How NV Energy pushed Sisolak, other Nevada leaders to back union leader’s candidacy for federal energy regulator

In early June, a top lobbyist for NV Energy reached out to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office with a request.

The ask was straightforward: Would the governor be willing to send a letter in support of longtime International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers attorney Tom Dalzell, one of the finalists for a soon-to-open spot on the five-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission board?

The request had resonance beyond Nevada. President Joe Biden’s pending appointment to FERC — the top federal regulator of electric and natural gas transmission and sales — is hotly anticipated among many energy and environmental groups because it will break the current 3-2 Republican majority on the regulatory agency. (The nominee will replace Neil Chatterjee, a Trump appointee).

A report in Politico from last month indicated that Dalzell, along with two-time Washington state lawmaker Maria Duaime Robinson and Washington D.C. utilities regulator Willie Phillips, are on Biden’s shortlist for the position. The vacancy has drawn intense interest from environmental groups, as slim Democratic majorities in Congress likely mean that FERC may end up paying a “pivotal role” in implementing Biden’s climate change policies.

Union groups, including the AFL-CIO and IBEW, have rallied around Dalzell as their preferred pick — even as progressive groups and environmental advocacy groups have questioned his support for renewable policies and his ties to large electric companies including PG&E and NV Energy. Dalzell spent 15 years as business manager of IBEW 1245, which is based in California and represents about 600 NV Energy employees in Northern Nevada.

According to emails obtained through a public records request by The Nevada Independent, longtime NV Energy lobbyist Tony Sanchez emailed a top Sisolak advisor, Scott Gilles, on June 9 noting that Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen had sent letters in support of Dalzell to the White House in recent weeks and wondered if the governor “would consider doing the same.” 

Cortez Masto’s office confirmed that the senator had sent a letter in support of Dalzell to the White House; Rosen’s office did not return a request for comment. Sanchez also forwarded a similar letter of support from California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

After some back and forth, Gilles forwarded a letter of support from Sisolak to Sanchez — touting Dalzell as having “exceptional leadership, an innovative approach to making decisions about our energy future and a steadfast commitment to diversity and empowering the next generation.”

A spokeswoman for Sisolak did not return a request for comment on the letter. NV Energy spokeswoman Jennifer Schuricht said in an email on Friday that the company believes it would be a “natural fit” for the governor to support Dalzell, given his past support for Nevada’s de-carbonization goals and his “innovative and collaborative leadership” that has “transformed the union/company relationship at NV Energy and his contributions have improved workplace safety, business efficiencies and worker interests.”

“Given Tom’s contributions to help re-shape Nevada’s energy future and his strong support of Governor Sisolak’s vision for a clean energy economy, NV Energy believed it would be a natural fit for Governor Sisolak to provide a letter of support for Tom,” she said in an email on Friday. “NV Energy is proud to support Tom.”

Despite being based in California, Dalzell has ties in the Nevada political world. He was listed as a co-chair of the Coalition to Defeat Question 3, the political action committee largely funded by NV Energy that opposed a 2018 ballot question opening up the state’s electric market to retail choice. He was also pictured with Sisolak at a union-hosted event for candidates ahead of the 2018 election.

Several environmental groups — who take interest in FERC because the agency oversees natural gas pipeline permitting — have opposed Dalzell’s candidacy. The left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research criticized Dalzell’s connections with PG&E and efforts opposing municipalization efforts in San Francisco and West Sacramento. 

The group also highlighted his and IBEW’s opposition to a California bill that would have required a halt to fossil fuel use by 2017 — saying “We have a parochial self-interest in this” — and a 2017 op-ed Dalzell penned in the San Francisco Chronicle highlighting the importance of natural gas during periods of peak demand.

“Those trusted to make crucial decisions throughout the federal government must have proven independence from the corporate entities they are tasked with regulating,” the group wrote in a blog post.

Last week, a group of more than 460 environmental and energy justice groups issued a public letter to the Biden administration urgining the administration to appoint a FERC commissioner who is “concerned about FERC’s legacy of prioritizing projects over people, has the courage to apply an equity and justice lens to their work, and will be accountable to the people and communities that are disproportionately harmed by the energy industry.” It named three possible candidates; the list did not include Dalzell.

Dalzell stepped down from IBEW leadership in December 2020, ending a four-decade career as one of the union’s lead negotiators, representing the union in more than 300 arbitrations and leading all negotiations with PG&E since 2001. He lives in Berkeley, and has written at least three books on American slang.

Reporter Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.

Not all Nevada casino operators are on board with changes to ‘Right to Return’ legislation

A division has emerged among Nevada Resort Association members over revisions to legislation that would allow laid-off gaming and tourism workers to return to their jobs. One company vows to oppose the modified bill and even seek a veto from Gov. Steve Sisolak.

In an email sent Wednesday morning to the casino industry trade groups representatives, South Point Casino-Hotel attorney Barry Lieberman said many of the changes in SB386 – referred to as “Right to Return” legislation – were “particularly onerous for non-union smaller nonrestricted licensees.”

Lieberman, a long time Nevada gaming attorney and a close adviser to South Point owner Michael Gaughan, voiced concern over several sections of the revised legislation that was passed out of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Tuesday evening in a split vote. A deal on the bill was reportedly reached between gaming industry representatives and negotiators for Culinary Workers Union Local 226 with less than a week left before the end of the state's 120-day legislative session.

“We voted to oppose SB386 and seek a veto of the bill by the Governor if the bill passed the Senate and the Assembly,” Lieberman wrote.

Lawmakers voted along party lines, 12-9, in the Senate early Wednesday evening, less than 24 hours after the measure passed out of committee. The changes in the bill are apparently backed by some of the casino industry's largest companies, including MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts and Caesars Entertainment — Nevada Resort Association lobbyist Bob Ostrovsky told lawmakers on Tuesday that the association “officially on a majority position is neutral, and we will not support the bill and we will not work against the bill as an association, we are neutral.”

In an interview, Lieberman said the legislation treats “non-union resorts in the same manner” as properties with collective bargaining agreements. Representatives from other casino companies declined comment.

Lieberman termed several amendments to SB368 as “a confusing patchwork of vague, burdensome and non-helpful requirements.” He said the changes force employers “to guess at their peril as to what the bill actually requires them to do.”

He suggested the changes to the bill “impairs” an employer’s right to rehire casino workers who have “superior skills” as opposed to other laid-off workers.

Lieberman said the Nevada legislation’s passage will actually “discourage employers from hiring new employees.” Under the legislation, properties cannot hire a new employee for a position until all the provisions for full-time and part time employees “have been satisfied.”

Four sections in the legislation fail “to draw any distinctions between on-call, part time or full-time employees,” the attorney wrote in analyzing the 20-page document. The new language, Lieberman said, is “ambiguous” in describing the timelines for laid off workers and could be viewed as more favorable to part time employees as opposed to full-time employees.

The section requiring businesses to notify laid-off workers of layoffs “makes no sense.”

In the email, Lieberman said a decision was made by a majority of members of the Resort Association’s executive committee to remain neutral “in exchange for negotiating out of SB386 some of the more onerous provisions.” He said the decision was opposed by South Point.

The Culinary Union, which represents some 60,000 non-gaming workers in Nevada’s hotel-casino industry, has said just 50 percent of the workforce has been hired back since gaming reopened following a 78-day shutdown last year. Labor organization officials said SB386 is needed to ensure its members are able to return to their previous jobs.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rusty McAllister, in a statement, called the legislation a “common-sense measure that is urgently needed to create stability in Nevada’s workforce.”

As part of the agreement between the casinos and the union, revisions will be made to SB4, a bill from the 2020 special session last summer that includes government-imposed health and safety standards meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as expanded liability protections for major casino resorts. The amendment relaxes requirements on cleaning, such as cleaning minibars, headboards and decorative items on beds, and changes directives to clean throughout the day to instead call for cleaning daily.

Bill sponsor and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) credited the Culinary Union, Nevada Resort Association and the governor’s office for working together to arrive at a consensus on the high-profile legislation.

