Is higher ed's quest to 'align' colleges with workforce a solution in search of a problem?

More than eight months after Gov. Steve Sisolak shocked many in Nevada’s higher education world by floating the idea of breaking the state’s four community colleges off into their own governing board, nearly all parties are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Sisolak’s concept took the shape of AB450 — a legislative study committee tasked with aligning the state’s workforce development goals with the community college system.

Aug. 1 marked the one-year deadline for the committee to transmit its report and recommendations to the Legislature, but so far, the governor has not made any appointments to the study committee. 

Unlike similar committees convened through the decades to study the state’s community colleges, the AB450 committee will be composed largely of economic and business representatives — not higher education officials. 

One member will come from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Three more will represent local chambers of commerce or “economic development entities,” including one from the north and two from the south. 

A fifth will be a labor representative with experience in a “jointly administered apprenticeship program” recognized by the state, and the sixth will be the superintendent of public instruction, a role currently filled by State Superintendent Jhone Ebert. 

Rounding out the last two seats are members from the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE): The sitting chancellor, Melody Rose, and one to-be-determined president of a community college. 

Proponents of AB450, most notably the governor, have cast it as a tangible step toward refocusing support of the state’s community colleges as a critical pillar in rebuilding Nevada’s post-pandemic workforce. 

But even as many within NSHE and some regents have signaled openness to AB450’s planned committee, they have also suggested that it may be a solution in search of a problem. Pointing to existing programs, partnerships and more, some have even chafed at the suggestion that a “misalignment” on the issue exists.

“I don't see the example [of misalignment], even when you go to what would be more strictly a community college in our system like [Truckee Meadows Community College] or [the College of Southern Nevada] or [Western Nevada College],” Great Basin College President Joyce Helens said in an interview. “They're all responding to business and industry, all the time, and in very big ways.”

Creation of the study committee comes amid the backdrop of more than $75 million in cuts to NSHE approved by lawmakers in 2021, and also in the midst of nearly a decade of simmering tensions between lawmakers in Carson City and the 13-member board governing higher education.

Beyond the question of whether better “alignment” between community colleges and workforce development is needed, recommendations by the study committee could herald potentially seismic shifts in the state’s higher education structure — everything from governance models to how colleges and universities are funded.

The view from the inside

For those within NSHE, the words “workforce development” are already functionally synonymous with higher education — and have been for years. 

“Higher education was creating teachers 147 years ago,” Regents Chair Cathy McAdoo said, referring to the year UNR was founded. “So yes, it's ongoing. It's not something that's just come on our radar.”

McAdoo, who also chaired the regent’s community college committee last year, said it’s not just community colleges, but the universities, too, that have long been a core driver the state’s workforce. 

“I see all of higher education as workforce development,” McAdoo said. 

McAdoo pointed to myriad higher education partnerships with massive corporations, including MGM Resorts International, Tesla, Panasonic and rural Nevada mining giants — all “proof of concept” of long-running collaboration between higher education curricula and private labor needs. 

While acknowledging that the state’s higher education system as currently constructed isn’t perfect, community college leaders interviewed by The Nevada Independent said they have long held workforce development as a core part of their mission.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, right, and Gov. Steve Sisolak announce a workforce grant during a roundtable at the College of Southern Nevada on Tuesday, June. 22, 2021. On the left is Dr. Federico Zaragoza, president of CSN. Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Speaking in an interview last month, CSN President Federico Zaragoza touted his college as a “major agent” of workforce development, in large part because of already existing efforts to line up programs with “emerging occupations. 

“So I'll give you an example — we're not producing enough nurses,” Zaragoza said. “So we're right-sizing the program. We now have an opportunity to have a campus begin to offer nursing. So that'll allow us to double the number of nurses in an area of high demand. That helps diversify, obviously, the student enrollment, but also feeds the diversification of the economy.”

Zaragoza also said the community college system would likely play a crucial role in retraining workers whose jobs were wiped away by shifts in the post-pandemic economy. 

“The other element here that's critical is a lot of people are getting displaced,” he said. “About 50,000 of the people that were displaced during the pandemic are not coming back to their previous jobs, so we're retraining those individuals into these areas of high demand.” 

At Great Basin College — an Elko community college with campuses across rural Nevada — part of the existing focus on workforce development comes simply from the realities of operating a school built to service the state’s “rural frontier.”

“This is a business, and we're in the business that embraces the technical college, the community college and the liberal arts four-year missions,” Helens said. “But we have to cover the cost of doing this business, and so the revenue sources work together to be able to do that and balance our bottom line.”

Helens said the school’s work was never in the “abstract,” but rather an active effort to communicate with the largest businesses in the region — namely mining companies or equipment companies such as Komatsu — to develop training programs and job pipelines. 

