Counties and cities spent millions to lobby legislators in 2021, despite closure of Legislative Building

Even as the Legislative Building in Carson City remained closed to lobbyists for the majority of the 2021 session, counties, cities and local government agencies spent $2.8 million lobbying the Legislature this year, according to a report that also found local government lobbying expenditures hit their lowest total since 2005.

The report, which was compiled by the state Department of Taxation in mid-July, is the product of a law requiring all local governments — from cities and counties to police departments and school districts — to disclose any expenditures above $6,000 on “activities designed to influence the passage or defeat of any legislation.” 

The funds represent expenses for in-house as well as contracted lobbyists employed by local governments, whose duties included testifying on bills, arranging meetings with lawmakers and interest groups, tracking legislation and conducting research on issues.

The $2.8 million spent on lobbying activities in 2021 marked the first time since 2005 that spending dipped below $3 million, and represented roughly 72 percent of lobbying expenditures reported during the 2019 session.

The 2021 session kicked off in February closed to all but lawmakers, essential staff and members of the media, with all others — including registered lobbyists — participating virtually. Despite legal challenges, the Legislative Building did not open to lobbyists and members of the public until April 15, meaning the building was closed to lobbyists for 73 days of the 120-day session. Lobbyists were still able to meet with lawmakers via phone calls and video chats and in meetings outside of the Legislative Building.

Many local governments employed significantly fewer lobbyists compared to the 2019 session, when lobbying spending reached its highest total in more than a decade at $3.9 million.

For example, seven paid lobbyists worked for the City of Sparks during this year’s session compared to 14 two years ago. Amid that reduction, the Northern Nevada city spent $70,000 less on lobbying during the 2021 session compared to the 2019 session.

But for other agencies, lobbying spending remained high in 2021. After spending roughly $255,000 on lobbying expenditures during the 2019 session, the City of Henderson reported spending slightly more on lobbying expenses during the 2021 session.

Representatives of local governments, which in some cases manage budgets that rival the size of the multi-billion dollar state budget, say the lobbying expenditures are justified given the vast number of bills that affect counties and cities. But some critics have raised concerns about allowing governments to use taxpayer dollars for lobbying purposes that may contradict the desires of the public — the reported lobbying expenditures from the Legislature in 2021 represent nearly $23,400 of taxpayer money spent every day of the 120-day legislative session.

“It's political activity that the people who are being represented may or may not agree with, but they're paying for it regardless,” Michael Schaus, a spokesperson for libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), said in an interview. 

Leading the way in spending were local governments in and around densely populated Las Vegas. Agencies based in Clark County, where 73 percent of the state’s population resides, accounted for 59 percent of spending on lobbying during the session. Local governments and political bodies in Washoe County accounted for 28 percent of lobbyist spending, even though the county is home to less than 16 percent of the state’s residents. 

Local governments across Carson City, Churchill County, Douglas County, Eureka County, Lander County, Lyon County, Nye County and Storey County — which are collectively home to roughly 8 percent of Nevadans — accounted for the remaining 12 percent spent to lobby Nevada lawmakers this year. Governments in the other seven counties did not report any lobbying expenditures.

Clark County governments

Clark County, which led all local governments in lobbying outlays ($352,000), spent roughly $162,000 less on lobbying compared to the Legislature in 2019 and employed almost half as many lobbyists. 

County spokesperson Erik Pappa wrote in an email that the county tracked hundreds of bills throughout the session, including a bill affecting short-term rental licensing (such as AirBnb or VRBO), because of the broad responsibilities of the county in implementing the requirements of new laws. That bill, AB363, was amended with language provided by Clark County late in the session, and the bill requires Henderson, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County to include short-term residential spaces in their legal definitions of “transient lodging” — meaning they are subject to the same taxes that hotels charge guests.

Pappa also noted that only two of the county’s four requested bills survived the 2021 legislative session: SB4 (clarified that the board of county commissioners may impose civil and criminal penalties for illegal possession of fireworks) and SB67 (created a pilot job program to gather data on job order contracts for certain public works projects). Counties, cities and school districts each are allotted a certain number of bill draft requests each legislative session depending on their population.

The City of Las Vegas spent roughly $335,000 on lobbying state lawmakers in 2021 (nearly $227,000 less than the city spent in the 2019 session). Though the city had 11 lobbyists registered with the Legislative Counsel Bureau during the 2021 session — two more than in the last regular session — city spokesperson Jace Radke wrote in an email that the city spent $181,000 for more than two dozen city staff across 19 departments to help work on bills during the session.

The city spent an additional $154,000 on contracts with lobbying firm The Ferraro Group for the entire year. Radke also noted that the city “engaged on 552 bills throughout the session” covering a laundry list of topics.

The City of Las Vegas — alongside multiple other local governments, including Washoe County and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) — testified in opposition to AB276 in March. The bill, which failed to pass out of committee, would have strengthened penalties for delaying or denying public records requests and aimed to increase transparency and compliance with the state’s public records law.

Schaus said the failed bill is a good example of the power imbalance that exists between local governments that have greater access to state lawmakers and citizens and activists who have to work harder to have their voices heard. Schaus pointed out that the transparency bill received support from groups with a diverse range of ideologies — including NPRI, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Nevada Press Association — but still failed in the face of opposition from local governments.

“There are going to be instances where governments’ interests don't align with the citizen activists who might be trying to push reforms,” Schaus said. “And that government lobbying can potentially be big problems for folks who are trying to change the status quo.”

Clark County School District also significantly cut back on its lobbying efforts during the 2021 session. After spending nearly $280,000 and employing 13 people to lobby state lawmakers two years ago, the state’s largest school district spent only $45,000 on lobbying efforts and used two paid and one unpaid lobbyist in the 2021 legislative session.

During the session, Brad Keating, an in-house lobbyist for the district, testified in support of SB450. The bill, which passed out of both houses, extends schools districts’ authority to issue general obligation bonds without voter approval to aid facility modernization projects.

Despite less lobbying spending, the district issued a press release in June stating that the 2021 session “signaled a momentous shift for education” in Nevada and highlighted AB495, which allocates roughly $500 million to public education through new and extended mining taxes and federal COVID relief dollars.

Even as overall lobbying spending declined amid the extended closure of the Legislative Building, some local governments in Southern Nevada allocated dollar amounts on par with past years.

For the second straight session, the City of Henderson spent roughly $255,000 on lobbying, including contract expenses with The Perkins Company, a firm run by former Assembly Speaker and former Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins. City spokesperson Kathleen Richards wrote in an email that “Henderson is the largest full-service city” in the state — providing roughly 330,000 residents with standalone police, court, water and other services, unlike other jurisdictions that share resources with Clark County — and that the city tracked “nearly 500 bills'' throughout the session with a potential effect on city operations.

The City of Henderson — which was allowed two bill draft requests during the session — sponsored AB42, which authorized municipalities throughout the state to conduct jury trials for crimes involving battery domestic violence. Richards noted that other priority legislation tracked by the city included two bills that passed out of both houses: AB63, which ensures local government can access certain stabilization funds during any emergency, and SB138, which requires local governments to enact ordinances to conduct planned unit development.

Metro also maintained similar lobbying spending levels across the past two sessions. The agency spent roughly $184,000 at the Legislature in 2019 and nearly $182,000 at the Legislature in 2021, while maintaining a small team of lobbyists that prominently featured in-house lobbyist Chuck Callaway. 

Callaway testified on a wide range of bills throughout the session, including AB440 — a bill that will require police officers to simply issue citations for misdemeanors that do not constitute repeat offenses or violent crimes, rather than allowing officers to decide between detaining the offender and issuing a citation.

In June, Callaway told The Nevada Independent that he was “adamantly opposed to this bill the entire legislative session” because it strips away a police officer’s discretion. The bill passed along party lines in the Assembly and Senate, with all Republican lawmakers opposed.

Washoe County governments

Though Clark County topped the spending list for the 2021 session, the county government in Washoe — which is home to roughly 1.8 million fewer people than Clark County — spent just $11,000 less than the county government in Clark.

