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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SENATE

Ben Kieckhefer: 36

Heidi Seevers Gansert: 33

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Goicoechea: 20

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

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

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

Joe Hardy: 17

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

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

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

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

Scott Hammond: 14

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

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

Keith Pickard: 6

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

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

Ira Hansen: 5

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

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

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

Carrie Buck: 3

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

James Settelmeyer: 2

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

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

ASSEMBLY

Jill Tolles: 92

Tom Roberts: 90

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Hardy: 82

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

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

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

Glen Leavitt: 55

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

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

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

Heidi Kasama: 52

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

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

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

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

Lisa Krasner: 36

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

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

Gregory Hafen: 30

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

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

Alexis Hansen: 18

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

Robin Titus: 5

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

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

Annie Black: 3

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

The Nevada Legislative Freedom Caucus

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

P.K. O’Neill: 19

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

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

Jim Wheeler: 6

Jill Dickman: 6

Andy Matthews: 5

John Ellison: 3

Richard McArthur: 3

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

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

Which Republicans broke up unanimous votes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Democrats dissented from their party?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gun free zones in casinos, increasing justice court fees and licensing midwives among many casualties of legislative session

Lawmakers ended the 81st session of the Legislature on Monday night passing dozens of high-profile measures but many others, including an effort to license midwives and a bill allowing casinos to prohibit firearms, failed to advance.

Out of roughly 1,000 bills and resolutions introduced during the 120-day legislative session, more than 400 measures failed to pass through the Senate and Assembly and make it to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s desk. Many bills were left for dead at deadlines for committee or house passage, but some — including an effort to increase justice court filing fees — were in limbo until minutes before the clock struck midnight on Monday.

Other major bills that failed to advance included a measure aimed at transitioning Nevada residents away from natural gas use, several affordable housing bills and a bill that would have abolished the death penalty.

Here’s a look at some of the bills that died at the end of the session:

SB452: Prohibiting guns on casino properties

In the waning weeks of the session, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) revived discarded portions of the session’s other major gun bill in the form of MGM Resorts-backed AB452, which aimed to grant casino resorts greater authority to ban firearms on their premises.

When Cannizzaro presented the bill, which would have required non-restricted gaming license holders (defined as more than 15 slot machines on property) to opt in to the provisions and would have prohibited individuals from bringing firearms onto casino property with certain exemptions, she described the measure as a way for lawmakers to further protect workers on the Las Vegas Strip.

Supporters said that the bill would largely mirror prohibitions on firearm possession at schools and libraries, but opponents — a broad coalition of Republicans, gun right advocates and criminal justice reform organizations — argued it would create uncertainty for gun owners and have a disparate racial impact.

The measure narrowly passed through the Senate in a 11-10 vote on Wednesday, but failed to receive a vote in the Assembly before sine die. During the joint committee hearing on the bill, many Assembly Democrats questioned its merits and expressed concerns about how the measure would affect minority communities.

“We are going to have situations where Black folks and brown folks are going to be the ones who are going to be not asked to leave, but who are going to be the ones that the police are called on,” said Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong (D-Las Vegas) during the hearing.

AB387: Midwifery licensure board 

Nevada is the only state in the west that does not license midwives, but a proposed Board of Licensed Certified Professional Midwives nearly became a reality this session after falling just one vote short of a needed two-thirds majority late Monday evening.

During the last day of the legislative session, the Senate voted 13-8 on Democratic Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno’s AB387, with Sens. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) and Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) joining most Democrat senators in support. Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) joined the Republican senators against the measure, ensuring the bill fell short of the needed two-thirds majority (because the bill required fees for licensure). 

The Assembly had previously passed the bill and its amendments with a 28-14 vote on May 28.  

The board would have been responsible for establishing an optional licensure process for practicing midwives and also would have set training and education requirements. 

An emotional hearing in the Assembly Committee on Commerce and Labor took place in April, in which several mothers shared their experiences with midwives and desire to have birth freedom while also having certain regulations and protections in place for all parties. 

Opposition to the measure was just as passionate, with opponents arguing that the board would overly restrict birthing options and punish midwives who may not want to be licensed or who have learned through apprenticeships rather than in a formal environment. 

SB437: Increased fees for justice court actions

An effort to double administrative fees for actions within the state’s justice courts fell two votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass on the last day of the session.

SB437, which would have increased the fee from $1 to $2 on the commencement of any action in a justice court for which a fee is required, in order to help fund the work of the state demographer within the Department of Taxation, passed through the Senate in mid-May on a 14-7 vote, but only after Sens. Kieckhefer and Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) switched from nay to yea votes.

Members of the Assembly then voted 26-16 along party lines on the measure, falling two votes short of the 28 votes needed to pass with a two-thirds majority. Republicans opposed to the bill, which was sponsored by the Senate Finance Committee, expressed confusion and concerns that it would tax the wrong people by imposing funds on litigants within the justice courts to fund the state demographer within the executive branch.

AB161: Study on summary evictions

A severely watered-down measure that would have created a legislative committee to study the state’s “summary eviction” process during the interim was left dead at the end of the session after failing to receive a vote in the Assembly.

The initial version of AB161, sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), would have completely banned the “summary eviction” process, which involves possession of a rental unit and requires a tenant to either pay rent, vacate the property or respond to a notice through the courts within seven days. But the language in the bill was replaced with a study after lawmakers expressed concerns that there was not enough time to consider the consequences of upending the existing system in the midst of the eviction moratorium and amid staunch opposition from real estate groups.

The amended version of the bill, which received support from a slew of progressive groups, was passed out of its first committee in early April but never saw further action from lawmakers.

SB187: Limits on solitary confinement 

Sen. Pat Spearman’s (D-North Las Vegas) bill to limit the use of solitary confinement in Nevada prisons to 30 days never made it to an initial floor vote. 

SB187 also would have required regulations to limit solitary confinement to use only as a last resort. It also called for frequent mental health evaluations and giving inmates at least two hours of out-of-cell time daily, visitation and phone access.  

The Department of Corrections submitted a fiscal note stating that the measure would cost the department more than $40 million dollars for the biennium in order to modify policy at its seven major institutions and provide additional mental health support. 

“Even if they are guilty, they are still human beings, and we should treat them as such,” Spearman said of inmates during the bill’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 12. “If rehabilitation is the goal, then solitary confinement impinges upon that goal.” 

SB139: Prohibiting insurance companies from denying treatment for gender dysphoria

A bill that would have prohibited insurers from denying treatment for gender dysphoria – the psychological distress that results from an incongruence between sex assigned at birth and gender identity – did not survive after passing out of the first committee. 

Sen. Melanie Scheible’s (D-Las Vegas) SB139 aimed to require insurance companies, including Medicaid, to cover medically necessary treatment and surgeries for transgender Nevadans. 

The bill was meant to address instances of insurance companies denying coverage for treatment such as hormone replacement therapy and surgeries, despite existing laws and policies prohibiting the denial, exclusion or limitation of medically necessary health care services based on gender identity or expression. 

Advocates said that access to treatment should be considered medically necessary because without it, the mental health of people who have gender dysphoria suffers greatly. 