She touted the school’s successes, praising the rapid development of a welding program and a trucking program with the combined efforts of corporate funding, state grants and existing college resources. 

Helens also said she did not see any implied “misalignment” between existing programs at GBC and the broader stated goal of AB450 in workforce development.

“I don't know where that came from,” she said. “It’s—absolutely nothing I have experienced in my 40-plus years of working in community and technical colleges. And [it’s] the same at Great Basin College. When we were founded, I mean, we're always responding to business and industry. There is no misalignment.”

Helens conceded that there are areas that could be improved, mentioning possible efforts to create “better points of contact” for industry. Still, she praised existing workforce efforts at NSHE institutions and praised partnerships between GBC and other sister institutions like CSN and UNR. 

“I have asked the question, ‘Where'd that come from?’ — just like you are asking,” Helens said. “Give me an example, because I don't see the example.”

Money, governance and the road ahead

If the question of misalignment is nebulous for administrators and regents, it isn’t for David Damore — a professor and chair of the political science department at UNLV, a fellow at Brookings Mountain West and a vocal critic of the state’s governing structures for community colleges. 

“I see it as thinking more broadly about the state's economic development efforts in aligning within the regions to the sectors that the RDAs, the Regional Development Authorities, are supposed to go and recruit to come to the bat,” Damore said. “I don't see a whole lot of integration between what's going on in the economic development world, and the workforce development you're seeing at the institutions.”

Pointing to a 2011 workforce study from Brookings Mountain West that laid out a number of strategic statewide goals for economic development, Damore said there was a fundamental “disconnect” between a centralized statewide higher education system that, in his view, was not responsive to regional economic differences between North and South. 

The process of addressing those issues at a policy level, Damore said, ultimately drove at the twin prongs of AB450: money and governance. 

On the money question — more specifically, the question of how state funding is allocated per-institution by the existing formula — administrators and outside observers have for years characterized the existing structure as “one-size-fits-all.”

Developed in 2011 and approved by lawmakers in 2013, the formula’s current iteration centers on weighted student credit hours as a measure that endeavors to account for the differences between inexpensive courses, such as an English lecture, and more costly resource-intensive lab or graduate courses. 

That formula also came at a critical political juncture for the state’s higher education system, as proponents of a still-young UNLV sought newfound parity for a funding system they had long criticized as tilted toward UNR by influential northern lawmakers — parity that a new formula could deliver. 

“That has been the success of this structure,” Damore said. “UNR and UNLV both made Carnegie [R1 very high-research classification]; you’re starting to see much more research output and all those things. But that comes at the expense of small schools.”

The Legislature on Saturday, May 22, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

For community colleges, both observers and administrators said a gap has emerged in and among an increasingly large slice of students who are in non-degree programs — courses that range from IT certifications to nursing training — that don’t count toward the number of weighted credit hours. 

“I've got about 15,000 students that are non-credit students at CSN,” Zaragoza said. “So the formula doesn't work for them. And so looking at the formula, it's important for workforce because there are different pathways. The formula is perfect for the traditional student, but for non-traditional students that are looking for short-term training, or for short-term upgrading, that are non-credit based, that's the gap that we’ve got.” 

Zaragoza and others have pointed out such gaps could be addressed in the coming legislative session, and he said he was “cautiously optimistic” that 2023 could reverse downward funding trends for higher education in Carson City budget negotiations. 

Amid the financial chaos triggered by the pandemic, Sisolak and state lawmakers had initially slashed state agency budgets by 12 percent for each of the next two fiscal years, a cut that would have amounted to more than $169 million lost over two years for NSHE. 

That cut was ultimately blunted with the distribution of federal aid in the twilight hours of the legislative session, and lawmakers ultimately added back $93 million for faculty and staff salaries in a last-minute move that avoided layoffs. The remaining operational cuts were not restored, however, and NSHE institutions will enter the fall semester with almost $76 million in budget reductions. 

Still, Sisolak called for additional funding for community colleges just weeks later. 

“I've always maintained — from my time on the Board of Regents to the [Clark] County Commission to now as governor — our community colleges are underfunded and underappreciated and overlooked, unfortunately,” Sisolak said during a roundtable event in June. 

It was the second time in as many weeks that Sisolak — who spent 10 years as a regent before being elected to the Clark County Commission in 2008 — had raised the issue of “underfunded and underappreciated” community colleges in Nevada. 

But the second major change that could be spurred by AB450 — and what could ultimately become a more political question — is one of governance structure, though precisely how or what could come is among the many questions with few answers at this early stage. 

Damore — who joined several colleagues early this year in penning an op-ed in the Las Vegas Sun criticizing the community college structure — said one possible outcome is a broad decentralization of community college governance through the use of individual boards for each institution while maintaining the overall administrative structure of NSHE writ-large. 