Washoe County spent roughly $341,000 on lobbying the Legislature in 2021 ($40,000 less compared to 2019). Those costs account for lobbyists who worked on behalf of the general county government and the Washoe County Health District, and include nearly $259,000 for employee salaries and nearly $76,000 for contracts with outside lobbyists (Lewis Roca and Argentum Partners). 

The county and health district collectively employed five lobbyists during the session, according to Legislative Counsel Bureau records — down from the seven lobbyists employed two years ago.

County spokesperson Bethany Drysdale noted that Washoe County tracked 600 bills throughout the session, three-fourths of which the county actively worked on.

Meanwhile, large city governments in Washoe County spent significantly less money on lobbying lawmakers in 2021 than they did two years prior. The City of Reno cut lobbying spending by more than $45,000 from the 2019 session, and the City of Sparks cut lobbying spending by $71,000 from the 2019 session.

Rural governments

Some smaller local governments also continued to spend thousands of dollars at the 2021 Legislature.

Churchill County spent nearly $45,000 to lobby lawmakers this year — roughly $2,500 more than the county spent in the 2019 legislative session. The county had eight outside lobbyists registered during the 2021 session, according to Legislative Counsel Bureau records; all worked at the firm Strategies 360. The county’s seat, the City of Fallon, spent $44,000 on lobbying.

And while several rural county governments completely cut spending — Storey County and White Pine County did not report lobbying expenditures in 2021, after reporting spending $17,000 and $14,000 respectively in 2019 — others kicked up spending. Lander County, for example, reported spending $40,000 on lobbying at the Legislature in 2021, after reporting no lobbying expenditures during the 2019 session. 

Even as spending dropped across the board during the 2021 session, Schaus said those expenses should be “extraordinarily lower” than they are.

“In today's day and age, with the technology that we have … it does not take very much for a local government to get in contact with a lawmaker and say, ‘Hey, here's some of our interests for this session,’” Schaus said. “And that’s stuff that's already taking place, even before you take into account the official lobbying costs of sending somebody off to Carson City.”

Michael Schaus is a contributing columnist for The Nevada Independent.

Reid-connected lobbying firm tapped to lead Nevada’s D.C. presence

East front of the U.S. Capitol Building

A prominent Washington D.C. lobbying firm led by a former top staffer to former Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid is being tapped to take over Nevada’s federal lobbying efforts.

The $504,000, two-year lobbying contract with Cassidy & Associates is up for approval at the Tuesday meeting of the state’s Board of Examiners, which is composed of the governor and other top-ranking elected state officials.

The new lobbying contract will keep level what the state currently spends on lobbying, and also marks the first time in 12 years that Nevada will contract with a new government relations firm to represent its interests in Washington, D.C.

Like Nevada, states and local governments routinely spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire professional lobbyists in the nation’s capitol — a 2010 OpenSecrets report estimated that local governments spent more $83.5 million in 2009 on lobbying executive agencies and lawmakers. 

Nevada was ranked high on that 2009 list of top government spenders on federal lobbying efforts, and the state is poised to remain a top lobbying spender under the new contract. In total, the state has expended more than $2.6 million to lobby the federal government since 2007.

The contract comes as the state’s previous D.C. lobbyist, Tyler Klimas, is leaving the role after being appointed by Gov. Steve Sisolak to head the new Cannabis Compliance Board, a new marijuana regulatory state agency created in the 2019 Legislature. Previously, Klimas was a press secretary and legislative director for Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Klimas and his predecessor Ryan McGinness have long represented the state through a small lobbying firm called District Strategies, which has contracted with Nevada since 2007. Payments to the firm for lobbying have gone down over time — $280,000 a year between 2007 and 2009, $240,000 a year between 2010 and 2014 and $120,000 a year since 2015 (actual spending totals are higher, as some of the money is spent to run the office versus straight lobbying costs).

In addition to the state government of Nevada, District Strategies maintained a small list of other clients; the city of Corona, California, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, fire hydrant manufacturer AVK American and a subsidiary of Genting Group (a Malaysian Company that is constructing the 59-story Resorts World Las Vegas resort on the Las Vegas Strip). 

Comparatively, Cassidy & Associates has a well-established presence on Capitol Hill. According to data from OpenSecrets, in 2019 the lobbying firm was retained by 102 clients and paid nearly $11 million. 

Some of its top clients with stakes in Nevada include Newmont Gold, geothermal producer Ormat Nevada, Charter Communications, PG&E, MGM Resorts, Barrick Gold, Pahrump-based Valley Electric Association, Friends of Nevada Wildnerness, Lander County and Fulcrum Bioenergy.

The CEO of Cassidy & Associates is Kai Anderson, who spent six years working in Reid’s office and eventually rising to become his Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy, before leaving to enter the lobbying world in 2013. A spokeswoman for the agency did not return a request for comment on the proposed contract.

According to OpenSecrets, the firm lobbied primarily on defense issues in 2019 (39 clients) but also had a significant amount of lobbying activity reported in the energy and nuclear power sector (24 clients). That expertise is likely to come in handy, given Nevada’s tempestuous relationship with the U.S. Department of Energy, especially given recently renewed efforts to kickstart a federal nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain and an undisclosed plutonium shipment into the state last year. 

According to contract details submitted to the Board of Examiners, other firms that bid to become the state’s D.C. lobbyist included Van Scoyoc, Inc., the Porter Group (run by former Nevada Rep. Jon Porter) and Perkins, Inc. (the firm of former Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins). Contract details state that the winning vendor was “the highest scoring proposer as determined by an independently appointed evaluation committee.”

Updated at 9:20 a.m. to correct and clarify several spending figures reported by District Strategies for lobbying on behalf of the state.

Many former elected officials and public employees have made their way to the marijuana industry

The interior of the Nevada Legislature

Nevada’s system of regulating marijuana was born in the halls of the Legislature. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that many who wander those halls, sit through hours of hearings to develop a regulatory structure and stay current on the latest twists and turns of cannabis law wind up involved in the industry themselves.

Records released through SB32 this spring reveal a number of former lawmakers and lobbyists on the list of owners and board members of marijuana companies. Among them are two who reached speaker, the highest post in the Assembly, but had become lobbyists by the time the Legislature authorized dispensaries.

“The experience that former elected officials, former lawmakers, former bureaucrats have with state agencies and how they operate, I think is helpful in advising and moving things forward in a way that is actually appropriate for our state,” said Democratic former Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, who served in the Legislature from 1992 to 2006.

Nevada shifted from having the Department of Health and Human Services oversee dispensaries to the Department of Taxation in 2017. Understanding the differences between those two agencies was an important skill, he said.

John Oceguera, also a former speaker who left the Legislature after the 2011 session, is a board member with Las Vegas Wellness and Compassion LLC and represented 11 different cannabis companies in the 2019 legislative session. He said he thinks the company sought him out as a board member because of his knowledge in the regulatory arena and his public safety background as a firefighter.

There are also former mayors and council members whose skill sets could be helpful in navigating local government approvals. Municipalities have the power to enact moratoriums and approve local permits for individual businesses, so the fate of a business can sometimes hang on how well its leaders navigate local government politics and processes.

“You want people on your team to help you in the guidance through the rough water, and cannabis is a rough industry,” said Rebecca Gasca, a lobbyist and owner with Wendovera LLC. “So you want to rely on people who know how to get you where you want to go. They have the compass. They’re the compass holders. You’re the boat. And you trust them. And it makes sense because you haven’t been in their shoes.”

Also on the list are at least three people with intimate knowledge of marijuana regulation — one is Deonne Contine, who until February 2018 headed the Department of Taxation that oversees marijuana businesses. Although she is listed as a board member for Sierra Well, she says she was never a bonafide board member and was listed as a potential secretary while working as a private sector lawyer on Sierra Well’s unsuccessful applications for five dispensary licenses in 2018.

Reporting from the Nevada Current suggests there may have been a lapse in communication about Contine’s status that resulted in her name still being on a list that says it’s current through Aug. 1, 2019. She says that had the company won a dispensary license, it would still need to update its records and confirm bona fide board members.

