Grand Sierra Resort owner Alex Meruelo helps fund challenger to judge involved in contentious case involving casino

Billionaire Alex Meruelo, owner of the Grand Sierra Resort and Sahara Las Vegas casinos, is the primary financial backer of a Washoe County judicial candidate challenging a sitting judge who has ruled against his properties in the past.

Businesses associated with Meruelo, a Cuban-American billionaire who also owns the National Hockey League’s Arizona Coyotes, have contributed a total of $110,000 to the campaign of Kathleen Sigurdson, a private practice attorney attempting to unseat incumbent Judge Elliott Sattler in Washoe County District Court. Sattler was appointed to the bench by former Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2013 after a two-decade career in the Washoe County district attorney’s office.

The contributions make up the vast majority of all those made to Sigurdson’s campaign (which in total raised $120,000 since the start of the year) and has helped keep her competitive against the better-funded Sattler, who has cumulatively raised more than $175,000 and spent about $114,000 over the last nine months.

A spokesman for Meruelo — who purchased the Reno-based Grand Sierra Resort in 2011 and the former SLS Las Vegas in 2017 — said the contributions came as the company was impressed with Sigurdson's history and qualifications.

"We met Ms. Sigurdson after she filed to run, and were very impressed with her experience and believe she is the best fit for the bench," GSR spokesman Andrew Diss said in an email. "We employ several thousand team members in Washoe County, so helping to elect qualified judges is an important responsibility to ensure our employees and their families are treated fairly in the court room."

Sigurdson did not return a request for comment on Wednesday.

But the contributions, which are Meruelo’s most extensive in a Nevada race since similar large contributions to gubernatorial candidates Steve Sisolak and Adam Laxalt, come amid a complex, expensive and longstanding legal fight between the Grand Sierra Resort and a group of condominium owners in the hotel.

The case, initially filed in 2012, alleges that the Reno-based casino engaged in a “series of illegal and unethical business practices in an attempt to force appellants to sell their units.” The case went before Sattler, who ruled in favor of the condominium owners after the casino company allegedly refused to follow rules of procedure and other court orders. Sattler ultimately granted $8 million in compensatory damages in mid-2014, before initially scheduling a hearing for additional punitive damages.

But those punitive damages were never awarded. Sattler ultimately reversed and dismissed the case, after attorneys for the casino successfully filed a subject matter jurisdiction claim, which held that the plaintiffs (condominium owners) should have mediated their claims before filing suit. In his order, Sattler expressed some regret over the reversal; writing that the result was “inimical and unjust after the course of the Defendants’ conduct throughout this litigation,” adding that they took a “lackadaisical and inappropriate approach” to court rules and orders.

“The Defendants have done everything possible to make the proceedings unjust, dilatory, and costly in abject contravention of (Nevada court rules),” he wrote in a 2014 order. “The Court is bound to following the law and its application and interpretation by the Supreme Court. Should this Court feel it had the authority to decide the issue presented based on what was ‘fair’ or ‘just’ it would deny the Motion out of hand. The Defendants clearly do not deserve the result they will receive, but it is the law.”

Sattler’s decision to dismiss the case was appealed to the state Supreme Court, where in February 2018 a three-judge panel issued an order reversing and remanding the decision to dismiss, sending the original lawsuit back to District Court. The court wrote in its order (authored by Justices James Hardesty, Ron Parraguirre and Lidia Stiglich) that attorneys for the GSR spent four years arguing the case without ever bringing up the state law requiring mediation until after the District Court has already ordered $8 million in damages.

The case is still pending in Washoe County District Court.

While the case was pending, businesses associated with Meruelo helped fund the campaign of Sattler’s challenger: Sigurdson.

The personal injury attorney, who is making her first bid for public office, reported receiving $20,000 from the two Meruelo-owned casinos in January and February 2020, and then received another $90,000 from nine entities all registered or associated with Meruelo on Sept. 14, 2020.

Those companies included the following: Meruelo Media Holdings, KLOS Radio, KPWR Radio, KDAY Radio, Herman Weissker Inc., Cantamar Property Management, Herman Weissker Power, Inc., One Call Construction Services and Doty Bros. Equipment Company. All of those companies are based in California and are affiliated with Meruelo.

The cash infusion helped fund television ads — Sigurdson’s campaign reported several five-figure expenditures with Reno-area television stations on Sept. 18, just four days after the contributions were made.

The contest between Sattler and Sigurdson is one of just a handful of competitive judicial race for District Court seats in Washoe County.

Updated on Thursday, Oct. 22 to include a quote from a Grand Sierra Resort spokesman. Updated on Friday, Oct. 23, to correct that there are more than one competitive judicial races for district court seats in Washoe County.

Clark County, former SLS casino head to court over property tax dispute

The multi-million dollar sale of the Sahara Las Vegas last year has had a ripple effect beyond a major renovation and the renaming of a Las Vegas Strip property — it also has spurred a six-figure property tax dispute between the resort’s new owners and Clark County officials.

After receiving approval from the Clark County Commission last month, officials with the county’s assessor's office have appealed a decision by a state tax board to reduce personal property taxes owed by the former SLS Las Vegas last year to $0, under regulations allowing property taxes to be reduced if the assessed value is less than the actual cash value paid for the property.

But county officials are seeking to reverse that decision through an appeal filed earlier this month in Clark County District Court, with attorneys for the assessor’s office accusing the state’s Board of Equalization of granting the casino resort an “unlawful tax reduction” worth $374,000 that resulted in a “substantial” loss for the county.

