker Connie Munk reported raising $18,600 throughout 2019 and ended the period with just over $30,000 in cash on hand. Her biggest donors were PhRMA and trial attorneys-affiliated Citizens for Justice, Trust.
But her fundraising total was overwhelmed by Republican candidate Donnie Gibson, who reported raising $115,000 and has $87,000 left in his campaign account. Gibson, who runs a grading and paving company called Civil Werx, received maximum contributions from home builders and developers: $10,000 each from Associated Builders & Contractors, Associated General Contractors, the Nevada Contractors Association and the Home Industry Building PAC.
A similar disparity in fundraising totals was also present in Assembly District 29, where incumbent Democrat Lesley Cohen reported raising $16,000 over the fundraising period and has just under $50,000 in available cash.
Steven Delisle, a dentist and former state Senate candidate who announced his intention to run for the Assembly seat on Thursday, reported raising more than $134,000 for the race against Cohen, including a $125,000 loan to his campaign account.
But Democrats may have caught a break in Assembly District 31, where incumbent Skip Daly has won multiple races despite representing a district that went for President Donald Trump in 2016. Daly raised $46,425 through 2019 and has $75,800 left in his campaign account.
Assembly Republicans initially rallied behind Jake Wiskerchen, a marriage and family therapist who reported raising $27,700 for the race and had $19,000 in cash on hand at the end of 2019. But Wiskerchen opted to publicly drop out of the race in early January, leaving Republicans without an endorsed candidate for the time being. Daly’s 2018, 2016 and 2014 opponent, Jill Dickman, reported raising $8,800 in 2019 and has nearly $104,000 in leftover campaign cash.
Democratic Assembly Speaker Frierson reported raising more than $233,000 through the fundraising period, spending $174,000 and ended the period with just under $475,000 in cash on hand. His top contributors included a wide swath of Nevada businesses, including $10,000 each from Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, the campaign account of former Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, Home Building Industry PAC, MGM Resorts and UFC parent company Zuffa, LLC. He also received $5,000 from the Vegas Golden Knights.
Republican Assembly Leader Robin Titus, who took over the caucus leadership position after the 2019 legislature, raised just over $38,000 during the fundraising period, spending more than $16,000 and ending the period with $72,000 in cash on hand. Top contributors to Titus included PhRMA and the Nevada REALTOR PAC ($5,000 each).
Her Republican counterpart in the state Senate, Settelmeyer, reported raising nearly $95,000 over the reporting period, with top contributors including UFC parent company Zuffa ($7,500), TitleMax, Nevada Credit Union League PAC, Grand Sierra Resort and Storey County businessman Lance Gilman ($5,000 from each). Settelmeyer ended the reporting period with $137,000 in cash on hand.
Although he isn’t up for re-election until 2022, Gov. Steve Sisolak broke fundraising records for Nevada governors in their first year in office after raising more than $1.6 million for his campaign and another $1.7 million for two closely affiliated political action committees.
Sisolak reported having more than $2.3 million in available cash on hand at the end of 2019, and only reported spending $164,000 throughout the year. The governor also raised $1.7 million between the Sisolak Inaugural Committee and the Home Means Nevada PAC, which were initially set up to manage Sisolak’s inaugural events but have since been used for pro-Sisolak advertising. Political action committees in Nevada are allowed to accept unlimited donations.
Updated at 12:55 p.m. on Saturday, January 18th to include fundraising totals from Senate Republican candidate Joshua Dowden.
The Nevada Association of REALTORS® has contributed an unprecedented $2 million to political action committees designed to recruit real estate agents and back supportive candidates in state legislative races, a financial show of force reacting to passage of industry-loathed tenants rights bills last year.
The two political action committees — Realtor Champion PAC and Realtor Industry PAC — were each registered with the state on the same day in December and given $1 million each by the REALTORS association. It’s part of an expanded strategy by the association (already a major contributor to legislative candidates of both parties) to play a larger role in recruiting and supporting candidates in both major political parties aligned with the industry after a 2019 legislative session that association President Chris Bishop called “one of the worst legislative sessions we've been through.”