Critics have questioned the propriety of Contine being involved in the industry at all because of her close ties to the regulation-development process. But Contine, who served as head of the Department of Administration in Gov. Steve Sisolak’s cabinet until her abrupt resignation last week, insists that she’s not running afoul of ethics law that calls for a “cooling-off” period for former public employees.

“No. I was working as a lawyer in the private sector and was thinking about issues that were active at the department (in any area) and if there were any conflicts related to my private sector legal work,” she said in an email to The Nevada Independent.

She added that she is no longer interested in working in the private sector and hopes to someday return to the public sector.

“I have spent much of my life dedicated to public service and ultimately realized rather quickly after working as a lawyer in the private sector for a few months that I am more suited to making sure systems and processes run smoothly and my heart is in public service and policy,” she said.

Below are some notable names in the political realm who are leaders in the cannabis industry.

Mynt dispensary in Reno

Mynt dispensary in Reno is seen on Nov. 9, 2019. Photo by Mark Hernandez.

Several former state legislators have a stake in the industry, including David Goldwater, an owner at Inyo Fine Cannabis Dispensary LLC. He is a former Democratic member of the Assembly and now a lobbyist.

Former Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, a Democrat who ran an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2016, is a board member at GreenMart of Nevada.

Then there’s Sandra Tiffany, an owner at GWGA LLC and a former Republican state senator who served 14 years in the Legislature. She’s a businesswoman who established a nuclear medicine image processing company and worked at a large computer-aided design and engineering firm.

One-term Republican Assembly member Scott Sibley, an owner at Nevada Holistic Medicine LLC, is a real estate broker and a reporter with Nevada Legal News, a subscription-based website that publishes news stories, public notices and other public records.

Mark James is an owner with LVMC C&P LLC and LVMC LLC. He served in the Legislature from 1992 to 2002, and on the Clark County Commission from 2003 to 2007. In 1995, James wrote Nevada's "Truth in Sentencing Law," reducing the possibility that prisoners could get early release. He also authored Nevada's "Megan's Law" to notify the community when a sex offender has been released from prison. His time as CEO of Frias cab company was marked by a contentious breach of contract lawsuit. He is now is CEO of Integrity Vehicle Solutions, which developed the Ride Genie app that allows passengers to hail cabs.

Former Assemblyman Chad Christensen, a Republican who served from 2002 to 2010 and ran an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2010, is an owner with Fidelis Holdings. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2014 that although he is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which opposes the use of marijuana except for medicinal use, he became a supporter of medical marijuana after seeing his wife’s friend suffer from using prescription painkillers.

Josh Griffin, a former owner with Livfree Wellness LLC who has since left the industry, served as a Republican member of the Assembly in 2003 and is a lobbyist whose clients in the 2019 session included the City of Reno, City of Elko and casino companies MGM Resorts and Eldorado Resorts (casino companies are strictly prohibited from involvement in the marijuana industry). He is the son of Jeff Griffin, who served as Reno’s mayor for eight years.

High-ranking legislative leaders on the rolls include Oceguera, a former owner at Exhale Brands Nevada II LLC and current board member at Las Vegas Wellness and Compassion LLC. He is a lobbyist and the former speaker of the Assembly who ran unsuccessful bids for Congress in 2012 and 2016.

And then there is Perkins, an owner at Nevada Holistic Medicine LLC and Nevada Natural Medicines LLC and the former Speaker of the Assembly. He worked as a police officer starting in 1984 before becoming chief of police in Henderson and retiring in 2008. He is now president and chief lobbyist for The Perkins Company, a firm whose clients include Newmont Mining and the City of Henderson.

Perkins said he’s long supported medicinal marijuana after his stepson battled cancer in the early 1990s. But coming around to support recreational marijuana was a longer evolution. After conversations with narcotics officers, he has come to believe that marijuana is not a gateway drug when it’s brought out of the shadows and isn’t only available through criminal activity.

Family members of political figures include Ross Goodman, an owner with Paradise Wellness Center LLC. He is a criminal defense attorney and the son of Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and former Mayor Oscar Goodman.

Mayor Carolyn Goodman has been known to abstain from marijuana-related policy discussions, such as a debate about cannabis consumption lounges in the city, because of her son’s involvement.

Mynt dispensary in Reno

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and her husband, former mayor Oscar Goodman, ride in a pink Cadillac during the annual Veterans Day parade in downtown Las Vegas on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

On the other end of the state, Catherine Cashell-Mannikko, daughter of former lieutenant governor and Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, is an owner at Livfree Wellness. She told the Reno Gazette-Journal she got into the business because medical cannabis has helped her daughters, and as an investment opportunity.

John Griffin is a former owner at Livfree Wellness LLC who said in 2014 that his father had relied on medical marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Griffin is a lobbyist whose clients include casino companies.

Lori Rogich, a Las Vegas-based attorney, is a former officer with Deep Roots Medical LLC. She is married to Sig Rogich, a Republican political consultant, the founder of prominent advertising and lobbying firm R&R Partners, and a former U.S. ambassador to his native Iceland.

In 2014, the revelation that Sig Rogich was a minority owner in a marijuana company was one of the most surprising that came out of a license application period in Clark County. Rogich was a senior White House adviser to President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1992 and also advised President Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 said marijuana “is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States.”

"It was 30 years ago, a lot has changed," Sig Rogich said in 2014.

Former local government figures include Larry Scheffler, an owner at MM Development Company Inc. He is a former councilman for Henderson who founded the commercial printing company Las Vegas Color Graphics, Inc. in 1978. He also has served as a commissioner on six major commissions in Southern Nevada government. 

His business partner Robert Groesbeck, an owner at MM Development Company Inc, served as the mayor for the City of Henderson from 1993 to 1997. He has practiced law for more than 25 years. 

Mynt dispensary in Reno

The Nevada Legislature as seen on June 4, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Lobbyists who have a stake in the industry include John Sande III, an owner at Nuleaf. He’s an attorney at the firm Fennemore Craig, and previously was chairman of First Independent Bank of Nevada. He played football for four years at Stanford.

Legislative observers may remember Rebecca Gasca for her past work as a lobbyist for the ACLU of Nevada. She is now CEO at the lobbying firm Pistil + Stigma, which helps businesses navigate the cannabis regulatory process, and is an owner at Wendovera LLC.

Other lobbyists include Tia Dietz, who works with government affairs firm The Griffin Company and was a registered lobbyist in 2017, and Piper Overstreet-White, who was a lobbyist for Uber in 2018. Both are board members at Livfree Wellness. 

Amy Ayoub, an officer with Deep Roots Medical LLC, is a former political fundraiser and public speaking coach.

Two lobbyists for Barrick Gold are part owners of a marijuana company. Judith “Be-Be” Adams is an owner with HSH Lyon LLC (High Sierra Holistics), as is Sean Gamble, who also lobbies for a coalition of Boys and Girls Clubs.

Serial participants on state boards round out some of the ownership. Luther Mack, an owner at Nevada Wellness Center LLC, was a longtime operator of McDonald’s and Popeyes franchises. Previously, he held positions in several state government agencies, served on the Nevada State Athletic Commission for 13 years, served as the chair of the University of Nevada, Reno Foundation and on the board of Boyd Gaming. 

He said he got into the marijuana world as a business opportunity, but also appreciated the benefits he found when using CBD cream for muscle soreness after workouts, and finds many former athletes are customers at his business.

Tisha Black, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully in 2018 for the Clark County Commission seat held by Justin Jones, is a board member at Clear River LLC. She is a lawyer in Las Vegas, and the founding partner at the Black & Lobello law firm. After years of involvement in the state’s medical marijuana program, developing regulations and helping companies file applications for their marijuana business licenses, she took the helm as president of the Nevada Dispensary Association in 2019. 

Former state employees who are now involved in the industry include Chad Westom, a board member at Forever Green LLC who was previously the bureau chief of the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health until October 2017, according to his LinkedIn profile. As such, he oversaw the state’s medical marijuana program before it was transferred to the Department of Taxation.

On the website for his company, Westom touts that experience to potential clients, saying “built Nevada’s first-ever marijuana regulatory structure from 2013 through 2017, and oversaw the licensing and opening of all of Nevada’s marijuana establishments.”