“When insurers fail to cover medically necessary care, people suffer anxiety, depression, social ostracism, and a higher risk of suicide,” transgender rights advocate Brooke Maylath said during the bill’s only hearing on March 12. “SB139 is designed to send a clear message to the greater healthcare community – discrimination is not acceptable in Nevada."

Although it received a deadline waiver, the measure did not advance after being referred to the Senate Committee on Finance on April 16. The state Public Employees' Benefits Program (PEBP) had submitted a fiscal note for $1 million for the biennium to extend the coverage for treatments. 

SB235: Additional marijuana licenses for unsuccessful applicants

A bill that became a lightning rod for marijuana industry criticism over a proposed amendment aimed at spurring the creation of scores of new dispensaries failed to make it to the legislative finish line.

The measure from Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), SB235, and a proposed amendment would have offered an alternative path to licensure for marijuana dispensary applicants who were unsuccessful in a 2018 licensing round. In that round, 61 dispensary licenses were issued to just 17 companies even though 127 potential businesses applied.

Those who lost out on the coveted permits pursued a massive lawsuit that ended with a judge saying there were flaws in the state’s process, but that the law did not permit her to order additional licenses as relief. An amendment to Harris’ bill that would have given unsuccessful candidates a path forward was forcefully criticized by the Nevada Dispensary Association, a statewide dispensary trade association whose representatives argued that it would threaten the strength and integrity of the industry.

Opponents also argued that the market could not support a large number of new stores without hurting existing ones; supporters countered with a competing analysis positing that the state could absorb nearly 1,300 new dispensaries.

The Cannabis Compliance Board submitted a fiscal note on the bill saying it would gain at least $610,000 over the biennium as a result of the increase in license renewal fees, and that it would cost an estimated $150,000 to complete a market study to determine demand for the issuance of additional cannabis licenses. 

The bill passed out of a Senate committee, was referred to the Senate Finance committee on April 20, and saw no further action before the end of session.

AB382: Regulating student loan servicers

A sweeping piece of student loan legislation that would have established new regulations on loan servicers in Nevada and would have granted more rights to borrowers was left for dead just a few days before the end of the session after falling one vote short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass.

The bill was primarily aimed at enacting broad consumer protections through a borrowers’ bill of rights, as well as the licensing and regulation of servicers by the state’s Commissioner of Financial Institutions. 

Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno) joined all Democratic Assembly members in voting in favor of the measure; however, some Republican lawmakers expressed concerns about the licensing fees that servicers would be required to pay. Student loan servicers Sallie Mae and Discover also opposed the bill, arguing that it could lead to greater costs for borrowers.

Bill sponsor Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) said he adopted an amendment before putting the bill up for a vote that was aimed at addressing the concerns brought up by opponents.

“But some of the student lender interests decided to dig in on it. And unfortunately, again, all members of the minority caucus decided to side with them except for Assemblywoman Tolles,” Watts said, “in my opinion, picking those interests over borrowers that are in our state.”

SB462: Republican-backed effort to change redistricting commission

With the state set to handle the redistricting process in a likely special session sometime later this year, Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) introduced an emergency measure, SB462, just two days before the end of the session that would have given Democrats and Republicans equal power in creating a redistricting commission.

That bill received zero action in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Instead, members of both the Senate and Assembly adopted SCR13, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), creating an interim reapportionment and redistricting committee composed of four Democrats and two Republicans.

Increasing awareness of mental health services

As the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in heightened mental health issues across the country, lawmakers in Nevada took steps to increase access to behavioral health care, typically through federal relief funds — but a pair of bills aimed at increasing awareness of mental health support services failed to advance out of the Legislature before the end of the session.

AB167, sponsored by Assemblyman Glen Leavitt (R-Boulder City), would have required K-12 schools and colleges to put information relating to mental health resources on student ID cards, including the phone number and text messaging option for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. After passing out of the Assembly on a 41-1 vote in late April, the bill did not receive a committee vote in the Senate.

AB315, which passed out of the Assembly unanimously a few days before the end of the session, would have required law enforcement agencies and fire departments to provide officers and firefighters with information about mental health awareness, prevention, mitigation and treatment, and provide two hours of mental health counseling within three months of retirement. The measure, sponsored by Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill (R-Carson City), passed out of a Senate committee on Sunday, but failed to receive a vote on the Senate floor during the final day of the session.

Sisolak pushes effort to fund, restructure state infrastructure bank

In 2017, the Legislature voted to create the state infrastructure bank, but lawmakers have never allocated funds to get the bank off of the ground. Gov. Steve Sisolak is looking to change that. 

On Monday, the Democratic governor traveled from his office to the Legislature to give in-person testimony about his plans to re-energize the bank, which was created with bipartisan support and would give the state the ability to offer loans and financing for infrastructure projects. 

“Launching the state's infrastructure bank will play a major role in helping to immediately create pathways for good paying jobs in Nevada, while helping to build projects for communities who need it,” Sisolak said during a committee hearing. “We know that our state needs better roads, better schools, more affordable housing and more sustainable forms of energy.”

The hearing focused on SB430, the governor’s proposal to restructure the bank. The proposal expands eligibility for financing to projects that seek to tackle several pressing issues, including renewable energy, access to health care, affordable housing, food insecurity and water. It would also add a representative from the Governor’s Office of Energy to the bank’s board. 

But SB430 is meant to complement Sisolak’s $75 million budget proposal to fund the bank. That appropriation, Treasurer Zach Conine said at the hearing, would be enough seed funding to get the long-sought infrastructure bank going. Yet the bank will need more funding in the future. 

The initial $75 million in funding would come through a general obligation bond through the Treasury. But Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said he was “alarmed at the small number,” noting that other states have faltered in establishing infrastructure banks because they were undercapitalized. Conine acknowledged that the $75 million is only a starting point for the bank.

He said federal recovery and infrastructure funding could be layered onto the seed money, and there might be opportunities for private investment once the bank was operational. He said there are “billions of dollars in capital” from pension funds and investors seeking a high return without making a riskier bet on the stock market. 

“We think, based on all of our conversations and talking to these funds, that there's an opportunity for that money to come to Nevada,” he said. “This is the tool that helps us get it.”

Lawmakers on the Senate Growth and Infrastructure Committee also wanted to ensure that the bank was filling gaps in the current system and reaching out to communities that could most benefit from the financing. Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) stressed the importance of reaching out to underserved communities, especially as it related to entrepreneurship in the new energy economy. 

During the hearing, Conine said “the focus of the infrastructure bank is on helping underserved and unserved communities.” That mission, he suggested, could be incorporated into the bank’s rubric for identifying projects. Lawmakers voted SB430 out of committee on Wednesday.

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.

Veterinary telemedicine hearing goes off the rails amid confusion, amendments

A lawmaker asking a bill sponsor if she was willing to scrap an amendment to save her bill, a lobbyist mispronouncing a client's last name, and a mysterious, out-of-state company seeking to tack on a self-serving amendment sounds like the start of a very specific Carson City nightmare.

But that very situation befell Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod (D-Las Vegas), who found herself navigating a lively hearing on her veterinary telemedicine bill AB200 before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee hearing Wednesday.