Bishop said in an interview with The Nevada Independent that the organization was still determining its strategic plans ahead of the 2020 election, but declined to rule out challenging incumbents and said the $2 million already in the bank was just an “initial place to start.”
He said that the organization’s main goal was not to get back at lawmakers who sponsored bills opposed by the association but to elect new lawmakers with stronger ties to the industry to avoid a repeat of the past legislative session.
“Are we taking this as a way to get back at legislators that said no to us?” he said. “No, but the whole point is that if you continually vote against private property rights, you will not be supported by REALTORS. I mean, that's just going to be the fact. And I think that the whole idea behind this is if we can't find a quality candidate that's going to help us move forward on the issue, we're going to find (another) one.”
Although Bishop said the organization is still deciding which legislative races to get involved in, he said the funds available could be used for third-party ads or direct donations, giving the group the flexibility to “be involved in just one major race or spread that out over a number of them.” The “Realtor Champion” PAC will support candidates supported by the association, while the “Realtor Industry” PAC will support actual REALTORS or individuals in the industry running for office.
Regardless, the funds mark a substantial increase in the organization’s political fundraising and spending. Outside of nearly $1 million contributed to PAC dedicated to defeating a tax initiative in 2014, the association’s political spending in election cycles has been robust but far clear of the seven-figure mark — REALTORS contributed nearly $400,000 to candidates and political PACs (including $50,000 to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s inaugural committee) in the 2018 election cycle.
But the promised new efforts come amid still-simmering frustrations from the last legislative session, where real estate interests and developers staunchly opposed a bill by Democratic Sen. Yvanna Cancela (SB256) that would have instituted several restrictions on landlords at rental properties, including limits on late fees and nonrefundable charges and expanding legal actions a tenant can take against a landlord.
The REALTORS organized a campaign to defeat the bill — including running ads and direct mail campaigns — with the former president of the organization calling the measure a “slap in the face.”
The bill failed to advance past a legislative deadline after passing narrowly out of the Senate, but several of its provisions (including a cap on late fees to be no more than 5 percent of monthly rent) were added to a separate bill on summary evictions (SB151) on the final day of the Legislature. The last-minute move irked the REALTORS association, which mounted an unsuccessful campaign urging Gov. Steve Sisolak to veto the bill.
Progressive groups that supported the bill, including the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, have credited the bill with having cut down the number of evictions in the state, but industry members say its resulted in higher rents and security deposits while having unfairly punished small landlords.
Bishop said the targeted spending on legislative races was a natural result of the “cloak and dagger” last-minute addition of the amendment to the evictions bill and hoped that it would result in more real estate agents (or candidates friendly to the industry) in elected office to avoid “things coming at us from every angle.”
“We felt like the wool was pulled over our eyes, and we want to make sure that never happens again,” Bishop said. “And by putting REALTORS into office, we will know that we have someone in that room that understands why (something) was a bad idea and why it’s not good for Nevada. You know, the old adage that if you're not at the table, you're on the menu? We're not going to be on the menu any longer.”
Ask representatives from the legal aid community, and they’ll say the Legislature passed housing laws this session that have curbed evictions. Ask representatives from the Nevada Association of REALTORS, and they’ll say those same laws are prompting landlords to ramp up fees and squeeze out the supply of affordable housing.
“When you're the party that holds the power, it's not advantageous to you to let go of that,” legal aid services lobbyist Bailey Bortolin said about the landlord community in an interview on the IndyMatters podcast. “But I do think that most of these changes are things already being done by the vast majority of good landlords. And we're really trying to set a baseline that all landlords have to do at least x, y, and z.”
The marquee tenants’ rights bill this session, SB151, extended the timeframe renters have to fight back against an eviction, from four and a half days to seven judicial days. It also caps late fees at 5 percent of the monthly rent, gives tenants 24 hours from the time they were notified of an eviction before they’re physically kicked out, and allows them five days after an eviction during which they can return to the home to retrieve personal belongings left behind.