Lisa Vick, who works as a compliance officer and board member at Clark Natural Medicinal Solutions, notes on her LinkedIn profile that she was an auditor with the Nevada Department of Taxation until February 2018. In that job, she said she would “audit all inventory and procedures for Dispensaries, production, cultivation, and laboratories for medical and recreational marijuana in the State of Nevada.”

Jodie Snyder, Riley Snyder, Michaela Chesin, Taylor Avery, Trey Arline and Zach Murray contributed research to this project.

Counties, cities spent millions lobbying the Legislature

The interior of the Nevada Legislature

Local governments and cities spent more than $3.9 million lobbying the 2019 Legislature, according to a state report that found total lobbying spending by governments hit the highest amount in more than a decade.

The report, which was compiled by the state Department of Taxation, is the product of a law that requires all local governments — everything from cities and counties to police departments, school districts and hospitals — to disclose any expenditures above $6,000 on “activities designed to influence the passage or defeat of any legislation.”

After hitting a pre-recession high of $3.99 million during the 2007 Legislature, the $3.9 million spent on lobbying activities in 2019 marked the second highest spending totals reported since the disclosure law was passed in 2001 — good for nearly $32,600 of taxpayer money spent every day of the 120-day legislative session.

Local governments, which in some cases have budgets that rival or even eclipse the state’s budget, say that lobbying expenditures are justified given the vast number of bills — law enforcement, open meeting laws, financial administration and public records — that affect counties and cities. But some critics have raised concerns with allowing governments to use taxpayer dollars for lobbying purposes that may go against the wants of the public.

“What governments are promoting or pushing with lawmakers isn’t always in line with what taxpayers or citizens are going to want, and yet, us taxpayers are still funding it no matter what, even if we disagree with it,” Michael Schaus, a spokesperson for libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) said in an interview.

Initial reporting of lobbying expenditures were due a month after the end of the legislative session, but following several Nevada Independent requests to top lobbying-spenders, the Department of Taxation revised its report and issued a new version this week.

Leading the way are local governments based in and around Las Vegas; seven of the top 10 spending local governments or political bodies during the 2019 legislative session were based in Clark County, which accounted for more than 64 percent of the $3.9 million spent on lobbying by local governments. Washoe County accounted for nearly 26 percent of lobbyist spending, while the state’s 15 other counties accounted for just 9.2 percent of the dollars spent to lobby state lawmakers (eight counties did not report any lobbying expenditures).

Under the law requiring disclosure of lobbying expenses, local governments are required to itemize under categories including transportation, salary and wages, lodging and meals, gifts and other entertainment, and to identify the local government budgetary funds that the expenses were charged against.

State lawmakers passed a near-total ban on gift-giving by lobbyists to state lawmakers in 2015, but the amounts spent on lobbying have continued to creep up over the past few legislative sessions.

In the city of Las Vegas, for example, total lobbying spending was reported at nearly $562,000, the highest of any local government. Although the city had nine people registered as lobbyists, according to Legislative Counsel Bureau records, its primary lobbying efforts came from its in-house city-employed team (Ryan Black, Shani Coleman and Kelly Crompton) and a contracted lobbyist; The Ferraro Group, which has an $80,000 contract with the city government.

City spokesman Jace Radke said in an email that numerous other city employees, including city manager Scott Adams, had registered as lobbyists to work on specific issues that affected city governance. He said that the lobbying team “tracked/engaged” on 394 of the 1,157 bills introduced during the legislative session and worked on the three bills introduced by the city (AB5, AB73 and SB11).

“The lobbying team worked on a variety of proposed legislation that included homelessness, affordable housing, purchasing requirements, workers compensation, cannabis compliance, criminal/civil justice reform, economic development, elections, energy, taxes, public records, public works, transportation and a variety of appropriations within the city limits,” he said in an email.

Several other top-spending local governments also used a combination of contract lobbyists and in-house employees. Henderson employed The Perkins Company — founded by former Assembly Speaker and former Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins —  under a $40,000 contract, plus roughly $215,000 in salaries, lodging meals, airfare and other expenses for in-house lobbyists and staff.

Henderson lobbyist David Cherry wrote in an email that the city was involved in a wide number of bills, including measures affecting the school funding formula (SB543), a Southern Nevada working group on homeless issues (AB73), changes to Open Meeting Law (AB70), removing sunsets on the “More Cops” sales tax (AB443) and an advisory ballot question to switch to ward-only voting in Henderson (AB282).

He also wrote that the city opposed an “overreaching” public records bill, SB287, that was supported by civil liberties groups and press organizations, but staunchly opposed by municipalities and local governments. The bill passed after a last-minute amendment to quell the fears of local governments was introduced and adopted on the second-to-last day of the legislative session.

But the behavior of local governments against the bill elicited concerns from groups such as NPRI; Schaus, the organization’s spokesperson, said that the hiring of lobbyists to oppose a bill nominally supported by the public was one of the ways that local governments influence the legislative process

“It’s not like they were out there legitimately representing the interest of the people they ostensibly should be serving, they were there very much pushing their own interests, their own agenda, even when it ran contrary to what most citizens seem to want,” he said.

But high spending totals don’t necessarily translate into a major — or even unified — lobbying presence. Clark County, which spent more than $514,000 on lobbying expenses, had three in-house lobbyists and no contract lobbyists during the session, but the total also includes lobbyists working for the county public defender’s office, district attorney’s office and District Court, each of whose lobbyists often appeared at odds during the legislative session on various criminal justice bills.

County spokesman Erik Pappa said in an email that the county’s lobbying team tracked more than 630 bills throughout the session, and that although the county’s position on most bills was neutral, it still required vast resources to track the many changes made to bills during the legislative session that affect the many regional services — Medicare and Medicaid funding, health care services — that the county offers.

“Even though a position was considered neutral, it was carefully monitored as the title/subject is of interest to Clark County and an amendment at any step of the process could result in shifting County’s position to opposition or support,” he wrote in the email.

Similarly, Washoe County — the local government with the fourth-highest amount of lobbying expenditures at more than $381,000 — reported spending more than $230,000 on employee salaries to lobby the state Legislature, plus $126,000 in contracts with outside lobbyists (Lewis Roca Rothgerber, Christie’s Alfredo Alonso, Lisa Gianoli and Crowley & Ferrato). 

But those totals include lobbyists for multiple branches of the county — more than 20 county employees reported lobbying at some during the session, throughout nine different county departments from the district attorney’s office, sheriff’s office, public defender’s office and even animal control.

“During this session, Washoe County monitored and/or worked on almost 70 (percent) of the bills introduced during the session with a total of 301 bills that passed and were signed by Governor Sisolak which had (an) impact on the county,” county spokeswoman Amy Ventetuolo said in an email. 

Even some smaller local governments had a lobbying presence in Carson City. White Pine County, with a population of around 10,000 people, spent nearly $14,000 to hire a lobbying company (The Perkins Company) during the legislative session.

White Pine County Commission Chairman Richard Howe said the decision to hire lobbyists stemmed from one issue; the inability of the county to get the state to pony up funding for an updated county courthouse. The county’s courthouse was built in 1908, and since at least 2003 the county has sought funding for a new courthouse with improved security features to better facilitate the hearings and trials that arise from incidents at Ely State Prison, which houses nearly 1,000 prisoners. 

According to documentation provided to lawmakers, the current courthouse’s lacking safety features — prisoners use the same elevator and bathroom as members of the general public and court employees, and the holding cell is in a staff break room — presented a danger to both court employees and the public, as a public library, middle school and senior center are across the street from the courthouse.

An appropriations bill (SB149) sponsored by rural Republican lawmakers giving the county $10 million for a new courthouse got a hearing but failed to ever advance out of a budget committee. But in the waning hours on the last day of the session, members of the Assembly budget committee unveiled an amendment allocating $53.7 million in last-minute spending — including $5 million for a courthouse in White Pine County.