The bill’s intent is straightforward — allow licensed veterinarians to practice telemedicine only after an in-person examination of an animal. Under the proposed bill, veterinarians would not have to examine every member of a herd to consult with a veterinarian, and a doctor with access to medical records could also consult on a case via remote communication.

Former president of the Nevada State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners Jon Pennelle testified that though telehealth is vital for expanding access to veterinary care, in-person visits are necessary.

"For thousands of years, animals have instinctively hidden illness and pain as a means of survival," Pennelle said. "And I feel there are just too many things that can be missed by not actually examining and touching a patient first."

Though many veterinarians lauded the measure, two proposed amendments took discussions of the bill off the rails.

One friendly conceptual amendment proposed by the Nevada Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners tacked on provisions of another, larger veterinary bill (SB366) that died in committee. The proposed amendment would make a handful of changes to veterinary medicine outside of just telemedicine, including:

  • Remove a provision requiring the board to post a notice in a newspaper if an applicant for a license or registration cannot be reached by the board
  • Allow the board to accept licensure applications online by removing a requirement for notarization
  • Permit licensed veterinary technicians to administer zoonotic vaccinations such as rabies

Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) raised concerns about removing a requirement to post notices and requested more information into provisions of the amendment. 

But when the board's executive director was not available via Zoom or the telephone to answer Pickard's question, Bilbray-Axelrod said her only goal was to pass the bill.

Pickard asked Bilbray-Axelrod if what she meant to say was that she "would be willing to jettison the amendment" to save her bill if the amendment is "problematic."

"I was trying to be nicer," Bilbray-Axelrod responded. "But I mean, sure."

During public testimony in support, the executive director apologized for her technology issues and said she responded to the lawmakers’ questions in writing. 

Despite the confusion over the board's proposed amendment, the committee began to hear testimony on the legislation —  which is when it moved into the stuff of legislative nightmares.

Dutch Pet, Inc., a California-based telemedicine company that records indicate was incorporated in March in Delaware, testified in opposition to the bill. The company has been at the forefront of a push for deregulation in veterinary medicine in Florida and submitted a conceptual amendment ahead of the hearing requesting that the language requiring a physical examination occurs before telemedicine instead become optional.

A lobbyist for the business, John Oceguera, represented the corporation and called forward its legal counsel, Virginia Mimmack, to testify on the amendment. Lawmakers were further confused by several mispronunciations of her last name as "Mimic," leading to additional befuddlement and delays. 

Mimmack said that requiring a physical examination was not in line with laws in other states such as New Jersey, Virginia, Idaho and Michigan, and would prevent new entrants to Nevada's veterinary markets.

"As currently written, the only veterinarians that can take advantage of the many benefits of telemedicine are those veterinarians that already have a brick-and-mortar practice in Nevada," Mimmack said. 

That testimony prompted about half an hour of questions from lawmakers, who wanted further clarity on Dutch Pet's motives for opposing the bill. 

"I'm trying to get the linkage about why you'd want to testify in the Nevada Legislature about Nevada veterinarians, when you don't have any veterinarians here," Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas) said, noting that Florida and Arizona had both recently rejected bills pushing for deregulation of veterinary telemedicine.

Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) called Mimmack's comments "confusing" and unrealistic. Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) put her thoughts more bluntly.

"Let's just be clear on the record that your amendment allows Dutch Pet to come into Nevada," she said. "If the amendment is not adopted, then Dutch Pet's business model would not be allowed in Nevada. And that's the real deal, right?"

"Our testimony today is really not about Dutch Pet. Dutch Pet is not currently active in Nevada. But our testimony today is about prohibiting a Veterinarian-Client-Patient-Relationship (VCPR) to be established remotely," Mimmack responded. "It doesn't allow any new entrants into the market and several other states have found out ways to do this."

Pickard said he tends to favor expanding competition, but was concerned that veterinarians could make incorrect diagnoses or miss warning signs without in-person check-ups.

"Unless you have Dr. Doolittle on staff, you're not going to be able to talk to the patient," Pickard said.

Committee Chair Sen. Pat Spearman (D-Las Vegas) joked that five years and six months later, she was closing the hearing. The committee took no action on the bill.

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.

Rep. Dina Titus denies she is aiming for ambassadorship, signals support for death penalty repeal

Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) on Monday denied reports that she is interested in leaving her House seat to become an ambassador in the Biden administration, calling them "rumors" and saying she is focusing on serving the needs of her constituents.

Titus’ remarks came during a press conference after she addressed the Legislature in a virtual speech promoting President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan and touting several pending Carson City bills, including ones pushing for criminal justice reform and greater voting access. 

"I have the best district in the country. We've got the airport, the Strip, Downtown, it's ethnically diverse, racially diverse; we just want to be sure that we come back stronger than ever," Titus said. "So that's what I'm doing, not packing my bags."

Her statements come almost a week after progressive activist Amy Vilela announced plans to run against Titus in a primary election. Titus declined to comment on Vilela’s announcement and said that she is instead concentrating on the immediate needs of her constituents, not the 2022 election.

"I've walked this district many times and I will do it again. So right now it's a year and a half ‘til the next election," Titus said. "Bringing back health care, getting shots in arms, children in school, people in jobs, money in pockets — those are my priorities right now."

During the press conference, Titus also declined to take a position on a pending bill that would repeal the death penalty in Nevada. She expressed general support for abolishing capital punishment but said it is not her role to dictate the Legislature’s actions.

“I'm generally opposed to the death penalty because there have been too many accidents and it's more expensive to issue the death penalty than to keep somebody in for life,” Titus said. “But that's up to the Assembly and the governor to decide.”

Contrasting with Titus’ early support for Biden during the 2020 presidential primary, one of her likely primary opponents, Vilela, served as a state co-chair for Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) presidential campaign. In 2018 Vilela ran for Nevada's 4th Congressional District, finishing third in the primary behind now-Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) and state Sen. Pat Spearman (D-Las Vegas). Vilela centered her campaign on a push for Medicare for All — a quest inspired by the death of her 22-year-old daughter, who Vilela believes did not receive adequate care because a hospital did not think she was insured. 

The Netflix documentary "Knock Down the House'' featured Vilela's campaign alongside those of three other progressive women running for Congress, including current Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO).

"From Covid to climate change, politics-as-usual simply isn't working for regular people," Vilela said in a press release. "It's time to elect leadership that will fight like lives depend on it."

Nevada's 1st Congressional District covers the heart of the Las Vegas Valley, and is considered a safe Democratic seat given the overwhelming majority of registered Democrats relative to Republicans, though district boundaries are likely to change after the redistricting process later this year. 

Titus said that Nevada’s population is rapidly growing and that regardless of how lawmakers choose to draw boundaries in other districts, she hopes hers remains intact.

“You don't ever want to break up certain ethnic communities or geographical jurisdictions, but the Legislature will take all that into consideration,” Titus said.

Titus, who served more than 20 years in the Legislature and was the longtime state Senate minority leader, has represented the 1st Congressional District since 2012.

Senate advances criminal justice reform bills, including limits on police use of force, hate crimes reporting

State Senators Dallas Harris, right, and Melanie Scheible arrive at the Legislature on Friday, July 31, 2020 during the first day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City.