SB386 would allow workers in the gaming and travel sectors a right to return to their jobs. The bill covers those workers laid off after March 12, 2020 and who were employed for at least six months in the year prior to the governor’s first COVID-19 emergency declaration.

The legislation is similar to at least a half-dozen other bills backed by the labor organization in other states. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed legislation last month that requires hospitality and service industry employers to offer new positions to laid off workers. 

This story was updated on May 26 at 8:18 p.m. to reflect that the bill passed out of the Senate.

Lawmakers consider proposal to suspend business licenses over unpaid debt

Lawmakers frustrated with the state’s slow collection of unpaid debt want to start suspending business licenses of entities that owe money to the state.

The bill to do that, AB482, was heard in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday and would require the secretary of state’s office to not renew a business licenses if they are informed by the state controller’s office that the business in question has an outstanding debt owed to a state agency that is currently in collections with the controller’s office. 

It’s intended to capture fees and fines most commonly related to OSHA violations or worker’s compensation premiums, but would include any kind of debt to the state that’s been referred to the controller’s office.

“We don't want to necessarily put people out of business,” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton said during the hearing. “We just want them to fulfill their responsibility in paying their fines.”

But there was one small problem — the agency charged with enforcing provisions of the bill, the secretary of state’s office, said the bill had come as a “surprise” and the office still had outstanding questions about how the legislation would work.

Deputy Secretary of State for Commercial Recordings Kim Perondi told the committee that the office had liability concerns about potentially suspending a business license as opposed to placing a business on an administrative hold, or if it could lead to corporations being unable to operate because of a single individual’s debt owed to the state.

“While overall the secretary absolutely supports the concept of preventing debt write off and preventing those owing money to the state from continuing to profit from state contracts and such, we will be testifying in neutral on this bill because of the way it's drafted,” she said.

Perondi said the office would continue to work with supporters on the bill, who said it would add more teeth to existing state law on debt collection.

Rusty McAllister, head of the Nevada State AFL-CIO and appointed member of the state’s Industrial Relations Division advisory board, said the legislation came from a general frustration between the division and state Controller’s Office (which handles debt collection) over businesses opting to refuse to pay or decline to pay any fines or fees owed as workers’ compensation premiums and OSHA violations.

McAllister said the division currently has more than $20 million in uncollected fees and fines, and regularly shifts off accumulated debt as “uncollectible” even as businesses continue to operate in the state. He said most fines are within the $500 to $1,000 range, but some continue to accrue to the tens of thousands of dollars range.

“Every time that we're asked to write off this debt and send it to the Board of Examiners as a write-off, this is money that the state could use,” he said. “And at the same time, we're tired of seeing these businesses stay in business, doing business here in the state with no ramifications.

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.

Industry-heavy Patient Protection Commission could get significant membership overhaul

When Gov. Steve Sisolak proposed establishing a Patient Protection Commission to conduct a top-to-bottom review of Nevada’s health care system, he told industry representatives that his goal was compromise — and that those not working toward that goal could lose their seats at the table.

Under a bill Sisolak put forward and the Legislature approved in 2019, the commission was established as an industry-heavy body, with a few patient and general public representatives added in, that would come together to address pressing health care issues in the state — in the vein of an industry working group that had successfully compromised on surprise emergency room billing legislation earlier that year.

Today, the commission’s representatives include two doctors, two hospital CEOs, one union health trust representative, one private insurance representative, one drug company executive, a regional behavioral health coordinator and two patient advocates.

But, if Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) has her way this session, the commission may soon see a shakeup of that membership.

A bill sponsored by Carlton, AB348, would overhaul the commission’s membership to instead center primarily around patient advocates and those who work in the nonprofit health care space. 

Carlton, in presenting the bill to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday, lamented what she described as the commission’s “industry flavor,” suggesting it was at odds with the commission’s work, including with the Peterson-Milbank Program, which helps states set and implement health care cost growth targets.

“If we’re going to have real, honest, objective conversations, I believe the industry needs to step back and let other folks come forward and have those real conversations,” Carlton said. “This doesn’t say that the industry can’t participate, they just will not be voting members.”

In an email on Wednesday, Sisolak spokeswoman Meghin Delaney didn’t comment directly on the specifics of the legislation but said the governor supports “bringing more patient voices to the Commission and wants to ensure that all representatives of Nevada's health care community can participate in critical discussions about the future of care in our State.” 

“Governor Sisolak is grateful to the members of the Patient Protection Commission who have spent the past year-and-a-half engaged in transparent and comprehensive dialogue about how to bring affordable and quality health care to Nevada’s residents,” she said.

Delaney also said the governor is “proud” of the commission’s acceptance into the Peterson-Milbank program and that he “looks forward to working closely with the Commission as they implement health care cost growth targets.”

AB348 would specifically require that the commission be made up of:

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

The bill also would transfer the Patient Protection Commission from the governor’s office to the director’s office in the Department of Health and Human Services. It also would require the commission to adopt bylaws and commission members to disclose conflicts of interest and abstain from votes when conflicts arise.

The Health Services Coalition, the Nevada State AFL-CIO and the Culinary Health Fund testified in support of the legislation on Tuesday.

While several industry representatives testified in favor of adding extra voices to the commission, they rebuffed the complete overhaul of the commission's membership as proposed by the bill, which would limit — or in the case of the pharmaceutical industry, entirely eliminate — their representation on the commission.

“We have no concern about the expansion of the commission but would request that the committee consider reinstating at least one more hospital to provide some of the diversity of that perspective and the cost drivers that go with that,” Jim Wadhams, a lobbyist for the Nevada Hospital Association, said during the Tuesday hearing.

But state Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks), who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, was blunt in her assessment of the commission in its current form. During the hearing, Ratti said she has spent “significant” time working on the two bills that came out of the commission this session — a telehealth bill, SB5, and an all-payer claims database bill, SB40 — and that, in her view, the commission isn’t working.

Ratti praised the commission’s executive director, Sara Cholhagian, and said she believed there have been “good and sincere” efforts by the commission. But she also said she was “okay with trying something a little new.”

“I feel like I’ve been relatively engaged in this process, and I’ve tried to be a good, neutral player to continue to move things along,” Ratti said. “But I hope that, whether you have a seat on the board or not, that everybody stays engaged and we continue to try to figure out how to work together as people who care about advancing health care.”

Several members of the Patient Protection Commission, however, took issue with Ratti’s assessment of the commission during their Wednesday meeting, saying that it glossed over the hours of effort they put into building relationships with one another and trying to come to consensus.

“I am really disappointed, to say the least, about the opinion in the legislators’ minds that the commission is not working,” said Dr. Ikram Khan, the commission’s chair. “It may not be doing what the legislators, in their mind, thought should be happening, and there is always room for modifying the subjects to be addressed and brought to the commission.”

Members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted on Tuesday evening on party lines to forward the bill to the Senate for a final vote. The committee’s two Republican members, Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) and Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City), voiced support for more industry representation on the commission and voted against the legislation.

The proposal passed out of the Assembly last week, also on party lines.

Disclosure: This story and all others about the Patient Protection Commission are edited by Managing Editor Elizabeth Thompson and/or Assistant Editor Michelle Rindels. Sara Cholhagian, the commission’s executive director, is in a relationship with Editor Jon Ralston.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their efforts, so far, have worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legislation from the state’s climate plan 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gas utility’s legislative push

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framing a planning process as a ban 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One hearing, many revisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting the stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Right to Return' bill would guarantee laid-off hospitality employees the opportunity to return to their old jobs

After the pandemic brought thousands of layoffs to Nevada’s hospitality industry and devastated the state’s economy, lawmakers are considering a “Right to Return” bill that would give casino, hospitality, stadium and travel-related workers in Nevada the right to return to their former jobs.

The bill, SB386, garnered emotional support testimony Wednesday from laid-off workers looking to return to work and the backing of labor unions, while businesses, including some Las Vegas casinos, opposed the measure, arguing that it would result in inappropriate costs and litigation.