Howe credited the county’s lobbyists, the Perkins Group, for getting the funding in at the last minute (Mari St. Martin, former Gov. Brian Sandoval’s press secretary and lobbyist for The Perkins Company, is an Ely native) He said that the county was able to move some funding around and begin construction on the new courthouse last week — something that wouldn’t have been possible without the state funding and without having a lobbyist present during the legislative session.

 “White Pine invested a small amount of money...and got a $5 million return. We got nothing over the other years. We got a lot of lip service, but no actual hard dollars,” Howe said. “We used our heads, and we accepted the fact that there’s some things we can’t do, that other people are smarter and better at it than us. Using a lobbyist, you spend a dime to make a dollar.”

State Republican Party chair did little work for second job as dental board lobbyist, records show

September was a good month for Michael McDonald.

Buoyed by endorsements from President Donald Trump’s inner circle and elected officials statewide, McDonald beat back two challengers to win re-election to a fifth term leading the state’s Republican Party, promising that the “Nevada Republican Party is united and ready to deliver our state to President Trump and electing Republicans down the ballot in 2020.”

But leading the state party isn’t the only job on McDonald’s plate. For the past year, he’s worked as the lobbyist for the Nevada State Board of Dental Examiners, the seventh-largest occupational licensing board in the state — although public records raise questions about his work for the board.

Over the last two decades, McDonald has a history of representing unusual clients as a lobbyist, including a rural constable’s office and the Culinary Workers Union Local 226. But his working relationship with the state dental board, which oversees licenses and regulates dental health professionals, has been more than just unusual from the get-go.

Since he was hired in May 2018 (beating out two established lobbying firms led by former lawmakers), records indicate McDonald has spoken at just one board meeting in that 16 months. Public records requests reveal that his only written correspondence with the board since he was hired has been monthly invoices — a request for $3,428.57 every month. 

Lobbyists and lawmakers reported not interacting or seeing him during the legislative session, and say he was invisible on often-technical bills that substantially affect operations of the dental board. McDonald did not return a text message seeking comment.  

In short, it’s difficult to find any public evidence of work completed by McDonald since he accepted the two-year, $72,000 contract to provide government relations services for the board.

It has elicited questions from lobbyists who represent other state boards, who say that McDonald’s scope of work and practices are at best highly unusual for a state board lobbyist and could invite additional scrutiny of state licensing boards, which have a recent history of butting heads with other state government agencies.

“If I were heading up a regulatory board, and I found out my lobbyist wasn’t there on a regular basis, I would not renew that contract,” said Susan Fisher, a longtime lobbyist who represents three other state boards. “Why hire a lobbyist if they’re not going to be there?”

In spite of the unusual arrangement, staff of the dental board say they have no issue with McDonald, though the board’s executive director, Debra Shaffer-Kugel, declined to answer multiple emailed questions about McDonald’s attendance at board meetings and work for the board during and outside of the legislative session. She instead referred all questions to the board’s general counsel, Melanie Bernstein Chapman, who did not answer specific questions but said the board had no issues with McDonald or his activities as the board’s lobbyist.

“I have not been advised of, nor am I aware of, any concerns of the Board with respect to Mr. McDonald’s representation,” she wrote in an email.

Board meetings

A review of the minutes and audio records of the nine meetings held by the dental board since it agreed to hire McDonald as its lobbyist in May 2018 shows that he only spoke at one meeting, on March 22.

There, McDonald gave a roughly 10-minute review of a handful of bills related to dentistry, largely sticking almost word-for-word to the descriptions written by Legislative Counsel Bureau staff. He skimmed over a bill, SB366, which aimed to open up the practice of dental hygienists to operate in the state, and stayed out of a roughly 10-minute discussion on the bill and how it would affect dental practices statewide. 

At one point during the March meeting, McDonald advised the board on SB156, a bill related to the practice of equine dentistry — a topic area overseen by the state’s veterinary board, not the board of dental examiners.


Outside of that meeting, traces of McDonald’s presence on behalf of the dental board are difficult to pin down. Outside of a pre-session meeting between several health-related occupational boards and an appearance at a court hearing involving the dental board (referenced in meeting minutes), McDonald is not listed as speaking or appearing at any additional board meetings or during any 2019 legislative hearings. According to a records request, McDonald sent just 12 emails over the course of his employment to staff and members of the Board of Dental Examiners; one including a signed copy of the lobbying contract, and 11 invoices sent on a monthly basis.

The Nevada Independent contacted several other lobbyists employed by state boards to ascertain whether or not McDonald’s apparent lack of public-facing activity was out of the ordinary. 

Fisher, who represents the Oriental Medicine, Osteopathic Medicine and Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors, said that it would be “highly unusual” for her not to check in at least weekly with each of the boards during the legislative session, on the status of bills that directly and indirectly affect her boards.

Fisher said she alternated between emails and phone calls depending on the issue, but found it strange for a board to employ a lobbyist who wasn’t physically present at the Legislature during the 120-day session.

“What’s the point of having a lobbyist if they’re not going to be in Carson City during session?” she said. “That’s a silo, and you’ve got to be in the silo.”

Michael Hillerby, a lobbyist for Kaempfer Crowell who represents several boards (Accountancy, Nursing and Pharmacy) said that it was “unusual” in his nearly three-decade career to see an occupational board lobbyist not be physically present during the legislative session. Hillerby, who lobbied on behalf of the dental board several years ago, said that the lobbying role for an occupational board was a little different from other clients, in that they were expected to largely stay out of policy fights and contribute as the “subject matter experts” as to how various proposals would affect the licensure and operation of certain professions.

“It would be odd not to be there to at least be ready to answer questions as to how it impacts you and why it impacts you,” he said.

SB366, the bill creating a new mid-level dental provider type (dental therapists), is a prime example. Although it was initially opposed by the state dental association, the task of implementing the regulations required under the bill falls to the dental board, which also submitted a fiscal note estimating that the first version of the bill would result in close to $300,000 in lost annual fee revenue (The Governor’s Office of Finance wrote that the board did not provide a spreadsheet with their calculations and ultimately concluded that the board’s estimated financial impact was not “reasonable.”)

The initial version of the bill would have created a separate dental hygienists board, removing that profession from the purview (and fees) of the state dental board — a change that would have major implications for the board.

McDonald was not present — at least, he did not sign his name on sign-in sheets reflected in board meetings — at any committee meeting where SB366 was discussed. Dental board Executive Director Debra Shaffer-Kugel attended and testified in the neutral position during the first hearing of the bill on March 29, but no representative from the dental board or McDonald attending any of the subsequent six committee meetings where the bill was heard or voted on — even after three substantial amendments overhauled major portions of the bill. 

Democratic Sen. Julia Ratti, the bill’s sponsor, told a reporter during the legislative session that she had no interaction with McDonald on the bill or on any subject. Nevada Dental Association lobbyist Chris Ferrari said he spoke with Chapman, the board’s general counsel, at the state of the session but otherwise did not interact with McDonald or anyone else from the dental board on the bill. 

“It’s unusual to have such a big bill and not have a lobbyist there,” said Neena Laxalt, a lobbyist for the Nevada Dental Hygienist Association and several other boards.

Members of the dental board discussed the bill in depth during meetings in May and July of 2019, neither of which McDonald attended. Minutes from the board’s July 19 meeting show McDonald was absent; the board’s executive director said he was “ill.” A week later he was in Charlotte, North Carolina for a Republican National Committee event.

In an email, dental board general counsel Chapman said that the board was not directly asked for its position on the bill, did not introduce any legislation during the session and was committed to implementing regulations for any bills in its purview that were approved by state lawmakers.

“SB 366 was not the Board’s bill and, to my knowledge, the Board was never asked for, nor did it take a position for or against the bill but Mr. McDonald or a member of his staff did appear at the various hearings regarding the bill,” Chapman wrote in an email.

Boards and Commissions

As with contractors, nurses, private investigators and social workers, dentists in Nevada are overseen by one of Nevada’s occupational licensing boards. Dentistry is one of 50 occupations, professions or businesses overseen by 31 state boards.

Boards operate as a kind of quasi-governmental agency — board members come from the profession itself, but are appointed by the governor to serve three or four year terms. The boards don’t receive funds directly from the state, but are instead fully funded through licensure fees (registration, license renewal, etc.).  