Members of the state Senate voted Wednesday to advance a trio of criminal justice reform bills sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) that would add more limits on police use of deadly force, require additional recordkeeping on hate crimes and place rate caps on calls made to and from inmates.

The bills passed just as former police officer Derek Chauvin is on trial for the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — an incident that touched off a wave of protests last summer — and as protests continue over the death of Daunte Wright in Minnesota at the hands of police. But Harris said the national attention on police killings isn’t what is motivating her.

She remembers the 1992 Rodney King riots growing up. And as a Black woman, she says she’s conscious that she must be especially careful to keep her hands on the wheel and not make sudden movements when interacting with police.

“These are things that are ingrained in us growing up,” she said. “And so the imperative has always been there. I think other people are just kind of coming around to it, which is great.”

The three measures are among the 22 bills and resolutions passed out of both the Assembly and Senate on Wednesday, and part of the legislative rush ahead of the first house passage deadline next Tuesday. 

Here’s a look at all three proposals, which now head to the Assembly.

Limits on police use of force 

Members of the Senate voted along party lines to approve SB212, a bill that would put additional limits on police use of force, use of restraint chairs for people in police custody and police dispersal techniques during protests or demonstrations.

The bill requires police officers to use de-escalation techniques and other alternatives before resorting to higher levels of force to arrest an individual. It would also require police agencies to adopt use of force policies and training that take into account (before using deadly force) the potential threat posed by individuals not armed with a weapon, who are under 13 or over 70 years old, or are physically frail, mentally or physically disabled, pregnant, suffering from a mental health or behavioral health issue or experiencing a medical emergency.

The bill initially would have banned use of restraint chairs, but was amended to put limits on the practice including only using a restraint chair for persons who are physically violent, and if police get authorization from a higher-level officer to use the chair. The bill also limits use of the chair to no more than two hours unless authorized by a supervising officer. It would also ban use of a restraint chair for a person who is pregnant.

The measure also aims to put limits on police activities during protests or demonstrations, prohibiting officers from firing nonlethal rounds “indiscriminately” into a crowd or targeting a person’s head, pelvis or other vital areas. It also would require that police issue at least three orders to disperse and offer an egress route before firing chemical agents into a crowd (with some leeway in dangerous situations).

Some Republican lawmakers pushed back on the bill during a hearing and during the floor session Wednesday, saying statistics provided by bill advocates that showed Reno as having one of the highest rates of police killings of Black men were flawed and painted police in an unfairly negative light.

“This really boiled down to an attack,” Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) said about the bill in a floor speech.

Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) said she works with police who are trying to serve honorably every day in her day job at the Clark County district attorney’s office.

“This bill perfectly hits on the places that it's necessary to have reform without imposing on the ability of an officer to utilize their good judgment and their training to effectuate their jobs adequately,” she said. “But it allows for better community trust, better community relationships, and for the progress and improvement of our law enforcement agencies moving forward.”

Recordkeeping on hate crimes

As written, SB148 would require that all state and local law enforcement agencies submit monthly records of all hate crimes to the state’s Central Repository for criminal history records. The bill would require hate crime statistics, including data on prosecution and sentencing, to be made available to the public.

The bill was approved on an 18-3 vote, with Republicans Scott Hammond, Ira Hansen and Joe Hardy all opposed. Hansen spoke against the principle of enhanced penalties for crimes committed based on a victim’s personal characteristics.

“The whole concept is flawed,” Hansen said. “I think we need to get back to the idea that all are equal in the eyes of the law, including all people that are victims of crime.”

Democrats, however, said the law is full of enhanced penalties, including for crimes against the elderly and against law enforcement.

“We are not yet perfect, but we are on our way to perfection,” said Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas). “And until we get there, then we will need these types of enhancements to make sure that those who break the law, pay.”

Rate caps on inmate calls

The state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) would be required to regulate and set rate caps on businesses that provide calling services for inmates under SB387.

The bill, which passed unanimously on Wednesday, would authorize the PUC to establish rate caps and charge limits on inmate calling services, and would require any competitive supplier of inmate calling services to both file their rates with the commission, and publish their rates, terms and conditions on its website for public view.

As it stands, a 15-minute call to or from a prison in the Nevada Department of Corrections costs $1.65 to $2.10. 

“It’s not 1989 anymore, and the rates should be coming down,” Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas) said ahead of the vote.

Harris said high calling costs prevent inmates from maintaining relationships with family, and that in turn could increase their chances of committing crime again when they leave prison. She also nodded to the multimillion dollar commissions that state prisons get from phone service companies — last session, the prison system estimated it would earn $10 million a biennium in commission from the phone service vendor.

“Can I necessarily be upset at agencies for wanting to get a little bit of additional funding where they can? No, not necessarily,” she said. “I just wish it didn't come on the backs of the folks who have the least.”

Data collection bill brings disagreement over diversity quotas

State Senator Pat Spearman on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City.

A bill aimed at increasing data collection on diversity within the largest businesses in Nevada led to a flareup between members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday over possible effects on those firms.

The amended version of the bill, SB267, would require the Department of Taxation to annually survey corporations and government agencies with 1,000 or more employees about the diversity of their workforces, with a focus on women and women of color. Reports of that data, with personal information redacted, would then be made publicly available online.

Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) argued that the bill would take a step backwards by putting a focus on race and gender within the hiring process, and he said that the quest for quotas and diversity would be a violation of business rights and liberty. However, Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) pointed out that the bill would only introduce a survey for existing workforces.

“I’m not sure how ‘survey’ got interpreted as ‘quota’,” Spearman said. “Is there something in the dictionary that I missed? Is there something in the thesauruses that I missed?”

Hansen said the bill would ultimately lead to quotas or other disciplinary actions for businesses that do not meet a certain level of diversity once the data is collected. 

The disagreement was ended quickly by committee Chair Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas).

“Our presenters have done an excellent job of explaining what this bill is and what this bill is not,” she said. “I appreciate that Sen. Spearman has subjected herself, once again, to this barrage of questions that I think has been largely not relevant to the bill.”

Spearman was joined during her presentation by Becky Harris, a Republican former state senator and the first female chair of the Gaming Control Board, and Jan Jones, the first female mayor of Las Vegas, who both argued that the bill could help promote diversity within the workplace and that the bill is not meant to punish businesses.

“This data should enable the development of best practices,” Harris said. “That can be shared to improve work environments throughout Nevada, as well as serve as an attraction and retention for top talent in Nevada.”

Despite agreement from the majority of those in the hearing that more data would be beneficial, the Nevada Resort Association, along with the Henderson Chamber of Commerce, opposed the bill, arguing that the sharing of the data collected could violate the privacy of businesses.

Misty Grimmer, a lobbyist for the association, said that much of the data the survey would collect is already submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by large companies and that data could potentially be shared with the state.

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.

Follow the Money: Breaking down more than $769,000 in gaming-industry spending on legislative campaigns

Amid the most dire threat to casino profits in the history of the Las Vegas Strip, a gaming industry hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic still gave more than $769,000 to 52 state lawmakers over the course of the 2020 campaign cycle. 