Whether the AB450 committee and legislative recommendations that follow will treat NSHE administration and the broad idea of “governance” as two different questions remains to be seen.  

“That's the million-dollar question,” Damore said. “The current structure has really conflated governance and administration … And so, the part of the point of having these discussions now, in theory, is having another discussion about whether or not NSHE and the regents should be coupled in this way.”

The mere mention of governance and reform has dredged up another parallel issue: that the Legislature has for years sought to increase its oversight of the Board of Regents, in large part by stripping the regents of their position in the state Constitution and placing them in state law instead. 

That effort eventually took the form of 2020’s Ballot Question 1, which ultimately failed by a narrow margin of 0.3 points. 

But nearly as soon as it died at the ballot box, the measure was revived by lawmakers as SJR7. With language tweaked by proponents explicitly to avoid the pitfalls that sank the measure on the first try, SJR7 sailed through this year’s legislative session. If political winds do not drastically shift on the issue in 2023, SJR7 could be on a direct course to the ballot box in 2024. 

SJR7 and Question 1 before it have for years stirred debates over not just the simple oversight of regents by legislators, but foundational questions over constitutional interpretations and the very purpose of an elected board of 13 regents. 

And though proponents of the measure have sought to distance themselves from the implication that Question 1 could create an appointed board, some lawmakers have long sought to do just that — including a bill as recently as 2019, SB354,  that made it through the Senate before dying in an Assembly committee. 

Even as it is nominally tied to the outside issue of workforce development, the simple charges of AB450 have nonetheless emerged in a political environment in which that question — how the state’s higher education system should be governed — has shaped the broadest contours of higher education politics. 

Administrators have so far said little on the governance question, pointing in large part to the absence of tangible policies to comment on. Zaragoza pointed to his own experience at higher education systems with “two very distinct governance structures,” most notably a stint in Wisconsin, and noted “advantages and disadvantages” to each.

“I've seen both of them work, and both of them not work,” Zaragoza said. “I think the real issue becomes what is the plan? The execution? And what's the substance of what's being proposed? And that's the part that I haven't seen.”

Helens went a step further, praising existing institutional leadership at the community level and saying “we need a system that works; we don’t need another system.” 

“The governance of one system is important because then everybody knows where everybody's doing,” Helens said. “I've had multiple presidencies in different kinds of situations with separate governance systems. It’s always one fighting the other for more funding. The more we are unified and look at our whole state, and serving our state and the importance of all the pieces, the better off we are.”

Beyond the question of how to revise the funding formula, there are few clear answers on how the committee could choose to revise or reform governance. But unlike the many attempts to study the state’s community colleges through the decades, mandatory provisions within AB450 will produce legislative recommendations for 2023 — and a question long asked may finally be answered. 

“You know, this goes back to the founding of the system in the 1960s,” Damore said. “You've had study committees in the 70s and 80s. So the issue of where community colleges fit and what we want out of community colleges is a really, really old question. It's just been studied, but never really acted on.”

Correction, 8/15/21 at 9:05 p.m. - An original version of this story referred to the 2019 bill SB354 as having gone unheard in the Assembly. It has been updated to reflect that the bill was heard in an Assembly committee, but died without receiving a vote in that committee.

Innovation Zones study still sees issues raised by Storey County, others

Although it has been a month since the contentious proposal creating autonomous “Innovation Zones” was scrapped and turned into a study, the concept has continued to receive pushback as it moves through the Legislature. 

The concurrent resolution, SCR11, would establish a committee of six appointed lawmakers to study the Innovation Zone proposal, including evaluating its effects on economic development, natural resources, the environment and local tax revenues. The measure passed out of the Senate on May 19 on a voice vote.

During its hearing in the Assembly Committee of Revenue on Tuesday, comments from lobbyist Mary Walker in neutral testimony, representing Carson, Douglas, Lyon and Storey counties sparked a conversation about tax revenue and future growth concerns in Storey County — the likely location of any Innovation Zone, as the concept backers Blockchains Inc. owns about 67,000 acres of land and spearheaded efforts in favor of the concept earlier this year. Blockchains did not testify in the committee hearing.

Under the original proposal, Blockchains would be allowed to create a new form of local government operating as a “county-within-a-county,” but the measure brought up concerns it would receive all of the tax revenue from technology companies located within the “Zone,” causing Storey County to miss out on taxes it would otherwise receive. Opponents also raised concerns about the Tesla Gigafactory, which has property tax abatements nearing expiration in 2024 and is expected to generate millions of dollars in tax revenue for state and local governments.

Austin Osborne, Storey County manager, brought up the county’s 2016 master plan which includes a high density, urban housing development near the tech properties.

“We're not looking for ranch houses on one acre parcels with horses on that property, we have places in Storey County for that and we want to protect those areas for that,” Osborne said. “[This area is] for the millennials, the Generation Z, the high-tech people, people that want to live very close to innovation.” 