“The decision is arbitrary and capricious as there is substantial evidence in the record that the 2018/2019 personal property has substantial value,” Deputy District Attorney Lisa Logsdon wrote in a Nov. 8 court filing.

Although somewhat complex, the property tax issue dovetails with the sale in 2018 of the casino resort to a company operated by billionaire investor Alex Meruelo, who also operates the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno. Meruelo publicly promised to invest up to $100 million in the 1,616-room casino and hotel, which operated for decades as the Sahara (the name was officially changed back to Sahara Las Vegas in April). 

According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the former SLS finally turned profitable in 2018 after years in the red, helped by ending a relationship with a separate management company that operated one of the property’s three towers. The property, which operated as the Sahara between 1952 and 2011, has faced difficulty in attracting business given its relative remoteness to other open casino resorts in the Strip corridor. 

Although Meruelo declined to state the price of the casino after announcing its purchase, the casino company disclosed to the state board that it purchased the property for $230.27 million — substantially less than the overall assessed taxable value of the land and its property ($321 million) estimated by the Clark County assessor’s office.

The dispute is not about the property tax value of the 17-acre site, but instead revolves around the assessed value of improvements on the property actually on the site — estimated to be $36 million in the 2018/2019 tax year, according to documents filed with the State Board of Equalization.

According to a state regulation put in place in 1983, if the initially determined taxable value for a piece of property is found to exceed the actual cash value, the assessor or person determining the taxable value “shall appropriately reduce” the assessed taxes placed on improvements and any pertinent personal property.

In other words, the state allows for property tax bills to be slashed if there’s a significant difference between the actual sale price and estimated tax set by the assessor.

Although the Sahara paid the personal property tax in October, the new owners filed an appeal with the Clark County Board of Equalization in February 2019 to dispute the taxable value figure. The county board denied the petition, but an appeal to the State Board of Equalization in October reversed the lower decision, wiping out the personal property tax owed.

Dennis Meservy, the then-chair of the state’s Board of Equalization, said he didn’t remember exact details of the casino’s appeal, but said that the case, in spite of the larger tax amount at stake, was similar to others that the board deals with.

“I’m not sure that this anything unique,” he said. “People have a right to appeal their evaluation.”

But the state board’s decision is far from final — a spokeswoman for the Clark County assessor’s office, Stacey Welling, said the office still believed the state board’s decision was “incorrect.” In the filing submitted to District Court, an attorney for the assessor’s office wrote that the board was incorrectly relying on a closed prior year secured roll value (assessed on the value of property, not improvements) to determine the cash value of personal property. 

Although the case is proceeding — a court hearing is set for Dec. 10 — neither side has resorted to making strong public statements on the tax dispute. A spokeswoman for the Sahara said in an email that it appealed the decision to “accurately reflect the purchase price,” but hoped to have the issue sorted out soon.

“This is an ongoing process that we hope to resolve soon with the State and the County,” Sahara spokeswoman Emily Wofford said in an email.

From the Bellagio to Lotus of Siam, here’s how Democratic presidential hopefuls are spending campaign cash in Nevada

Presidential campaign expenditure reports aren’t known for being glitzy. There are trips to Office Depot and Costco for supplies, furniture from IKEA, quick lunches at Panera Bread, rental cars, flights, staff salaries and office rent. 

But when your campaign comes to Las Vegas, those reports suddenly get a lot more interesting.

Democratic presidential hopefuls have spent more than $2.1 million in the Silver State since the beginning of the year, according to a review of campaign finance reports covering the first nine months of the year filed with the Federal Election Commission. Among that spending? Tens of thousands of dollars in hotel nights on the Las Vegas Strip and event catering by some of the city’s most loved restaurants.

The candidates have also shelled out thousands of dollars on event rental spaces, permits and security to local government entities, including the cities of Henderson, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas and the Clark and Washoe school districts. (Those sums are, however, unlikely to solve any funding woes.)

Another major beneficiary of campaign spending in the Silver State is the Nevada State Democratic Party, which has taken in nearly $500,000 from Democratic presidential hopefuls in voter file access and event tickets or sponsorships. Those funds will go toward helping the party run Nevada’s Feb. 22 first-in-the-West caucus.

Read below for some of the highlights of where candidates are choosing to spend their hard-earned campaign cash in Nevada.

Hotel and travel

Democratic presidential hopefuls have, collectively, spent the most on lodging at the Vdara, owned by MGM Resorts and tucked behind the Bellagio and across the street from the Aria. Former Vice President Joe Biden has spent the most there by far, about $14,400, though California Sen. Kamala Harris, billionaire Tom Steyer and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg also each dropped significant cash on lodging and travel there.

Another top grossing property was the SLS, which was recently renamed the Sahara. That was mostly thanks to Harris, who spent $17,200 there, while Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders each spent a couple hundred dollars there.

Spending patterns also hint at how the campaigns’ financial constraints of lack thereof may play into decisions about where to stay in Las Vegas. 

Steyer, who has pumped at least $47 million of his own money into his campaign, spent $3,000 at the Aria, one of the newer hotels on the Strip with its glossy curved towers and modern interior decor and another MGM property, in the month of September while former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who has struggled to raise money, spent $2,400 between January and September at the Flamingo, which opened in 1946.

But not all campaigns are spending their entire hotel budgets on the Strip. Sanders spent $7,100 at the Skyline Hotel and Casino on Boulder Highway in Henderson in March. Other campaigns spent smaller amounts of cash at Downtown Las Vegas hotels, including the Downtown Grand, Golden Nugget and the Plaza.

In the north, the Grand Sierra Resort was the most popular hotel for campaigns. Steyer by far outspent his fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls, dropping $10,100 on stays there at the end of September.