“I should not be replaced or abandoned. I have spent my life working for this company. I should not have to start my career over,” Mario Sandoval, a food worker and Culinary Union member of 39 years who lost his job amid the pandemic, said during a hearing for the bill. “I could have hope if I was guaranteed my job back, something that company has taken away from us.”

With events canceled, travel restrictions in effect and casinos shut down for several weeks during the pandemic, the hospitality industry was forced to scale back immensely over the past year. Data from the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation shows that from March to May last year, the state’s hospitality industry lost nearly 200,000 jobs.

Sandoval’s sentiment was echoed by other hospitality workers, including Cristina Lopez, who was laid off in May at her job at Station Casinos’ Texas Station after 10 years with the company.

“This crisis is not our fault. It took us all by surprise,” Lopez said. “I have applied at 15 different jobs, but I am told that I am overqualified to work at fast-food restaurants or that I don’t have enough experience for another job. The only hope I have is for my job to come back to the way it was.”

The bill applies to workers in the casino, hospitality, stadium and travel-related economic sectors who were laid off after March 12, 2020 and who were employed for at least six months in the year prior to the governor’s first COVID-19 emergency declaration.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) presented the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee bill, invoking her own parents, who were members of the Culinary Union.

“Growing up, I was the very proud daughter of a waitress and a bartender, both of whom are members of Culinary Union 226,” she said during the hearing. “Because I grew up in a family who relied on exactly the type of jobs that have been so hard hit by this pandemic, I can only imagine what these workers and their families have been through the past year.”

The bill would require employers to offer a laid-off employee each job that the employee is qualified for (e.g. someone who conducted cleaning work for a business could be eligible for other jobs associated with maintaining COVID-19 health and safety protocols). Employers also would be required to give employees who are not hired back an explanation of why they were not offered a job within 30 days of the decision.

During the bill presentation, Cannizzaro was joined by D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, a hospitality labor union with more than 300,000 members and the parent to the Las Vegas culinary union. Taylor argued that bringing back already-trained workers would benefit the recovering economy.

“This is good for the economy and businesses. This legislation provides for already-trained and experienced staff — a staff that was praised a year ago by the same companies,” Taylor said. “To get back to work immediately, there's no retraining necessary. They're ready day one.”

However, some senators expressed a concern that businesses would not be able to hire back all of their laid-off employees given the ongoing economic struggles related to the pandemic.

“The reopening is certainly uneven, and it's slow. And so my concern is, if an employer were to say, you know, they laid off 1,000 people… The employer is likely not to hire every employee that they laid off on the same day,” said Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson). “Now they're going to have to face a court to justify why they laid off a certain person.”

Opponents of the bill — including the Las Vegas Chamber, Henderson Chamber of Commerce, Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Airlines, Boyd Gaming Corporation and Caesars Entertainment — argued that one provision of the bill would invite unnecessary litigation, as the legislation would allow employees to bring a civil action against employers that fail to comply with the bill requirements.

“Why diminish the entrepreneurial spirit and fail to recognize what it has taken to weather through this pandemic?” Ann Silver, CEO for the Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, said during the hearing. “There are federal and state laws to protect against discrimination and unfair labor practices. And there was enough work for lawyers. Let's not create new legislation that begs for litigation and class action lawsuits.”

Paul More, a Las Vegas-based labor lawyer, explained that employers would be able to defend themselves from civil lawsuits, if there was a legitimate business reason for not being able to bring an employee back to work.

Opponents of the bill also pointed to benefits that already were offered to employees through the pandemic and noted ongoing efforts to bring workers back.

“During the height of the pandemic, we initially continued full pay for all team members including tip income for the greater portion of the time our properties were closed,” said Erin Midby, vice president of government affairs for Boyd Gaming. “Since the shutdown, Boyd Gaming has brought more than 6,000 team members back to work and are continually bringing more back.”

Many of the labor unions supporting the “Right to Return” measure, including the Culinary Union, AFL-CIO and United Food and Commercial Workers Union, called it a “common sense” solution and said it was time to bring people back to work.

“Let's pass this bill and let's give people back work,” Rusty McAllister, secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO, said during the hearing. “This is not a complex issue. Just hire the people back that were laid off through no fault of their own.”

Wednesday’s meeting marked the first hearing for the bill. The committee did not vote on the measure.

Election Preview: Democrats largely lead in funding for seats on the state’s most powerful board

Clark County Government Center

Nevada’s most powerful local government body has been faced with major challenges this year, including a budget slashed as a result of a pandemic-induced economic downturn and the pressure of helping to reopen the economy in the state’s most populous county.

Ten candidates are entering the final weeks of their campaigns for the Clark County Commission, campaigns begun months before COVID-19 was on their radar. Democrats are dramatically outpacing their challengers in funding for three of these spots while a fourth is host to a high-dollar contest between two high profile politicians.

Of the commission’s seven seats, four are being contested this cycle, including those of the commission’s chair, Marilyn Kirkpatrick, in District B and incumbent Michael Naft, who’s raised more than $1 million since his 2019 appointment to the board, in District A. 

Crowded Democratic primaries in Districts C and D have whittled the field to two high profile nominees. In District C, Democrat and former Secretary of State Ross Miller is taking on Las Vegas City Councilman Stavros Anthony, a Republican challenger in a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, but neither party holds a majority.

District D sees Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy II take on three nonpartisan opponents, with former Las Vegas fire chief David Washington putting up the strongest fight. McCurdy has been heavily endorsed and financially backed by commission members in the only up-for-grabs district with a Democratic majority of registered voters.

Commission members earn $86,000 per year, far more for their positions than state legislators make for their part time work, and whoever wins a seat on this board will oversee three quarters of the state’s population and one of its most famous and lucrative assets — the Las Vegas Strip.

District C

District C, which incorporates the northwest portion of the Las Vegas Valley, is host to a high-spending faceoff between Republican Las Vegas City Councilman Stavros Anthony and the former secretary of state, Democrat Ross Miller.

Democrats make up 38 percent of registered voters in District C while Republicans make up 32 percent and nonpartisans account for 23. Democrat Larry Brown, who currently holds the seat, has reached his term limit after serving on the board since 2009. 

Anthony, who was recently appointed mayor pro tem for the City of Las Vegas, is fighting to overcome Democrat’s slight registration lead and take the seat back for his party. The city councilman ran unopposed in June’s primary election while Miller won a six-Democrat race for the nomination with 38 percent of the vote.

Miller has been critical of his Republican opponent, condemning him on Twitter for statements Anthony made about holding “violent rioters” in Jean prison following Black Lives Matter protests in June and referring to the councilman as a “Trump crony.”

“I think there’s two issues that, in my mind, people care about,” Miller said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “One is how to put the economy back on track and the other is making sure we keep people safe, both in terms of public health and also public safety. In both of those areas, I’ve got a lot of experience.”

Clark County Commission candidate Ross Miller.

When asked about his experience with economic issues and how he’d handle budget shortages in the county, Miller, the son of former Gov. Bob Miller, referenced his time serving on the Board of Economic Development under former Gov. Brian Sandoval as well as his two-term tenure as secretary of state during the last economic recession.

“My agency implemented deeper cuts than perhaps any other… and there weren’t easy answers,” he said. “We had to cut in all areas. I would imagine that the county process will be very similar.”

One department he believes should be prioritized when it comes to funding, Miller says, is the Las Vegas Metro Police Department. The Clark County Commission along with the Las Vegas City Council determines the budget of the LVMPD, and the county contributes 64 percent of its funding.

Miller shares this viewpoint with his opponent. Anthony, a retired police captain who worked with Metro for 29 years.

Clark County Commission candidate Stavros Anthony.

“My priority is to make sure that Metro is funded appropriately,” Anthony said. “That we have the best paid and the best equipped and the best trained police officers in the country and that we have code enforcement officers that are out there making sure that we have great neighborhoods.”

Although both candidates say public safety funding is vital to helping District C recover from the economic devastation of COVID-19, they have different priorities when it comes to helping the region become more economically resilient moving forward.