Bortolin recently celebrated with a tweet noting that evictions in Clark County are down since the bill took effect July 1. Statistics she pulled from the court show there were 2,075 eviction filings in July, down from 2,704 in June and 2,968 last July.
“Giving people time to catch up works,” she wrote.
But there are still signs of angst over the changes the Legislature made. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in July that several property management companies were sending letters to thousands of local renters threatening to remove grace periods that allowed tenants to pay their rent up until the third of the month. The companies blamed the new bill, but at least one has since retracted the plans.
The head of the Nevada State Apartment Association suggested to the Nevada Current that a reason rents in Southern Nevada rose 5 percent from the first quarter of 2019 to the second is because the Legislature broached the topic of rent control. The concept of allowing — not requiring— local governments to adopt rent control policies was brought up as a possible amendment to SB103 during the legislative session, but never became part of the bill and didn’t become law.
“I think the number on the bill is being used as cover to seek additional profit and to seek additional fines and penalties,” Bortolin said. “But I can't connect them to what this bill actually does. And again, by giving people a chance to breathe and have a couple more days, the goal is they'll be able to stay in the property and remove the need for the eviction altogether, which really benefits everybody.”
Keith Lynam, president of the Nevada Association of REALTORS, says he predicted the backlash that’s played out this summer.
“The message is, ‘we told you so,’” he said on the IndyMatters podcast. “We told them that security deposits were going to go up. That harms the Nevada tenant. We told them that timelines were going to get tightened [for] everyone. That harms the Nevada tenant. We told them that when you put these restrictions on a Nevada homeowner, you are going to lessen the likelihood that they're going to keep their home on the market for rent. They're just going to sell it.”
He conceded that large property management companies, sometimes located out of state and in charge of thousands of units, can be problematic. He has advocated for a “bifurcated” system that would put more strictures on the big fish in the rental game, while exempting small players who may have one or just a handful of rentals, although he said the idea hasn’t gained traction on the other side.
“We have felt strongly from the beginning that we're talking about the multifamily, big units that don't have that personal touch. We think there needs to be a separation of the two,” he said. “Not every landlord is a multimillion dollar person. They are, a lot of times, just as susceptible to the financial strains that any of us are. They get sick, they're going to have trouble, but they've got two mortgages now that they need to pay.”
Bortolin and Lynam also have different perspectives on how the bill itself went down. REALTORS were opposed to SB256, a bill by Democratic Sen. Yvanna Cancela that included a host of tenant protections and died in the Assembly after narrowly passing the Senate on an 11-10 vote. After it died, some of its provisions — including the cap on the late fees — were melded into the prevailing bill, SB151, in the final hours of the session with little debate or warning to the public.
“Democrats really looked at what are we accomplishing in this housing crisis? What are we doing to help tenants in these situations?” Bortolin said. "And they had selected a few provisions that had been considered elsewhere and moved them into SB151.”
Lynam, however, says the amendment was “ramrodded, you know, under the darkness of night and here's the defense I've heard is — well, it, it happens all the time. Well, it doesn't make it right.”
Bortolin said the booming economy and rising rents are putting particular strain on seniors on fixed incomes. Nevada’s law allows for “summary evictions” that can be far faster and offer much less recourse for tenants than other states’ laws allow, Bortolin said.
“We've all seen this power imbalance for years and years and years. We've seen evictions gone wrong. We've seen landlord strongholds,” she said. “We see the worst of the worst and it's not necessarily new, but I think it's easier to relate to with the affordable housing crisis because it's happening to your neighbors and your friends and your family.”
Lynam said his association is looking out for both landlords and tenants. What he wants to see, he said, is an acknowledgement that landlords are not always the bad guy.
“Are there bad landlords? Absolutely. Are there bad tenants? Absolutely,” he said. “I have yet to hear anyone that's been a proponent in any of these [bills] say what I just said — that we've got bad tenants too.”