Totals spent on lodging can include stays by candidates or their staff. Most of the following amounts were described specifically as “lodging,” though some were described generically as “travel,” which could include non-lodging related expenses.

On the Strip:

  • Vdara: $21,900 // Biden spent $14,400 in early May. Harris spent $3,700 in mid-August. Buttigieg spent $1,600 in early May. Steyer spent $2,200 in July, August and September.
  • SLS/Sahara: $18,600 // Sanders spent $600 in May and June. Harris spent $17,200 between March and August. Warren spent $800 between March and August.
  • Park MGM: $5,600 // Sanders spent $500 in May. Biden spent $5,100 in May.
  • MGM Resorts: $4,600 // Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar spent $4,600 on travel in May and August, though her campaign finance report does not specify which MGM Resorts property she stayed at.
  • Mandalay Bay: $3,300 // Buttigieg spent $2,500 in May. Warren spent $900 in June and August.
  • Aria: $3,000 // Steyer spent $3,000 in September.
  • Flamingo Hotel and Casino: $2,400 // Castro spent $2,400 in January, March, May, June and September.
  • Bellagio: $1,500 // Gabbard spent $300 in mid-May. Warren spent $1,200 on travel in April, July and August.
  • Stratosphere: $700 // Biden spent $300 in August and September. Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang spent $300 in September
  • The Linq: $500 // Warren spent $500 in February and March.
  • Caesars Palace: $300 // Harris spent $300 in July.
  • MGM Grand: $200 // Self-help author Marianne Williamson spent $50 on campaign travel on July 8. Warren spent $150 in August.
  • Wynn Las Vegas: $100 // Harris spent a little less than $100 in July and August.

Off the Strip and Downtown Las Vegas:

  • Westin Las Vegas: $7,300 // Williamson spent $6,200 in April, June, July and August. Buttigieg spent $1,100 in April.
  • Skyline Hotel and Casino: $7,100 // Sanders spent $7,100 in March.
  • Hard Rock Hotel and Casino: $1,600 // Sanders spent $1,600 between July and September.
  • Downtown Grand Hotel: $1,400 // Castro spent $600 in September. Harris spent $800 in July.
  • Palms Place: $1,400 // Williamson spent $900 on in mid-May. Warren spent $500 on travel in May, June and July. (Warren apologized in August for her staffers staying at the Palms and crossing the Culinary Union’s picket line to do so; Williamson cited “travel and scheduling restrictions” for saying at the hotel, according to CBS News.)
  • Silver Sevens Hotel: $700 // Buttigieg spent $700 in late July and early August.
  • The Carriage House: $400 // Klobuchar spent $400 in early April.
  • Golden Nugget: $300 // Gabbard spent $300 in early April.
  • Plaza Hotel and Casino: $200 // New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker spent $200 in early April.

In the north:

  • Grand Sierra Resort: $15,800 // Steyer spent $10,100 at the end of September. Harris spent $2,800 in May. Warren spent $1,600 on travel in April, May, July and August. Booker spent $400 in May and September. Sanders spent $300 in June. Biden spent $300 in August. Williamson spent $300 in April. 
  • Peppermill: $600 // Williamson spent $600 in April, May and July.
  • Circus Circus: $400 // Booker spent $400 in March.

Food and catering

Fundraisers, debate watch parties and other campaign events are all fine and well on their own. But there’s one surefire way to get people to show up to your events — and that’s food.

To that end, campaigns have learned on some of the most popular restaurants in Las Vegas to cater or host events around town.

The biggest spend by an individual candidate at an individual location on catering, food and beverage was Biden, who spent $38,600 on catering, food and beverage at NoMad between May and September. Two-thirds of that was dropped on a major fundraiser that Biden held at NoMad in early May.

Other campaign spending on food and beverage was less flashy but no less classically Las Vegas. Both Booker and Williamson leaned on the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, a training school for hospitality workers, for food, beverage and catering for their campaigns.

Several candidates also held community events specifically focused on reaching out to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community at or catered by Chinese, Filipino and Indian restaurants around town, including Harbor Palace Seafood Restaurant, Hong Kong Garden Seafood, Bropards, Chang’s, and Pure Indian Cuisine.

Here’s a sampling of some of the more interesting food and catering purchases made by campaigns.