Anthony said that his priority, first and foremost, is opening businesses and getting people back to work. He intends to focus on reducing regulations, taxes, and licensing fees in order to help current businesses grow and encourage new businesses to open.

“Once people get back to work then they can start taking care of their families and they can start paying their tax bills,” he said, going on to emphasize that government mandates “have to start opening up” to allow people to get back to work. At the moment in the county, restaurants, stores, and event venues still have capacity limits in place to ensure social distancing.

“I think if businesses want their customers to wear a mask in their business, customers are going to want to wear a mask,” Anthony said.

Miller indicated that his approach may be more cautious, deferring to state guidance that he believes will ensure businesses “reopen safely,” while still acknowledging the need to reopen the economy for workers.

“I think it’s critical both to expand as safely as possible and try to reopen our economy,” he said.

According to Miller, the county needs to set its sights on long-term solutions that will ensure economic diversity and prevent losses in gaming from devastating the region.

“We can potentially move much more aggressively towards the development of many other target sectors,” Miller said. “Beyond gaming, where we’ve suffered so many layoffs.”

Both candidates have reported large contributions and high spending in the second quarter of the year. Anthony’s spending began even earlier: the candidate reported more than $200,000 in spending heading into the primary — even though he was running unopposed.

In the second quarter, Anthony reported $45,700 in contributions including major donations from NV Energy, developer Touchstone Living, which regularly presents development projects to the planning commission, and philanthropist Kris Engelstad McGarry, trustee of the Engelstad Family Foundation. He spent more than $63,000 on consulting and advertising in the same quarter and reported a cash on hand balance of nearly $212,000.

Miller has also seen large donations from developers, including $5,000 from Brass Cap Development, which recently began construction on a new industrial space located near Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, a project approved by the commission. Both candidates also received $5,000 donations from South Point. Miller received financial support from the Southern Nevada Building Trades Union’s PAC. The union also endorsed Miller in the race.

Additionally, Miller received a $5,000 donation from the campaign of the commission’s District F incumbent, Justin Jones.

Miller’s campaign reported $89,741 in spending, more than $74,000 of which went to Consili, Inc., a Democratic campaign management agency based in Las Vegas and run by political consultant Jim Ferrence. At the end of quarter two, Miller’s cash on hand balance was $3,640.

District D

In the heavily Democratic District D, which includes portions of North Las Vegas as well as downtown Las Vegas’ Fremont Street, Assemblyman and Nevada Democratic Party Chairman William McCurdy II is hoping to transition from Legislature to the County Commission. 

He faces three nonpartisan challengers on his quest, including a former Las Vegas fire chief with a history of community involvement, David Washington. Henry Thorns and Stanley Washington are also campaigning for the seat without a party affiliation.

McCurdy, who has represented District 6 in the Nevada Assembly since 2017, says that he sees “untapped potential” in Clark County’s District D.

Clark County Commission candidate William McCurdy II.

“I’m passionate about my district. I’ve been here my entire life as well in residence, and my family, it’s where my family has been since the early 40s,” McCurdy said. “I believe that we haven’t achieved our truest potential in terms of economic development or economic investment, and I believe that we can do a better job in terms of the social infrastructure.”

McCurdy pointed to long-term economic development focused on highlighting the district’s culture and ethnic diversity, expanding workforce development in order to help the area’s homeless population on their path to self-sufficiency, and improving resources for seniors in the region as some of his major goals if he’s elected.

While the pandemic has not changed those goals for him, he says it has changed his timeline, as his short-term focus is on providing his constituents with resources to help with the health and economic impacts of the virus. He says that his experience in the Legislature during the first several months of this crisis will position him perfectly to do this.

“My legislative experience will help me to be able to perform and be ready to go, day one,” he said. “COVID has greatly altered the way that I would have been going in, but having an ability to deal with that at a legislative level, work really closely with lawmakers who are helping us get the resources that we need from the federal level, will perfectly position me to be the greatest advocate that I can.”

McCurdy reported more than $88,000 in contributions in the second quarter of the year, including a $10,000 donation from the campaign of District A incumbent Naft.

Naft isn’t the only commission incumbent to show financial support for the assemblyman, who also received a $5,000 donation from District F incumbent Jones. McCurdy also received a $10,000 donation from the Southern Nevada Stronger PAC, which lists Jones as its main contact. The campaign also reported donations in the second quarter from Eva Segerblom and Carl Segerblom, two children of District E incumbent Tick Segerblom.

McCurdy’s campaign has spent $80,714 during this same period on office expenses, consulting and advertising fees, and special event costs. More than $10,000 in expenses were reported by the campaign for Consili, Inc., the same agency utilized by both Miller and Naft.

While Thorns and Stanley Washington have reported no contributions, spending, or cash on hand in either of the year’s first two quarters, David Washington has had a more financially active campaign.

Washington reported $6,915 in donations to the campaign last quarter and spent $6,751 in the same period. The majority of his spending went towards advertising expenses and a special event held in June at Chili’s Grill and Bar in Las Vegas. The candidate’s campaign reported a cash on hand balance of $11,841 at the end of June.

Clark County Commission candidate David Washington.

David Washington is a member of the Clark County Economic Opportunity Board, which administers Economic Opportunity Act funding to create programs and provide resources with the goal of helping low-income families achieve self-sufficiency. In an email to The Nevada Independent, David Washington said he is running for the position because of his experience in public safety as a fire chief.

“I have 29 years experience in a leadership role where I was responsible for budgets and staff supervision. Eight years, I served at the senior staff level. My last six years, I served as fire chief for the City of Las Vegas with a $100 million dollar budget,” Washington said. 

He also cited his time on the Governor’s Commission on Homeland Security. The fire chief of each county in the state with a population above 100,000 has a seat on the commission, and Washington fulfilled that role during his time with the department.

If elected to the commission, Washington says, he would attempt to help the county recover economically by continuing policies such as the county’s decision to suspend labor contracts in April, a decision that Washington praised. When asked about his budget priorities, he referred to public safety as a “big expense to any government agency” but said he would need to review all department’s budgets before deciding what to preserve and what to cut.

While McCurdy said he didn’t feel comfortable citing specific budget priorities, his views on how to better position the county to be more resilient in the future focus less on economics and more on social services. The candidate referenced better equipping food distribution sites as well as expanding programs to help those in danger of and struggling with homelessness as essential to creating a more resilient region.

“There were some people who were already one paycheck shy of losing it all,” the Democratic candidate said. “So, what kind of services can we provide him and what kind of emergency funds do we have put up that we can work with our community stakeholders and partners to capture those folks before they lose their home?”

The District D seat is held by the commission’s vice chairman, Lawrence Weekly, who has reached his term limit this year. It is the only district with a contested seat this cycle with a Democratic majority, with Democrats making up 50 percent of active registered voters while nonpartisans come in second with 25 percent and Republicans trail at 13 percent.

Neither Henry Thorns nor Stanley Washington responded to attempts to reach them for interviews for this story.

District A

In District A in the south of the county, incumbent Michael Naft is defending his seat against Republican challenger Michael Thomas, spending more than any other candidate for the board in an effort to preserve what he calls his role as his “neighbor’s representative.”

“I believe it is my responsibility to help make Clark County more accessible and user-friendly, and have been devoted to providing the services people need,” Naft said in an email to The Nevada Independent.

Clark County Commission candidate Michael Naft.

Naft, who was appointed to his seat in 2019 by Gov. Steve Sisolak, faced one opponent in the Democratic primary whom he defeated, garnering 74 percent of the vote. Democrats make up 39 percent of active registered voters in his district while Republicans make up 31 percent and nonpartisans account for 25 percent.

Naft has been spending heavily throughout his campaign, reporting more than $343,000 in expenses since January, including more than $194,000 in quarter two alone. His spending has been on a variety of things such as events at local businesses, consulting fees with multiple campaign strategy agencies both local and national, and contributions to other Democratic campaigns, including District D candidate William McCurdy.

Naft also saw many large donations during the second quarter, reporting $107,000 in contributions, the most of any commission candidate. He’s received major donations from NV Energy, the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Henderson Chamber of Commerce and the Nevada Service Employees Union.