Although Osborne and the county were in neutral on SCR11, he said if a study was to move forward, it should compare the progress of the proposed Innovation Zone project versus what development would look like with Storey County's existing framework — touting that zoning and planning process takes only about 180 days, depending on the developer’s plan. 

In March, Storey County Commissioners voted to oppose the Innovation Zones concept as a bill.

“As long as the state of Nevada puts in the necessary structure in place to manage those [technological] resources appropriately, we're totally in support of it, no problem… As far as the separation from local government and everything related to, the commissioners are strongly opposed to that,” Osborne said. “If an interim study does move forward, we're going to find that really it's not necessary for this method to move things for what I think the goals are placed here… We really are the Innovation Zone already.”

Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) shared some of her reservations with economic development bills and projects that oftentimes lack consideration of how it might affect the area, from infrastructure and affordable housing, to the environment and water consumption.

“My experience with a lot of projects where we say that we want to focus on economic development, is its economic development in a vacuum, without consideration for these other things,” Benitez-Thompson said. “When we talk about impacts, I think this conversation is long overdue… We've got to have a conversation about how this all plays out, and how the next decade looks regionally.”

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Follow the money: Breaking down $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: 

Sisolak's office answers questions about relationship with company that lobbied administration to push Innovation Zones legislation

Earlier this month, Jeff Berns, the CEO of Blockchains LLC, a tech company that is pushing an ambitious legislative proposal to create a new type of local government outside Reno, said he pitched Gov. Steve Sisolak on the idea after developing a “friendship” with the Democratic governor. 

But since the interview in early March, the governor’s office stonewalled or provided non-answers to The Nevada Independent about Sisolak’s relationship with Berns and meetings with the company, which hired his wife’s economic consulting firm, Hobbs, Ong & Associates. 

Not until this week, nearly three weeks after The Nevada Independent began asking questions, did the governor’s office address the relationships that intersect with Blockchains’ proposal, a massive project that is being cast as an important part of the state’s post-pandemic economic strategy. 

In addition to meeting with the governor last year, the company donated $10,000 to Sisolak’s 2018 campaign and $50,000 to a political action committee affiliated with Sisolak in 2019. 

Sisolak spokesperson Meghin Delaney said in an email Wednesday that “campaign contributions have no bearing on decisions the governor makes. Since taking office, the governor's decision-making is focused on what is best for the state and for its residents, regardless of where the ideas come from.”

When asked about Berns’ characterization of a “friendship” with Sisolak, Delaney wrote in an email on Monday, nearly three weeks after The Nevada Independent first asked: “Jeff and the governor share common goals for the State including responsible and impactful economic diversification, workforce expansion and development, and protection of natural resources.” 

The governor’s office did not provide more information about the relationship or answer a question about how many times Berns and Sisolak met last year. 

But Delaney said on Wednesday that “one of the governor's top priorities is to recover our economy and develop our workforce, and his door will always be open to any private sector leader or CEO who is looking to expand their business, relocate to the state, and most importantly, create jobs for Nevadans.” 

Delaney added that “it is common practice in Nevada and every other state in the country for private sector leaders to bring proposals to state and local governments.”

She stressed that the governor and First Lady Kathy Sisolak, who is a director at Hobbs, Ong & Associates, do not discuss state issues that the firm might be involved with. The firm worked on an economic impact report for the project, along with Applied Analysis, another consulting firm, and did so “independent from the governor’s office,” Delaney said in a statement on Monday.

The first lady, in an email Tuesday, said the firm “has a policy of segregating work assignments to ensure that I am not engaged in any work performed for the State of Nevada.”

With Blockchains, Sisolak added, the firm’s work was conducted without her involvement. She said that she never discussed the proposal with the governor, and the firm did not brief the state. 

Blockchains owns about 67,000 acres of land in and around the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, home to the Tesla Gigafactory and other large-scale operations, east of Reno. The company, with Sisolak’s backing, is seeking legislation that would allow it to break away from an existing county government and create a new type of local government, known as an “Innovation Zone.” The company said such a move was necessary to develop a “smart city” of about 36,000 residents.

In the early part of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Berns said that Sisolak approached him about serving on a committee working to acquire personal protective equipment. Berns said he declined and recalled telling the governor that he would begin developing a concept that might bring more revenue to the state. That concept turned into the proposal for Innovation Zones. 

Berns said that he presented the concept to the governor around Labor Day. In January, Sisolak included a line in his State of the State speech touting the proposal and Blockchains LLC.

“Following the passage of my Innovation Zone legislation,” Sisolak said, “Blockchains LLC has committed to make an unprecedented investment in our state to create a smart city in northern Nevada that would fully run on blockchain technology — making Nevada the epicenter of this emerging industry and creating the high-paying jobs and revenue that go with it.”