  • MGM Resorts: Biden spent $25,400 on catering, food and beverage on May 7, the day he held a fundraiser at NoMad. He spent another $13,200 at NoMad on in July, August and September.
  • Harbor Palace Seafood Restaurant: Biden spent $2,250 on catering, food and beverage at this seafood and dim sum restaurant in Chinatown on Aug. 7, four days after he attended an AAPI community event there.
  • Culinary Academy of Las Vegas/Westside Bistro: Booker spent $1,200 on Feb. 25 and Williamson spent $900 in June and July on food, beverage and catering. The Culinary Academy provides training to hospitality industry workers, and the Westside Bistro is a restaurant on its campus where students can practice.
  • Bropards: Williamson spent $500 on June 19 and Buttigieg spent $1,500 in mid-May on food, beverage and catering at this Filipino restaurant, lounge and event space in Chinatown. (Buttigieg attended an Asian American Pacific Islander Democratic Caucus community dinner there on May 11.)
  • Chang’s: Yang spent $1,800 on catering and event space at this Chinese restaurant in Spring Valley on April 24.
  • Pure Indian Cuisine: Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard spent $1,800 on catering and facility fees on March 22 at this Indian cafe near McCarran International Airport. (She hosted an event with Las Vegas’s Indian community a few days prior.)
  • PublicUs: Booker spent $1,700 on catering at this popular Downtown Las Vegas cafe in July and August.
  • Hong Kong Garden Seafood: Booker spent $1,400 on May 8, a couple of weeks after Met with members of the AAPI community at a "Community Dinner with Cory” at this Chinatown restaurant.
  • Cafe de Manila: Warren spent $1,400 on meals on Sept. 14 at this Filipino restaurant in Spring Valley.
  • Doña Maria Tamales: Yang spent $300 on catering and event space on April 23 and Harris spent $1,000 on catering, facilities and meals in June and September at this popular Downtown Las Vegas tamale shop. (Harris’s campaign hosted a debate watch party at the restaurant in late June.)
  • TC’s Rib Crib: Yang spent $600 in April, and Williamson spent $300 in June on catering, food and beverage at this barbecue joint. (The restaurant has since closed after the sudden death of its owner.)
  • Ferraro’s Restaurant: Sanders spent $700 on catering from this upscale Italian restaurant in July.
  • DW Bistro: Harris spent $700 on meals on April 4 at this Southwest Las Vegas restaurant that serves a mix of New Mexican and Jamaican cuisines.
  • Shiraz: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock spent $600 on meals on Aug. 5 at this popular restaurant serving Indian and Mediterranean food.
  • 911 Taco Bar and Catering: Harris spent $600 on catering on July 26 from this mobile taco cart company.
  • Lotus of Siam: Klobuchar spent $500 on catering on May 22 at this favorite local Thai restaurant.
  • Triple George Grill: Sanders spent $500 on catering in July and September from this Downtown Las Vegas restaurant.
  • Tacos and Beer: Buttigieg spent $300 on catering on Aug. 3 and Warren spent $200 on meals on Aug. 27 at this speciality taco and craft beer shop near UNLV.

Event spaces, permits and security

As they travel through town, candidates often host events at local schools, community centers and parks. But doing so doesn’t come free — or cheap. Sanders, for instance, paid the Clark County Parks and Recreation Department nearly $10,000 on event, sound and staging costs in September, when he hosted a rally at the Cambridge Recreation Center. 

Three candidates — Sanders, Harris and Warren — have also paid the Clark County School District thousands of dollars to hold town halls and rallies at elementary, middle and high schools across Southern Nevada. Two candidates, Warren and Buttigieg, paid the Washoe County School District to host events at high schools up north as well.

Other times, candidates have paid to host events at private facilities, such as at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada or First Friday in Las Vegas’s Arts District.

Here’s a look at where some of those events have been and how much it cost the candidates.

Government entities

  • Clark County Parks and Recreation: $9,500 // Sanders spent $9,500 on event, sound and staging in September. He hosted a climate change and “college for all” rally in Sept. 14 at the Cambridge Recreation Center.
  • Clark County School District: $8,700 // Sanders spent $1,000 on event, sound and staging in May and September. Harris spent $3,700 on catering, event and facilities in March and August. Warren spent $4,000 on facilities and rentals on in April through September. Sanders hosted a town hall at Roy W. Martin Middle School on May 30; Harris hosted town halls at Canyon Springs High School on March 1 and Nate Mack Elementary School on Aug. 3; and Warren hosted rallies at Bonanza High School on April 27 and Green Valley High School on Aug. 2.
  • City of Las Vegas: $7,700 // Warren spent $2,700 on facilities and rentals on June 27. Harris spent $4,700 on event facilities and security in June and September. Booker spent $300 on venue rental on April 29. Warren hosted a community conversation at the East Las Vegas Community Center on July 2, Harris hosted a rally at Doolittle Community Center on June 15 and at the East Las Vegas Community Center on Oct. 2; and Booker hosted an event at Mirabelli Community Center on April 20.
  • UNR: $7,200 // Sanders spent $2,400 on event, sound and staging in mid-September, while Harris spent $4,800 on event facilities and parking in late September. Sanders and Harris hosted events on the campus on Sept. 13 and Oct. 3, respectively.
  • City of Henderson: $4,300 // Sanders spent $4,300 on event permits, sound and staging in March. The Vermont senator’s first rally in Nevada of his 2020 campaign was in Henderson’s Morrell Park.
  • Reno Police Department: Sanders spent $2,400 on event security in early June, after hosting a rally in Reno City Plaza on May 29.
  • Washoe County School District: Buttigieg spent $500 on a site rental in September, and Warren spent $800 on facilities and rental expenses in early April. Buttigieg hosted a rally at Sparks High School on Sept. 28, while Warren hosted a rally at Wooster High School on April 6.
  • Carson City Parks and Recreation: $1,000 // Sanders spent $1,000 for event planning fees on Sept. 13, the day he hosted a town hall at the Carson City Community Center Gymnasium.
  • North Las Vegas: Sanders spent $400 on event security in July.

Other rental spaces

  • Springs Preserve: Yang spent $5,800 on event space in April, and Warren spent $6,100 in February and March. Yang held a rally there in April, while Warren held one in February.
  • Victory Missionary Baptist Church: Sanders spent $7,000 on event, sound and staging for a town hall he held there on July 6.
  • The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada: Sanders spent $2,000 on event, sound and staging in August; Biden spent $2,000 on site rentals in June, July and August; and Williamson spent $300 on rental fees in April. Williamson and Sanders hosted events at the Center in April and August, respectively.
  • First Friday Foundation Las Vegas: Buttigieg spent $3,500 on event registration on Aug. 1. He spoke at First Friday in the Arts District the following day.
  • Blind Center of Nevada: Klobuchar spent $3,000 to rent space in April. She hosted a meet-and-greet with local voters there on April 7.
  • Desert Willow Golf Course: Biden spent $2,800 for a rally he held at Sun City MacDonald Ranch on Aug. 3.
  • Saint Simeon Orthodox Church: Sanders spent $2,000 on event, sound and staging in September. The Vermont senator was slated to hold a rally there with Assemblyman Alexander Assefa on Oct. 2 but was hospitalized following a heart attack the prior evening.