The incumbent has also been endorsed by the Culinary Union, the Las Vegas Police Protective Association and the Nevada Conservation League, among others. His reported cash on hand balance is $754,279.

Naft says that serving on the commission during the COVID-19 pandemic has changed “everything” about his priorities for the county.

“I have responded to this health crisis with a two-pronged approach … We have focused on managing health and wellness as a means to mitigate the economic impact,” he said. “I have advocated for utilizing a portion of our federal allocation of CARES Act dollars to help our local small business community.  By awarding grants to local businesses we have been able to support the people they employ and the businesses they work with.”

Naft’s opponent, Michael Thomas, a retired police officer, has reported no contributions, spending, or cash on hand in either quarter this year. Thomas ran for the District A seat against then-incumbent Sisolak in 2016 as well, receiving 43 percent of the vote.

Thomas did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

District B

Democratic Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick is running a re-election campaign in northern Clark County’s District B against two opponents, Independent Warren Markowitz and Republican Kevin Williams.

Kirkpatrick has served on the commission since 2015 and was voted in as chair in 2019. Although the short-term needs of the county have changed in the past several months, Kirkpatrick says the pandemic has not changed her long-term priorities for the region.

Clark County Commission candidate Marilyn Kirkpatrick.

“We have to continue to move forward … There [are] some things that I might have to push aside for a little bit,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that it has impacted our priorities. More so, probably, highlighted the need for the priority.”

Kirkpatrick was the only candidate for the seat to report contributions and spending during the first two quarters of the year. She has held the seat since 2015 and previously served as a Nevada assemblywoman. She has received major endorsements from Nevada state AFL-CIO, the Culinary Union, and the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, among others.

The chair listed public safety and the police department as one of her top two priorities when it comes to funding in the county. Her second major priority, she says, is social services, including programs addressing homelessness and truancy that she has spearheaded during her time on the board. The county provides social services throughout the region, for every city in the county in addition to unincorporated areas.

“We also have a huge responsibility to ensure social services needs are met,” she said. “And we are really the safety net for many, many constituents out there, regardless of what entity they live in.”

During quarter two, Kirkpatrick reported $31,850 in contributions including a $1,500 donation from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. 

The candidate also received $30,000 in the first two quarters from six companies that are all registered with the same Republic Services address in Las Vegas. The waste management company has a franchise agreement with the county and with the City of Las Vegas and operates the region’s landfill.

Kirkpatrick said that she does not think any companies have “tried” to give over the contribution limit and that the Republic Services contract with the county was in place “long before” she started on the commission. The company’s current agreement with the county was put in place in 1999 and extends through 2035.

“I don’t look at my campaign contributions, and, in that respect, it doesn’t get anybody any more than my constituents,” she said.

The chair has spent more than $78,000 this quarter on a variety of expenses related to special events, office supplies and consulting. She reported nearly $16,000 in expenses paid to Accretive Consulting, a firm based in Las Vegas and owned by Kami Dempsey-Goudie. Her cash on hand balance at the end of June was $289,520.

Similar to District A, Democrats make up a plurality but not a majority of voters in District B. Active registered voters in the region are 40 percent Democrat, 31 percent Republican and 23 percent nonpartisan. Additionally, 4 percent of voters in the district are registered with the Independent American Party.

Markowitz, a member of the Independent American Party, is a Las Vegas attorney and founder of the Markowitz Law Firm. The candidate says that he’s running to “return the county and it’s government back to the electorate without playing favorites.”

Clark County Commission candidate Warren Ross Markowitz.

One of the candidate’s major priorities is reopening the county, both by allowing businesses to resume operations at full capacity and opening schools in the Clark County School District, which are currently employing an online learning model.

“I would advance the concept of reversing the quarantine of the healthy, to that of the sick by moving to open businesses to their full capacity, removing feel good ideas that have little or no benefit, and getting schools back open,” he said in an email to The Nevada Independent.

The commission has oversight of business operations and can set stricter standards than the state but has to abide by minimum statewide standards that set capacity limits. The board also does not make decisions about school policies in the region; those decisions are made by the board of trustees.

Markowitz has run for a variety of seats in the past, including unsuccessful campaigns for state Senate, state controller, Clark County School Board trustee and the District B seat on the commission in 2012.

Republican candidate Williams, the facility director for Boyd Gaming, also ran for the seat against Kirkpatrick in 2016, receiving 42 percent of the vote. While he didn’t report any contributions or spending during the first two quarters of the year, his quarter three report shows $250 in contributions and $34 in expenses, leaving the candidate with a cash on hand balance of $148 at the end of September.

Williams did not respond to requests for interviews for this story.

This story was updated on October 14, 2020, at 12:05 p.m. to include comments from District B candidate Warren Ross Markowitz.

Election Preview: During critical time in education, four Clark County trustee seats up for grabs

The stakes were already high for the Clark County School District, which despite pockets of excellence, has for years battled crowded classrooms, less-than-ideal funding and lackluster student achievement. 

Add a pandemic to the mix, and the list of difficulties facing the nation’s fifth-largest school district just expanded. 

That’s why several down-ballot races this year should arguably receive more than the cursory passing glance: Four seats are up for grabs on the Clark County School Board of Trustees, and with only one incumbent running, the seven-member governmental body will gain at least three new faces come January. The revamped board will be guiding the district through an uncertain time, as the pandemic’s academic and economic aftershocks come into sharper focus.

Three longtime school board members — Deanna Wright (District A), Chris Garvey (District B) and Linda Young (District C) — are termed out at the end of this year. Board President Lola Brooks, meanwhile, is running for re-election in District E against Alexis Salt, a teacher at Indian Springs Middle and High School. 

These are the matchups in the other races:

Before we dive deeper into those contests, let’s step back to the basics. For starters, what does the school board actually do?

On the surface, the role of a school trustee may appear rather dismal: The nonpartisan elected office comes with long meetings, meager pay ($9,000) and occasional torrents of public rage. But there is an upside: Trustees in theory have a chance to make a difference in the lives of roughly 310,000 children across Southern Nevada. 

The Clark County School Board operates under this vision statement: “All students progress in school and graduate prepared to succeed and contribute in a diverse global society.”  In practice, that means the trustees provide policy oversight and give direction to Superintendent Jesus Jara. For instance, the board voted on school reopening decisions earlier this year and also gave Jara his first evaluation.

But personality conflicts among trustees and division over Jara’s leadership have defined the board in recent months. In July, three trustees requested a special meeting to discuss the superintendent’s actions and employment. But the meeting ended before it really even got off the ground.

It’s difficult to say whether those events or pandemic-related education concerns are driving more interest in the trustee races. By natural association with the general election, the contests will likely see higher voter participation rates. During the June primary election — which whittled the field to the current eight candidates — the school board races drew, on the low end, 26,505 votes in District C to, on the high end, 52,229 votes in District A. 

Map of District A for the Clark County School Board of Trustees.

District A

Two education unions that have long been at odds with each other have backed different candidates in this race to represent the Henderson-area district.

The Clark County Education Association has endorsed Liberty Leavitt, a former teacher and administrator with the school district who now works at a nonprofit serving underprivileged children. She’s also the wife of former GOP state Sen. Michael Roberson.

Liberty Leavitt

The Nevada State Education Association and its smaller local affiliate, meanwhile, have thrown their support behind Lisa Guzman, executive director of the Education Support Employees Association.

But both women say they entered the race on their own accord, buoyed by the chance to make an imprint on the K-12 education system.

For Guzman, the decision came at the very beginning of the pandemic when she grew dissatisfied with what she viewed as the district’s lack of planning for any disaster situation. “I just felt horrible because I wish I could have helped,” she said.

Lisa Guzman

For Leavitt, the decision was a combination of growing up in the district, watching the reorganization play out behind the scenes as a central office administrator and then becoming a mother this year. “I have the experience as a teacher and administrator, as somebody who knows the state Legislature and knows the business community and works closely with the business community,” she said. “And now I’m a mom ... Between all of those relationships, I really want to best serve our kids.”