Boards serve a variety of roles, including investigating complaints, disciplining licensees and helping write regulations that affect their industry. Although the governor appoints — and can, in limited circumstances, remove — board members, most oversight of boards comes from the legislative branch, which both creates the scope and abilities of the boards through legislation and oversees them through an interim subcommittee

Boards also vary in size and activity; the state Contractors Board reported more than $7 million in expenditures in 2018, while many smaller boards such as Athletic Trainers, Oriental Medicine and Landscape Architecture made it through the 2018 fiscal year with a budget under $100,000.

But unlike other state agencies, occupational boards (such as school districts and municipalities) have the budgetary freedom to hire lobbyists to represent them in front of the state Legislature and during the interim period between legislative sessions.

A previous Nevada Independent analysis of lobbying efforts by state boards and commissions found that at least 21 boards had hired a lobbyist in 2018, spending in total more than $577,000 for outside lobbying and public relations. Contracts varied widely in length and scope; the median amount spent by the boards was $21,000, though some were for less than $2,000, while on the other end of the spectrum, other more prominent boards inked six-figure lobbying and public relations contracts.

Lobbyists for state boards say they perform a necessary function for the agencies without requiring full-time staff or appointed board members spending time and resources at the Legislature. Some conservative leaning groups have criticized the arrangement, stating that hiring lobbyists allows boards to consolidate power and limit competition. At least 10 states have placed some limits on the ability of state agencies to hire lobbyists.

McDonald

Though he has no apparent experience in health care or dental work, McDonald beat out two other lobbying firms (one run by former Democratic Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins and the other by former Democratic Assemblyman William Horne) to win the lobbying contract for the dental board in May 2018. In a previous email, Chapman said his position as head of the state Republican Party “was not discussed or considered as part of this process and was not a factor in the discussion or deliberation resulting in the decision to contract with him.”

According to registration records, his past lobbying experience includes representing the Nevada Republican Party in 2017, and several clients in 2015 including trial lawyer Glen Lerner, the Laughlin Constable’s office, the Armenian American Cultural Society of Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada Rural Constable’s Alliance. He also appeared as a lobbyist for the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in 2012.

In 2015, McDonald was also briefly employed in another state government-related job; working for the Nevada State Treasurer’s Office as a senior deputy treasurer, but resigned within three months of taking the position amid criticism that he was hired given his close relationship with then-state Treasurer Dan Schwartz, previously a finance director for the state Republican Party.

A former Las Vegas Metropolitan police officer, McDonald got his start in Nevada’s political world by winning election to the Las Vegas City Council in 1995. His momentum stalled amid ethics and tax investigations (McDonald was never charged with a crime and later said he had been “wrongfully accused”) and contributed to his defeat in a 2003 municipal election.

His path back to relevancy began in 2012 when he was elected chair of the state Republican Party, and he later won contentious re-election campaigns in 2013 and 2015 against party establishment-backed candidates. He’s cultivated a close relationship with President Donald Trump, including getting the then-candidate to appear at a 2016 fundraiser for the party in Lake Tahoe.

His company that received the lobbying contract, Alpha-Omega Strategies, has played a role in several non-lobbying related business interests. The company was incorporated in 1998, initially operating as a “consulting” firm for private investigations, and later received approval from the Las Vegas City Council to operate a senior housing and retail center in Northwest Las Vegas.

Reaction and opposition

The hiring of McDonald has done little to quell the often tempestuous relationship between the board, vocal critics in the dental community and state government. 

McDonald was notably not present at a June meeting of the Executive Branch Audit Committee — composed of Gov. Steve Sisolak and other statewide elected “constitutional” officers (lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and controller) — where an at-times scathing audit into the dental board was publicly presented for the first time.

The audit found that at least three board members, including board President Yvonne Bethea, may have violated state ethics law between 2015 and 2018 by failing to disclose familial or professional relationship prior to casting votes, and raised questions about the board’s use of Disciplinary Screening Officers to broadly screen complaints made to the board.

Sisolak, who found the audit to be “very concerning,” at one point in the meeting asked if the board’s lobbyist — McDonald — was present.

He wasn’t. 

Only Chapman, the board’s general counsel, appeared that day and took questions from the audit committee.

The 2019 audit was itself preceded by a 2016 audit, this one from legislative branch auditors who found the board had overcharged almost half of licensees under investigation, and allowed some offenders to make charitable donations in lieu of fine in contrast to state law. 

Not unlike McDonald himself, the board has been a lightning rod for controversy. Former Gov. Brian Sandoval even asked the board to tackle the patient complaint process, saying “I’ve never seen that happen before with people as upset as they are with … the board of dental examiners.”

Correction: Updated at 1:55 p.m. on Oct. 7, 2019 to reflect that the Nevada Dental Association initally opposed, and did not support, SB366.

Business, education meetings dominated Sisolak's calendar amid legislative session

Governor-elect Steve Sisolak and his wife, Kathy, tour the Governor's Mansion in Carson City

In retrospect, May 21 was one of the most important days of the 2019 Legislature.

A bill getting rid of a scheduled reduction in the state’s payroll tax was introduced for the first time; lawmakers voted out bills adding Nevada to the National Popular Vote Compact (later vetoed) and decriminalizing abortion; and long-awaited hearings were finally held on bills creating a cannabis regulatory agency and substantially overhauling the state’s K-12 education formula.

Gov. Steve Sisolak was similarly busy on May 21, but for different reasons. Amid a packed schedule that saw him attend a wildfire status briefing and the cannabis bill hearing, the governor was also busy on the second-to-last Tuesday before the end of the Legislature calling several high-profile business and gaming executives — Eldorado Resorts’ Gary Carano, Peppermill Resorts President Billy Paganetti and Ultimate Fighting Championship COO Ike Lawrence Epstein.

Described by his office as general check-ins, the scheduled calls were part of a slew of calls made by Sisolak as the legislative session drew to a close, indicating that the governor kept open lines of communication with top business leaders even as lawmakers approved bills raising the minimum wage and requiring large private employers to offer paid sick leave — panned as anti-business by Republicans. 

Those meetings and others held between Sisolak with high-powered lobbyists, legislators with major pending bills, federal government officials and a slew of well-known business leaders were revealed in a public records request submitted by The Nevada Independent for the governor’s calendar through the legislative session.

Meetings scheduled in Sisolak’s calendar don’t necessarily confirm that they actually happened, and often provide few details as to the point or reason for them. But information on the scheduled meetings of the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades provides insight into the power structure and important relationships that define and influence what laws and policies are (or aren’t) adopted.

“The calendar provided to The Nevada Independent is the Governor's working calendar, maintained by staff,” Sisolak spokesman Ryan McInerney said in an email. “Some of the calendared appointments occurred as scheduled, others did not occur at all, or were managed entirely by staff. Moreover, travel schedules for the Governor, First Lady Kathy Sisolak, and the Governor's family were redacted to ensure the safety of the Governor and his family.”

Although he positioned himself as a natural successor to popular and moderate Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval on the campaign trail, meetings scheduled by Sisolak throughout the legislative session included comparatively more meetings with labor leaders and other constituencies of the Democratic Party. They also reveal details about which individual interests were able to secure time with the governor ahead of major decisions on bills affecting energy, collective bargaining for state workers and health care issues.

But like Sandoval, many of Sisolak’s scheduled meetings show the names of the same Carson City power brokers, lobbyists and business leaders who continue to wield the same influence and effect on the legislative process, regardless of the party in power.

Not all details of Sisolak’s calendar were made public — at least 67 events on the calendar provided to The Nevada Independent were redacted. Sisolak’s office said that in addition to travel, the office also redacted telephone numbers and personnel information such as start and end dates.

Here’s a look at the people, groups and constituencies Sisolak met with during the 2019 legislative session.

Legislative interactions

Sisolak made an effort to meet with all 63 members of the Legislature during the first few weeks of the legislative session — a hectic schedule reflected in the early February weeks of his calendar.