Even so, the effect of the pandemic on campaign spending was clear: Industry campaign contributions dropped by roughly 52 percent compared to the $1.6 million spent in 2018, and almost 60 percent compared to the $1.9 million spent in 2016. 

Among some donors, that drop was even steeper. MGM Resorts International has for years been by far the largest single gaming donor, contributing upwards of $340,000 on average, of which more than two-thirds usually went to Democrats. 

But in 2020 — in the midst of the pandemic, land sales and a broader restructuring — MGM gave just $42,000 across its properties and subsidiaries. It’s a drop of roughly 88 percent compared to 2018, and it puts the casino giant in the same spending realm as Boyd Gaming ($58,000); the Meruelo Group, which owns the Sahara in Las Vegas and the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno ($52,500); and Golden Entertainment, which owns the STRAT and PT’s Pubs, among other casino properties ($44,750).  

These spending trends come as a backdrop to the electoral reality of the 2020 cycle. Though Democrats continued control of both houses of the Legislature — extending their state government trifecta for another two years — Republican gains chipped away at the edges of that majority. Republicans gained one seat in the Senate, where they now trail 12-9, and another three in the Assembly, where they are behind 26-16. 

In order to assess broad trends in campaign spending, The Nevada Independent categorized and analyzed more than 7,700 individual contributions of more than $200 made to sitting lawmakers in 2019 and 2020. 

These contributions capture nearly all campaign spending in that period, and more generally show to whom the largest contributions flowed and how much they were worth overall. 

The data in this story show only a slice of the campaign finance pie: 276 contributions from 43 donors fell under the umbrella of the gaming industry. 

However, it is important to note that because parent companies often contribute to the same candidates through multiple subsidiaries — a process that effectively allows the largest companies to sidestep legal limits on maximum campaign contributions — this analysis treats those contributions as if they came from the parent company in order to simplify overall spending trends.

Also of note, two legislators are excluded from this analysis: Sen. Fabian Donate (D-Las Vegas) and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas). Both were appointed in February by the Clark County Commission to fill legislative vacancies, a point at which contributions to lawmakers had already been frozen ahead of the start of the legislative session. 

Though 53 legislators reported receiving at least some money from the gaming industry last cycle, a vast majority of it went to just five lawmakers: Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert ($161,000), Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro ($106,500), Sen. Carrie Buck ($63,500), Sen. Scott Hammond ($60,500) and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson ($59,500). 

Together, those five combined to receive $451,000 in gaming contributions, or about 59 percent of all the money donated by the industry last cycle. 

Based on broader trends in campaign fundraising, it comes as little surprise that these five legislators are the biggest fundraisers, as they all were either in highly competitive elections (such as Gansert (R-Reno), Buck (R-Las Vegas) and Hammond (R-Las Vegas)) or were expected to reprise a role in leadership (such as Frierson (D-Las Vegas) — or both (Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas). 

Still, no legislator saw as much gaming money as Gansert, whose $161,000 was more than a fifth of all gaming contributions. Most of that money came in the form of large contributions from the biggest gaming operators, including $30,000 from companies linked to Las Vegas Sands; $20,000 each from Station Casinos properties and companies linked to Marnell Gaming; $17,500 from Golden Entertainment and its subsidiary, American Casino and Entertainment Properties; and $10,000 each from Peppermill Casinos, the Meruelo Group, Caesars Entertainment and Boyd Gaming. 

Outside the top five, legislators generally saw little in the way of gaming contributions. 37 of the remaining 47 recipients received less than $10,000, and the median legislative fundraising haul from these gaming donors was just $4,500. 

While most industries will have a handful of individual donors contributing a plurality, or even majority of the campaign money, the gaming industry was unique in that it was functionally dominated by the top-10 donors, who combined for nearly 88 percent of all the industry money contributed last cycle. 

This is partly because of the construction of this analysis. Contributions by properties or LLCs owned by a parent company — such as the ownership of the Venetian by Las Vegas Sands or the Sahara by the Meruelo Group — were counted under the single umbrella of the parent company.  

However, the greater determining factor is simply the increased degree to which the largest gaming companies use their subsidiaries to donate $10,000 maximum contributions to the same candidates. In all, parent companies for Las Vegas Sands, Station Casinos, MGM Resorts International and Golden Entertainment all saw subsidiary companies contribute in combined amounts that exceeded $10,000 for at least one candidate. 

Similar spending patterns are relatively rare across other industries, where the mechanisms for spending in excess of that maximum are usually beyond the scope of most donors. Of note, only one other major donor — Nevada REALTORS — contributed more than $10,000 to one candidate, though it did so through a trio of PACs, not corporate entities. 

By far the single-largest industry donor and among the largest donors of the entire cycle, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and two of its subsidiaries, the Venetian Resort and the Sands Expo Convention Center, gave $161,000 to just 13 lawmakers last cycle. 

Even so, that total is a far cry from spending by the Sands in 2018 and 2016, when it doled out $240,000 and $310,500, respectively. 

That spending could also represent a final salvo for the company in Nevada politics, where it has long been among the biggest donors under the stewardship of billionaire founder and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Widely known for his status as a Republican mega-donor on the national stage, Adelson died in January following a lengthy illness, and the company has since sold its Las Vegas properties for $6.25 billion as it signaled an exit from the Strip and a focus on foreign markets.

Most of the Sands’ contributions flowed to state Republicans, with $30,000 each going to Sen. Scott Hammond, Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert and Sen. Carrie Buck. Some Democrats did see major contributions from Sands companies, however, including Cannizzaro ($30,000), Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) ($10,000) and Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas)($10,000). 

One lawmaker, Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) received $5,000, though the remaining six — a group of five Republicans and one Democrat, all in the Assembly — received just $2,500. 

With $116,000 contributed across 41 legislators from a handful of different properties, Station Casinos was one of few gaming donors to actually contribute more in 2020 than it did in 2018, when it only gave $108,500. 

Station Casinos’ spending clearly favored legislative Republicans, who received $66,500 to the Democrats’ $49,500. On average, it meant individual Republicans received about 55 percent more than their Democratic counterparts, $3,500 to $2,250. 

Station Casinos’ single largest recipient was Gansert, who received $20,000 in the aggregate. One other lawmaker, Cannizzaro, received more than the maximum ($10,500), while another two — Buck and Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) —  received $10,000 even. 

Most other recipients generally received far less, however, and 32 lawmakers who received at least some money from Station Casinos properties saw $2,500 or less. 

Contributing $108,000 across 40 lawmakers, Caesars Entertainment was another gaming donor that saw contributions tick up in a dire 2020. In comparison, the company gave legislators $92,000 in the aggregate in 2018, making Caesars just the eighth-largest industry donor at the time. 

Though spending from Caesars slightly favored Democrats overall — $56,500 to the Republicans’ $51,500 — individual Republicans still received more money on average, $3,218 to the Democrats’ $2,354. 

Three lawmakers, Frierson, Gansert and Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama (R-Las Vegas), received the $10,000 maximum, while another three, Cannizzaro ($8,500), Hammond ($7,000) and Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) ($7,000), saw larger-than-average contributions. 

Most recipients received far smaller amounts, however, including 32 legislators who saw $2,500 or less. 