The dynamics of the existing school board and fellow trustee races haven’t gone unnoticed, though.

“I think we’ve seen a lot of partisan politics. I think we’ve seen a lot of political agendas and personal agendas,” Leavitt said. “And I just think that needs to end, quite frankly. That’s a detriment to our students.”

Guzman said her union experience doing interest-based bargaining — a strategy that involves bringing multiple options to the table to solve disputes — would aid her well on the school board.

“If I walk in and I don’t bring my ego to the table, and I just bring options, and I see how they evaluate those options, then I think it will make it so that folks realize that I’m really, truly looking out for the kid,” Guzman said.

In the June primary, Guzman scooped up 26 percent of the votes, while Leavitt captured 19 percent. But Leavitt has a fundraising advantage, with $65,270 banked through the second quarter of this year, according to campaign finance records. Guzman has raised $15,405 during that same period.

Whoever wins the contest will be coming aboard at a critical juncture in the district’s history. 

Leavitt said the district needs to take an honest look at itself and figure out why students are leaving for other options in the community, such as charter or private schools. The district’s enrollment is down roughly 3 percent this year. As a former magnet coordinator at Advanced Technologies Academy, Leavitt said she saw firsthand the demand for entry into that school.

“We know those work,” she said, referring to magnet schools. “So we’ve continued to improve them, but let’s do more. What does it take in our local elementary schools? Why are parents sending their kids to Pinecrest?”

Guzman, on the other hand, said the district needs to do a better job sharing its narrative with the Legislature, especially when it comes to the inequities regarding student achievement. She said state lawmakers should be keenly aware of how budget cuts magnify those inequities. But Guzman also said she believes strengthening community involvement is another path toward eliminating some of the achievement barriers.

“Once the community gets involved with a school, then the inequities are lessened because there are supports in place,” she said.

Leavitt has picked up endorsements from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Vegas Chamber and Clark County Black Caucus, among others. The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada Action Fund, Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and the Nevada State AFL-CIO and the Education Support Employees Association are among the organizations backing Guzman.

The Las Vegas Sun endorsed both Leavitt and Guzman.

Trustee Deanna Wright currently represents District A, which covers a large swath of Henderson as well as Laughlin and Searchlight.

Map of District B for the Clark County School Board of Trustees.

District B

The race for the District B seat has arguably been the most partisan battle, despite the position being a nonpartisan office. A self-described conservative is facing off against a moderate Democrat to represent this district, which covers a large portion of the upper valley, including parts of North Las Vegas.

On her campaign website, Katie Williams describes herself as a mother, veteran and former small business owner who is “fighting to bring a new, conservative voice to the Clark County School Board.” Her opponent, Jeff Proffitt, is a native Las Vegan and business manager of the Sheet Metal Workers Local 88 whose campaign site says he is running for school board because he believes “our kids should come first.”

Jeff Proffitt

In a crowded primary race, Williams secured 24 percent of votes, and Proffitt snagged 19 percent. Whoever wins the general election will replace Trustee Chris Garvey.

Williams said she jumped into the race because she sees too many young mothers or voters complain about local government without doing anything about it. She has a preschool-age daughter.

“I don't ever feel like I can complain about something if I'm not actively trying to help change or fix it,” she said.

Katie Williams

Even so, Williams has come under scrutiny for her outspoken nature on social media. Last year, she made headlines after saying she was stripped of her Ms. Nevada title for espousing her conservative viewpoints online. 

With 12,000 followers on Twitter, Williams has cultivated a social media presence with posts that support President Donald Trump, decry socialism, back school choice and tout her pro-life views. For instance, on Oct. 5, she tweeted: “I’ll wear a mask when you decide it’s not ok to kill babies. Being Pro Life means protecting the most at risk. That’s the 1 million babies per year this country kills, not the adults walking around scared of their own shadow.”

Williams makes no apologies for her partisan posts but says education is a nonpartisan issue because “our students don't care if you're Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal.” She said they just want their needs met.

“Yes, I am outspoken. I’m outwardly supportive of the president. I’m outwardly supportive of certain Senate members and congressional members,” Williams said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I can’t always put those thoughts and views set aside for those moments in time because again, like I said, when I'm looking at the kids, that’s my mission. That’s my goal. I don't really care if their parents are Democrats or Republicans. I want their parents to be involved.”

Her opponent, Proffitt, describes himself as a moderate Democrat but has largely shied away from partisan politics, at least in the social media universe. Proffitt said he has friends on both sides of the political aisle and believes bipartisanship is the path toward accomplishing education improvements.

“They both want to fund education. They just want to do it a different way,” he said, referring to Democrats and Republicans. “But I think if they would just stop the party politics, they would probably realize that they're probably pretty close to each other 80 percent of the time.”

From a platform standpoint, both candidates have articulated some clear missions if they were to be elected. Williams has said she would donate her trustee salary, call for a forensic audit of the school district, push for schools to fully reopen, advocate for school choice and work toward eliminating union influence.

“I think that it's very important for the schools to rebuild trust with the parents because I think that they've lost that over the last couple months,” Williams said.

Proffitt also wants schools to reopen, starting first with students who have special education needs and followed by clear transition plans for elementary, middle and high schools.

“It’s time to start putting plans in place,” he said. “The numbers are looking good.”

Additionally, Proffitt — whose two youngest children attend the school district in Moapa, where his family lives — said he wants to see the school system expand its career and technical education opportunities, hire more educators with diverse backgrounds and take a more critical look at why students are leaving for charter or private schools.

“There's a lot of issues that CCSD just doesn't want to be flexible about that other school districts, charter schools, and these microschools, they don't have a problem thinking this way,” he said.

Some of the organizations that have endorsed Proffitt include Power 2 Parent, the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, the Las Vegas Sun, the Clark County Education Association, the Nevada State Education Association and the Education Support Employees Association. The Public Safety Alliance of Nevada, the Law Enforcement Loyalty PAC, the Las Vegas-Review Journal and Mesquite City Councilwoman Annie Black support Williams.

As for campaign cash, Williams reported raising $3,406 through the first half of the year, while Proffitt banked $38,471 during that period.

Map of District C for the Clark County School Board of Trustees.

District C 

The race for the District C trustee seat features two women — Tameka Henry and Evelyn Garcia Morales — who have some distinct similarities.

They both grew up in the neighborhood they hope to serve. They both have been immersed in various education and child wellness initiatives. And they’re both deeply concerned about achievement gaps that exist among students attending school in District C, which covers parts of West Las Vegas and North Las Vegas.

Tameka Henry

Henry has been a longtime advocate for Head Start, a federal program focused on school readiness for children from low-income families. She is director of mentorship for TULIPS, a nonprofit mentorship program for young female leaders, and a program instructor for After-School All-Stars, an enrichment program for K-12 students.

Garcia Morales, meanwhile, spent 11 years in Washington, D.C., managing leadership programs for Latino students across the country. Now, she’s executive director of the Fulfillment Fund Las Vegas, a nonprofit focused on college attainment for low-income students.

Evelyn Garcia Morales

Henry and Garcia Morales are seeking the school board seat held by Trustee Linda Young. The pair finished neck and neck in the June primary, where Henry emerged with 21 percent of the votes and Garcia Morales captured 20 percent.

For Henry, the decision to run was rooted in wanting to give families more of a voice in improving education opportunities for their children. 

“We deserve access to high-quality education as well,” she said. “And so I just want to do my part as a trustee to ensure that I continue to uplift the voices of the families and communities.”

Of Henry’s four children, two remain in the K-12 education system. One daughter attends the Clark County School District, and another daughter goes to Nevada State High School, which is a charter for juniors and seniors. Henry said her daughter made the switch to a charter because she wanted more college courses and smaller class sizes.

Her daughter’s move to a charter school — which she acknowledged isn’t possible for all families because of transportation hurdles — has reinforced her desire to improve neighborhood schools within the district.

“I know that we can strengthen our public schools and we need to address classroom sizes,” Henry said. “The only way we're going to be able to do that is to get the additional funding as needed.”