But meetings held with lawmakers outside of those initial meet and greets shine a light on Sisolak’s involvement in the legislative process beyond just signing bills.

The lawmaker who scheduled the most meetings with Sisolak was Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks, who previously served one term in the Assembly and is married to Sisolak’s chief of staff, Michelle White.

Brooks and Sisolak met three times — once on March 13 (the day Sisolak announced the state would sign onto an agreement to follow the Paris Climate Agreement), again with legislative leaders on March 15 and a final meeting on April 2 (the day a hearing was held on SB358, which raises the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent by 2030). 

Brooks confirmed in an interview that the meetings were related to several bills related to energy that Sisolak had identified as priorities on both the campaign trail and in his State of the State address. He said early on that he and White had established a “firewall” and worked with other staff in the governor’s office to arrange meeting and discuss strategy.

“We were pretty adamant about making sure she wasn’t involved personally,” he said.

Other meetings held between Sisolak and individual lawmakers include:

  • A March 27 meeting with Republican Assembly Leader Jim Wheeler and Blockchains CEO Jeff Berns, described by the governor’s office as a meet and greet that veered into a discussion of issues with wild horses
  • An April 30 meeting with Democratic Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez Thompson, related to her bill AB400, which removed certain types of taxes from possible economic abatements. The bill was signed into law by Sisolak.
  • A May 17 meeting with Assembly Judiciary Chair Steve Yeager on AB553, the bill creating the Cannabis Compliance Board. Yeager presented the bill in committee about a week later; it was later signed into law by Sisolak.
  • A May 22 meeting with Senator Julia Ratti on her dental therapy bill, SB366. The bill was amended twice after the meeting and eventually signed into law by Sisolak.

Lobbyists

Sisolak’s meetings with lawmakers merely tap the surface of his involvement in the legislative process; the Democratic governor met with dozens of lobbyists or representatives for various interests groups throughout the entire 120-day session.

Notably, Sisolak recorded holding a short meeting with National Shooting Sports Foundation executive Larry Keane and the group’s state lobbyist, Patrick McNaught, on April 18. 

The meeting came nearly a week before lawmakers approved major changes to a major gun safety bill by Democratic Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui, AB291, that initially sought to allow local governments to pass more restrictive gun laws than those put in place by the state (a concept called pre-emption).

But the concerns of the NSSF, which holds the annual SHOT tradeshow in Las Vegas, helped almost sink the bill, and contributed to the removal of that language from the bill. Lawmakers instead added in provisions creating a “red flag” law process, which lets law enforcement and family members petition a court to temporarily seize a person’s firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others.

The NSSF itself issued several warnings about Sisolak in the run-up to the 2018 election, noting that he had promised to institute a long-stalled voter-approved gun background check initiative and to ban assault weapons. NSSF spokesman Mark Olivia said that the meeting was similar to ones the group had across the country and in Washington D.C. with other elected officials, and that the organization was grateful that Sisolak took the time to listen to their concerns.

“This is what any trade association is going to do to make sure their concerns are heard,” he said.

Other major lobbyists that Sisolak met with during the legislative session include:

  • Former Assembly Speaker turned lobbyist Richard Perkins and clients on February 19 in Las Vegas
  • Former state senator, current lobbyist Warren Hardy on February 19
  • A meet and greet with the Jewish Federation and former Rep. Shelley Berkley on March 5. Both supported a bill, AB257, that would have authorized creation of a Holocaust memorial museum in Nevada; the bill failed to pass
  • Former Rep. Dr. Joe Heck on March 8
  • Dwayne McClinton on behalf of Southwest Gas on March 19
  • Golden Entertainment, Dollar Loan Center and Republic Services lobbyist Sean Higgins on March 27
  • Barrick Gold Corporation executives Christina Erling and Rebecca Darling on April 17
  • Kolesar and Leatham lobbyist Joe Brown on May 6
  • Nevada’s Women Lobby lobbyist Marlene Lockard on May 15
  • Griffin Company lobbyist Josh Griffin (and “group”) on May 20 
  • Las Vegas Metro Chamber CEO Mary Beth Sewald on May 23, to discuss “legislation relating to Nevada employers,” a spokesperson for the Chamber said
  • Ferraro Group founder Greg Ferraro and former Fennemore Craig lobbyist Jim Wadhams on May 29, in a meeting regarding pending bills and the close of the legislative session. Wadhams also met with Sisolak on April 1.

Greg Smith

Within hours after Democratic Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle announced he was resigning from the state Legislature over multiple claims of sexual harassment, Gov. Steve Sisolak was already meeting with his eventual successor — though the governor’s office claims it was just a coincidence.

While reporters scurried and stalked the legislative building in attempts to find Sprinkle or get comments from other lawmakers on his resignation, Sisolak had scheduled a meeting with Greg Smith — the husband of former Democratic state Sen. Debbie Smith. The meeting on March 14 came two weeks before his appointment to the Assembly and over a 15-person field of candidates who filed to replace Sprinkle. 

But Sisolak’s office said the meeting was just a coincidence; Smith was brought in to advise the office on several pending bills related to apprenticeship programs (Smith is a retired union apprenticeship program administrator.) Smith did not return several calls seeking comment on the meeting.

Education

On the campaign trail, few organizations were more helpful to Sisolak than the Clark County Education Association, which endorsed the future governor early in the campaign and spent more than a million dollars in third-party campaign ads ahead of the 2018 election.

Once in office, Sisolak’s door was open to the teacher’s union and its polarizing leader, John Vellardita. The governor and Vellardita met or called at least twice (once on March 14 and again on April 8), and held a meet and greet with CCEA educators on April. In contrast, the Nevada State Education Association (which endorsed Sisolak’s primary opponent) held a scheduled meeting with Sisolak just once, on March 19. 

And in a legislative session defined by massive shifts to the state’s antiquated funding formula and calls for more funding, Sisolak also met with various school district and higher education leaders. He met with Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara twice (once on March 4 and again on March 26), Washoe County School District lobbyist Lindsay Anderson on April 4, Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly on February 27, and UNLV President Marta Meana on April 24.

Sisolak also met with State Board of Education chair Elaine Wynn on May 21, the same day as the first legislative hearing on the revamped K-12 education formula.

Business interests

Calls to major business and gambling company executives took up a sizable amount of Sisolak’s time, especially as the legislative session drew to a close.

Sisolak’s calendars show meetings with Anthony Marnell (CEO of Marnell Gaming, which operates the Sparks Nugget) on April 10, Golden Gaming CEO Blake Sartini on April 21 and Grand Sierra Resort and SLS Las Vegas owner Alex Muerelo on May 9. One of his last calls made before the legislative session ended on May 27 was to Virginia Valentine, the director of powerful casino trade group the Nevada Resorts Association. Valentine said the call was to relay the gaming industry’s support for AB533, the bill to create the Cannabis Compliance Board.

Other notable meetings or calls arranged between business executives and Sisolak include:

  • Eli Lilly executives on February 12
  • Beau Wrigley, the heir to the Wrigley chewing gum fortune and CEO of Suterra Wellness (a cannabis company that operates in Nevada and other states) on April 1
  • Fidelity National Financial executive Peter Sadowski on April 10. Fidelity is owned by Bill Foley, the owner of the Golden Knights hockey team.
  • Former Nevada Cattlemen's Association president Joe Guild and lobbyist Richard Perkins on April 23. Both lobbied for Union Pacific Railroad
  • Kaempfer Crowell attorney Jennifer Lazovich on April 26

2020 Candidates

At least four of the Democratic presidential candidates met with or calling Sisolak during the legislative session, including billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. Sisolak’s office also said he met with California Sen. Kamala Harris during her trip to Nevada, and that all candidate visits were accommodated based on the governor’s schedule and availability.

He also met with former New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg — who considered but ultimately decided against a presidential run — on February 26, after state lawmakers approved a bill implementing a long-stalled gun background check law. Bloomberg helped fund the group that backed the initial ballot question in the 2016 election.

Sisolak said during an AFSCME forum earlier this month that he wasn’t sure whether he would endorse any candidate before the state’s presidential caucus in February.