Tim Lenard, Riley Snyder and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

As part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent will be publishing deep dives over the coming weeks into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see previous installments, follow the links below: 

Out of the shadows: LGBTQ lawmakers reflect on past struggles, future goals

State Senator David Parks, left, greets, Assemblyman Howard Watts II

In late March, Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno) stood up in the Assembly chambers to make history — coming out as openly pansexual, one of just three such state legislators in the country.

“Being celebrated for my queerness is weird,” she wrote on Twitter after the floor session. “Being bisexual and pansexual comes with so much guilt and questioning. Am I queer enough? Am I gay enough? What if I end up heteronormative, am I straight? Y'all, we are all enough and worth celebrating!”

But Nevada, as with many other states, has a long history of not celebrating but persecuting individuals who identify as LGBTQ. Almost 160 years ago, state lawmakers enacted anti-sodomy laws that were used to terrify, blackmail and persecute members of the LGBTQ community ⁠— laws that weren’t repealed until 1993. 

And 18 years ago, Nevada voters overwhelmingly adopted a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that wasn’t fully overturned until a 2014 court decision.

But the path toward full recognition and equality for LGBTQ populations hasn’t always moved in one consistent direction. Six years before voters approved the same-sex marriage ban, the first openly gay member of the Legislature — David Parks — was elected, kicking off a two-decade legislative career that contributed to the state being named one of the best for LGBTQ rights by the time he left office in 2019

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

Peters’ ability to share her sexual orientation on the floor of the Legislature without immediate political or social repercussions is not an overnight shift, but rather a product of decades of advocacy and legislation, LGBTQ advocates and lawmakers say.

Figures such as Parks, former Sen. Lori Lipman Brown, an ally who helped overturn Nevada’s anti-sodomy laws, and Sen. Pat Spearman (D-Las Vegas), the first openly lesbian woman to serve in legislative office, are among those who pushed for equal treatment under the law regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Parks, an introvert by nature, never expected to run for office, but after much “arm-twisting” from members of the state party and after he considered the difference he could make as a legislator, he tossed his hat into the ring in 1996 to run for Assembly.

As an active member of groups addressing HIV/AIDS issues, Parks knew that hiding his sexuality on the campaign trail was not an option.

“There was no way that I could deny that I was gay,” he said. “I don't know if it's the fact that being gay, that I’ve used my life experiences in a way that I'm able to connect with voters from a wide variety of backgrounds, but I seemed to have had a really good connection in that respect.”

State Senator David Parks
State Senator David Parks on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Throughout his campaigns, Parks described facing vitriolic, anti-homophobic sentiment from opponents, but he was able to maintain his seat and pass landmark legislation — often signed by Republican governors — that provided funding for HIV and AIDS programs, banned gay conversion therapy programs, established trans-inclusive health benefits, addressed “gay panic” defenses and implemented anti-bullying laws.

“I went through some pretty hard knocks,” Parks said. “[A USA Today headline] said ‘Nevada Ranks the Best State in America for LGBTQ People.’ And that's, I think, a major accomplishment that 25 years ago, I would not have thought that.”

Parks termed out of office after the 2019 session, but his legacy is still felt in the Legislature. Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) said he not only blazed trails for the LGBTQ community, but also brought forward legislation that benefited everyone.

“Growing up, I used to think, if I'm ever going to run, I probably need to move to San Francisco in the most liberal district,” Harris said. “I've got tattoos on my arms and just thought, it's probably not going to happen anywhere else.”

Harris said she did not think it was possible for her to run for public office until she was first appointed in 2018.

While she was in high school, Harris remembers pulling “protect marriage” signs advocating for banning gay marriage in the state Constitution from yards. Nearly two decades later, she watched voters undo the ban from her seat in the Nevada Senate — an office she ran for with a picture of her and her wife and their child on a campaign mailer. 

Nevada State Senators Dallas Harris and Mo Denis on the fourth day of the 31st Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City on Saturday, July 11, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Spearman vividly remembers the inception of the federal policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which condemned discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community but also prohibited military service members from being openly queer. 

An Army veteran, Spearman said that discussions around repealing the policy ultimately led her to come out to her community and the church where she was serving as pastor.

“It angered me when I heard some politicians in Washington saying, ‘we don't want them in the military because it would destroy morale and the good order,’” Spearman said. “We've been there. We're in graveyards. We're in Arlington National Cemetery.”

Seven members of her congregation left, Spearman said, but she did not want to hide who she was.

“I'm always conscious of the fact that I am intersectional. I'm Black, I'm a woman and I'm a same gender-loving woman,” Spearman said. “I have to look at it through all of those lenses because that's who I am ... and if you have a problem with it, then one of us probably needs to leave and I'm taking a seat right here.”

State Senator Pat Spearman on the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Watching Spearman run for office made running as an out bisexual woman much easier, said Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas). She wondered aloud in an interview with The Nevada Independent about past lawmakers and historical figures who had to mask their identity.

“I look back at all the pictures on the walls of all of the former legislators ... and I don't think we'll ever know how many gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans, nonbinary, asexual, otherwise, not cis-gender heterosexual legislators there have been in Nevada,” Scheible said. 

Others, including Harris, said that having that representation matters and helps young people to grow into adulthood without having to hide their sexual orientation.

“If there is one kid who was like, ‘Oh, that person's like me. I could do that’ and it inspires them to be their best selves, if that happens, then I have done more than enough,” Harris said. “There is serious power in being here, in walking the halls, in speaking up, and that's just as important, if not more than, the small pieces of the Legislature.”

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

When Parks was first elected to office, he estimated that there were roughly 50 openly gay individuals serving in public office across the nation, most of them located in coastal areas and major metropolitan cities. Now there are five openly LGBTQ lawmakers serving in the Legislature and 979 openly LGBTQ elected officials in the U.S. which account for 0.19 percent of all elected officials. A little more than 28,000 LGBTQ people would need to be elected to achieve equitable representation in the U.S.

And LGBTQ lawmakers past and present say there’s still a lot of work to be done.

For Scheible, having an openly transgender legislator would indicate increased social progress. Harris said she would like to see more non-LGBTQ members of the Legislature pass LGBTQ-focused laws.

“I think we're all better off when we have everyone thinking about everybody,” Harris said.

Though Scheible, Harris and Spearman are driving much of the legislation surrounding the LGBTQ community, the lawmakers said their focus extends beyond that community.

As a bisexual, white woman, Scheible can mask her identity and does not have to be vocal about LGBTQ or other issues, Spearman said. However, Spearman said Scheible’s outspokenness and willingness to raise awareness is what all lawmakers should strive for, regardless of background.

“It's important for other people, who have access to privilege that I will never have, to understand what courage looks like,” Spearman said.

State Senators Dallas Harris, right, and Melanie Scheible arrive at the Legislature on Friday, July 31, 2020 during the first day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City.
State Senators Dallas Harris, right, and Melanie Scheible arrive at the Legislature on Friday, July 31, 2020 during the first day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Below is an overview of bills introduced this session with implications for Nevada’s LGBTQ community.