Garcia Morales, who has a son in the Clark County School District, said she worries about the low academic proficiency rates for students and how that will affect them in the long run. For instance, it may hamper their higher education dreams if they’re saddled with remedial coursework after high school, she said.

As a trustee, Garcia Morales said she would commit herself to working with colleagues and families to “advance the work in equity so that our community is in less pain.”

As the race hurtles toward the general election, Garcia Morales has a fundraising advantage with $29,437 socked away during the first half of the year. Henry, meanwhile, raised $19,640 during that same period.

Several elected leaders, including state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, Assemblywoman Selena Torres and State Board of Education Member Felicia Ortiz, have endorsed Garcia Morales, along with the Las Vegas Sun. Assemblywoman Kasina Douglass-Boone has thrown her support behind Henry as well as organizations such as the Clark County Black Caucus, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Clark County Education Association.

Map of District E for the Clark County School Board of Trustees.

District E

Do voters in this largely suburban district want continuity or representation from an educator?

That’s the major question in this race, which features the only incumbent, Clark County School Board President Lola Brooks, who is being challenged by Alexis Salt, a school district teacher. 

Brooks, a data analyst at a charter school serving at-risk students, says she considered walking away after one term. But she didn’t think it would be wise for the school board to have four new members navigating a learning curve amid the pandemic. 

Lola Brooks

“Honestly, I just think the stakes are too high to not do it,” she said. “I think that even without a pandemic, it's very hard to have four brand new board members.”

Her opponent disagrees. Salt said she started attending school board meetings years ago for informational purposes. She began speaking up during board meetings more than a year ago when Superintendent Jesus Jara proposed eliminating the dean positions. 

“As time went on, it became increasingly obvious that they did know how their decisions were impacting the classroom,” Salt said, referring to trustees. “And it just either wasn't a priority, or it wasn't something that they were overly concerned with.”

Alexis Salt

Her decision to run for school board stemmed from that realization as well as encouragement from some fellow educators. If she wins the election, she will resign from her teaching job.

 “Ultimately, I can impact a lot more students sitting on that dais than I can in my classroom,” she said. 

Salt’s campaign, however, has gotten a boost from an existing board member — Trustee Danielle Ford, who has at times publicly clashed with Brooks. Rising Phoenix LLC, a company owned by Ford, contributed $10,000 worth of in-kind donations — described as “website and marketing” — for Salt, according to campaign finance records.

Brooks declined to address that dynamic — a fellow trustee helping her opponent — other than to say it’s not something she would do; however, she did express concern about some candidates vying for a position on the board.

“I do think that there are some people running that I feel would create more division and more attention on that board than already exists and would really, really would not allow the board to focus on their true mission of serving students and their families,” she said.

Salt defended the in-kind contribution she received from Ford, saying they are friends and wanted to report it so as to be fully transparent.

Both candidates have filed their campaign finance reports through the third quarter of this year, and those reports show Salt has a significant fundraising advantage. Salt reported raising $30,492, while Brooks tucked away $13,184.

Brooks maintained a slight edge in the June primary, garnering 22 percent of the votes cast in District E. Salt earned 18 percent of the votes. 

Heading into the general election, Salt said she wants potential voters to know that she intends to improve communication by serving as a “bridge between the bureaucracy that is the school district and the community.”

She’s also sounding the alarm about the district needing a solid mental health plan in place before students and staff return to in-person instruction.

 “Just one traumatized kid can throw a classroom off for an entire year, and we're looking at a lot of traumatized kids coming back to school,” Salt said. “And so I think, if nothing else, people need to really be pressuring the school district and their local schools to make sure that we have a strong plan to meet that when we come back, because our community is really hurting right now.”

Brooks said the board and district need to clearly communicate the reopening plan, spelling out the metrics used to make the decision as well as the timeline and process for bringing students back to the classroom. The reopening decision over the summer contributed to three other trustees — Linda Cavazos, Danielle Ford and Linda Young — calling for the special board meeting to discuss Jara’s performance. Brooks was among the trustees who voted to swiftly end the special meeting before a discussion about the superintendent’s employment.

Brooks defended herself against any insinuations that she has been too soft on Jara, saying that instead she’s trying to fulfill her role as board chair.

“I’m also trying to keep board members within the boundaries of their role, and these are things that you really don’t get to see other board members do because they’re not chairing a meeting,” she said.

The Clark County Education Association, the Vegas Chamber and the Latin Chamber of Commerce, Las Vegas Sun and the Las Vegas Review-Journal are among the organizations that have endorsed Brooks. Salt, meanwhile, counts the Nevada Education Association of Southern Nevada, the Education Support Employees Association and the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 among her supporters.

Election Preview: Two spots are still up for grabs on the state Board of Education

Two candidates won their seats on the state’s education board outright in June, but narrow primary battles mean four others are still fighting for two spots, including one incumbent who is concerned that parent frustrations about distance learning may hurt his chances of retaining a seat he has held since 2013.

The seats the candidates are seeking are on the Nevada State Board of Education, a body many of them have indicated has been historically “overlooked,” but that has gained a new level of importance this fall as it helped oversee the reopening of Nevada’s schools in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board works in conjunction with the Department of Education, helping to adopt administrative regulations and set statewide standards for study that school districts must adhere to. The board also helps to allocate funding based on legislative policies and operates a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion workgroup.

The board has a total of 11 seats —  seven appointed and four elected, with the four elected seats representing each of Nevada’s congressional districts. All four nonpartisan elected seats are up for grabs every four years.

During June’s primary, two candidates won their districts outright by getting more than 50 percent of the vote. Katie Coombs ran unopposed for Northern Nevada’s District 2 seat earlier this year, and in Southern Nevada’s District 3, incumbent Felicia Ortiz received 63 percent of the vote, enough to secure the seat without competing in the general election.

Districts 1 and 4, however, are still undetermined. In District 1, five candidates competed in the primary with Tim Hughes, the vice president of The New Teacher Project (TNTP), a teacher training program, and charter school teacher Angelo Casino coming out on top. District 4 will see incumbent Mark Newburn take on Rene Cantu, who narrowly won the primary by only 0.5 percentage points in June.

District 1

In Nevada’s geographically smallest district, encompassing the heart of the Las Vegas Valley, the battle is between a former teacher and administrator who’s now focused on training, and a current teacher who believes his in-the-classroom experience will give him the edge.

Incumbent Robert Blakely did not seek re-election this year, and Hughes and Casino are hoping to fill the open seat. With 38 percent of the vote, Hughes received the most support during the primary. Casino received 24 percent.

Hughes, who ran for the seat in 2016 as well, has focused his campaign on ensuring an “equitable outcome” for students, no matter their district or demographic background. The former teacher and principal works for a nonprofit focused on teacher training.

“I intend to utilize all that I have learned, along with my commitment to our community, to advocate for the policies and practices that will lead to greater student success,” he said.

Hughes says the pandemic has not changed his priorities when it comes to Nevada’s education and the welfare of students but, rather, problems he already intended to address have been “exacerbated” by it.

The candidate, who has been endorsed by the Culinary Union, AFL-CIO and the Clark County Education Association, reported more than $19,000 in contributions during the second quarter of 2020, with donations from the campaigns of multiple Nevada political figures including Las Vegas City Councilman Brian Knudsen and Democratic state Sen. Yvanna Cancela. He also received $1,000 from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and $4,000 from Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that supports leaders seeking to end inequity in education.

Hughes reported spending $18,590 during the same period on advertising and consulting. The bulk went towards Facebook advertising and fees paid to two political consulting firms, Wildfire Contact and AMM Political Strategies. His campaign’s reported cash on hand balance was just over $3,000 at the end of June.

Casino, who teaches at Somerset Academy Lone Mountain in Las Vegas, has brought in fewer contributions and spent less than his opponent. Of the $1,535 in reported donations during the second quarter of the year, Casino himself contributed $1,260. His largely self-funded campaign has reported no cash on hand after the candidate spent all $1,535 on advertising through Amazon and Facebook.