With eight days until the end of the legislative session, there is one issue that has gone unmentioned beyond quiet murmurs in hallways and in caucus rooms.
One lobbyist called it the “elephant in the room” this session. Some were gearing up for a fight, confident that it could not only help solve some of the state’s budget problems but fix an antiquated system. Others were praying it would meet a swift end, concerned about its impacts on residents and the logistics of putting it into action.
They waited, and they waited. But the fight on property taxes never came.
Talk to those in the legislative building, and there’s near widespread agreement that something needs to be done about Nevada’s property tax system, which a 2014 Tax Foundation study deemed “cumbersome, convoluted, and unstable.” According to a recent Guinn Center report, Nevada ranks 37th-lowest in the nation for property tax collections per capita at $994 and, compared to other states, tends to be over reliant on sales and use taxes and under reliant on property taxes.
Property taxes were a hot topic of conversation in the 2017 legislative session, with conversations about changes to property tax caps and a depreciation factor unique to Nevada. One proposal — to amend Nevada’s Constitution to allow the depreciation factor in property taxes to reset on sale, thereby equalizing property taxes between older and newer properties of similar value — was ushered through the legislative process under Democratic leadership. SJR14 passed on near-party lines in 2017, with only Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer joining Democrats in support.
But, in order to change the Constitution, such a proposal needs to be twice approved by the Legislature before heading to a vote of the people for a final stamp of approval. Members of the business community, local governments and other observers fully expected the proposal to move forward to a second vote this session. Yet, with only about a week left, the proposal and an accompanying piece of legislation, SB419, have yet to receive so much as a committee hearing and are considered all but dead.
There are a number of theories about why the issue stagnated this session. Some blame Gov. Steve Sisolak for taking the wind out of its sails when he declared that there would be no new taxes this session.
Others note that cautious Democrats have avoided rocking the boat as they gear up for an election that will not only determine whether President Donald Trump stays in the White House but whether their party will retain control of the Legislature as lawmakers prepare for redistricting next session. A property tax ballot measure would also need a substantial monetary investment into an education campaign to get it approved by voters in 2020, and no clear leader has emerged.
Democratic state Sen. Julia Ratti, the sponsor of the proposal, is circumspect in her explanation.
“There's a lot of work to do and campaign to get it across the ballot, and I'm not sure we're ready,” Ratti said. “There are clearly some flaws in the property tax system. This is a policy we're going to have to address at some point, and I'm not sure we have the broad-based coalition to get it across the finish line to the ballot yet.”
County assessors, who had expressed concerns about the legislation on the grounds that it would be technically difficult to implement, are cheering the news.
“To many of us it’s good news,” Douglas County Assessor Trent Tholen said. “We have a bit of an email chain going, and there are several who are very excited that SJR14 will likely die.”
But others are left scratching their heads, trying to understand why the Legislature wouldn’t even hold a hearing on a measure projected to raise billions over the next decade that in 2017 enjoyed relatively widespread support from commercial developers, local governments and even the taxpayers association, particularly when lawmakers are grappling with if and how schools need to be made whole in order to fund teacher pay raises promised by Sisolak and a new funding formula that reallocates money between school districts but does nothing to increase the size of the pie.
“My concern is that the funding formula that we’re spending a tremendous amount of time on — and it’s overdue and certainly needs to be done — will give the Legislature the feeling that we fixed funding for education and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Mike Kazmierski, president and CEO of the Economic Development Agency of Western Nevada. “It’s a little bit like building a car and not putting any gas in it. We’re making the car better, but we’re at a quarter tank, and no one wants to put any more gas in the tank.”
Legislative conversations, now and then
One unlikely proponent of SJR14 in the 2017 session was NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association. Lobbyist Jonathan Leleu said the association did so with the understanding that it would be one piece of a more robust conversation on property tax reform and because of the fact that legislative lawyers believed resetting the depreciation factor upon sale of a property was out of the question without a constitutional amendment.