Equal Rights Amendment set for the ballot box

Nevada voters will have a chance to codify the Equal Rights Amendment in the state Constitution on the 2022 ballot, after lawmakers approved SJR8 this session. The measure would formally guarantee equal rights, regardless of race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry or national origin, and copies language from the still-unapproved federal Equal Rights Amendment.

Democratic lawmakers and a handful of Republicans supporting the amendment hailed it as a landmark change that would codify protections for all Nevadans.

"Despite passing laws that have incrementally eroded pieces of inequality, barriers still exist, laid bare for the world to see in the midst of a global pandemic," Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) said.

Republican Sens. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks), Carrie Buck (R-Henderson) and Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) voted against the proposed constitutional amendment, which was approved on an 18-3 vote in the Senate. 

Hansen said that he voted no out of fear that the law would remove protections given to minorities, and the inclusion of gender identity and expression in the bill would allow biological males to compete in women’s sports.

"I don't want to see this body give up the rights for all of my female children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, or any other women in the state of Nevada," Hansen said.

Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) voted in favor of the bill.

"I do understand the concerns of my constituents, that the language will be misinterpreted and misused to promote changes in social order that is incompatible with their personal beliefs," Pickard said. "But while I may share those concerns, I still believe that we should be supporting equality under the law."

Adoption bill passed by committee would allow multiple parents to adopt a child

Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) introduced AB115, which would allow multiple parents to adopt a child without removing another parent from the birth certificate. 

The bill would recognize the parental rights of stepparents and same-sex parents and would allow for children who are born to surrogate parents or who have divorced parents to have more than two names listed on a birth certificate.

Cathy Sakimura, deputy director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the bill is vital for children's well-being and would ensure diverse and multi-parent families are "protected and given the same dignity and respect as other families."

Members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the bill on March 12. The bill awaits a vote in the Assembly.

From left, Nevada State Senators, Dallas Harris, Melanie Scheible and Yvanna Cancela arrive at the Legislature on the eighth day of the 31st Special Session in Carson City on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Addressing HIV stigma

To destigmatize human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a bill sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) would update Nevada law to treat the virus in the same way as other communicable diseases.

The bill, SB275, would repeal a Nevada statute that makes it a felony for someone who has tested positive for HIV to intentionally, knowingly or willfully engage in conduct intended or likely to transmit the disease. 

Repealing that statute would mean a person who has contracted HIV and engaged in such behavior would instead receive a warning for a first offense. For a second offense, the individual would be guilty of a misdemeanor — a punishment in line with the treatment of other communicable diseases, such as chlamydia and SARS.

"The priority for me is equality," Harris said during a hearing on the bill. "The goal is to remove the statutory stigma that was intentionally placed into our laws all the way across the country that's done nothing but harm to those who have contracted HIV."

Other changes within the bill would remove discriminatory language.

"These laws were written back in the '80s and '90s," said André Wade, chair of the state's Advisory Task Force on HIV Exposure Modernization. "Whenever there's a specific call out of HIV, instead of including it as a communicable disease … then that, in and of itself, is stigmatizing."

The bill was heard on April 1, and as of Friday had not been scheduled for a committee vote.

Gender-neutral language

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Venicia Considine (D-Las Vegas), AB214 would replace language related to sexual assault crimes with gender-neutral language. The bill would remove references to “he or she” and “himself or herself,” replacing those pronouns with “the person’s,” “the child,” and “the perpetrator.”

The bill was heard on March 12, and passed out of the Assembly Judiciary Committee on March 24.

Study on services for veterans

AB172, introduced by Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas), would require the Nevada Veterans Services Commission to conduct a study on the effectiveness of its services for LGBTQ people, women or people of color. 

The study would analyze services provided to veterans and military members, and spouses and dependents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, persons of color and women.

The bill hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing, but was given a notice of exemption from legislative deadlines in early March. State lawmakers usually limit the number of interim studies, and wait until the end of the session to approve which studies will go forward.

State Senators Marcia Washington, left, and Pat Spearman
State Senators Marcia Washington, left, and Pat Spearman on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Strengthening protections against discrimination and harassment 

SB51, which comes on behalf of the state's human resources department, would require the state to ensure that its employees do not engage in sex or gender-based harassment. The bill was heard on March 11 but hasn’t yet been voted out of committee.

The bill prohibits state employees from engaging in such behavior against anyone in the workplace, including a job applicant. It also creates the Sex-or Gender-Based Harassment and Discrimination Investigation Unit within the division and requires an investigator to prepare a written report of findings.

The state is already practicing a majority of SB51's proposals, but passing the bill would protect and solidify the investigation unit's role, said Peter Long, an administrator for the Division of Human Resource Management. 

In a similar vein, SB109, sponsored by Sen. Pat Spearman (D-Las Vegas), aims to protect LGBTQ individuals by ensuring that their personal information related to sexual orientation or gender identity remains confidential. Proponents say the bill would help address the many disparities LGBTQ persons already experience in health and welfare, including high rates of poverty, suicide, homelessness and violence.

Under the bill, which was heard on March 26 and is scheduled for a committee vote on Monday, individuals would not have to provide a government agency with any information about sexual orientation or gender identity or be denied services or assistance from a governmental agency for failure to provide that information.

Jury duty

A bill on the table would seek to codify a defendant's right to be judged by a jury of peers.

The bill, SB223, sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), would stipulate that the opportunity for jury service cannot be denied or limited based on race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age or physical disability of a person.

"These protections are not a new idea," Harris said during the bill's presentation on March 23. "They just need to be codified to be preserved."

Language in the bill would not affect the process of creating a jury by dismissing people. Instead, it would ensure that the attorneys on the case are not removing people from the already-selected jury based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, age, physical disability, race or religion, Harris said.

"Such discriminatory treatment undermines the justice system and could hurt crime victims by preventing a fair trial by jury of their peers as well," Harris said.

Harris added that although the Supreme Court has ruled that excluding a juror based on race or gender is unconstitutional, neither the Supreme Court nor federal law explicitly prohibits discrimination in jury service based on other characteristics, such as sexual orientation.

Nevada State Senator Melanie Scheible on the eighth day of the 31st Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Transgender protections

SB258, sponsored by Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas), would require the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) to adopt new standards for transgender and non-binary inmates, including adding cultural competency training for correctional staff. The bill was heard on March 29, and was voted out of committee on April 1.

Under the bill, the director of prisons would have to adopt regulations outlining standards in each institution and facility of the department for the supervision, custody, care, security, housing and medical and mental health treatment of transgender, gender non-conforming, gender non-binary and intersex inmates.

Standards would also include the use of respectful language and currently accepted terminology that accounts for and protects the rights of those inmates.

Debora Striplin, coordinator of the Prison Rape Elimination Act at NDOC, said during a hearing that there are about 50 inmates who have self-identified as transgender. 

Some committee members worried that broad standards surrounding the fluidity of gender could lead to inmates lying about their gender identity.

"My concern is that we're just perpetuating the same problem if we don't give them clear guidance ... What standards are we going to make the NDOC follow if it's not biological science?" said Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson).

Another bill introduced by Assemblywoman Sarah Peters, AB280, would require all single-occupancy public restrooms to be gender-neutral. Transgender rights activists praised the bill as a necessary step to make people who are nonbinary or transgender feel safer.