Casino’s campaign has been largely based on his goal of bringing a current teacher’s perspective to the board.

“I see every day the impact [the board’s] decisions have in our classrooms,” Casino said in an email to The Nevada Independent. “I am a middle school history teacher and the time has come for our students and teachers to be represented on the board.”

According to Casino, the pandemic has shifted his priorities since filing to run for the seat, and the importance of short-term needs such as technology access and providing extra assistance to special education students have taken precedence over his long-term goals.

District 4

Challenger Rene Cantu pulled off a narrow primary victory over Mark Newburn, the board’s current vice president, in District 4, which encompasses Central Nevada, including the northern portion of Clark County. However, Cantu says he has had trouble gaining endorsements in the race as many organizations have put their support behind the incumbent.

Newburn has been endorsed by the Clark County Education Association, the Culinary Union and the Nevada State Education Association. He reported $200 in donations to his campaign in the second quarter of the year but more than $4,000 in spending during the same span of time, with a focus on advertising. The candidate reported a cash on hand balance of $4,086 which includes what is left of a $10,000 loan he made to his own campaign during the first quarter of the year.

Cantu has entirely self-funded his efforts during the second quarter of the year, reporting a $2,724 donation he made to the campaign fund, all of which was spent on advertising, leaving the candidate with no cash on hand.

Cantu is the executive director for Jobs for Nevada’s Graduates, also known as JAG Nevada, and previously was a member of the Clark County School District Board of Trustees. The candidate said he believes that his career’s focus on helping students transition from K-12 schools into higher education and the workforce will bring a “unique viewpoint” to the board. He has also focused heavily on supporting educational equity in his campaign.

“I have a big commitment to equity and diversity,” he said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “For the whole state, but especially for region four, making sure that more rural students have access to [career and technical education] programs and other resources, and urban students that are low income and minority populations have access to the same kind of education that they deserve.”

Newburn emphasized his commitment to equity for diverse populations but is also an advocate for expanding STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, describing it as a way to “modernize the education system” in the state and help produce skilled workers.

Newburn is worried that disappointment parents may have with the decisions made about distance or hybrid education in their districts may affect his chances at re-election, but believes his experience on the board will better position him to serve.

“We’re close to the Legislature, and our job changes a little bit every session. There’s a learning curve,” he said. “And so the advantage that I have is that I’ve been through four cycles … There’s probably no one in the state that understands the true role and function of the state board and how it should operate and under what condition it operates well as I do.”

Addressing climate change, sprawl, lawmakers advance proposal expanding fuel taxes to cover ‘transportation infrastructure’

Interstate 11 during construction

Since 1940, Nevada has followed a straightforward rule: any tax or fee on gasoline, car registration or driver licenses has to be allocated toward the “construction, maintenance, and repair” of the state’s more than 5,000 miles of public highways.

But between desires to limit urban sprawl and address root causes of climate change, Nevada lawmakers are considering moving forward with a proposed constitutional amendment that would open up use of gas taxes and other automobile-related fees to more than just road construction and repair.

Members of the Interim Legislative Committee on Energy voted Wednesday to move forward with a potential constitutional amendment broadening existing, narrow provisions on fuel taxes to instead allow for those tax dollars to fund the broader category of “transportation infrastructure.”

The two Republican members of the committee, Sen. Scott Hammond and Assemblywoman Jill Tolles, voted against the recommendation.

Although labor unions and construction associations expressed concern with the proposed change — stating that the state’s highway funding is already inadequate and should be increased, not divided — lawmakers on the committee said it was a necessary piece to modernize the state’s transportation funding structure and limit greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

The vote Wednesday is just the first step in a potential change to the state Constitution. Approval means the committee will submit the proposed change as a bill draft request, but it still would need to pass out of the 2021 and 2023 Legislatures before going on the ballot in the 2024 election for possible approval by voters.

Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks said a change to the constitutional language was “long overdue,” adding that lawmakers had a responsibility to update language added to the state’s Constitution in 1940 that he said no longer matched the state’s transportation priorities in 2020. 

“We had conversations with all the different (Regional Transportation Systems) and stakeholders and community groups, and we kept hitting a roadblock,” Brooks said. “The roadblock was the very strict and narrow language of the constitution, as it was proposed 83 years ago.” 

Urban transit funding and development have become increasingly prominent and pressing issues for state leaders in recent years, given expected population growth over the next decade and attempts by lawmakers and Gov. Steve Sisolak to reduce Nevada’s share of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

Nevada is on track to continually reduce carbon emissions from electricity production over the next decade, but a state report issued in January 2020 indicated that its share of transportation-related emissions — now the largest single source of emissions from any industry sector — is projected to remain at constant levels.

While some steps have been taken to address transportation emissions — including Gov. Sisolak proposing the state adopt California’s standards for low and zero-emission vehicles — lawmakers and transportation leaders said Wednesday that the constitutional language limiting the use of gasoline fuel taxes was a roadblock to enhanced funding of other transportation infrastructure projects, such as urban transit or bike and pedestrian pathways.

“I think the only way, if we wanted to expand use of the funds for urban transit, the only way we would be able to do that is by changing the Constitution,” Nevada Department of Transportation Director Kristina Swallow said during the meeting. “I'm not a legal expert, but based on what I've read, and what I've heard from our legal team, that is the only way we would be able to specifically allow for transit infrastructure.” 

A recent analysis found Nevadans pay about 33.8 cents per gallon in state and local gasoline taxes, the 19th highest rate of any state.

But the initial version of the recommendation attracted a barrage of criticism from construction trade organizations and labor groups, who said they would oppose any attempt to move transportation funding away from road construction.

The Nevada State AFL-CIO went as far as to pass a resolution during its convention last month stating its opposition to any proposed constitutional changes to fuel tax expenditures and revenue, calling it a “primary driver” of highway construction jobs. 

“We feel that changing the Constitution to remove the guardrails on the spending of highway construction money is not the right way to go,” longtime labor lobbyist Danny Thompson said during the meeting. “We believe that if we want to dedicate money for transit, you'd need to pass something that would be earmarked for transit and take care of those problems. 

Swallow suggested that lawmakers could look at adding additional tax revenue sources to help “expand the pie” of transportation funding, especially if lawmakers move forward with the recommended constitutional change. 

That issue may come up through another recommendation approved by the committee on Wednesday to create a Department of Transportation-housed working group focused on transportation infrastructure funding. It’s set to run between 2021 and 2024 with plans to study the sustainability of current road funds, addressing greenhouse gas emissions and including the needs of all “transportation mode users,” including cyclists, pedestrians and transit users.

Republicans on the committee, however, said they were hesitant to agree to the “heavy lift” of a constitutional change without a sufficient plan in place for how to use fuel taxes in an expanded capacity, and would rather have a discussion about ways to increase transportation funding without cutting into the current road maintenance budget.

“I don't like to make too many changes that would jeopardize what we have to continue to maintain the highway funds or the highways the way they are, because you see crumbling infrastructure across the United States that inhibits us from actually maintaining the abilities to move our goods and services,” Hammond said. “I don't want to see that happen.”

Committee Chair Daniele Monroe-Moreno, a Democrat, said the core issue of trying to diversify the transportation sector beyond road construction and repair would continue to be an issue even if overall transportation funding was increased.

“Even if we came up with those additional revenue sources, we would still be handcuffed to what we could do with those additional revenue sources with the constitution as it's written now,” Monroe-Moreno said. “So I believe the simple language change to add in transportation and transit infrastructure would help move us towards the future.”

Other recommendations were accepted with less controversy, including: 

  • Drafting a letter to the governor and state agencies including the Public Utilities Commission and NV Energy stating support for an “integrated western energy market.”
  • Encouraging federal agencies to allocate additional funds for statewide light detection and ranging (LiDAR), which is high-resolution topographic data that can help “provide critical information on the distribution of faults and rock layers that host renewable energy resources.”
  • Draft a letter to the Nevada System of Higher Education, the state Department of Education and the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation to promote “education, communication and interest” in the state’s mining industry.

All three of those items were approved unanimously by the committee.