Follow the money: Breaking down $2.8 million in combined legislative campaign spending from major industries

The Nevada Legislature building

Even as lawmakers perennially tout the strength of their small-dollar fundraising, the driving force of any campaign in any cycle — with few exceptions — is big-money donors. 

Often contributing upwards of six-figures across dozens of campaigns, money from these donors often comprises the vast majority of campaign funds, especially in the most competitive legislative campaigns.

However, while all these contributions are reported to Nevada’s secretary of state every quarter, parsing trends from such reports or determining how corporate or PAC donors are spending in the aggregate is no simple task, as each contribution is siloed either under individual candidates or individual donors. 

To get at those trends, The Nevada Independent analyzed more than 7,700 individual contributions of more than $200 made to every sitting lawmaker elected in 2020. 

That $200 cutoff excludes a small portion of small-dollar fundraising, as well as two lawmakers who were appointed to their seats in 2021 (Sen. Fabian Donate, D-Las Vegas and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May, D-Las Vegas) and any fundraising by losing candidates. 

What is left is an expansive picture of the spending habits of Nevada’s biggest industries, from unions and casinos to health care giants and dark-money PACs. Over the course of our Follow the Money series, we’ve taken a deep dive into the spending of the state’s 10 largest industries, a group of donors that collectively spent $7.8 million of the $10.6 million in big money legislative contributions last cycle. 

Links to all previous installments of this series, including top-line breakdowns of all spending and all fundraising, have been included at the end of this article.

But beyond the largest 10 are the 14 “smallest” industries, according to our categorizations, which still spent upwards of $2.8 million combined. Below is a breakdown of that campaign spending, ordered by industry, from greatest to least. 

Spending nearly as much money last cycle as the much-debated Nevada mining industry were a number of alcohol and tobacco companies, which combined to contribute nearly $319,000. 

Spendiest among industry donors was tobacco company Altria (likely better known by its former name, Philip Morris Companies, Inc.), which gave 30 lawmakers a combined $95,050. Almost all of that money went to Republicans, who received $75,050 to the Democrats’ $20,000. 

Among all legislators, none saw more money from Altria than Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden), who received $9,000. He was followed by Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) with $8,750 and Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas) with $7,000. The remaining 27 lawmakers, including eight Democrats and 19 Republicans, received $5,000 or less.

Other major industry donors include beer-giant Anheuser Busch ($50,500), the Nevada Beer Wholesalers Association ($49,000), alcohol distributor Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits ($33,500) and electronic cigarette maker Juul Labs ($26,500). 

Contributing more than $306,000 combined, the state’s transportation industry included a varied mix of donors from car manufacturers, ride-sharing companies, railroads, taxis and associated organizations and individuals. 

Biggest of all was the Nevada automotive dealers PAC, NADEAC, which contributed $52,500 in total, split nearly evenly between Republicans ($27,500) and Democrats ($25,000). Most of NADEAC’s contributions were comparatively small, however, and only two legislators saw more than $2,500 — Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) and Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas), each of whom received $5,000. 

Following NADEAC was electric car maker Tesla — operator of the massive gigafactory battery plant in Northern Nevada — which gave 20 legislators $45,000. Most of that, $34,500, went to legislative Democrats, with the two Democratic leaders — Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) — receiving the most of anyone with $5,000 each. 

Other major transportation donors include the Nevada Trucking Association and its president, Paul Enos (a combined $42,500), Union Pacific Railroad ($33,500), rental car company Enterprise ($29,500) and the ride-sharing company Lyft ($21,000).

Twelve telecommunications companies combined to spend more than $300,000 on lawmakers last cycle, with the single largest chunk coming from internet service provider Cox Communications ($120,000). 

The largest internet provider in the state with a near-monopoly on internet service in the Las Vegas metro area, Cox’s spending largely favored legislative Democrats, who received $80,000 to the Republican’s $40,000. That includes one maximum $10,000 contribution to Frierson, as well as $8,000 for Cannizzaro.  

Communications giant AT&T followed with $82,250, again favoring Democrats ($58,750) to Republicans ($23,500). And here, too, the top recipients were Frierson and Cannizzaro, who received $8,000 each. 

Other major donors included internet service providers Charter Communications ($47,500) and CenturyLink ($14,000), as well as satellite TV provider Dish Network ($12,000). 

Though the pharmaceutical industry at large contributed nearly $273,000, more than half came from just one donor: the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which gave 45 lawmakers $140,500. 

Among the most powerful industry groups in the entire country, PhRMA’s contributions favored Republicans, who received $86,000 to the Democrats’ $54,500. Among individual lawmakers, PhRMA’s four top recipients were all Assembly Republicans: Roberts ($8,000), Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) ($8,000), Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno) ($8,000) and Assemblywoman Melissa Hardy (R-Henderson) ($7,000). 

Other major donors include the drugmaker Pfizer ($46,250), National Association of Chain Drug Stores ($17,500), and biotechnology company Amgen ($11,000). Nineteen other donors, including major drugmakers such as Merck, Sanofi, Eli Lilly and Johnson & Johnson, gave $10,000 or less. 

Though 55 donors in the finance and banking industry combined to contribute more than $214,000, almost two-thirds of that money came from one source: the Nevada Credit Union League (NCUL), the credit union trade association, which gave $86,250 across 46 legislators. 

The NCUL’s spending widely favored Democrats, who received $62,000 to the Republicans’ $24,250. Much of that difference was made up by the sheer number of Democrats receiving contributions (30 Democrats to 16 Republicans), but also by three large contributions to Democratic Leaders. 

Frierson and Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) both received the $10,000 maximum, while Cannizzaro received $9,000. No other lawmakers received more than $5,000 from the group.   

Other major donors include One Nevada Credit Union ($25,500) and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors ($14,500). The remaining 52 donors gave just $9,500 or less. 

Unlike some other major industries, technology-related companies and donors gave to lawmakers in comparatively mid-sized or small amounts, with the largest among them — the data company Switch — giving a total of $62,000 to 21 legislators. 

That money was evenly split between 10 Democrats and 11 Republicans, who combined to receive $31,0000 each. That even-split largely extended down to the individual level, too, with Democrats Cannizzaro, Frierson and Gansert, a Republican, receiving $10,000, while Republicans Hammond and Buck received $5,000 each. The remaining recipients all received $2,500 or less. 

The other significant chunk of technology contributions came from Blockchains, Inc. owner Jeff Berns and his wife, Mary, who combined to give $44,500. Berns was at the center of efforts this session to create so-called “Innovation Zones,” which would have created a semi-autonomous county in rural Nevada supported by the use of cryptocurrency. 

As criticism of the concept intensified over the course of the legislative session, Gov. Steve Sisolak backed away from Innovation Zones last week in announcing the proposal would take shape as a study, instead. 

The single biggest beneficiary of Bern’s contributions was Assemblyman Jim Wheeler (R-Minden), who received $10,000 each from Jeff and Mary for $20,000 total. Wheeler’s district, District 39, encompasses parts of Storey County, where Berns’ Blockchains company owns roughly 67,000 acres of land that likely would have become the state’s first Innovation Zone, had the proposal passed muster.  

Berns also gave $5,000 to Cannizzaro, Frierson and Settelmeyer, as well as a handful of smaller contributions to six other lawmakers, including both Democrats and Republicans. 

Other technology companies gave comparatively little, with Reno-based precision measuring equipment firm Hamilton Company following Berns with $15,000, and the tax-software giant Intuit giving $12,500. The remaining 25 donors gave $11,000 or less.  

Insurance companies — close cousins to the finance industry — combined to give lawmakers $165,700, with the Farmers Employee and Agent PAC leading all donors with $63,000. 

Farmers’ spending was split nearly evenly between the two major parties, with Republicans receiving $32,000 to the Democrats’ $31,000. No lawmakers received the maximum amount from the group, though four — Frierson, Roberts, Gansert and Titus — did receive $5,000 contributions. The remaining 20 recipients received $3,000 or less. 

No other single insurance came close to Farmers’ spending. The next largest, USAA, gave just $25,500 (of which most, $17,000, went to Democrats), while small business insurer Employers EIG Services gave $24,000 (including $13,500 for Republicans and $10,500 for Democrats). The remaining 20 insurance donors gave $13,000 or less. 

Though the payday lending industry at large gave comparatively little — $128,000 split across 37 legislators — the single largest industry donor, TitleMax, was among the biggest spenders of any industry as it contributed $93,000 to 35 lawmakers. 

Most of that went to 20 Democrats, who received $56,500 to the Republicans $36,500. TitleMax’s largest individual contributions similarly went to Democrats, with Frierson and Cannizzaro each receiving the $10,000 maximum. Gansert followed with $7,500, while the remaining 32 legislators received $5,000 or less. 

Other payday lending donors gave little in comparison to TitleMax. Dollar Loan Center was next-closest with $23,500 contributed, followed by Purpose Financial with $8,500. The remaining three donors gave marginal amounts, including $1,250 from Advance America, $1,000 from the Security Finance Corporation of Spartanburg and $750 from Community Loans of America.

Breaking down the smaller industries

Dozens of donors categorized as “other” combined to become the 14th largest category, with donors who could not be classified as industry-specific — 357 in all — contributing a combined $247,761. Many of these donors were retirees or private citizens, and most, 262, gave $500 or less. 

Lobbyists and lobbying firms were the next-largest donor group trailing payday lenders, with 56 donors contributing $126,401 combined. There were few major donors in that group — all but 10 gave less than $3,000. The only exception was the Ferraro Group, which gave $32,500 spread across 33 lawmakers. The group’s donations were relatively small, however, and the single-biggest recipient — Cannizzaro — received just $3,500. 

Roughly three dozen education companies, teachers and other individuals combined to contribute $83,272, with the biggest sums coming from charter school company Academica Nevada ($28,500), education management company K12 Management Inc. ($13,500) and for-profit college University of Phoenix ($11,000). Notably absent in this category are major teachers unions, such as the Nevada State Education Association and the Clark County Education Association, as both of those organizations are covered in our analysis of union spending. 

Spending slightly less than they did in 2018 were 15 marijuana companies or related individuals, who combined to spend $86,500 (down from more than $91,000 spent in 2018). Most of that money was concentrated in the three biggest spenders: An LLC linked to The Grove dispensary ($24,750), Nevada Can Committee ($23,000) and a company linked to the Planet 13 dispensary ($15,000). 

The remaining two categories were the smallest of all: Nevada tribes, but only the Reno Sparks Indian Colony reported major campaign contributions with $30,500 across 37 legislators, while just seven agricultural donors combined for $10,950 (of which nearly half, $5,000, came from the PAC Nevadans for Families & Agriculture). 

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

As part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent has published deep dives into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see any of the previous installments, follow the links below: 

Biden infrastructure plan portends Las Vegas Amtrak service and completing I-11

United States Capitol building

President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package could lead to a new Amtrak line between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, help fund an expansion of I-15 between the two cities and help finish I-11 from Southern Nevada to Phoenix.