The governor’s office has not provided a timeline of the events that led to that proposal.

On Monday, Delaney said the proposal was “the product of months of extensive analysis of the economic impact of a smart city developed using blockchain technology, review of different types of political subdivisions around the country and globally to find an optimal model for its development, and evaluation of the benefits and challenges surrounding its creation.”

Jeremy Aguero, a principal analyst with Applied Analysis, the firm that assessed the economic impact of Blockchains’ proposal, said he attended multiple meetings last year with state officials. The governor, he said, was not present during the early meetings. Throughout the process last year, the proposal was fleshed out and refined as questions about Innovation Zones arose. 

When the state unveiled the proposal to the public at a roundtable in February, Sisolak was joined by Michael Brown, who leads the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and Aguero. Since then, the administration has provided little information about the proposal.

On MSNBC Sunday evening, Sisolak was asked about the proposal. 

Sisolak said that “it’s something that we definitely need to have the discussion and the debate about. You need to look at new bold and creative ideas when it comes to diversifying the economy.”

Other companies, Sisolak added, are also looking at the idea. The governor’s office did not reply to a question about what companies the governor was referring to. The proposal would apply to companies with large landholdings that are developing innovative technologies. 

To apply for an Innovation Zone, a company would have to own more than 50,000 acres of land, make an initial $250 million investment and commit to investing at least $1 billion over ten years, according to draft legislation and a website promoting the concept. An applicant looking to form an Innovation Zone must also identify a way to generate new revenue for the state.

During the MSNBC interview, Sisolak also addressed concerns about the water supply for  Blockchains’ proposed smart city. 

“We will absolutely have the water there otherwise they couldn’t go ahead with the project,” Sisolak said, noting that the company had “made arrangements” to bring water to the area. 

As The Nevada Independent reported, Blockchains acquired water rights about 100 miles north of the area where it owns land. Before importing the water, the company would be required to go through a rigorous application and permitting process with state water officials and federal land managers.

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.”

Freshman Orientation: Heidi Kasama

As in sessions past, The Nevada Independent is publishing a series of profiles featuring all the new lawmakers in the state. This is the eighth installment of more than a dozen. Check back in the coming days for additional stories on new legislators' backgrounds, interests and policy positions.


  • Freshman Republican who replaces termed-out Assemblyman John Hambrick (R-Las Vegas)
  • Represents District 2, which lies at Las Vegas’ western boundary in Summerlin
  • District 18 leans Republican (36 percent Republican, 33 percent Democratic, and 24 percent nonpartisan in the 2020 election for active voters)
  • Kasama won a crowded Republican primary, carrying 47.9 percent of the vote 
  • She then defeated Democrat Radhika “RPK” Kunnel in the general election with 54.3 percent of the vote
  • She sits on the Commerce and Labor, Judiciary and Revenue committees


Kasama was born in New York City but grew up in Seattle and graduated from Central Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She and her husband have a combined family of five daughters.


Kasama is the managing broker of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Nevada Properties and manages Kasama Property Management. Prior to becoming an assemblywoman, she served as the president of the Nevada REALTORS. Before she joined the real estate community, she worked as a certified public accountant.


Born in Brooklyn, New York, to Norwegian immigrants, Kasama said she remembers learning English for the first time when she started attending public school as a kindergartner.

Neither of Kasama's parents could read or write English well, and as she grew older, Kasama remembers helping her parents fill out forms and navigate language barriers. 

Money was tight, but Kasama said her parents never gave up, and she is grateful for their example.

"One of the greatest gifts I received from my parents was a hard work ethic," she said. "They didn't have any money, but they gave me the tools I needed, which was the hard work ethic, being ethical, being honest, treating everybody fairly. It sounds like cliches, but it was just … a beautiful life."

Though many people may not realize she is a first generation American, Kasama said that growing up in an immigrant household has influenced her worldview.

"I remind people that there were blonde boat people too," she said with a laugh. "People from all over the world came here as immigrants with the hope of the American dream, which is great. And we want to support that because our country is stronger from all the ideas and diversity that have been brought here."

The district in Brooklyn where Kasama was born consisted of many other immigrant families. Still, before Kasama turned seven, most of the people living there had moved to other regions — some left for Norway, others headed to New Jersey and still others, her parents among them, moved to Seattle.

Seattle had a large immigrant population, and Kasama spent the majority of her life in the city. After graduating from high school, she attended nearby Central Washington University, working three jobs to afford the education and training needed to become an accountant.

When she completed her degree, Kasama started working as a CPA. Through her work, she met her husband, and the two have a blended family of five daughters.

From there, Kasama earned her real estate license in Washington state and jumped into the real estate business.

As a self-described "workaholic," Kasama said that it could be challenging to find free time. Still, she loves spending time with her family and always appreciates how understanding they are when she wants to volunteer or start a new position or run for office.