Other spending

Another significant expense for campaigns over the last nine months has been access to the Nevada State Democratic Party’s voter file. Four campaigns have paid the party $100,000 for access to the file, according to FEC reports, while others have made smaller payments toward the full cost of the voter file.

Other expenses include contributions to local organizations, such as Hispanics in Politics and Battle Born Progress, to attend or sponsor events and sign language interpretation services.

Here’s a look at some of those miscellaneous expenses.

Parties

  • Nevada State Democratic Party: Sanders, Biden, Harris and Buttigieg have all paid the party $100,000 each for access to its voter file. Yang has also spent $5,000 and Steyer has spent $75,000 for voter file access, something that the campaigns are allowed to pay in installments. The party has also raised money through event tickets and registration fees: Bullock paid the party a little less than $400 for event meals on Aug. 2; Booker spent $1,500 on event tickets on Sept. 25; Harris spent $3,100 on event tickets on Sept. 23; Buttigieg spent $2,500 on a registration fee on Sept. 25 and $1,500 on a site rental on Sept. 23; and Steyer spent $1,500 on an event sponsorship on Sept. 19.
  • Red Rock Democratic Club: Several campaigns paid the club for event tickets: Sanders spent $450, Biden spent $35 and Booker spent $550. 
  • Women’s Democratic Club of Clark County: Warren spent $2,500 on a contribution on Aug. 12.

Community group spending

  • Battle Born Progress: Sanders spent $1,500 on an event registration fee on Sept. 17, while Buttigieg spent $1,500 as an event sponsor on Sept. 23.
  • Hispanics in Politics: Booker spent about $900 on event tickets on Aug. 28, while Yang spent $500 on event space on April 30.
  • Armed Forces and Military Appreciation Inc.: Several candidates made contributions or purchased event tickets from this group, including $250 each from Biden, Booker and Harris. The group puts on an annual Armed Forces, Military Veterans and First Responders Appreciation Day at Craig Ranch Regional Park.

Other

  • American Sign Language Communication: Sanders spent $3,800 on interpretation services from March through September. Warren spent $500 in July and August.

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.

Snyder Production 6.24.19 by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Under casino pressure, cannabis smoke gets in City Council’s eyes

Back in the dime bag days, the shadowed alley off Sahara Avenue near Las Vegas Boulevard ran behind Honest John’s and the Jolly Trolley, a pair of gaudy grind joints. The Trolley is best remembered for the mob guys who skimmed its slots and fought over nickels and dimes on their way to prison.

The alley was a bustling profit center for pimps and drug dealers. It may have made more than the casinos.

These days, the homely strip mall is anchored by the behemoth Bonanza Gift Shop, a 40,000-square-foot Costco of tchotchkes located in the heart of the action. If you wanted key chains, a dice clock or “I Lost My Ass in Vegas” T-shirt to take back home to Des Moines, it’s the place to go.

And the alley and surrounding Naked City neighborhood? It’s changed a little, but not very much.

“It’s where I used to pick up my drugs and hookers on Friday night,” an old friend said recently, laughing at what we now consider nostalgic. An extremely successful Las Vegas businessman, his tastes in fat smoke and skinny girls became more nuanced after he left the alley and went corporate.

Cannabis has gone corporate, too. It’s not only legal, but celebrated as a source of job creation and tax revenue for the Silver State. Locally, marijuana distribution licensees include some the best-connected people in the valley. 

I heard my old friend’s laughter echo Wednesday at City Hall as the Las Vegas City Council considered, and then sidelined, what by all appearances was a legal and reasonable attempt to secure a special use permit to open a cannabis dispensary in a 3,600-square-foot section of the gift shop otherwise devoted to all those souvenirs.

The applicant, CWNevada and L Chaim 24 Fremont Properties LLC, was represented at the meeting by owner Dr. Pejman Bady. It had already received approval from the City Planning Commission, an approval recommendation by staff, and a full vetting of the 12 requirements it needed to meet that were specific to its cannabis license. Company representative George Garcia called the request “a typical special use permit application. ... We stand before you ready, having met all the requirements of the city.”

Of course, Garcia knew better.

No issue is typical when Gaming Inc. takes an interest. Opposing the pot shop approval was a casino industry contingent led by Nevada Resort Association President Virginia Valentine, veteran gaming attorney Jeff Silver, and executives representing The Strat, SLS/Sahara, and Boyd Gaming. MGM Resorts was present in spirit for its ownership of a nearby outside concert and event site. The casino side also brought out Metro Capt. Laz Chavez to oppose the dispensary.

The cannabis companies in the area aren’t without their own political weight. Essence, which advertises itself as the only cannabis dispensary on the Strip, glows green and sits in a handsome building across the Boulevard from the Strat. Although the company has blended into behemoth Green Thumb Industries, former Tropicana CEO Alex Yemenidjian and son Armen Yemenidjian hold executive positions in the Illinois-based company, and Las Vegas Sun publisher Brian Greenspun is a former partner when Essence was locally owned. But that’s the business.