Those are just some of the projects that the state will need to build to help absorb its booming population and boost economic growth, experts said.

“To a growing state like Nevada, the infrastructure bill is especially critical because it allows Nevada to keep growing,” said UNLV professor of urban affairs and Executive Director of Brookings Mountain West Robert Lang. “It enhances its growth. We'll do well under that and we'll receive the nice share of the resources because we can prove demand.” 

Nevada, which has historically been among the nation's fastest-growing states, had the third-highest population growth in 2020, a title earned despite the coronavirus pandemic. 

Lang added that Nevada would also command attention from the Biden administration on the infrastructure front because it is a swing state. 

“Biden won Nevada by the same percentage that Clinton won Nevada, in ‘16,” Lang said. “So it still needs some love.”

Biden defeated former President Donald Trump by 2.4 percentage points in Nevada, matching Hillary Clinton's victory over Trump in 2016.

Frederick Steinmann, an assistant research professor who works on economic development at UNR, said infrastructure essentially determines the state's ability to grow and that the funding proposed is needed. 

In the northern part of the state, Steinmann said transportation infrastructure is being taxed by a booming population drawn by a host of companies that have set up operations at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center (TRIC) in Storey County. TRIC is home to the Tesla Gigafactory and a Switch data center, among other firms. 

“We've seen a lot of population growth in Lyon County, specifically Fernley in the Dayton to Silver Springs corridor, certainly in Douglas County, and we're even starting to see some of those impacts in Churchill County and Pershing County,” Steinmann said. “But the infrastructure...to move people from where they live to where they work, and vice versa, hasn't kept up with the increase in demand and use of that infrastructure. So certainly, transportation infrastructure is going to be a critical area moving forward for our corner of the state or region.” 

American Jobs Plan

Biden unveiled his proposal, known as the American Jobs Plan, Wednesday in Pittsburgh. The proposal would provide $2 trillion over eight years for four broad categories of infrastructure. 

Those include transportation infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and rail, which would receive $621 billion. The package would provide $650 billion for infrastructure related to the home, such as broadband, water and sewer and the electricity grid. The proposal would provide $400 billion for caring for seniors and those with disabilities. The plan also would provide $580 billion for infrastructure to strengthen manufacturing, supply chains and retrain workers.

More granular details will become more apparent as Congress turns the bill draft into legislation.

“We’re working through that to make sure that we have a breakdown of states so folks can see how this infrastructure and this jobs plan will be beneficial,” said White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre on a call with reporters Thursday.

What states get will be determined, in large part, by the process for distributing the funds. Road and mass transit construction is currently paid for by the 18.4 percent federal gas tax via a formula. But that revenue source has not been sufficient to fund the surface transportation bills Congress had adopted since 2008 when lawmakers first began using general fund tax dollars to prop up the highway program.

Jean-Pierre said one option for distributing funds would be to create a competitive grant program, similar to the proposed plan for repairing bridges. But those details will be settled in consultation with Congress.

Projects 

Of the $621 billion for transportation, Amtrak would receive $80 billion. The government-owned national passenger rail service provider announced that if it gets the funds, it will launch 30 new routes, including one between Las Vegas, which does not have Amtrak service, and Los Angeles.

“Amtrak has a bold vision to bring energy-efficient, world-class intercity rail service to up to 160 new communities across the nation, as we also invest in our fleet and stations across the U.S.,” said Amtrak Chief Executive Bill Flynn after the proposal was announced.

The Amtrak announcement comes as the Brightline West high-speed rail project is developing the same corridor along I-15.

Asked whether the Amtrak line would compete with or complement the proposed private-sector-backed rail project, Brightline spokesman Ben Porritt indicated that there could be room for both public and private-sector projects.  

"We envision a country where city pairs that are too far to drive and too short to fly are connected by high speed rail, and we believe the private sector will play a significant role in that,” Porrit said in an email. “Brightline West is an exciting project, and as the only private passenger company with intercity operations, we are ready to play a big part in the discussion on high speed rail which is long overdue."

The bill could also help Brightline West by raising the cap on private activity bonds (PABs), a type of municipal debt used to develop private-sector projects. Congress caps their use to $15 billion nationally, which makes it competitive to receive PAB financing.

Lang agreed that the growth could sustain both projects and could make sense from a regional perspective.   

“There is a scenario in which everything gets going and you keep adding more capacity because it warrants it,” Lang said. “Vegas is growing and the Mountain West is booming. And all could use that enhancement.”

Lang added that the truck traffic from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, among the nation's busiest ports, would benefit by freeing up capacity on I-15. 

A proposed widening of I-15 would also help with tourism. Lang paints a present-day picture of Angelenos who wake up on a Sunday after spending the weekend in Las Vegas. They check out of their hotel room, have lunch, get on the road and then hit a line of seemingly never-ending traffic.

“That's what can't happen to us,” Lang said, adding, “We do lose some share of tourism from the congestion.” 

But while the rail projects are beneficial, the no-brainer project for federal transportation funding is finishing the Arizona section of I-11, Lang continued. 

The federal government prioritizes projects that “really get the most economic return by reducing friction of movement and opening up markets,” Lang said. “That's why Vegas to Phoenix is easy.”

The two cities are the largest in the nation not connected by an interstate. Lang also said the road could be a significant regional nexus that connects the east-west traffic flow of I-15 with Utah and the north-south traffic flow of I-10 through Arizona into Texas.

“It all produces,” Lang said of investment in I-11. “It connects the East-West, Texas, California linkages through Arizona with the Intermountain West linkages that go all the way to the Canadian border.” 

The state could also benefit from the $100 billion flagged for expanding and improving broadband, and a provision to use $174 billion to establish a grant program for states and localities to build a network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations by 2030. The proposal also seeks to replace 50,000 diesel transit vehicles and electrify at least 20 percent of the country's yellow school bus fleet.

Gov. Steve Sisolak, on Twitter, praised the focus on electric vehicles.

“I am thrilled to see transportation electrification outlined as a priority in @potus infrastructure plan and a goal of 100% electrified bus system and federal fleet, with the workforce development to support it! #NevClimateAction #BuildBackBetter,” Sisolak said.

Republicans oppose

The state’s congressional Democrats have signaled support for the bill, including Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) 

“Senator Cortez Masto is eager for an infrastructure package that invests in the state of Nevada, creates good-paying jobs, and helps our economy recover from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, including through new transportation projects, green energy initiatives, and investments in broadband,” according to her office.

She'll likely play a role in drafting the financing for the package as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax policy in the Senate. Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) will also have some input into the infrastructure bill's financing as a House Ways and Means Committee member, which is the House's tax panel.

“As the legislation moves to Congress and we begin to debate specific provisions, my priority will be to uplift the needs of my constituents and the groups that are creating good-paying jobs for Nevadans,” Horsford said in a statement from his office.

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), who sits on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Thursday highlighted the proposal's broadband section, underscoring the need for broadband since the pandemic forced online schooling and doctor's visits. 

“We know in the pandemic that everyone needed broadband, and they needed the right kind, enough to do their schoolwork, enough to get telehealth tele education,” Rosen said.  

Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV), a veteran member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure, has also welcomed the proposal. 

“I believe the American Jobs Plan will help fund construction on I-11 to connect Las Vegas to Phoenix, reduce traffic on I-15, support the Brightline West project to bring high-speed rail between Southern Nevada and Southern California, and more,” Titus said. “Updates to Southern Nevada’s airport, roads, and public transit will boost our local economy and allow Las Vegas to remain a top international travel destination for decades to come.”

Rep. Susie Lee said that an infrastructure package is needed, but urged her colleagues “to focus on the projects that are most necessary and those that will create the most jobs, and to identify solutions that are broadly supported by the American public, regardless of their political party.”

A bold investment in our nation’s infrastructure couldn’t be more necessary as our buildings and roads are crumbling and many Nevadans and Americans are out of work,” she added.

Lee is a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, Democratic and GOP moderates who look to work across the aisle when possible. 

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV), also a member of the Problem Solvers, said he wants to get more details before deciding how he will vote.

“I'll reserve,” Amodei said when asked about the proposal. “I suppose I could go off on all the talking points stuff. But that's not, I don't think, helpful for any side.”

He praised the intention to boost broadband coverage in rural areas but had concerns with whether the infrastructure would be government-run or owned, as well as how it would be regulated. “Big brother’s okay — as long as it’s your big brother,” Amodei said. 

He also raised concerns about the focus on electric vehicles and what that would mean for makers of gas-powered cars and their workers.

“Responsible policy talks about how to get there as soon as possible, in a way that makes some sense and is thoughtful about all of the consequences,” Amodei continued. “But I'll just tell you this, I don't see a lot of thought, here we are 120 days, 150 days from the election, I don't see a lot of medium thought much less deep thought in terms of what are the consequences of just legislating this.”

Some of Amodei’s GOP colleagues in the Senate have already decided the package won’t get their support, in part over how Biden has proposed to pay for the package—by raising the corporate tax to 28 percent from 21 percent, which would pay for the measure over 15 years.  

The package also would make it harder for multinational corporations to shield profits abroad and impose a global minimum tax of 21 percent on foreign companies. 

“The last thing the economy needs right now is a tax increase on all of the productive sectors of our economy,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said at a press conference in Owensboro, Kentucky, Thursday.

“I’m going to fight them every step of the way, because I think this is the wrong prescription for America,” McConnell continued, adding that the package ”is not going to get support from our side.”

Democrats have the option to use the reconciliation process, though, just as they did to pass the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last month. 

That would enable Democrats to pass the measure on a simple majority vote in the Senate and avert the need to get 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Under the evenly divided Senate, Democrats would need all 50 of their members to support the bill and Vice President Kamala Harris would need to cast the tie-breaking vote. 

Storey County board, water district oppose effort to let technology company form local government

Horses at Tahoe Reno Industrial Center

Storey County commissioners voted Tuesday to oppose “separatist governing control” within their jurisdiction after Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak backed a legislative effort that could result in a private tech company and major campaign donor forming its own local government.

Blockchains LLC, a company that owns roughly 67,000 acres of land in Storey County, is asking lawmakers to approve a program that would allow large-scale landowners to create “Innovation Zones.” As described in draft legislation, Innovation Zones would operate as autonomous entities with governmental powers and focus on developing emerging technology.

A Storey County water district, governed by the commissioners, also voted to oppose the legislative effort Tuesday. Both motions direct staff to continue negotiating with the company. 

“This would carve out a part of Storey County and create another county, in essence,” Austin Osborne, Storey County manager, said before commissioners voted on the motion Tuesday. 

Osborne raised several concerns with the concept of letting Blockchains create a self-governing entity within the county. He argued that the Innovation Zones in the proposed legislation could place strain on the county’s resources and remove a portion of its potential tax base.

In publicly released documents, Blockchains outlined plans to build a “Smart City” on a portion of its land. The proposed residential development, which a company executive said would be located in the Painted Rock area along the Truckee River, would include about 15,000 dwelling units.