“In order to have a more full-bodied policy discussion on what modifications need to be made to the tax structure here in the state, we said we will support SJR14, and we took a lot of heat for supporting that not only from a business community but from our own members and from several legislators,” Leleu said. “The reason for our support was we wanted to be able to have a more full-bodied policy discussion during the interim.”
But Leleu and others involved in 2017 say conversations around property taxes waned in the interim between legislative sessions.
“Unfortunately, we didn't have one single discussion during the interim on this issue, despite our efforts,” Leleu said. “We made several inquiries, tried to assemble a group, made outreach to different folks.”
One organization that had taken a lead on property taxes in 2017, the Nevada Association of Counties (NACO), took its foot off the pedal after the bill it sponsored to establish a floor on caps for annual increases in property taxes died without ever receiving a committee vote last session.
“Our members are still interested in property tax reform, and it was a big priority for us last session, but we didn't have a lot of success last session and there just wasn't the same momentum going into this session,” said NACO Executive Director Dagny Stapleton. “There wasn't that same level of interest or work this interim.”
Those involved in the discussions say that the issue didn’t come to a head this session until a few weeks ago, when legislative leadership called a meeting to talk about property taxes and review a report commissioned by the Legislative Counsel Bureau looking at the potential economic impact of SJR14, which had just come out.
The study, conducted by Applied Analysis, determined that allowing the property tax depreciation factor to reset on sale would generate an additional $13.2 billion in property taxes statewide over the first 12 years of implementation. The analysis used 2018 fiscal year property data and, for purposes of its estimations, ran its numbers as if the measure had gone into effect that year.
The 377-page report broke down the 12-year economic impact for every major and minor entity that benefits from property taxes, from $4.6 billion for Clark County schools to $251,000 for the Amargosa Library District. The analysis shows that property taxes would ramp up slowly at first — because of the time it takes for properties to sell and the depreciation to reset, and also the compounding impact of having more properties that have reset over time — and then eventually level off.
“At some point you’ve turned over almost all of the properties so you’ve essentially recaptured the appreciation and the abatement that has occurred,” said Jeremy Aguero, principal analyst with Applied Analysis. “So that’s why you’re seeing that leveling off because we’ve had depreciation over that period of time.”
By the time the report was released, NAIOP felt it was too late, Leleu said, and was prepared to testify in neutral. The association felt there hadn’t been a broad-based conversation about property taxes and that they didn’t have enough time to do their own analysis of the report, and were prepared to withdraw their support.
“It really put us in a tough spot,” Leleu said. “We've never been able to publicly air that — although we have let everyone in the business community and the legislators who are involved know where we sit on this — that we are just no longer able to support it simply because we have not been able to have that discussion.”
Nexus with education funding
The fact that the discussion never happened strikes many involved in the 2017 conversations as strange. Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, the lone Republican vote in support of SJR14, said he went into 2019 preparing himself for another fight.
“I fully expected to be walking into the Legislature this year continuing that debate and sort of girding myself up for it. I was the lone vote on that resolution on my side of the aisle and certainly took plenty of heat for it over the past two years, including during my election,” Kieckhefer said. “But here we are with about a week and a half left in the session, and it appears to be a nonstarter.”
Kieckhefer said that he voted in favor of the bill in 2017 because the pieces that make up the state’s property tax structure — including the caps and depreciation factor — don’t fit together in a way that is meeting the needs of local governments.
“I don't think it's unreasonable to try to make a broken system function more effectively while still being committed to protecting my constituents, who are very sensitive to property tax increases,” Kieckhefer said. “Particularly as someone who represents Incline Village and the north shore of Lake Tahoe, small changes can have dramatic impacts on some people. I'm certainly cognizant of that and wouldn't do anything that I thought was putting people in a dangerous position.”
The primary argument against SJR14, besides the concerns from the county assessors about implementation, is that it would raise taxes. Depending on whom you talk to, you’ll get a different answer about whether it should be considered a tax increase.