(As a reminder of how close those connections come to city hall, Mayor Carolyn Goodman noted that she has a son involved in the industry and dutifully abstained from discussing the agenda item. In full disclosure, while reporting this column I discovered that a niece works for the cannabis company.)

City preliminary approvals aside, their reasoning was pretty sound.

Silver called Las Vegas Boulevard a “Yellow Brick Road” leading to downtown and dominated by casino investment, which made me wonder what he’d been smoking.

“And I know that the city and the county have had some disagreement about how long the Strip is,” Silver said. “But the Strip to me is where nonrestricted gaming is located. And that means that it’s taking it all the way past the Stratosphere hotel ... this is what we’re trying to protect. ... We don’t want a cannabis corridor on the Yellow Brick Road heading downtown. We already have what looks like to me to be a pretty heavy concentration of marijuana establishments.”

Golden Entertainment Vice President of Government Affairs Sean Higgins lamented the addition of yet another dispensary in the shadow of The Strat. He admitted  he took a keen interest in cannabis licensing before joining the casino company. But, hey, that was a couple years ago.

Higgins made The Strat sound more like a church than a gambling center when he spoke of the sacrilege of all the pot smoke wafting through the casino and on the streets of Naked City, which he admitted suffered from a crime and homeless problem. He reminded the council that four dispensaries stand within 1,000 feet of casino and 11 dot the area within a mile radius. And with $165 million invested or in the pipeline, The Strat is a major employer that holds plenty of drag on the far north end of the Strip.

“We are trying to revitalize this whole corridor,” Higgins said. “We’re working with the city, with the new archway, which is right on our property, which will be the grand entrance to the city of Las Vegas. We’re doing all those things, and we are vehemently opposed to putting a marijuana establishment, especially a recreational, at the gateway to the city of Las Vegas.”

He also illustrated the obvious: That the applicant was rushing to beat a November deadline before a new state law takes effect and mandates that future dispensaries open at least 1,500 feet from a nonrestricted gaming license.

But didn’t that just make the applicant a good businessman seeking the best location, location, location?

Perish the thought. The SLS/Sahara also weighed in with Government Affairs Director Andrew Diss reminding the council of the company’s substantial stake in the area. He also warned that one leg of a planned pedestrian bridge would empty out essentially at the front door of the proposed dispensary. And how would that look?

Again, didn’t that just make the applicant a good businessman with a great location, location, location?

Careful, smart guy.

In part because they’re hamstrung by marijuana’s outlaw federal status, in part I suspect because they crave a piece of the action, our corporate casino interests continue to send mixed messages when it comes to the cannabis crowd. They want their business, but can’t let them smoke on the property. They can’t have consumption lounges — and don’t want anyone else to start without them.

The proposed dispensary is in Ward 3, now represented by Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, who clearly felt the pressure. “I’m torn,” she said. “I feel like I love the people that are invested in this project, and I also love my downtown area command and the gaming (industry.) Right now we’re a family at odds.”

With council members Cedric Crear and Stavros Anthony against the measure, and fellow members Michele Fiore, Brian Knudsen and Victoria Seaman deferring to Diaz — thanks, guys! — that left Diaz feeling no love from the casino corporations.

In the end, the council punted and pushed the item onto a future agenda.

If you think the dispensary is a favorite for future approval, I suspect you’ve been spending some quality time in that alley.

Correction at 10:09 a.m. on 7/22/19: The original version of this column referred to George Garcia as "company attorney." It has been corrected to "company representative."

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

SLS Las Vegas cleared to leave NV Energy, amid many applicants withdrawing from attempts to leave utility

The sign at NV Energy corporate headquarters

It took less than ten minutes for the three members of Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission to swat down a last-chance effort by NV Energy to raise the price of SLS Las Vegas’s ticket to depart the utility and purchase electric power from another provider.

The PUC’s quick discussion and 2-1 vote on Wednesday to deny NV Energy’s request to reconsider an earlier PUC order granting the casino’s request to depart the utility is perhaps the last nail in an effort by NV Energy to coax, delay or dispute efforts by nearly a dozen large companies to leave utility service.

Since mid-2018, 14 of Nevada’s largest businesses and government agencies have filed applications with the PUC under the so-called 704B process, which allows certain large businesses and government entities to leave utility electric service and purchase power on the open market, in return for a usually substantial “impact fee” calculated and charged by the commission to ensure other utility customers don’t face unexpected costs.

Although Nevada lawmakers approved a wide-ranging bill in the 2019 Legislature that added more restrictions and limits on the 704B process, the legislation exempted all businesses with pending applications before the Commission from the new restrictions and requirements, meaning that they’re able to leave under the old, less restrictive set of rules.

That possibility has concerned NV Energy, which has moved to dispute or seek higher exit fees for companies applying to leave their service, including filing several motions for the commission to reconsider its orders granting the applications over fears that granting all pending applications would cripple future load growth and cost its other customers millions of dollars. 

But their arguments have yet to sway a majority of the Commission, which wrote in the order denying NV Energy’s reconsideration petition for the SLS that their arguments were not valid.  

“Considering the fact that [NV Energy’s] petition merely repeats the same arguments that it put forth in its testimony, the Commission finds that [NV Energy] has presented no basis for altering the determinations contained in the order, which are clearly delineated therein and which are clearly supported by the evidence presented in this docket,” members of the commission wrote in the order.

But the utility company has moved in other ways to reel its largest customers back into the fold, including entering into contracts with the LVCVA, City of Henderson and the Clark County School District that included direct incentive payments to the government agencies in return for a promise to not leave utility service. 