In 2002, Kasama and her husband traded Seattle's rainy weather for Las Vegas' sunshine and two years later, she opened her own real estate company.

The Las Vegas realty community gave her a first taste of working in the political arena.

"[Legislating] was never on my radar," Kasama said. "I worked very much in the real estate industry. And then I was fortunate enough to have my peers elect me as president for the Las Vegas REALTORS … and I started there on their finance committee and other committees and they said you should run for the board, you should run for an office."

Eventually, she became president for the Nevada REALTORS, which has about 18,000 members. As she got more involved in policy discussions, Kasama said she felt politicians were not thinking critically enough about revenue or developing the best ways to support businesses.

"You can't complain if you don't step up. And so I stepped up and I ran a primary in an open seat and won. And here I sit today," Kasama said.

In the more than two decades she has lived in Las Vegas, Kasama said she has fallen in love with the city. She and her husband, who is Japanese-American, regularly eat out at restaurants in Chinatown and enjoy watching baseball games and exploring unique neighborhoods.

Though she's a new lawmaker, Kasama said she is looking forward to the rest of the session and plans to bring her business and accounting experience to her committee work to help Nevada.

"I've been in leadership roles before and I'm used to running organizations, so there's no trepidation there," she said.


Economic development

As she develops and reviews bills, Kasama said that she hopes to pass legislation that will incentivize businesses to come to Nevada. 

She pointed to the effects of new businesses in Reno and Sparks that have helped the economy in the North and said that she would like to further diversify the entire state.

“We see the devastation anytime the hospitality industry is affected and we've gone through it before,” Kasama said. “So continuing to look to diversify that economy with some economic incentives for businesses to come here.”

Green energy

As the state looks to attract new businesses, Kasama said that she supports looking toward the renewable energy industry.

“I think diversification with green energy is a good thing,” Kasama said. “We've got the electric cars, we're supporting them up here in the Reno market, with the Tesla cars and building the batteries … and I think our state is as well poised to be strong in that area.”

Property tax cap

Kasama said that she wants to assess the property tax cap that was put in place when prices were escalating in 2005 and 2006.

Caps or exemptions for low-income residents or seniors on a fixed income should be maintained, but the market has come up to pre-recession levels and laws should reflect that, Kasama said.

“Our populations are growing. Our need for services are growing,” she said. 

Election integrity

Though she has not seen evidence of widespread fraud, Kasama said that there is always fraud in elections and she wants to bring forward legislation to decrease the potential for it.

“What we have right now is a lack of voter confidence in our process. And that's the issue we have to deal with because nobody should go to the polls and feel like their vote is not counted,” Kasama said. “So we have to make sure that those processes are handled correctly, that we have to mitigate all voter fraud.”

To restore confidence in the voting process, Kasama said she is working on a bill focused on maintaining voter records and ensuring that people who have passed away or moved to a different state are properly removed so no accidental ballots are sent out.

“We have to make sure we build the confidence,” she said.

Nevada is looking at more lithium mining. An industry executive talks about a market driven by electric vehicles

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

The number one thing to watch: President Joe Biden’s first 100 days. It goes without saying at this point that what happens in the White House and Congress will have major consequences for environmental, energy and public land policy in Nevada and across the West. 

Already, hours after his Inauguration, Biden signed orders to block the Keystone XL pipeline and re-enter the Paris Agreement. But even as Biden moves the federal government to where many Western states are — at a recognition that climate change is a crisis that must be addressed — there are still many questions to ask. The pressing ones for me: What does a just transition look like? And what role will Nevada play in the transition? A lot to report in the coming weeks.

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

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.

When Gov. Steve Sisolak delivered his “State of the State” address on Tuesday, the speech included a section dedicated to “the new energy economy.” The governor, pledging to work on energy legislation, said that Nevada had an “opportunity to become to energy what Wall Street is to finance, or what Silicon Valley is to technology.” 

That, by itself, was not necessarily surprising. It’s the type of line you might expect to hear in a State of the State address. What struck me came a few paragraphs later. Sisolak called out the state’s potential for lithium mining, an ingredient for electric vehicles and batteries, as playing a key role.

For years now, companies and speculators have filed new claims to mine lithium. A rush, some have called it. When I started looking into it back in 2016, what became quickly apparent is that developing a lithium mine can be a long, costly and challenging process, even when there is a growing market. Since then, several projects have inched closer to coming online. 

On Friday, the outgoing Trump administration gave its final approval to the Thacker Pass mine, north of Winnemucca. Ioneer, an Australian-based company, is moving forward with permitting a project, known as Rhyolite Ridge, near Tonopah. Tesla, which is manufacturing electric vehicles at its Gigafactory outside of Reno, said it secured rights to mine lithium in Nevada. Meanwhile, a new firm based in Fernley, American Battery Technology Company, is looking at battery recycling and alternative technologies for lithium extraction.