For the past decade, Storey County has used tax breaks and expedited permitting to lure major companies, including Tesla, Google and Switch, to set up operations in the county’s Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. The county has focused on growing commercial businesses with a small population. Most workers at the industrial center live in neighboring Washoe or Lyon counties. 

But Blockchains wants to build a residential town, and in the past, county officials had told the company they were not interested in a development at the scale they proposed, the AP reported.

“We have great respect for Storey County,” said Pete Ernaut, a lobbyist representing the tech firm. “They have a remarkable track record on permitting commercial development. However, their history of permitting residential or mixed-use development is where we separate.” 

In an interview Tuesday, Osborne said the company’s plans to build homes could potentially move forward within a traditional government structure. Storey County’s 2016 Master Plan, he noted, discusses the construction of a residential and mixed-use development in Painted Rock.

“It's something, with an appropriate proposal, we would certainly look at,” he said.

A Sisolak spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. The governor unveiled the legislative proposal on Friday afternoon at a panel with his economic development czar and a private economic analyst. Sisolak asked for people to keep an “open mind” about the concept. Blockchains and its CEO Jeff Berns donated tens of thousands of dollars to help elect Sisolak.

The legislation has not been formally introduced.

Osborne and the county commissioners also questioned whether the legislation was necessary, given that Storey County already has a permissive regulatory environment known for tilting in favor of encouraging private development, a trend dating back to the Comstock mining boom.

“Storey County is the poster-child for this sort of thing,” Osborne said. “There is no place in Nevada that has fast permitting, permitting flexibility, nimbleness that Storey County does. We are well-known for that all over the United States as well as locally. We are the innovation zone.”

In 2019, The Nevada Independent reported on how private and public interests were blurred in the development of the industrial center, where Blockchains owns the majority of its land and is seeking even greater autonomy to pursue a master-planned development that includes housing. 

Storey County Commission Clayton Mitchell echoed Osborne’s comments Tuesday, adding that unlike many local governments, Storey County looks for creative ways to enable development. 

“We often take heat for being too flexible and moving too fast,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell, along with Storey County Commission Chairman Jay Carmona, signaled a willingness to work with Blockchains. The motion directs staff to engage in a “good-faith” dialogue with the company. The motion also asks staff to work with lawmakers to support blockchain technology. 

“They’ve invested substantially in Storey County, and I’d like us to be able to welcome them and facilitate their success as a productive, contributing member of our community like we have with our other corporate citizens,” Mitchell said.

But the commissioners said they could not endorse the company forming its own government, adopting language that opposed “separatist governing control and carving up of Storey County.” 

Mitchell and Carmona both voted for the motion. Commissioner Lance Gilman was not present at the meeting. Gilman, who represents the industrial park’s master developer and also serves on the County Commission, helped sell the roughly 67,000 acres of land to Blockchains in 2018. 

In a statement, Ernaut said the company is open to working with the county moving forward: “A smart city with 35,000 residents is essential to the vision of this Innovation Zone, which makes permitting a city of this size key to this discussion. We understand their initial reaction to such a unique idea, and look forward to finding a path forward that works for everyone.”

The commissioners adopted a similar motion to oppose the legislation at a separate meeting on Tuesday. The Storey County Commission oversees the water district for the industrial center, a utility that serves the Tesla Gigafactory, a Switch data center and other commercial businesses. 

According to a map that was presented at the meeting, all but 2,200 acres of Blockchains’ land is within the water district’s service territory, raising questions about how they would develop the residential land. The district was mainly formed to provide water connections for industrial use.

A map shows the land owned by Blockchains LLC (in blue) and the service territory of the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center's water district. The map was presented at a water district board meeting on Tuesday, March 2, 2020.

The company owns a majority of land within the water district’s service territory. There remains uncertainty about how the district would operate if Blockchains formed its own Innovation Zone.

“They would be a huge user of water in the area,” Will Adler, a lobbyist for the water district, said at the meeting. “And it’s kind of unclear whether you would have to provide that water initially or not, depending on how this is developed or not, because of that uncertainty.”

NV Energy’s plan to avoid a Texas-sized energy supply disaster next summer

In Texas last week, a massive winter storm froze the state’s electrical grid and left millions without access to reliable electricity, natural gas or even clean drinking water for days.

In California and across the southwest, a scorching heat wave six months ago contributed to an overstressed grid that knocked out the power supply for millions, leaving them without air conditioning as temperatures soared into the triple digits.

Nevada is not Texas, nor is it California. The state avoided rolling blackouts during the August 2020 heatwave (though NV Energy still issued a rare voluntary request for customers to curtail power use during times of peak demand), and hasn’t seen similar severe winter weather that knocked out many grid operations in Texas last week.

But 2020 wasn’t an anomaly. Issues of grid management and resource adequacy — having enough power to meet demand, the same issue that befell California last year and Texas this year — aren’t going away anytime soon. The future for the planet is an increase in extreme weather events, and Nevada is in the bullseye of states most likely to experience massive temperature swings and the full effects of climate change. 

Over the past six months, NV Energy officials have been answering questions about the August near-crisis through an investigatory docket opened by regulators at the Nevada Public Utilities Commission, focusing on both what exactly drove the utility to request customers curtail power use on Aug. 18 and 19, but also on broader issues of resource adequacy and how best to avoid a California or Texas-style grid disruption.

The electric utility company has also taken steps to prepare for next summer beyond answering those questions. In late December 2020, it filed an amendment to its Energy Supply Plan that proposes to spend an additional $61.3 million to help prepare for an expected hot summer and additional demand in 2021.

The dollars will help fund projects or infrastructure developments aimed at increasing capacity during hot summer months, budgeting for a hotter-than-normal summer in internal supply planning and raising the required reserve percentage to help with any temperature variances or unexpected increases in demand.

But that additional spending will still leave the utility continuing to rely on open market purchases to meet expected demand — around 900 megawatts per month between June and August 2021. (A megawatt represents enough power for several hundred residential homes, though exact figures vary on source of energy and average residential electrical use).

But that reliance on market purchases to meet expected demand for next summer could be a potential cause for concern: PUC staffers wrote in an investigatory docket that they were concerned a similar seasonal heat wave and subsequent curtailment of open market power in 2021 “may not be a plan for success.”

The investigatory docket also revealed another stress factor on the grid: unexpected load demand from large casinos and businesses that previously filed to leave utility service, but whose alternative electric providers faced the same constraints on electric power and were unable to deliver the promised load, leaving NV Energy to fill in the gaps.

And while NV Energy has invested in expanded large-scale battery storage technology, its move to adopt higher standards of renewable energy over the next decade will also add stress to the grid, because of the simple fact that solar energy is intermittent. 

Dealing with that combination of factors is a problem that the PUC, NV Energy and other interested parties will likely deal with in future utility planning filings and will be affected by NV Energy’s moves to sizably increase its reliance on renewable energy and a proposed major, billion-dollar transmission upgrade.

Dylan Sullivan, a senior scientist for the National Resource Defense Council, said that smart grid management planning would avoid any potential or perceived conflict between an increased reliance on renewable energy and the reliability of the state’s power supply.

“Sometimes it's presented as we have to make a choice between renewables and reliability,” Sullivan said. “We really don't have to make a choice if we plan. We can have an affordable, reliable and highly renewable energy system, but we do have to plan for it, we do have to look at what happens when a bunch of things go wrong.”

Open positions and limits on the market

There are three ways that NV Energy creates or obtains electrons that power homes and businesses throughout the state.

The utility company owns a group of about a dozen generating stations (26 actual generating units) — largely natural gas-powered, but with some solar projects in southern Nevada and the coal-fired Valmy power plant near Battle Mountain.

NV Energy also contracts with about 43 generating projects through Power Purchase Agreements, which are long-term contracts with private-party developers to build and generate a certain amount of electricity for the utility company. Many of NV Energy’s recent investments into large-scale solar projects have come through these agreements, also known as PPAs.

But to meet demand requirements, especially during summer months where normal capacity isn’t enough to meet the heightened demand, NV Energy (and other utilities) rely on market purchases of electricity to fill those gaps.

Market purchases fall into three categories: real-time, day-ahead, and term. Term refers to open market purchases that are typically negotiated months in advance, while real-time and day-ahead are what they sound like, closer to real-time needs. NV Energy said in PUC filings that it prefers “firm energy products,” which means there is a commitment placed on the seller of the electricity products to deliver the goods.

Resource planning isn’t like horseshoes or hand grenades; getting close but falling short of meeting actual demand means serious system reliability issues and blackouts. That’s why the utility overshoots its expected demand with a planned reserve margin over expected demand, which last summer was around 13 percent system-wide. 

NV Energy plans resource adequacy in a few ways. It’s required by law to file an “Energy Supply Plan,” which is the utility’s strategy and estimates of how much electricity it will need to procure for customers, and how it plans to obtain that electricity. The last Energy Supply Plan was approved in November 2019, but the utility regularly files amendments to the plan.

The utility also uses a seasonal “laddering” approach for market purchases, meaning it discusses and makes further adjustments to planned market purchases every quarter based on more timely weather forecasts and other more up-to-date market conditions.

A near-disaster in August

That normal strategy of relying on open market purchases to fill the gap between supply and demand almost failed during the week of Aug. 17.

A blistering, record-setting heat wave blanketed the Southwest, putting enough stress on the electric grid for California to implement rolling blackouts for the first time in two decades.

The heat wave and grid pressures didn't stop at state boundaries; Nevada saw similar scorching temperatures that week in August, and similar pressures on the grid because of the above-average temperatures and smoke from California wildfires.

NV Energy took many steps to try and lower electric demand: the request for voluntary lower power use, asking large customers to cut electric use, asking large independently owned power generators within the state to help address the demand and issuing a “no touch” order on generation equipment to avoid any inadvertent interruptions.

But the state’s electric market came close to the precipice of disaster. NV Energy reported in the PUC investigatory docket that it reached the third and highest level of an Energy Emergency Alert (utility parlance for power blackouts) for several hours on the afternoon of Aug. 18.

During that afternoon at around 4 p.m., NV Energy fell short of its required operating reserves — the required contingency backup that the utility typically plans for. Twelve minutes into that hour, the company tapped into power provided by the Northwest Power Pool reserves — a grid oversight body covering power networks in eight states and two Canadian provinces.

Tapping into resources from the Northwest Power Pool was like cashing in an insurance policy — helpful to have in place for times of emergency, but evidence that something went wrong. (Again, no NV Energy customers, residential or commercial, experienced outages.)

In its filings, NV Energy said that the issue wasn’t in company-owned generation or any of the (primarily solar) PPAs — all performed between 90 to 100 percent of expected capacity. The company also said there weren’t any transmission issues with moving electrons around the grid.

Instead, the issue was with limitations on market purchases and curtailment — decisions by grid operators (largely in California) to stop the flow of electricity out of the area to ensure that adequate electricity is available in their service area.