We believe we are the best energy partner for SLS Las Vegas, and we are committed to providing them with customized solutions that address their unique business needs and provide added value,” NV Energy spokeswoman Jennifer Schuricht said in an email. “This approach to meeting customer needs has been successful in helping us retain our customers, and we will continue to work hard to retain the opportunity to be the energy provider for SLS Las Vegas.”

Of the 14 entities that filed to leave utility service since June of 2018, six have withdrawn their applications, seven have been granted the right to leave by the PUC, and one (the under-construction The Drew resort) is still pending. Here’s how the exit application status of each business or entity that has filed to leave the utility is currently faring:

The Drew (exit application filed in April 2019)

The unfinished $3 billion, 67-story The Drew Las Vegas (formerly Fontainebleau) is still under construction and isn’t expected to open until the second fiscal quarter of 2022. Still, the hotel’s management company Two Blackbirds Hospitality Management LLC filed an application to preliminarily leave the utility in April 2019. 

The application is still pending, and a procedural order issued by the Commission set a hearing date for August 29.

Cosmopolitan (exit application filed in February 2019)

The Cosmopolitan withdrew its application to leave NV Energy’s service in late May, just three months after filing to leave the utility. No order was filed in the case, but an “impact analysis” by staff of the PUC estimated that the casino company would need to pay a $4.739 million impact fee over six years, or a $3.96 million fee up front.

LVCVA (exit application filed in February 2019)

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority — which operates Cashman Field and the Las Vegas Convention Center — withdrew its application to leave the utility in May amid announcing a five-year energy services agreement with NV Energy. That contract includes yearly payments of $650,000 and a requirement the authority enroll in the utility’s special Optional Pricing Program Rate program if and when it is approved by the Commission.

No order was drafted or approved by the commission, but according to PUC staff’s final impact analysis, the agency would have needed to pay either $6.36 million over six years or $5.098 million up front to officially leave the utility (slightly less if the LVCVA did not go forward with its planned expansion).

Air Liquide (exit application filed in February 2019) 

This company, which plans to build a liquid hydrogen facility in Clark County that will transform methane into liquid hydrogen, was granted approval for its exit application earlier this month with no impact fee included. 

Air Liquide, which plans to ship the liquid hydrogen to a California fuel cell facility for use in fuel cell vehicles powered by hydrogen, will still be required to pay legislatively-mandated “rate riders” such as the Economic Development Electric Rate Rider, an electric bill rebate program granted to Tesla and other large businesses that relocate to Nevada.

Commercial operation of the plant is scheduled to begin by the third or fourth fiscal quarter of 2021.

SLS Las Vegas (exit application filed in December 2018) 

Wednesday’s decision by the PUC means the runways are cleared for SLS Las Vegas to leave NV Energy’s electric service, after filing to do so last year and having an initial order approved in May.

The casino, which shares an owner (Meruelo Group) with the Grand Sierra Resort, will need to pay a $1.279 million up-front impact fee in order to depart NV Energy.

Grand Sierra Resort (exit application filed in December 2018)

The Grand Sierra Resort withdrew its application to leave NV Energy in April, citing concerns raised by NV Energy in previous filings about a lack of transmission capacity in Northern Nevada. 

Although no order was issued in the case, the casino would have had to pay $2.122 million up front or $2.2234 million over six years according to a PUC staff analysis.

South Point Casino (exit application filed in December 2018) 

After filing to leave the utility last year, the South Point Hotel and Casino withdrew its exit application and announced a partnership with NV Energy in May. 

The application was withdrawn before an order approving or not allowing the exit to proceed forward could be drafted, but a PUC staff final impact analysis estimated the casino resort would need to pay an impact fee of $3.229 million over six years or $2.605 million up front.

Boyd Gaming (exit application filed in November 2018) 

Of the 14 companies that have filed to leave NV Energy over the last 12 months, Boyd Gaming remains the largest current electric customer that still plans to leave the utility.

Boyd’s exit application was granted in June, and the casino company — which operates 12 Nevada properties including Aliante, Fremont Hotel and Casino and the Orleans — will be required to pay a $10.681 million up-front impact fee or $13.099 million fee paid over six years.

MSG Las Vegas (exit application filed in October 2018) 

The planned 18,000-seat MSG Sphere at the Venetian is one of several major under-construction projects that applied and received an order granting an exit application from NV Energy without having to pay an exit fee. 

The application by MSG Sphere, a joint venture between the Madison Square Garden Company and the Las Vegas Sands expected to be completed between 2020 and 2021, was approved by the Commission with no impact fee in April. A separate reconsideration petition by NV Energy was filed but rejected by the PUC in late April.

Georgia-Pacific Gypsum (exit application filed in September 2018) 

This gypsum wallboard and plastic manufacturing plant was granted permission to leave NV Energy as an electric customer in February. The company is required to pay an impact fee of either $1.567 million over six years, or 1.289 million as an upfront payment.

Raiders’ Stadium (exit application filed in September 2018) 

The future football home of the NFL’s Raiders was granted approval to leave NV Energy’s service sans exit fee in early February, after filing to leave the previous year.

But the team filed an unusual request to the PUC in May, essentially asking to temporarily hold off on compliance with entering into electric service agreement with a third-party provider amid a pending alternative offer by NV Energy to enroll in a similar pricing program provided by the utility. That motion was granted by the PUC, giving the team and NV Energy until September to come to an agreement.

Atlantis (exit application filed in August 2018)

Although their application to withdraw NV Energy was granted in February, the Reno-based Atlantis Casino Resort Spa reversed and withdrew their exit application in late April as part of an agreement with NV Energy. The original order would have required the casino to pay a $1.756 million up front impact fee, or $1.959 million fee spread out over six years.