Bill would prohibit insurers from denying treatment for gender dysphoria

Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) presented a bill on March 12 that would require insurance companies, including Medicaid, to provide for the treatment of gender dysphoria.

Scheible said SB139 would ensure “trans people are treated equitably and with dignity” and address instances of insurance companies denying medically necessary surgeries. 

“When insurers fail to cover medically necessary care, people suffer anxiety, depression, social ostracism, and a higher risk of suicide,” transgender rights advocate Brooke Maylath said during the bill presentation. “SB139 is designed to send a clear message to the greater healthcare community – discrimination is not acceptable in Nevada.” 

Those seeking gender reassignment surgery already require separate letters from a psychiatrist or psychologist and a medical doctor. The letters have to attest that the patient has performed certain levels of therapy and medical interventions before qualifying for the surgery.

In 2015, the Nevada Division of Insurance issued bulletin 15-002 prohibiting the denial, exclusion or limitation of medically necessary health care services based on gender identity or expression. For example, a plan covering a medically essential mastectomy for a cisgender woman must also cover a medically necessary mastectomy for a transgender man. 

“Despite these laws and policies, transgender persons still experienced denials of coverage,” Maylath said. “Those denials are most heavily felt amongst our Back and brown sisters and brothers. These exceptional marginalizations cause multiple barriers to health and opportunity.”

Treatment, including hormone replacement therapy and surgeries, is considered medically necessary because, without them, the mental health of people who have gender dysphoria would suffer.

“The policy is fairly rigorous to ensure that an individual has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria disorder and has sought several levels of treatment prior to having the surgery paid for and authorized by Medicaid,” said DuAne Young, deputy administrator for the Division of Healthcare Financing and Policy.

The bill was amended and passed out of committee on April 2.

Senator David Parks on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 during the sixth day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Giving LGBTQ owned businesses additional support

Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) has introduced a bill that would broaden the definition of the term “disadvantaged business” in existing law to include Nevada's LGBTQ community, allowing those businesses access the same type of assistance and loan programs afforded to other minority-owned businesses. 

The bill, SB237, was heard on March 23 and would apply to businesses owned by an individual who identifies as LGBTQ or have at least 51 percent of its ownership held by one or more individuals who identify as LGBTQ. 

“As we work through Nevada's economic recovery, we're going to need to make sure that all of Nevada's small businesses have the resources they need,” Nevada Treasurer Zach Conine said during the hearing. “By elevating the voices of our LGBTQ business community, we can work collaboratively to create a state that is more inclusive and prosperous for all Nevadans.” 

Committee members raised the question of whether business owners would require "proof" they are part of the LGBTQ community and worried about potential fraud. 

Tim Haughinberry, president of the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Nevada, said the law already requires businesses to be certified to participate in the assistance and loan programs. 

“I hear this question a lot, and the truth is, no one is out there masquerading as a disadvantaged person in order to gain some perceived advantage,” Harris said. “This is actually not an issue in practice and generally these types of arguments are only used to suggest that LGBTQ businesses, or even LGBTQ persons, don't need any additional protections.” 

Bill would further limit solitary confinement, require transparency about how often practice is used

Initially given no books, TV or social interactions to occupy his mind, Frank DePalma said he spent some of his 22 years and 36 days in solitary confinement making up elaborate fantasies of falling in love and getting married that would go on for sometimes eight or nine months.

DePalma, who spent more than 40 years behind bars for second-degree murder and other charges, was first put in segregation in 1992 to keep him separated from gang members and was kept there until 2014 after he tried to strangle a correctional officer. He said he lost touch with reality, and eventually, even the alternate life he lived out in his head wasn’t enough to help him preserve his sanity.

“An empty cell is definitely a place where you learn to live without love,” DePalma told lawmakers during a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday. “And no one should have to be that way. I don’t care who you are. It would be more humane to put a bullet in someone’s head, it really would.”

Nevada lawmakers are considering a bill, SB187, that would limit the use of solitary confinement (often referred to by prisons as “segregation”) and require an annual report to the state’s Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice about how frequently the practice is used, the demographics of people affected and what landed inmates in that status. Segregation is generally defined as an inmate being confined to a cell — alone or with a roommate — for 22 to 24 hours a day with little or no formal activities.

Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) said she is bringing the bill forward to build on a similar effort from 2017 and because she said it’s been impossible to tell whether the prison system is implementing the law. She pointed to a 2019 report from the Vera Institute of Justice that concluded about 12 percent of Nevada inmates are in segregation at any given time as evidence that the practice continues “unabated.”

“Even if they are guilty, they are still human beings, and we should treat them as such,” she said. “If rehabilitation is the goal, then solitary confinement impinges upon that goal.” 

The bill requires regulations to limit solitary confinement only as a last resort and for the shortest time possible, with other sanctions offered as alternatives. It calls for preventing people from being released directly from solitary confinement to the community, frequent mental health evaluations, and providing at least two hours of out-of-cell time as well as visitation and phone access.

It limits the use of disciplinary segregation to 30 days, although if inmates are still deemed a safety risk after that time elapses, they can continue longer in administrative segregation as long as there is a strategy to eventually move them back into the general population.

Presenters focused on the psychiatric toll brought on by being holed up in a cell virtually the entire day. 

Mary Buser, the former assistant chief of mental health for the segregation unit at Rikers Island jail in New York, said her supervisor told her on her first day that "If they had no mental health issues before solitary, they do now."

Her job was to dole out antidepressants, antipsychotics and sleeping pills to keep the inmates stable, and she said she wondered what kind of punishment this was that people needed to be medicated to endure it. But she said the hardest part was when those drugs weren’t enough to help.

“When these meds could no longer hold the human psyche together, and we were called to a cell door, I have to tell you — it was grim,” she said. “Inside the cells were makeshift nooses, slashed arms, blood-soaked T-shirts, incoherent babbling, head banging, and agonized, shell shocked faces begging for a reprieve.”

She said three quarters of the inmates she dealt with were in segregation for a non-violent offense. One public commenter said a friend was moved to solitary confinement after being accused of selling contraband. 

Lawmakers asked for, but weren’t immediately provided with, statistics on how many inmates are currently in a segregation status.

While Nick Shepack of the ACLU of Nevada said the state’s prisons have put limitations on the use of segregation as a disciplinary measure, there aren’t the same limits on “administrative segregation,” and he said inmates with that status have an average of five hours of out-of-cell time each week. The bill would give more options for people who can safely congregate together to do so.

Representatives from the Nevada Department of Corrections testified in neutral about the bill. William Gittere, the warden of Ely State Prison, said that in recent years, the maximum-security prison has switched from 88 percent of inmates in segregation to 88 percent of inmates out in “open tier” status with more freedoms.

He said while the switch reduced inmate-on-officer violence by 50 percent, it increased inmate-on-inmate violence by 371 percent.

He and others from the prison agency called for more resources if they are required to make the changes in the bill.

“We have no issues with the new reporting requirements,” said Brian E. Williams Sr., deputy director of programs within the agency. “But we neither have enough mental health professionals, security staff or administrative staff, to meet the requirements of this bill.”