During the week of Aug. 17, 2020, NV Energy reported that there were 76 hours (an average of 11 a day) where market purchases were curtailed, meaning the “actual delivered energy was less than the confirmed term, day ahead, or real time purchases.” The largest curtailment happened at 7 p.m. on Aug. 18, when 1,243 megawatts of purchased open market power were curtailed; the company said “NV Energy has never experienced a curtailment of that size.” Many of the curtailments occurred in real time “with little to no notice.”

Between Aug. 17 and 23, NV Energy saw more than 7,100 megawatts of purchased electricity curtailed. 72 percent of that curtailed energy were day-ahead or real-time purchases.

Those curtailments couldn’t have come at at a worse time. The above-average temperatures drove NV Energy and other power providers to rely on market purchases to keep lights on throughout the state, driving the price of a megawatt hour to obscene levels.

Electricity that the week prior had cost around $70 per megawatt hour skyrocketed amid the incredible demand — hitting a real-time peak of around $2,600 per megawatt hour on Aug. 18. That’s a more than 3,600 percent increase, or like a gallon of milk going from $2.99 one week to more than $100 a few days later.

704B issues

The docket identified another stress factor that affected the state’s grid during those hot August days — servicing many of the large businesses that had previously filed to leave utility service and work with providers on the open market.

These “704B” customers (named after the provision in state law) are some of the most well-known entities in the state: MGM Resorts, Switch, Wynn Resorts, Caesars Entertainment, Sahara Las Vegas and the Peppermill Resorts in Reno. Before state lawmakers in 2019 added new limits, those companies would generally file an application and agree to pay a seven-to-eight figure “exit fee” in return for the right to buy power (presumably cheaper) on the open market.

But those businesses aren’t totally free of NV Energy. As the balancing authority or grid operator, NV Energy still manages transmission for 704B customers, meaning they’re obligated to provide balancing services and manage the flow of electricity for those customers. The utility also acts as a provider of last resort, meaning that the customers pay a tariff (fee) to ensure that NV Energy will provide power if any of their normal providers had a disruption in service. 

That’s exactly what happened in August. Four electric providers for 704B companies failed to fulfill their obligations to their customers on the afternoon of Aug. 18, leaving some of the state’s largest casino companies to once again lean on NV Energy to keep the lights on and power running. 

The alternative power providers experienced varying levels of failure; Caesars’ shorted power supply from provider Tenaska never exceeded 10 percent, while the Peppermill in Reno had to 100 percent rely on NV Energy power for several hours on Aug. 18.

In a filing, staff for the PUC wrote that while NV Energy still provides electricity transmission service to 704B customers and is expected to make up imbalances in power supply, the level of failure to provide power well exceeded any imbalance authority and instead worked essentially as a standby service.

“This creates a riskless paradigm under which certain NRS 704B customers shift supply risk and the obligation to NV Energy and its remaining customers with little risk to the NRS 704B customers,” PUC staff attorney David Noble wrote in a filing.

Noble wrote that NV Energy was supposed to write-off the load of 704B customers once they left utility service, but “clearly that is not the case” given what happened in August. He suggested that the PUC and NV Energy in future proceedings explore ways to charge 704B customers for what essentially worked as standby service.

“If NV Energy and remaining customers are going to have to backstop some or all of these departed customer loads when the market gets tight, then NV Energy and remaining customers need to be compensated for that service, and NV Energy needs to start planning for the possibility of such events in its ... filings,” Noble wrote in the filing.

Tenaska and other alternative providers pushed back, saying that the 704B customers already pay a fee for the transmission provider (NV Energy) to backfill load in the event of “system contingency.” They wrote that the system worked as intended, and that 704B customers paid NV Energy for any electricity the utility had to provide.

During times of peak demand on Aug. 18, NV Energy was required to make up a shortfall that varied between 131 and 85 megawatts of power for transmission-only customers (the 704B companies). That amount of power diverted to those customers was smaller than the curtailment amount NV Energy was dealing with at the same time, but the utility wrote that the two issues combined had exacerbated supply issues to the near-crisis level.

“If firm purchases had been delivered and transmission customers avoided leaning on NV Energy’s resources, the shortfall would have largely been avoided,” NV Energy executive Michael Greene wrote in a filing.

Planning for next summer

Even if NV Energy was to sit on its hands and not do anything to prepare for the 2021 summer, past contracts for large-scale solar and battery resources are scheduled to be operational before summer strikes.

That includes 70 megawatts of solar energy at the Techren Solar Project near Boulder City, a 50-megawatt solar plant earmarked for an Apple data facility and a 101-megawatt solar field and 25-megawatt battery storage facility near Battle Mountain.

But even with that expanded capacity, NV Energy is still planning to rely on market purchases during summer months of 2021 to meet anticipated demand goals.

That is largely due to a change in energy supply planning for the remainder of 2021. The amended Energy Supply Plan filed in late December makes several changes, including:

  • Implementing a “hot summer” weather scenario, which estimates hotter temperatures in the summer and raises anticipated demand levels
  • Raising the utility’s planning reserve margin up to 15 percent system-wide
  • Upgrading two of four existing natural gas-fired turbines at the Lenzie Generating Station that will add an additional 37 megawatts of capacity, at a cost of $46.3 million
  • Installing a “wet compression” water injection system on two existing combustion turbines at the Higgins Generating Station for an additional 32 megawatts of capacity, at a cost of $6.5 million
  • Fulfillment of a contract with the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority for a hydropower PPA, adding 209 megawatts of capacity over the summer

While the utility wrote in PUC filings that it doesn’t believe any policy changes are necessary to meet demand this summer, it said the above proposed changes to its energy supply plan are necessary as the current plan is “inadequate to address the potential for extreme weather power demand due to climate change and provide adequate planning reserves.”

In future planning proceedings before the PUC, the utility also suggested revisiting its formula for weather predictions and correlated demand planning. NV Energy uses a rolling 20-year average in guessing weather and demand, but said the formula doesn’t fully capture the warming trend in recent years.

PUC staff also suggested that the utility hold more frequent meetings to determine if “firmer” market purchases can be made ahead of expected hot weather, as opposed to relying on real-time or day-ahead energy markets.

Sullivan, who often testifies on clean energy issues before the Nevada Legislature and in PUC dockets, said that policymakers can take other steps to shore up grid reliability and reduce the impact of major weather events on the grid.

His group is supporting legislation in the 2021 Legislature to raise energy efficiency standards — a concept that he said reduces the demand strain on the grid by keeping indoor temperatures less variable on the weather.

Overall, Sullivan said that the best way to ensure reliability on the grid while increasing the utility’s share of renewable energy resources was diversity — solar in Southern Nevada, geothermal in Northern Nevada, and tapping into hydropower or wind energy from other states where possible.

“One of the ways to have a highly renewable, resilient, reliable, affordable energy system is to have a diversity of renewable energy resources,” he said.

Indy Environment: In Congress, a bipartisan push to fund research on Great Basin lakes, bird habitat

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here. 

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com.


One of the many distinctive characteristics of the Great Basin is that when the water comes, it often gets trapped. As precipitation falls onto the remote expanse from western Utah across Nevada, water evaporates, sinks into the ground, or it flows into wetlands and terminal saline lakes. 

With few outlets, the water becomes trapped in places like Pyramid Lake, Walker Lake, the Great Salt Lake in Utah or Lake Abert in Oregon. Or it forms vast wetlands that cover hundreds of thousands of acres in places like the Lahontan Valley in Churchill County. 

Each area has its own character — and its own challenges.

For the past century, as cities, farms and ranchers have diverted more and more water, lakes across the Great Basin have received less and less. The result is changes in water chemistry and an increase in salts and minerals that make it difficult for fish and other species to live. As we reported last year, climate change poses an additional threat. 

Although each area is unique, they are hardly disconnected. 

Many lakes and wetlands that pockmark the Great Basin, which includes most of Nevada, form part of the Pacific Flyway, a critical Western migration path for waterbirds. As a result, the threats to these lakes, taken together, could undermine critical habitat for annual migration and breeding.

Still, “many of these lakes don't really get a lot of attention,” Marcelle Shoop, who directs the Saline Lakes Program for the Audubon Society, said in an interview last month. 

Shoop said attention — and a regional approach — is what these saline ecosystems need.

That could change with a bipartisan bill introduced last month by Democratic Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney aimed at boosting saline ecosystem research.

The congressional legislation would authorize the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct a regional assessment of saline ecosystems within the Great Basin. According to the legislation, the assessment would focus on studying several issues, including water quality, water demand, migratory birds and environmental changes, including climate change. 

The bill would authorize $5 million in appropriations for five years. 

Since the bill was introduced, Sen. Jacky Rosen has signed on as a co-sponsor. In a statement, Rosen said it “will establish a scientific foundation and ongoing monitoring system to inform coordinated management and conservation actions for threatened saline lakes ecosystems.”

“It's good to keep talking about these habitats,” Shoop said. “We are very concerned about losing them or losing key habitats and what that impact could be for migratory birds.”

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:


A landowner and a medical waste facility: Last week, we reported on a proposal to build a medical waste facility at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, home to the Tesla Gigafactory. But the company behind the project, Stericycle, has received large fines from state environmental regulators across the West. Its record is not sitting well with Blockchains, the industrial center’s largest landowner. Blockchains, which has described itself as a “software development and real estate development company,” is seeking to build a cryptocurrency-backed town at the park. 

On Monday, Blockchains submitted a lengthy objection to the planning commission for Storey County, where the industrial park is located, noting that Stericycle has also faced a class-action lawsuit over wage violations and federal investigations. The commission is set to reconsider a permit for the facility on Thursday. Stericycle also submitted a letter to the board. The company touts significant leadership changes and also responds to several issues Blockchains raised.

Taxing mines: The Legislature passed three resolutions aimed at changing the way mining is taxed, my colleagues Riley Snyder, Michelle Rindels and Jacob Solis reported Sunday. In doing so, state legislators kicked off a process to amend the state Constitution, which limits taxes on the industry. But the measures must be approved again by the Legislature and then face the voters. This is not the first proposal to change the mining tax. Between the Legislature, the voters and an industry concentrated in rural Nevada, the politics here are interesting, as The Nevada Independent editor Jon Ralston wrote in this column — with some lessons from 1989.

  • What does the mining industry think? Top mining executives discussed perceptions around the industry in Nevada Business Magazine. Regardless of where you might land on the mining tax debate, this Q&A is a very honest look into the industry’s thinking.

Crescent Dunes bankruptcy: The owner of the Crescent Dunes solar plant outside of Tonopah field for bankruptcy last week, the Pahrump Valley Times reports. The closure of the facility and the subsequent bankruptcy proceedings could leave U.S. taxpayers with a roughly $225 million bill, more than half of what the operator owed on a federal loan guarantee for the solar plant. 

An alarming report: Ian James, writing for The Arizona Republic, reports that “in a new study, a team of researchers found that without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, extreme heat could become a major global killer by the end of this century, matching recent death rates for all infectious diseases combined, including tuberculosis, HIV and malaria.” 