“It will increase property tax revenue, so how is it not a property tax increase?” Kieckhefer said.
Allowing depreciation to reset on sale would have the effect of generating more property tax revenue, but a homeowner would not see his or her property tax bill increase unless they sell their home and purchase a new piece of property. The measure also included a directive to the Legislature to establish a program to refund property tax payments to the elderly and those with disabilities to ensure they weren’t hurt as a result of the change.
“I think there are some anti-tax advocates that want to label the SJR14 measure as a tax increase when in reality nobody’s taxes would go up,” Kazmierski said. “Part of this is a perception. If you’re in your house paying your taxes, your taxes will not go up.”
To some, the fact that the Legislature is considering approving a bill, AB309, that would allow counties to enact a sales tax increase — which are generally criticized by Democrats because they take a larger percentage of income from low-income earners than high-income earners — to help fund local schools and won’t hear a bill that would increase property tax revenues, generally seen as a more stable and equitable form of revenue, is perplexing.
“You know what is kind of unnerving is that they passed it last session, and there were more Republicans last session than this session and the message is the Democrats are pro-education — this is not only pro-education, but pro-public safety, pro-local government — it offers a solution to some of the challenges they’re facing to adequately funding public education,” Kazmierski said, “and yet we choose not to even vote on it.”
A spokeswoman for Clark County School District, which is petitioning for an additional $240 million to remain whole and fund Sisolak’s promised teacher pay raises, did not say whether the district is disappointed that the proposal isn’t moving forward. But she did reiterate the district’s support for the measure and any additional revenue it could generate to flesh out the funding formula proposal lawmakers are deliberating.
“These additional dollars would be a good start to fully funding the weights and base in the newly proposed education funding formula outlined in Senate Bill 543,” CCSD spokeswoman Kirsten Searer said in an email. “CCSD would allocate additional funds to support the ambitious goals outlined in our five-year strategic plan, Focus: 2024.”
A stalled bill
The question then is why — with a demonstrated need for additional revenue and relatively broad support for SJR14, so long as it’s part of a broader conversation on property taxes — the legislation isn’t moving forward. Lobbyist Greg Ferraro, who has seen various iterations of the property tax conversations since his first session three decades ago, has one answer.
“As you really start to bring issues to light and have them come up, they become complicated fiscal policy and they become complicated politically,” Ferraro said.
One contributing factor is that 2019 hasn’t been a revenue-focused session, with Sisolak essentially taking those conversations off the table when he declared during his State of the State address that there would be no new taxes. Though Sisolak wouldn’t have to sign the measure since it’s a proposed constitutional amendment, it could still be interpreted as a tax increase by Democrats writ large.
“I think the air was let out of the balloon in the State of the State,” Kieckhefer said. “I think that ultimately there is no discussion this session about new revenue because the governor said there was going to be no discussion this session about new revenue. I look around at my Democratic colleagues who've been clamoring for more money for education for all these years, and now what are they supposed to do?”
Asked whether he was disappointed the Legislature appears unlikely to hear SJR14, Sisolak said that he can only control what’s within his power. He did, however, signal an openness to looking at property taxes as part of the revenue conversation in the future.
“I think that we need to look at our revenue structure,” Sisolak said. “We're talking about education and an educational funding bill, and we'll have to look at everything.”
Even if SJR14 was advanced by the Legislature, it would still need to be approved by voters in 2020, meaning that it wouldn’t have any direct impact on the budget lawmakers are piecing together this session. That means that Democratic lawmakers would have to vote for something that could look and feel to a lot of potential voters a lot like a tax increase — possibly jeopardizing their chances of holding onto seats in competitive districts and the party’s legislative control as the Legislature takes up redistricting next session — without an immediate budget boost.
“You look at the political aspects behind having your fingerprints on a tax increase, or a tax modification that could be spun as an increase, as you stare an election in the face, particularly a presidential one,” Leleu said. “I think that's definitely a factor.”