Developing a project can be a careful balancing act. There is a need for lithium to address climate change, a pressing environmental issue. But at the same time, consumers, companies and activists want to ensure that mining occurs without creating new environmental problems. 

The companies developing the Thacker Pass and Rhyolite Ridge projects have cast themselves as critical to the green energy economy and vital to boosting a much-needed domestic lithium supply, but the two projects have faced criticism for their environmental footprints

All of this comes as demand for lithium is on the rise. As governments look to address climate goals by transitioning to electric vehicles and car manufacturers look to fill in the market, there is a clear need for more lithium. Sisolak and other elected officials see Nevada as playing a major role in securing that supply. 

At the moment, there is only one lithium mine in Nevada, and it’s the only active lithium operation in the U.S. Silver Peak, operated by global lithium company Albemarle, extracts lithium from brine outside of Tonopah. 

Earlier this month, the company announced plans to double lithium output at Silver Peak and explore clay deposits. To learn more about what prompted the decision to increase production, what’s driving the lithium market and Nevada’s role, we spoke to Eric Norris, Albemarle’s president for lithium.

The blur that was 2020 and the pricing issue that developers face: It was only a few months ago that Albemarle announced it would be idling production at Silver Peak because of a drop in demand during the pandemic. About 60 percent of its lithium goes to electric vehicles, with the other portion going into industrial markets — and plants were idling or closing as COVID-19 hit. 

But Norris said “it didn’t take very long, as we got into the latter half of the year, for things to turn around completely.” He said demand in the market is now much tighter. Still, pricing during the pandemic, he said, “fell to levels that were not very attractive.” That presented a challenge for mining projects that still needed to prove to investors that they could make money at low prices. 

“So I think the challenge is pricing has to improve a bit before we can get the kind of investment that’s required in the industry,” he said. “But I’m optimistic that’s starting to recover now.”

The cars are driving the market: Norris said that electric vehicles are “the driver” in the lithium market. Last year, he noted, the industry sold out, so there is a need to bring on more supply to meet demand. This, in turn, is driving increased exploration and mining activity. 

But the supply chain is more complicated than meets the eye. The contractors, in many cases, for a company like Albemarle are cathode and battery manufacturers, not necessarily car manufacturers. What’s more, companies based in other countries, Tesla aside, are ahead of major companies in the United States, in terms of manufacturing electric vehicles. 

Norris said it’s likely that the environment could change, and there could be more incentives for electric vehicle production under a Biden administration.

“Our concern, from a policy standpoint, is that the U.S. isn’t going to be competitive or be a critical industry worldwide, and we would like to see the U.S. be more competitive,” he said.

Norris said the company supports government investments, grants and efforts to bolster domestic manufacturing to expand the electric vehicle industry.

A long-term play in clay? Albemarle’s Silver Peak facility focuses on lithium production from salt brine. But projects in Nevada are also eyeing the extraction of lithium from clay deposits. Although lithium is less concentrated in clay, Albemarle announced that it would begin exploring clay as well. 

Because of the difference in geology, Norris said clay is often “not as economic, and it’s a little more challenging to get the lithium.”

“While it’s present everywhere, it’s very dilute,” he said. “And so nothing that we’re doing can change that, other than technology — and that’s what a number of other companies are looking at as well.” 

What it takes to sell a “green” product: Norris said that Nevada is poised to play a role in lithium production, but he said one challenge projects could face around extracting lithium from clay deposits is managing their environmental footprint. 

“The environmental footprint of the operation and the sustainability of the operation are very important,” he said. “And it almost sounds cliche to say that, but here’s the cold-hard fact on it: We’re selling lithium into a supply chain that’s selling a value proposition around climate change, more responsible greenhouse gas production.”

“You can’t have an operation that consumes gobs of energy, gobs of water and puts off all kinds of greenhouse gases and sell into that value chain,” he added. “Our customers, the automotive producers, want sustainable production. So I think the key is that you need to get a technology that can win in clays that has the right footprint to support the sustainability value-proposition of the industry.”

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

Largest mining company sues state: Nevada Gold Mines, the state’s largest gold mining company, took the state to court last week. Several rural counties joined Nevada Gold Mines, a joint-venture between rivals Barrick and Newmont. They argued that the Legislature acted improperly to pass three resolutions that aimed to amend the Constitution’s mining tax cap. My colleague Riley Snyder has more on the case. 

Biden looks to unravel Trump rollbacks: “President Biden on his first day in office is already taking aim at unraveling some of the Trump administration's most contentious rules, including wetlands protections, water permitting for the oil and gas sector, toxic chemical assessments, and emissions from waste sites,” E.A. Crunden and Hannah Northey write for E&E News.