Battery storage: Switch, the data storage company, announced plans to build a nearly 24/7 battery-storage power source at its Tahoe Reno Industrial Center location, Julian Spector for Greentech Media, reports. From the article: “This marks one entry in a broader effort by Switch founder and CEO Rob Roy to meet his company’s energy needs with clean-energy investment in its home base of Nevada. But while plenty of tech companies have purchased clean energy to account for their power consumption, and some have required clean energy produced in the regions where it is consumed, none have produced it at their own facilities at this scale.”


‘I’m sure it will be listed:’ In July, state officials with the Division of Forestry heard testimony from scientists on whether a rare buckwheat, found only in Nevada and threatened by lithium mining, deserves heightened protection. That same week, federal officials announced that they too would evaluate threats to the Tiehm’s buckwheat and whether it deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act. Now, public records obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity and reported by the Associated Press, suggest that a consultant for the proposed lithium mine also believes the plant should be protected, a designation that could imperil the mining project. The emails also cast doubt on the mine consultant’s mitigation strategy for the rare buckwheat.

ICYMI: Nevada Gold Mines pauses permitting for mine, plans to conduct further studies

If you think Nevada is becoming California... it actually might be the other way around. A report from the World Resources Institute looked at the states that saw the most significant cuts in carbon emissions from 2005-2017. Nevada saw its emissions decrease by about 27 percent, the seventh largest cut in the country and certainly the largest cut in the West. Obviously, there are a lot of caveats to consider here. First, a percentage decrease in carbon emissions only means as much as your starting point. And second, much of that transition was likely from coal to natural gas. Nevada officials still have more work to do, and the cuts this time around are not likely to be as easy as they were before. As one researcher on the report told Grist, “once you take into account the low-hanging fruit, then there are another series of challenges.” 

Fast-tracking a mine: The Associated Press’ Scott Sonner wrote that federal land managers are expediting permitting for what could become the country’s first mine for vanadium, which is often imported and considered a “critical mineral.” But the mine, which would be sited near the town of Eureka, would also extract 50,000 pounds of yellow cake uranium, raising concerns among environmentalists that the project could lead to contamination and harm biodiversity.

Update: This story was updated at 8:36 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 7 to correct the spelling of Lake Abert.

Election Preview: Democratic contenders will face Republican incumbents for Washoe County Commission seats in general election

In Nevada’s second most-populated county, two seats on the five-person County Commission are up for grabs in races that will shape how Washoe County approaches planning and development decisions and navigates the fallout from a coronavirus pandemic that has devastated Nevada’s economy.

With one Democrat and one Republican vying for a seat in each district, the candidates in each race did not appear on the primary ballot and automatically advanced to the November general election. 

Republican incumbents for the two seats up for election in District 1 and District 4 are facing Democratic challengers in a purple county where active registered Democrats outnumber active registered Republicans by less than one percentage point. 

The race has the potential to shift the power balance on the Republican-dominated board that consists of four Republicans and one Democrat.

The three other commission seats are not up for election this cycle.

The county is responsible for levying, collecting and distributing taxes to government entities within the county such as school districts and cities, building and maintaining roadways, managing regional response teams and providing services for vulnerable populations including health care, guardianship and senior services. The five commissioners oversee matters related to these issues and approve all business codes and licenses that fall outside of the jurisdiction of either Reno or Sparks. 

County commissioners earn an annual salary of about $75,000 during their term in office.

District 1

The challenger and the incumbent in District 1 are on similar financial footing as they square off for the seat that represents an area stretching from Incline Village near Lake Tahoe to the southwest part of Reno, including Caughlin Ranch. 

However, Republicans have held the district’s seat for at least the past 30 years and Alexis Hill, Marsha Berkbigler’s Democratic opponent, faces an uphill battle.

Photo of Marsha Berkbigler

Berkbigler, the commission vice-chair and Republican incumbent seeking her third and final four-year term in office, was first elected to the District 1 seat in 2012. 

Before assuming her position on the commission, Berkbigler was a legislative lobbyist representing interests in mining, medicine, business and engineering, as well as non-smoking advocacy and local government issues. She owned NV Legislative Consultants and then sold that business and retired after working at Charter Communications, an internet, phone and data company. Berkbigler credits her experience as a lobbyist with shaping her into a successful political negotiator and effective leader.

In 2014, Berkbigler threw her hat into the ring for the Reno City Council mayoral seat but finished fifth in the primary and did not advance to the general election. 

When Berkbigler ran for the commissioner position a second time in 2016 after assuming office in 2013, the Reno-Gazette Journal’s editorial board endorsed her, citing her accessibility to constituents and applauding her efforts to ease tensions between the county and Reno and increasing economic development in the county.

Even though Berkbigler said that she would not run for a third term while she was campaigning in 2016, her plans changed after the death of her husband.

“My husband and I had intended to do some extensive travel, but unfortunately, he got sick and passed away two years ago, and the thought of traveling without him just isn’t all that appealing,” Berkbigler said. “So, since I love what I do and continue to have some issues that I’m working on and would like to finish, I made the decision to run for this last term.”

She plans to continue with her efforts to develop regional dispatch services, increase sewer capacity necessary for county growth and help the county recover from the effects of COVID-19.

Berkbigler’s challenger, Hill, a Democrat who is the arts, culture and events manager for the City of Reno, spent 10 years working in local government, including a stint as Sparks’ city planner. 

Photo of Alexis Hill (Courtesy of Alexis Hill)

The county is at a “tipping point,” Hill asserts, and says that her platform advocating sustainability and conservation, government accountability and regional leadership where the county takes the lead in growth and social services is necessary if it is to navigate the future successfully.

In an op-ed in This is Reno at the end of April, Hill criticized Berkbigler’s decision to support a lawsuit fighting restrictions placed by Gov. Steve Sisolak on two drugs researchers are studying for their potential to treat the coronavirus, but have in recent weeks been linked to heart problems and other complications. Hill hypothesized that the decision might have been motivated by Berkbigler’s support of Trump. 

“Berkbigler, a lobbyist and politician by trade, is showing she believes she knows more about science than medical specialists, epidemiologists and public health experts,” Hill wrote. “I want more for my community … I believe that this community has many opportunities ahead, but we need forward-thinking public officials to help direct better planning to ensure sustainability and better community outcomes — especially now, especially during this public health crisis.”

In an op-ed responding to Hill’s critiques on May 15, Berkbigler wrote that she and the other commissioners who initially supported the lawsuit changed their minds after more information about the drugs and the lawsuit came out. She called the opinion piece a “thicket of half-truths,” saying she normally does not respond to “mudslinging” but wanted to address Hill’s accusations head-on.

Berkbigler and Hill raised close to the same amount of money in donations during the first quarter: Berkbigler’s take amounted to roughly $5,100, while Hill raised around $4,700. 

Berkbigler’s largest contributions came from the Atlantis Hotel and Casino, which donated $1,500, followed by a $1,000 donation from Reno City Councilwoman Bonnie Weber. Two development companies also contributed $1,000 to her campaign, Whittemore Group, Inc. and R&J Joy, Inc.

Hill’s highest donation was $2,500 from the Las Vegas-based data center company Switch.

At the end of the quarter, Berkbigler also had the most cash on hand with roughly $32,800 in her account — $2,800 more than Hill, whose campaign funding is primarily supported by a $25,000 loan to herself.

Hill’s campaign spending fell a little under $10,000 for the first quarter, and Berkbigler’s landed at close to $7,000.

District 4

In District 4, which includes Sparks, Spanish Springs and Wadsworth, Republican incumbent Vaughn Hartung outstrips his Democratic challenger Marie Baker in cash on hand, spending and digital presence.

Photo of Vaughn Hartung (Courtesy of Vaughn Hartung)

Hartung, who runs Vaughn Hartung Enterprises and also receives lease income from a property his family owns, has served on the commission since 2012 and is campaigning for his final term as a commissioner. 

He is running on his record as a commissioner and his focus on addressing issues of public health and safety, water quality and resource management, education and affordable housing.

Photo of Marie Baker (Courtesy of Marie Baker)

Baker is the president and owner at PRM Insurance Inc., and does not appear to have a campaign website. 

Water district signs agreement to settle eminent domain case for industrial center pipeline

A public water district for the country’s largest industrial park has agreed to settle an eminent domain case weeks after a judge ruled that the state Constitution gave a nearby family the right to a jury trial in determining whether seizing their private land for a pipeline project was valid.

Approved by the water district's board on May 21, the agreement could remove a major hurdle to building a regional pipeline from the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center to a municipal sewer plant serving the Reno area roughly 30 miles away. Several conditions in the 20-page agreement still need to be satisfied for it to be final. But all three parties involved have signed the settlement.

The agreement between the Menezes family, the water district and the developer would reroute the pipeline alignment and provide $500,000 in compensation to the family, including attorney fees. It also addresses several access issues during and after the pipeline’s construction. 

Once built, the pipeline will deliver treated effluent to the industrial center, which has attracted investment from big tech companies, including Tesla, Google and Switch. Elected officials have generally supported the project, which would ease the burden on the municipal sewer plant and bring more water to an industrial park that has propelled economic growth in Northern Nevada. 

But it hit a roadblock when a family refused to let the pipeline pass through their hay baling and trucking business along the Truckee River. After the industrial park developer tried to negotiate with the landowner, the water district’s board voted to occupy the land through eminent domain action, a special power that allows governments to seize property if it is for “public use.” 

According to court records, the water district argued that just compensation for all the property that it wanted to condemn was $137,410.

The Menezes family responded in court. 

They wanted to know more about the pipeline, including who was building it, paying for it and benefiting from it. And much of their inquiry focused on the nature of the public water district. 

They asked: Was the water district taking private property to benefit private interests?

The Nevada Constitution excludes “the direct or indirect transfer of any interest in property taken in an eminent domain proceeding from one private party to another private party.”

Details that arose from the litigation and reporting by The Nevada Independent showed that the water district had, for years, blurred the lines between a public and private entity. The findings raised further questions about whether a public body, controlled by private interests, could wield the power of eminent domain, a power allowing governments to seize property for “public use.”

The reporting found that the public water district had ceded most operations to a private water utility owned by the developer’s of the industrial park that it served. What governmental actions that could not be delegated were voted on by a governing board that came to solely comprise employees of Storey County Commissioner Lance Gilman, the face of the industrial park. 

In April, a judge ruled that the Nevada Constitution, under a 2008 amendment, gave the family the right to a jury trial to determine whether or not the taking of property was for a “public use.”

During a hearing on the case, First Judicial District Court Judge James Russell said that he thought effluent was for public use, according to hearing audio requested from the court. 

“But it’s got to be a jury determination,” he said. 

Then in May, the parties reached a settlement.

Luke Busby, the lawyer for the family, declined to comment on the settlement agreement. Kris Thompson, the board president for the water district, also declined to comment for this story.