Federal government

Unlike his predecessor Sandoval, who in the 2017 legislative session scheduled calls or meetings with at least 17 Cabinet secretaries and other high ranking officials in Trump administration, Sisolak made relatively few calls to officials in the Trump administration during his first legislative session.

Sisolak arranged a call with former Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Feb. 5, and another call with former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on March 28, the same day Nevada joined a group of states intervening in a lawsuit defending the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

Sisolak also scheduled a call with Delaware Sen. Tom Carper on April 30, the same day he sent a publicized open letter to Carper and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso to reiterate the state’s “strong opposition to the Yucca Mountain project” (Barrasso and Carper serve on the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works).

Grants management lawsuit

Sisolak’s office also scheduled a meeting entitled “Streamlink Discussion” on April 15, a day after The Nevada Independent published a story detailing how litigation brought by Streamlink had gummed up a grants management software contract that state officials believed could help tap into millions of dollars worth of federal grants.

Although the state took no immediate action after the story was published, Carson City District Court Judge James Russell ruled against the state and in favor of Streamlink in May, leading the Department of Administration to announce it would drop future appeals and re-open bidding on the grants management software contract. 

The contract was reopened in July, and the office expects to have the system fully functional by 2021.

Celebrities

Sisolak’s calendar also shows meetings with higher-profile individuals than the normal slew of Carson City insiders.

The governor scheduled a meet and greet meeting with actress Patricia Arquette on March 8, the same day the actress attended a press conference with Democratic lawmakers on several equal pay bills. Sisolak’s office said the meeting was indeed scheduled but never actually happened.

On May 15, he scheduled a meeting with former football star Boomer Esiason on the topic of cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that Esiason has highlighted through creation of a foundation after his son was diagnosed with the disease.

Sisolak also met with legendary labor organizer Dolores Huerta on April 3, and presented her with a proclamation. Huerta came to Carson City to testify in favor of a bill that would allow for physician-assisted aid-in-dying. The bill, SB165, failed to advance out of the Legislature.

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Nevada GOP chair McDonald hired as dental board lobbyist despite lack of experience in field

Despite his lack of experience in health care issues or occupational boards, Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald has been hired as the Nevada State Board of Dental Examiners’ lobbyist and legislative liaison as part of a two-year, $72,000 contract.

Although most boards and commissions contract with full-time, professional lobbyists, the dental examiners board elected to hire McDonald in late 2018 to be their sole lobbyist during the state’s 120-day legislative session and during the interim period between legislative sessions. But it remains unclear how McDonald, a rare presence in the legislative building and close ally of President Donald Trump, has represented the board in a session controlled by Democrats where key lawmakers and lobbyists for related entities say they haven’t interacted with him on any issues, even those affecting the dental board.

McDonald did not return a call or text message seeking comment on the contract or his work with the board.

McDonald — who does not list any other clients on the legislative lobbyist registry — was hired by the board during its May 11, 2018 meeting, where board members elected to hire him over lobbying firms run by former Assembly members Richard Perkins and William Horne (who was hired to lobby for the board during the 2017 legislative session).

In his one-page application letter, McDonald wrote that he would be involved in “all facets of the legislative process” including bill tracking, client communications and interim activities between sessions. His application included only a copy of his business's registration with the Secretary of State, while applications submitted by rival applicants Perkins Company and Horne Duarte contained slightly more in-depth information on their lobbying efforts and organizational structure.

According to minutes of the meeting, McDonald was the only applicant to appear in person, and after a short discussion was approved unanimously (with one abstention) by the board, which is the seventh-largest in the state in terms of annual revenues.

In an email, board attorney Melanie Bernstein Chapman said the board was authorized under state law to hire legislative consultants and that the board required the “special skills, expertise and knowledge of an experienced legislative liaison” to ensure it would “achieve optimal results for the citizens it serves.”

“Mr. McDonald was ultimately chosen due to his long history with Nevada and its citizens, as well as the responses to questions he was asked at the time the proposals were considered,” Bernstein Chapman said in an email. “His position as the chairman of the Nevada Republican Party was not discussed or considered as part of this process and was not a factor in the discussion or deliberation resulting in the decision to contract with him.”

Several board members including President Yvonne Bethea did not return calls from The Nevada Independent as to why they selected McDonald for the contract.

The contract runs for nearly two years, and is worth $72,000 in total, or roughly $3,430 per month. It was approved unanimously by members of the Board of Examiners — which consists of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state — in October 2018. All three of those office-holders were members of the Republican Party.

The approved contract states the dental board “requires the availability, expertise and knowledge that can be uniquely performed by the Contractor.”

Despite his status as the sole registered lobbyist for the board, it’s unclear whether McDonald has played any role in debate over bills that would have a major impact on the function and operation of the dental examiners board. Democratic Sen. Julia Ratti said she had not seen or interacted with McDonald on her bill SB366, which as originally drafted would have removed dental hygienists from the oversight and purview of the dental examiners board and licensed them under a different board.

Ratti added that she had primarily worked with the state’s dental association on the bill, adding that she wouldn’t be able to recognize McDonald if she saw him. It also remains uncertain how McDonald — who called legislative Democrats “frauds that have no clue what it takes to run our state” in a February statement — would be able to successfully nurture relationships and work with the Democrat-controlled Legislature on bills affecting the board.

Chris Ferrari, a lobbyist for the state dental association, said he had not interacted with McDonald on Ratti’s bill or any other bill this legislative session, but said it wasn’t atypical for a state board lobbyist to not play an active or advocacy role in pending legislation.

“Some boards tend to be a little more outspoken and get into what might be considered advocacy, while others have just sat back and taken questions,” he said.

Still, Ferrari said he had regularly checked in with the board’s former lobbyist, William Horne, during the 2017 legislative session to share a “collegial perspective on issues” that could affect the dental board and industry.

It’s unclear how much time McDonald has physically spent at the Legislature, outside of a Nevada Republican Party rally against a gun control bill held outside the legislative building in early April. He was scheduled to give a legislative update during the Dental Board’s last meeting on March 22, according to a copy of the meeting agenda.

The board itself has recently faced scrutiny from state lawmakers amid a 2016 audit report that found the board had overcharged almost half of licensees subject to investigation, and allowed some offenders to make charitable donations in lieu of fine which isn’t allowed under state law.

Leading the Republican party has been a way back into the political limelight for McDonald, a former Las Vegas police officer who was elected at age 30 to the Las Vegas City Council in 1995, but saw his momentum stall amid ethics investigations and a federal tax investigation that contributed to his defeat in the 2003 municipal election.

McDonald was elected chair of the Nevada Republican Party in 2012, winning contentious re-election campaigns in 2013 and 2015 against party establishment-backed candidates. He’s cultivated a close relationship with President Donald Trump, including getting the then-candidate to appear at a 2016 fundraiser for the party in Lake Tahoe, and was in turn heartily endorsed by Trump’s campaign ahead of the 2020 election cycle.

In the past, McDonald has worked as a lobbyist but never for an occupational board or health-related organization. According to registration records, he lobbied for the Nevada Republican Party in 2017, and for several clients in 2015 including trial lawyer Glen Lerner, the Laughlin Constable’s office, the Armenian American Cultural Society of Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada Rural Constable's Alliance. He also appeared as a lobbyist for the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in 2012.

His company that received the lobbying contract — Alpha-Omega Strategies — was incorporated in 1998, and has been involved in a multitude of business interests. He told the Las Vegas Sun in 1999 that the business was operating essentially as a “consulting” firm for private investigations (without a license). In 2008, the same company received approval and financial assistance from the Las Vegas City Council to develop senior housing and a retail center in Northwest Las Vegas.

The company was also used by McDonald to cash monthly checks from the law firm of Patti and Sgro during his time on the Las Vegas City Council, highlighted as part of a wide-ranging tax fraud investigation (McDonald was never charged in the case, and later said he had been “wrongfully accused”).

McDonald was also briefly employed in the Nevada State Treasurer’s Office as a senior deputy treasurer, but resigned within three months of taking the position amid criticism that he was hired on given his close relationship with then-state Treasurer Dan Schwartz, previously a finance director for the state Republican Party.