And then there’s the question of who would take up the fight at the ballot box, given that the proposal would likely require a significant education campaign to explain to voters why the measure wouldn’t immediately raise their property taxes and why it would still be worth supporting even if it does at some point in the future when they buy a house.
“I still think about Energy Choice, which was my big issue during the last election, and how much it took to convey that to the average voter. Now you’re talking about property taxes, which is very much in the weeds,” said Meredith Levine, director of economic policy at the Guinn Center. “Then you have to overcome a resistance to the idea that, wait a minute, this is my home, and now we’re going to have this possibility even though, your home is still okay, your depreciation factor, if you move to a new house, that’s where it would come into play.”
Those involved with the property tax conversations say if and when the issue does come to the ballot, there will likely need to be a coalition backing it, but one that doesn’t appear to exist at the moment.
“That's going to take a lot of education, and it's going to be the responsibility of a broad based coalition of all kinds of Nevada interests,” Ferraro said. “I do think as we talk more about it and how to do it and what role it plays in the New Nevada economy, there's a lot of smart people in this state and lots of smart people in this Legislature. We'll probably figure something out.”
What happens now
If there’s no movement on SJR14 this session — and a new SJR14 isn’t introduced and passed to get the ball rolling to put the proposal on the 2022 ballot — it will be at least until the 2024 election that voters could address the question of whether they believe the property tax depreciation factor should reset on sale.
“This sets us back five years when it comes to adequate funding of local government and education because our tax structure is so broken,” Kazmierski said. “The message to me is the Legislature does not necessarily believe the public is willing to support this.”
Even then, the Legislature may be in a far different spot by 2021 than it is now, with economists projecting a recession — or at least a period of slower economic growth — to hit sometime before the end of calendar year 2020. If the slowdown is severe enough, the Legislature could have to raise revenue just to meet its current level of spending, without taking into account big-ticket policy proposals, including the new education funding formula and collective bargaining agreements for state workers, that are slated to go into effect in the 2021-2023 biennium if approved by the Legislature this year.
“You could be looking at a tax increase just to mitigate drastic cuts to K-12 and Medicaid, not talking about adding more money to the budget,” Kieckhefer said. “If they're banking on this same landscape in ‘20 and ‘21, I think that is high risk.”
For now, there is an appetite for conversations on reset on sale to continue as part of a broader conversation on property taxes. The Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, for instance, is open to property tax reform so long as both commercial and residential properties are included in the discussion.
“We do understand the importance of equity in the tax structure,” said chamber lobbyist Paul Moradkhan, who added that the chamber is neutral on SJR14 at the moment. “Any reform efforts we believe would have to address both sides of the ratepayers in the property tax structure.”
NAIOP won’t go so far as to say that they support the concept of reset on sale — Leleu said that it’s too early to even decide that — but the association believes the policy discussion has to continue.
“If someone is willing to bring a bill that authorizes that change to the tax code, it's something we would happily look at along with that full bodied policy discussion,” Leleu said.
Then there’s the Nevada Realtors Association, which doesn’t support point-of-sale triggers but still believes in the overall property tax reform discussion.
“We have been active participants in all discussions concerning our property tax system, just as we’ve remained steadfast in our position that property taxes be fair and reasonable for Nevada homeowners,” Nevada Association of Realtors President Keith Lynam said in a statement.
The Nevada Taxpayers Association echoed those thoughts.
“It is something that needs to be fixed,” said Michael Pelham, the association’s lobbyist. “We certainly realize that, and want to work to find a solution.”
But no one believes that the conversation on property taxes ends this session.
“I think a lot of people know the jigsaw puzzle takes time, and this is a really colorful, important piece of the jigsaw puzzle,” Ferraro said. “But other pieces have to be in place first or simultaneous to it. I don't see it as a stop and a start. I see it as a continuation, and I see the issue elevating in importance in people's minds as we look at sound, fiscal policy for the state of Nevada.”