The settlement became public when it was presented at a water district board meeting on May 21. The water district board unanimously approved the settlement agreement. Even before the lawsuit began, the public water district had been taking steps to professionalize its operations and part ways with the private developer-controlled utility charged with operations.

Board members, which include workers for Gilman’s brothel, now read disclosure notices at meetings.

Small businesses eye fragile future as shutdown tests their survivability

If customers didn’t know any better, they might think they made a wrong turn and ended up inside a medical office rather than Paymon’s Mediterranean Café & Lounge.

The front-desk employee dons a surgical face mask and rubber gloves. Bottles of hand sanitizer sit on the counter. But this is just business as usual for a Las Vegas restaurant trying to survive amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

At the eatery’s Eastern Avenue location, customers stream in and out, keeping social distance from others and grabbing tightly wrapped bundles of takeout food. When they will be allowed to dine in remains a big question mark. So for now, the longtime Las Vegas establishment with two locations is trying to scratch together an existence through curbside delivery or takeout service — an operation model that’s only netting 25 percent of normal revenue. Management furloughed about 62 of the restaurants’ 75 employees, marking the first economic-related layoffs in Paymon’s 31-year history.

“We’ve taken pretty good measures to try to keep people during all the difficult times,” said Jeff Ecker, owner of Restaurant Consultants of Las Vegas, which manages the Paymon’s restaurants on Eastern and Sahara avenues. “This one was just impossible.”

It has been nearly six weeks since Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered the closure of nonessential businesses in a bid to slow the fast-spreading upper-respiratory virus and not overwhelm Nevada’s health care system. State health authorities suspect COVID-19 cases have plateaued, but the governor has signaled he’s waiting for a confirmed downward trajectory before bringing pieces of the economy back to life.

Ecker supported the governor’s shutdown directive. The state, he said, needed to combat the life-threatening virus. Still, Ecker said he would like to see a “partial reopening” soon. He knows patrons won’t return in droves right off the bat. There will be an adjustment period.

The industry is also staring down a minimum wage increase that goes into effect July 1.

“We’re kind of in a scary spot right now as far as survivability of restaurants,” he said.

The same could be said for numerous other small businesses across the state. The safety-minded closures have limited, if not paralyzed, revenue for companies or organizations already operating on thin profit margins. Business chamber leaders in both Northern and Southern Nevada acknowledge that even if the governor gives the green light for businesses to reopen, some simply won’t be able to welcome back customers.

Rebecca Mulheron, an employee at Paymon’s Mediterranean Café & Lounge, takes an order over the phone at the restaurant's Eastern Avenue location in Las Vegas on Friday, April 24, 2020. (Jackie Valley/The Nevada Independent)

***

The questions came like an avalanche from the very beginning. As businesses deemed nonessential closed their doors, heeding Sisolak’s directive in mid-March, their owners flooded the Vegas Chamber with calls and queries.

Cara Clarke, the organization’s vice president for communications, said common questions included: How do I get a Small Business Administration loan? What other resources are out there? And what about rent?

“Businesses are really looking for answers, and they need a friend to guide them,” she said, “and that’s really our role.”

If one chamber role is serving as a conduit — connecting businesses with information and resources — the other is being a business advocate in government. But those dual purposes only go so far. Business survivability in the age of COVID-19 will depend on multiple factors, including the length of closures, a company or organization’s cash on hand and customer behavior in the aftermath, Clarke said. And at least some of those variables remain unknown at this point.

For instance, will customers feel safe returning to eateries and stores, even with social-distancing measures in place? Or will the shaky economy and health concerns encourage frugal spending patterns?

“We can guess at what that’s going to be, but nobody really knows what that will be for sure,” Clarke said, referring to customer behavior.

Ann Silver, chief executive officer of the Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce, said small businesses are stuck in a “miserable state” — waiting for federal relief funding, trying to make do with what they did receive or folding because they can’t make it with or without temporary aid. The chamber defines small businesses as organizations with fewer than 100 employees. Think places such as coffee shops, jewelry stores, clothing boutiques, bakeries or liquor stores.

Eighty percent of the northern chamber’s nearly 2,000 members are small businesses, and of those, 70 percent are considered nonessential businesses, Silver said. She worries that roughly 50 member businesses may not survive beyond the closure period.

“I don’t mean to sound terribly negative, but the small business community is suffering tremendously,” she said.

Late last month, Congress passed the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which pumped $349 billion into the newly created Payroll Protection Program within the Small Business Administration (SBA). The program was designed as life support for businesses with fewer than 500 employees, but some large companies found loopholes and scored big sums, leading to partisan outrage. The CARES Act also expanded the SBA’s long-standing Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) program. 

As of Monday, 549 loans totaling $118 million were approved for Nevada businesses under the Economic Injury Disaster Loans program, SBA Nevada district director Joseph Amato said. Silver State businesses, meanwhile, netted 8,674 loan approvals totaling roughly $2 billion through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP).

Other loan applications remain in the queue awaiting the next round of funding. President Donald Trump on Friday signed a new relief bill that includes $321 billion for the Payroll Protection Program as well as $60 billion for the disaster loan program.

Only 3.2 percent of Nevada small businesses received a PPP loan during the first round of funding, according to a Guinn Center analysis. That falls below the national average of 5.4 percent and places Nevada 50th among all states and the District of Columbia. California rounded out the bottom of the list, with just 2.8 percent of its small businesses receiving a PPP loan. 

The Guinn Center analysis suggests Nevada is “under banked” and, therefore, does not have enough financial institutions capable of processing the loan applications. Iowa, a state with a similar population size, has one Financial Deposit Insurance Corporation-backed bank for every 900 small businesses, while Nevada only has one such institution per every 14,200 small businesses.

“The relatively fewer number of financial institutions in Nevada does provide some evidence to support the concern that capacity issues could have slowed the timely processing (of) PPP loans for many small businesses in Nevada,” the report notes.

On the plus side, Nevada ranked eighth for the size of its approved PPP loans. The average loan size for Nevada small businesses was $232,181, exceeding the national average of $205,614.

Paymon’s Mediterranean Café & Lounge received a PPP loan for one of its locations. Ecker, although grateful, said he wishes the federal assistance carried a more flexible timeline. The loan may be forgivable, meaning businesses don’t owe any money, if they use it for the approved percentage of payroll costs, mortgage interest, rent and utility payments over the eight-week period after receiving it. Employers who had cut workers prior to receiving the loan have until June 30 to restaff.

“There’s no reason to bring employees back in right now based on business volume,” Ecker said. “So the clock is ticking and it would have been much better had they allowed an eight-week period of your choosing.”

Action Camera in Reno is one of the state’s small businesses that so far hasn’t received approval for a PPP loan, said the store’s general manager, Craig Moore. The small business has another Action Camera location in Roseville, California.

Moore said the Reno store has been limping along during the closure, making $200 to $500 per day compared with the $3,000 to $5,000 in daily revenue it normally raked in before the health crisis. The camera shop furloughed its hourly workers, he said, but is trying to remain connected with customers by hosting online workshops, some of which are free.

Moore said he thinks the store can survive a closure through June 30, although he noted that’s an “extremely optimistic” projection. And he wonders what in-person customer traffic will look like after the shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted.

“My fear is that this pandemic and stay-at-home order make it perfect for people to push the Amazon button on the phone and computer and get really used to stuff arriving at their house,” he said. “I believe that’s going to be a bigger battle than it already was when we reopen.”

The governor has received criticism for not offering a more concrete reopening date — instead couching reopenings as a process that will occur in phases based on downward trends in positive cases and hospitalizations. Moore doesn’t consider himself one of those critics, saying he considers the situation “a waiting game” to avoid more people falling ill.

Other small business owners are calling for changes they think would level the playing field.

Karen Hyatt-Miner, owner of Vino 100 in Reno, questions why her neighborhood shop can’t remain open, while big-box retailers and grocery stores that sell some of the same products — such as wine, jams, olives and balsamic vinegar — can welcome flocks of customers.

Vino 100 received a call from the city’s Business License Division last week, instructing the store to close. Hyatt-MIner said she had been under the impression her store could remain open to sell food and beverage items as long as it closed a small bar inside. 

She was assembling a to-go cheese platter order at the time of the phone call.

“If more people have to go to the same place because there are so few places open, how does that make us safer?” she said. “Explain this to me.”

With little wiggle room in her nearly $3,600 monthly rent, Hyatt-Miner, 52, said she fears the future of her business and economic livelihood.

“I’m working toward my retirement,” she said. “I’m not there yet. If I lost the business now, my retirement would be almost nothing.”

***

As businesses, many of them small and local, struggle, organizations are launching programs or brainstorming ways to help keep them afloat.

The Vegas Chamber partnered with Switch, Metro Police and ItsOnMe — a mobile gifting company headquartered in Las Vegas — to create the “Switch to Kindness” campaign, which allows people to purchase electronic gift cards from local businesses. Electronic gift cards can be donated to local first-responders or sent to the buyer’s recipient of choice.

Businesses that are members of the Vegas Chamber can participate. For those not already members, the organization is offering temporary free memberships.

The Nevada Small Business Development Center also announced it is beginning a social media campaign Sunday to support small businesses. The five-day challenge will involve activities that can be done from home, such as tagging businesses on social media, buying gift cards, writing online reviews and sending caring messages to business owners.

The Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, has submitted a proposal that goes a step further to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development for consideration. Dubbed “curbside commerce,” the program would allow small, nonessential businesses to re-enter the marketplace by providing curbside sales.

The two-page memo outlines the process that would allow customers, one at time, to buy goods in a parking lot or driveway without hand-to-hand contact. For example, no money could be exchanged during the transaction, meaning all purchases would be completed by phone or online before scheduling a specific pickup time. Additionally, business employees would be required to wear face masks and gloves, and customers would need to display facial coverings.

“We understand and fully respect the governor’s focus on the health and safety of Nevadans,” said Ann Silver, the chamber’s CEO. “At the same time, I feel strongly that there are some very strict measures that small businesses could take to at least generate some income rather than slowly die on the vine waiting for phase one, phase two, phase three.”

Silver said she was trying to present the governor with “potential solutions, not just complaints.” She characterized the program as a “stepping stone to reopening” that would be tested within the chamber’s constituent area in Northern Nevada.

As someone who lived through the 9/11 attacks in New York City and saw people change their routines in the aftermath, Silver said it’s incumbent on the business community to innovate. She expects consumers to be wary of large groups for a while.

“What will be the new norm two years from now?” she said.

Even with outside-the-box thinking, it’s all but inevitable some businesses will fold.

Joseph Amato, the SBA Nevada district director, said the pandemic — a variable element outside of anyone’s control — could cause more business attrition than normal.

“Every economic cycle there are businesses that are basically lost due to attrition,” said Amato, an entrepreneur who studied economic cycles before joining the SBA. “Businesses that are strong will remain in business. The businesses that are weak will likely shut down.”