Fulcrum Sierra BioFuels (exit application filed in June 2018) 

Fulcrum, which plans to open a waste-to-fuel biofuels plant in northern Nevada in early 2020, received permission from the PUC in November to leave NV Energy’s service without having to pay any impact fee, despite a request from the utility to tack on a $6.3 million impact fee.

Station Casinos (exit application filed in June 2018)

After being assessed a $15 million exit fee (or $18.091 million up front fee), Station Casinos withdrew its exit application and announced a long-term deal to stick with NV Energy.

The company, which owns multiple properties in the Las Vegas area including Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa and Green Valley Ranch, was granted its exit application in September 2018, but requested and received a delay in May to consider alternative options from NV Energy.

Cosmopolitan files to leave NV Energy's electric service

Photo of The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas

Yet another major casino on the Las Vegas Strip has filed an application to leave NV Energy’s electric service.

The 3,033-room Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas hotel and casino filed an application with state energy regulators last week to leave NV Energy’s electric service and to purchase power on the open market; the third such business or entity to do so in 2019.

The Cosmopolitan is the latest Nevada business to take advantage of a state law that allows large power users to file applications to leave the state’s incumbent electric utility and purchase power on the open market, usually in return for a multi-million dollar exit fee to offset any unexpected costs that would need to be paid by other customers.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the business said the company was "exploring the option of departing from NV Energy in 2019, a decision that will allow the resort to procure renewable energy resources to power some or all of its operation in its continued commitment to sustainability."

It also comes as NV Energy has taken increasingly aggressive moves to block the flow of large customers departing from the utility’s electric service and as lawmakers mull amending the process set out in law that allows customers to depart the utility’s service.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and a planned multimillion dollar hydrogen fuel plant in Southern Nevada filed to leave the utility’s electric service earlier in February — the first two businesses to do so this year. At least 10 companies filed to leave the utility’s electric service last year, including the Grand Sierra Resort, SLS Las Vegas, Boyd Gaming, MSG Las Vegas, a building supplies company north of Las Vegas, the under-construction Raiders stadium, Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, Fulcrum Sierra BioFuels and Station Casinos.

Another handful of large casinos and companies — including Switch, Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts — filed to leave the utility in 2014.

In its application, attorneys for The Cosmopolitan provided few reasons for the exit application but said the company met all requirements for an exit, which must be approved by the three-member Public Utilities Commission of Nevada and usually takes several months of hearings and filings.

Attorneys for the company said they met requirements for a successful exit application, including annual power load, and said they were in negotiations with Exelon Generation to serve as the company’s new electric provider in a five-year contract, with an estimated start date of Jan. 1, 2020.

The casino’s application also said it would fulfill a portion of state law requiring it to procure an extra 10 percent of electricity and sell it at cost to NV Energy, and promised to pay for any system impact studies or facility studies in case additional transmission capacity is needed.

Attorneys for the Cosmopolitan said that granting the application would be an overall benefit to the public.

“Approval of Cosmopolitan’s Application will not cause NV Energy to experience any increased costs as a result of the proposed transaction, remaining customers will not see any increase in rates as a result of the proposed transaction, there is no reason why the transaction would impair system reliability or NV Energy’s ability to continue to provide service to its customers, and the energy that Cosmopolitan will procure from its provider will meet the requirements of (state law) adding energy to the state,” attorneys wrote in the application.

Grand Sierra Resort, SLS Las Vegas file to leave NV Energy

Two additional major Nevada casinos have filed applications with state regulators to leave NV Energy as electric customers, joining the double-digit parade of companies filing to leave the utility and further clouding the state’s energy future.

Reno-based Grand Sierra Resort and SLS Las Vegas filed separate applications on Dec. 20 with the state’s Public Utilities Commission that if approved would allow each casino company to purchase electricity from a provider outside of NV Energy. The casinos share an owner; Grand Sierra Resort owner Alex Meruelo and the Meruelo Group agreed to purchase the SLS Las Vegas in 2017.

The two proposed exits bring the number of businesses that applied to leave the utility in 2018 up to 10. Applications last year came from a mix of casino companies and other large properties, including Boyd Gaming, MSG Las Vegas, a building supplies company north of Las Vegas, the under-construction Raiders stadium, Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, Fulcrum Sierra BioFuels and Station Casinos.

The exit applications fall under a provision of Nevada law that allows large power users to depart NV Energy as a customer, as long as energy regulators find the exit to be in the public interest and if the departing company pays a substantial “exit fee” to offset unexpected costs that would otherwise be paid by other utility customers.

The two recently filed applications include few details as to why the casinos wish to leave the utility as a customer, but both say they will purchase power from private electricity provider Tenaska under a likely three-year contract, and want to start their service in October 2019. Most businesses that have filed to leave the utility say they did so to either secure lower electric rates or to obtain an alternative fuel mix to what NV Energy provides.

In a joint statement, a Meruelo Group spokesman said the applications were being filed so that the companies could “capitalize on our state’s abundant natural resources.”

“Our guests recognize the importance of making environmentally responsible energy decisions and, in order to meet those expectations, we have begun the process of working with Nevada’s energy regulators to meet our guests’ demands,” the company said in a statement.

A company’s exit date from NV Energy also locks in the percentage of renewable energy generation required under the state’s current Renewable Portfolio Standard and avoids having to meet a higher standard if lawmakers increase the mandate in 2019.

Some critics, including a nonprofit backed by Switch, have suggested that regulators take a more proactive role in assessing how the growing number of large customers departing the utility’s service will affect future demand.