The SBA’s loan program, he said, tries to “fill that financial gap” and prevent some of the businesses from failing. At this point, no one can say with certainty how many will succeed, but Amato said Nevada’s small business owners have a history of resiliency.

Experts say the full extent of coronavirus-inflicted damage on small businesses won’t be known for quite some time.

“The vast majority of businesses that were deemed nonessential and told to close did so without a lot of resistance,” said Clarke with the Vegas Chamber. “They knew it was the right thing to do. There will be some of those that will have paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

Disclosure: The Nevada Independent was approved for a PPP loan.

Reno’s ‘1,000 Homes in 120 Days’ program seeks to boost inventory amid shortage, but at what cost?

Construction in Verdi, on the western edge of Reno

An influx of major companies such as Tesla, Google, and Switch combined with geographical limitations on development have pushed median home prices in the Reno area up to around the $400,000 mark — out of reach of many residents

In September, Mayor Hillary Schieve announced a pilot program designed to address the area’s housing shortage called "1,000 homes in 120 Days," offering developers local permit fee deferrals that act as no-interest "loans" to attract more construction. By the end of the 120-day application period on Jan. 30, developers had proposed 4,628 housing units scattered throughout Reno. 

"This initiative will be beneficial to getting more housing product into the market," Schieve said in a press release announcing the program. "At the Mayor's Housing Town Hall, I teased a bold new initiative for housing. I'm excited that we kept that promise, and that we're introducing this transformative idea right here in Reno. Not many cities in the country have introduced something like this to spur development."

A review of the applications submitted for the initiative revealed that out of the 4,628 proposed housing units, only 3 percent of the units are considered affordable housing — 160 units designated as senior housing. Price points for all of the units are not yet available. 

As of March 2, the City Council has accepted every application it has reviewed. If all of the projects are approved and simultaneously built, the city will be offering approximately $1.5 million in building permit fee deferrals and $15.5 million in sewer connection fee deferrals that the developers will pay at the end of construction. 

The program’s lack of quotas to prioritize less-expensive options has drawn criticism from the public. Others have questioned the funding mechanism that will front the cost of the fee deferrals.

Critics include J.D. Klippenstein, the executive director of the progressive-leaning non-profit Acting in Community Together in Organizing Northern Nevada (ACTIONN).

"Decades of research have shown that the market does not build affordable housing unless there's deep incentives or subsidies," Klippenstein said. 

Still, Schieve said the goal of the proposal was to increase housing units as a way of decreasing the overall price of homes.

A Comprehensive Housing Market Analysis from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that in 2018, the total demand for housing units in the Reno area was 7,000 when only 1,375 units were under construction, and the demand for rental units was 3,800 while 2,825 were under construction.

"In a perfect world, it'd be great if every developer built affordable housing, but at the same time, that's just not realistic,” Schieve said. “And economics prove that we need housing of all types.”

An evolving program

Even though the program initially allowed for the construction of up to 1,000 homes within Reno’s opportunity zones, council members decided to allow proposals outside those areas and increased the number of allowed housing units. 

Opportunity zones originated in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that Republican President Donald Trump backed and signed into law in 2017. The U.S. Economic Development Administration defines an opportunity zone as “an economically distressed community where private investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for capital gain tax incentives.”  

Aric Jensen, Reno’s revitalization manager, told The Nevada Independent that the governor’s office designated the opportunity zones in Reno after reviewing city recommendations, but the city did not get to choose where the zones were placed. 

“We as a city are heavily promoting opportunity zones, specifically the ones in our downtown area where we want revitalization, which is why we included them as criteria for the 1,000 homes project,” he said.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Schieve said she and the council chose to focus on infill projects — projects built on vacant or underused properties surrounded by existing buildings — instead of sprawl into undeveloped areas because infill projects are cheaper. She also said city leaders wanted to focus on revitalizing buildings and lots abandoned in the wake of the 2008 recession, create more housing to increase services in the area, and preserve the natural landscape.

Jensen said that city staff designed the project for developers who already had plans to build housing and wanted to reduce their development time, which can take anywhere from five to eight years.

The standard fee repayment period for the deferral agreement is five years after developers receive a certificate of occupancy. Most developers have 18 months from the time they sign a deal with the city to begin construction. The city will determine a window of time in which the developer must complete the construction — time frames could vary depending on the size of proposed projects.

Council members decided that developers who need more time to begin construction will have to request an amendment from the council, and may not receive fee deferrals. If the impact fee values increase, developers will pay the additional costs.

Money from the city sewer fund will be fronting the costs for the deferred impact fees — something that bothers Paul McKenzie, a former councilman and the secretary treasurer for the Building and Construction Trades Council of Northern Nevada. McKenzie worries the plan is removing funds essential to maintaining, repairing, and paying for sewer costs.

"The staff of the city of Reno ... has kind of used that sewer fund as a slush fund. Those impact fees by statute have to be set aside for projects that are on a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP)," McKenzie said. "If they aren't ... then they should reimburse those funds to the development table because it's not just that we get to collect money to be used for whatever we want."

Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus has raised concerns about the use of the sewer fund for the project in multiple council meetings, warning that using funds for fee deferrals could potentially raise rates for Reno households. Quarterly rates for the sewer fund for single-family homes are $144.60 and for units within a multi-family complex are $119.04.

"While I support broad policy to address the challenges the housing production market is having, individual deals are difficult to me and in this one in particular because it reaches into the sewer fund," Brekhus said in a council meeting on Jan. 22, noting the potential for fee increases that could "hit household expenses across the board."

Schieve said the project would not put stress on the sewer fund.

"There is plenty of money in there, and we don't have projects that are coming forward that are pressing," she said explaining the council is trying to be proactive about addressing the immediate need for housing.

McKenzie also raised concerns about the legality of the project and how the city could offer fee deferrals. 

In the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed SB103, a bill proposed by Democratic Sen. Julia Ratti that gave local governments the ability to reduce or subsidize impact fees for affordable housing projects. 

“1,000 Homes in 120 Days” does not fall under SB103 because it was not explicitly for affordable housing, so city staff created an ordinance specific to the initiative allowing the council to grant fee deferrals for applications related to the project. 

The council adopted the ordinance in a meeting on Oct. 2. 

Although the ordinance granting fee deferrals may raise questions about equity in the housing market, city attorneys did not note any legal implications on the staff report.

Criticism remains

An analysis of Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy (CHAS) data from 2010-2014 shows that there are 94 affordable units available in Reno for every 100 renter households earning between 51 and 80 percent of the area median income. However, it’s more difficult for people at the lower end of the economic spectrum: for every 100 renter households earning between 31 and 50 percent of the median income, the number of affordable units drops to 41, and for every 100 renters making 30 percent or less of the area median income, the number of affordable units is 27. 

Klippenstein said increasing housing without providing stipulations for affordable housing in Reno will not solve the housing crisis.

"The current shortage for affordable rental units for low-income folks in Washoe County is 25,000 units. Given the resources we have, it would take us a century to cover the current gap if we don't create significantly increased resources for low-income, affordable housing," Klippenstein said, referring to data from the Truckee Meadows Regional Strategy for Housing Affordability Report, an analysis and evaluation of the current housing inventory in the region.  

Klippenstein also said the program does not address a gap created by wealthier people moving into the city and impinging on the ability of residents who may be looking for housing.

In response, Schieve said the program is just one solution to stabilize the market based on the principles of supply and demand. 

As for how the city plans to keep up with the consistent demand for housing?

Schieve said the council has been addressing homelessness and the housing shortage, but it is difficult because state-approved incentives that helped large companies such as Tesla move into the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center in nearby Storey County did not account for stress on local, neighboring municipalities. 

"When they brought these big companies, and I think it was the right thing to do to jumpstart the economy, but we were never brought to the table and said, 'what about the infrastructure?'" she said. "Meanwhile, there were these big abatements for these companies, and they should have said a portion of that is going to help build infrastructure and housing and the cities. And I feel like we were not at the table when that took place."

Klippenstein said he understood where Schieve was coming from but added that Reno could have advocated for an agreement with either the state or the large companies to receive funding to address the need for increased infrastructure. 

"I don’t think they get it both ways,” he said. “They want to claim all the good benefits ... Then push the challenges off onto a state-level decision.”

Follow the Money: Campaign finance reports show GOP edges in key Assembly races, tight contests in State Senate

Front of the Nevada Legislature building at night

A year after legislative Republicans became close to an endangered species after widespread 2018 electoral defeats, the party’s attempted comeback was boosted by candidates in several key races outraising incumbent Democratic lawmakers during the last year.

Details from the 2019 contribution and expenses reports, due on Jan. 15, detailed how much legislative incumbents and candidates raised over the last calendar year and painted a more hopeful picture for Republicans in several “swing” Assembly races, with a more mixed view in competitive state Senate seats.

Although there are 63 seats in the Legislature — 42 Assembly members and 21 senators — actual control of the body, or more likely whether or not Democrats have a two-thirds majority (required for passing any increase in taxes) in either body, will likely come down to just a handful of competitive seats up in 2020. 

Changing the balance of the state Assembly, where Democrats enjoy a 29-13 seat advantage, could be the best ticket for Assembly Republicans. In at least three races — Assembly Districts 4, 29 and 37 — Republican candidates reported raising at least six figures and each substantially outraised the Democratic incumbent in the seat.

Only 10 seats are up for election in the Senate, with members serving staggered four-year terms. Democrats control 13 seats — one shy of a super-majority — but have not endorsed candidates in the two most likely pick-up districts; Heidi Gansert in Senate District 15 and Scott Hammond in Senate District 18. And those incumbents will start with a significant financial advantage — Gansert raised $245,000 in 2019, and Hammond also pulled in $107,800.

Senate Democrats will also have to work to defend two competitive seats — Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s Senate District 6 and the open Senate District 5, vacated by termed-out Sen Joyce Woodhouse. They’ll also have to deal with a competitive, three-way primary in safely Democratic Senate District 7 between caucus-backed Roberta Lange and two long-time Assembly members, Richard Carrillo and Ellen Spiegel.

And with no major statewide or federal races (beyond congressional seats and the presidential election) on the ballot, it’s likely that more attention and funds will make their way to down-ticket legislative races, especially ahead of an expected redistricting after the 2020 Census that could determine the political trajectory of the state over the next decade.

Fundraising reports, especially those filed nearly a year before an election, aren’t a perfect barometer of the success of any particular candidate, but offer a helpful context in determining which races that individual parties determine to be the most winnable and whether or not individual candidates have the resources to compete in a down-ballot race. (It’s also worth noting that incumbents are disadvantaged in fundraising because of a legally required “blackout” period before, during and shortly after the 120-day legislative session).

On the flip-side, a close examination of major contributors can pull back the veil on which businesses or industries are trying to curry favor with lawmakers ahead of the 2021 legislative session. 

Here’s a look at the financial status of major legislative races:

Major state Senate races

Although 10 state Senate races will be on the 2020 ballot, only a handful of races are likely to be competitive and shift the current 13-8 seat advantage currently held by Democrats.

A key battleground will be in Senate District 6, which is held by Cannizzaro, who narrowly beat former Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman in the 2016 election. Senate Republicans have endorsed April Becker, a Las Vegas-based attorney. Democrats make up 40 percent of registered voters in the district, and Republicans make up roughly 32.8 percent of registered voters.

Cannizzaro, who also beat back a politically motivated recall attempt in 2017, starts the race with a significant financial advantage after raising more than $326,000 throughout 2019, spending just $22,000 and ending the reporting period with $531,000 in the bank. Her top donors include $30,000 from properties affiliated with the Las Vegas Sands and $10,000 checks each from the Mirage, Switch and the Home Building Industry PAC, as well as nearly $10,000 from Woodhouse’s campaign.

But Becker’s first campaign finance report isn’t shabby; she reported raising nearly $313,000 over the fundraising period (including a “written commitment” from herself for $125,000) and ended the period with $152,000 in her campaign account.

Top donors to Becker included several Republican senators ($10,000 each from James Settelmeyer and the Senate Republican Leadership Conference, $5,000 each from Ben Kieckhefer, Joe Hardy and former state Sen. Michael Roberson and $2,000 from Keith Pickard), as well as $10,000 each from Abbey Dental Center owner Sanjeeta Khurana, the law firm of Gerald Gillock & Associates and Nevsur, Inc. (owned by Bruce and Barry Becker ).

Another highly competitive seat is Senate District 5, where Woodhouse narrowly beat Republican candidate and charter school principal Carrie Buck by less than one percentage point in the 2016 election. Democrats make up 38.4 percent of registered voters in the district compared to 32.6 percent for registered Republicans.

Buck, who is running again and has been endorsed by Senate Republicans, reported raising nearly $63,000 and ended the fundraising period with nearly $58,000 in the bank. Her top donors were fellow Republican senators; $10,000 each from the caucus itself and Settelmeyer, $5,000 each from Kieckhefer, Roberson and Hardy and $2,000 from Pickard.

But Buck’s fundraising total was eclipsed by Democrat Kristee Watson, a literacy nonprofit program facilitator endorsed by Senate Democrats in October.

Watson, who ran unsuccessfully for a Henderson-area Assembly seat in 2018, reported raising nearly $87,000 through the fundraising period, with a significant chunk coming from transfers from other candidates and office-holders. She received $10,000 contributions each from a PAC affiliated with Cannizzaro and the campaigns of Sens. Woodhouse, Chris Brooks, Marilyn Dondero Loop, and $5,000 from the campaigns of Sens. Melanie Scheible, Julia Ratti and Yvanna Cancela.

Other potentially competitive state Senate races feature a lopsided fundraising advantage for the incumbent. Democratic Sen. Dallas Harris in Senate District 11 was appointed to fill the term of now-Attorney General Aaron Ford, and reported raising nearly $46,000 over the fundraising period ($65,000 cash on hand). Her Republican opponents, Edgar Miron Galindo and Joshua Dowden, raised only $7,250 and $ 11,500 respectively over the fundraising period.

Two Republican incumbents up for re-election also posted impressive fundraising numbers that far outstripped potential opponents. Gansert in Senate District 15 raised nearly $246,000 and has nearly $237,000 in cash on hand; potential Democratic opponent Lindsy Judd did not file a 2019 campaign finance report.

In Senate District 18, incumbent Hammond raised nearly $108,000 and has more than $91,000 left in his campaign account; potential Democratic opponent Liz Becker raised $21,700 in comparison and has just $11,200 in cash on hand.

Primary battles

One of the most intriguing legislative races could come in the three-way Democratic primary to replace longtime Sen. David Parks, who is termed out of his Senate District 7 seat. Two Assembly members — Ellen Spiegel and Richard Carrillo — are running for the seat, but state Senate Democrats have thrown their weight behind another candidate, former state party head Roberta Lange.

Lange — who only made her bid for the seat official in mid-December — reported raising more than $64,000 for the seat, essentially during only the last two weeks of December. Her major donors included $10,000 from Cannizzaro’s political action committee, and $5,000 each from six incumbent senators — Ratti, Brooks, Scheible, Woodhouse, Cancela and Dondero Loop. She also received $2,500 from Parks, $1,000 from former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s Searchlight Leadership PAC and $5,000 each from UNLV professor and former gaming executive Tom Gallagher and his wife, Mary Kay Gallagher.

But she faces a potentially tough primary fight from Spiegel, who raised $63,000 throughout 2019 and has nearly $213,000 in available cash on hand. Her top contributor was Cox Communications ($10,000 cumulative) but other top givers included the Nevada REALTORS PAC, pharmaceutical company trade group PhRMA, health insurance giant Centene and AT&T ($3,000 from each). 

Carrillo lagged behind both Lange and Spiegel in initial fundraising reports. He reported raising $29,500 throughout the fundraising period, spending $37,600 and having just $17,000 left in available cash. His biggest contributor was the Laborers Union Local 872, which donated $12,500 through contributions by five affiliated political action committees. Other top contributors include tobacco company Altria and the political arm of the Teamsters Union ($5,000 each), and $3,000 each from Nevada REALTORS PAC and the Nevada Trucking Association.

Another major primary election is brewing between Republican candidates Andy Matthews (a former campaign spokesman for former Attorney General Adam Laxalt) and Michelle Mortensen (former television host and congressional candidate) in a primary for the right to challenge Assemblywoman Shea Backus in Assembly District 37.

Matthews raised a massive $154,000 over the fundraising period, the highest amount of any Republican Assembly candidate and the second most of any Assembly candidate behind only Speaker Jason Frierson.

He reported spending $23,800 and ending the period with more than $130,000 in available cash. His top donors included $10,000 combined from manufacturer EE Technologies and founder Sonny Newman, and $5,000 each from Las Vegas-based businesses Vegas Heavy Haul and InCorp Services, Inc. 

Mortensen also posted a substantial fundraising total; more than $102,000 raised, $9,500 spent and more than $93,000 in cash on hand. Her major donors included primarily family members; her husband Robert Marshall and his company Marshall & Associates ($20,000 total), her father-in-law James Marshall ($10,000) and maximum $10,000 donations from several family members including Betty Mortensen, Tom Mortensen, Ryan Mortensen and Mila Mortensen.

Both Republican candidates outraised incumbent Backus, who raised nearly $25,000 during the reporting period and has nearly $64,000 left in cash on hand. Her top donor was Wynn Resorts, which gave her $5,000. Backus narrowly defeated then-Republican Assemblyman Jim Marchant in the 2018 election, the first time a Democrat won the district in four election cycles.

Another competitive primary is happening in Assembly District 36, where appointed Assembly Republican Gregory Hafen II is facing off against Joseph Bradley, who ran for the seat last cycle against former Assemblyman James Oscarson and famed brothel owner Dennis Hof, who won the primary but died before the election.

Hafen reported raising $62,000 over the fundraising period (including a $9,500 loan) and has nearly $47,000 in cash on hand. Bradley reported raising $54,000 and has $38,500 left in his campaign account.

Key Assembly races

Nevada’s Assembly Democrats hit a potential high-water mark in 2018, winning control of 29 seats for the first time since 1992 and gaining enough seats to relegate Assembly Republicans to a super-minority (fewer than two-thirds of members).

But in a handful of competitive Assembly seats currently held by Democrats, Republican candidates posted substantial fundraising totals that not only eclipsed but often lapped the amount raised by incumbent Democrats, giving Republicans a financial leg up in some of the state’s most competitive legislative districts.

In Assembly District 4, first-term lawmaker Connie Munk reported raising $18,600 throughout 2019 and ended the period with just over $30,000 in cash on hand. Her biggest donors were PhRMA and trial attorneys-affiliated Citizens for Justice, Trust.

But her fundraising total was overwhelmed by Republican candidate Donnie Gibson, who reported raising $115,000 and has $87,000 left in his campaign account. Gibson, who runs a grading and paving company called Civil Werx, received maximum contributions from home builders and developers: $10,000 each from Associated Builders & Contractors, Associated General Contractors, the Nevada Contractors Association and the Home Industry Building PAC.

A similar disparity in fundraising totals was also present in Assembly District 29, where incumbent Democrat Lesley Cohen reported raising $16,000 over the fundraising period and has just under $50,000 in available cash.

Steven Delisle, a dentist and former state Senate candidate who announced his intention to run for the Assembly seat on Thursday, reported raising more than $134,000 for the race against Cohen, including a $125,000 loan to his campaign account.

But Democrats may have caught a break in Assembly District 31, where incumbent Skip Daly has won multiple races despite representing a district that went for President Donald Trump in 2016. Daly raised $46,425 through 2019 and has $75,800 left in his campaign account.

Assembly Republicans initially rallied behind Jake Wiskerchen, a marriage and family therapist who reported raising $27,700 for the race and had $19,000 in cash on hand at the end of 2019. But Wiskerchen opted to publicly drop out of the race in early January, leaving Republicans without an endorsed candidate for the time being. Daly’s 2018, 2016 and 2014 opponent, Jill Dickman, reported raising $8,800 in 2019 and has nearly $104,000 in leftover campaign cash.

Legislative leaders

Democratic Assembly Speaker Frierson reported raising more than $233,000 through the fundraising period, spending $174,000 and ended the period with just under $475,000 in cash on hand. His top contributors included a wide swath of Nevada businesses, including $10,000 each from Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, the campaign account of former Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, Home Building Industry PAC, MGM Resorts and UFC parent company Zuffa, LLC. He also received $5,000 from the Vegas Golden Knights.

Republican Assembly Leader Robin Titus, who took over the caucus leadership position after the 2019 legislature, raised just over $38,000 during the fundraising period, spending more than $16,000 and ending the period with $72,000 in cash on hand. Top contributors to Titus included PhRMA and the Nevada REALTOR PAC ($5,000 each).

Her Republican counterpart in the state Senate, Settelmeyer, reported raising nearly $95,000 over the reporting period, with top contributors including UFC parent company Zuffa ($7,500), TitleMax, Nevada Credit Union League PAC, Grand Sierra Resort and Storey County businessman Lance Gilman ($5,000 from each). Settelmeyer ended the reporting period with $137,000 in cash on hand.

Sisolak

Although he isn’t up for re-election until 2022, Gov. Steve Sisolak broke fundraising records for Nevada governors in their first year in office after raising more than $1.6 million for his campaign and another $1.7 million for two closely affiliated political action committees. 

Sisolak reported having more than $2.3 million in available cash on hand at the end of 2019, and only reported spending $164,000 throughout the year. The governor also raised $1.7 million between the Sisolak Inaugural Committee and the Home Means Nevada PAC, which were initially set up to manage Sisolak’s inaugural events but have since been used for pro-Sisolak advertising. Political action committees in Nevada are allowed to accept unlimited donations.

Updated at 12:55 p.m. on Saturday, January 18th to include fundraising totals from Senate Republican candidate Joshua Dowden.