  • Biden administration announces leadership at the Interior Department: On Wednesday, the administration unveiled its leadership team for the Department of Interior. Given the influence that the agency has in Nevada — managing more than 65 percent of the state’s land — staffing at the agency will be hugely important to watch for everything from Colorado River politics to developing renewables to protections for species like the Greater sage grouse.

Reno blames NV Energy for fire, NV Energy disagrees: Investigators with the city of Reno said high winds and NV Energy’s power lines were to blame for a fire that tore through about 500 acres in and around a Reno neighborhood last year, the Reno Gazette Journal’s Jason Hidalgo reports. The investigation found no signs of “negligence” on the part of the utility, but said an incident involving the power lines likely sparked the blaze. NV Energy said it conducted a separate investigation and found that the likely cause was a runaway campfire.

Revisiting the net metering debate (not that it’s even over): Property Brother and Las Vegas resident Jonathan Scott has made a documentary about efforts by utilities across the country, including in Nevada, to block incentives and measures to expand rooftop solar over the past decade. The Los Angeles Times’ climate scribe, Sammy Roth, did a great Q&A with Scott.

Bundy’s message to Biden: “Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is vowing to once again 'walk towards guns; should the incoming Biden administration attempt to collect on more than two decades of debt from trespass fines and unpaid grazing fees,” E&E News’ Jennifer Yachnin reports.

As I said last week, drought could very well be a big story this year: See here. And see here.

Indy Environment: Las Vegas is updating its urban plans. Why that matters for addressing climate change.

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

By 2050, Southern Nevada is expected to grow to almost three million people. Yet the guiding urban planning document for Clark County — its Master Plan — has not been comprehensively updated since 1983, when about 505,000 people lived in the Las Vegas metropolitan area.

It’s time for an update. On that, everyone agrees. Earlier this year, the state’s most populous county launched a public initiative to rewrite its Master Plan and Development Code. The effort is known as “Transform Clark County,” and it’s meant to spell out a vision for Las Vegas in the coming decades — to set up the expectations for growth and place rules around development.

To most people, the phrase “rewrite its Master Plan and Development Code” might sound like it  is deep in the weeds of local government, the sort of term that might only be discussed at a late-night Planning Commission meeting that has already gone on too long. Although it might not be typical cocktail chatter, the undertaking is hugely important. The detailed planning efforts offer a significant opening to address climate change and to correct past planning injustices.

Through the Nevada Climate Initiative, state agencies are developing a climate strategy due Dec. 1. But it’s local governments and regional agencies that are often on the frontlines. Their decisions — about development, zoning, energy codes, transportation — can lessen climate impacts or amplify them. They can help guide development and decide where the money goes. 

“To me, climate change is everything,” said Jasmine Vazin, a clean transportation organizer with the Sierra Club and part of the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition, which is fighting sprawl. “Every single car on our road, except [electric vehicles], contribute to our worsening air quality.”

If done right, she said the Master Plan rewrite “can be a very important document for pushing for progressive reforms in urban planning” — an opportunity to incentivize infill development and to create multi-modal transportation in a city that grew outward around cars. But Vazin stressed that decision-makers must hear from communities, especially ones historically affected by poor planning.

“If we had community input from all of our communities, then we could have a just transition and a just redevelopment of areas, like West Las Vegas, that were historically redlined,” she said.

In looking at climate change in Nevada, Clark County is front-and-center. About 72 percent of the state’s population lives in the county, and climate change is expected to increase the days with extreme heat, a trend that could worsen existing inequality in urban neighborhoods. 

Still, the fact that a conversation around climate change is happening in tandem with planning for new growth is a notable development. Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones has pushed for a simultaneous countywide climate action planning process known as “All-In Clark County.”

It marks a significant step, Jones said. In the past, climate change had not been a central focus for the county, but Jones said it deserves more consideration when the commission makes policy.

Every time the county changes an ordinance on issues that are not related to zoning and planning, it is required by law to conduct a business impact statement. Yet there is often little consideration of the climate impacts — and they can be large.

“We do a good job considering the impacts to business,” said Jones, who was elected to the commission in 2018. “We also, for many decisions, need to consider the impact on climate.”

At the same time Clark County is starting its planning process, the city of Las Vegas is finishing its updated Master Plan. Marco Velotta, a senior management analyst with the city, said that the plan was a departure from past approaches. He said the city placed an emphasis on looking at how systems — transportation, land use, water and housing — interacted with one another.

“This was a totally different approach to how we put together the entire plan,” he said.

Undergoing a comprehensive planning process can, in and of itself, reveal climate issues that should be addressed. For instance, Velotta noted that geographic data pointed to a disparity in which communities faced more heat. Neighborhoods like Summerlin West were a few degrees cooler, on average, than areas closer to Las Vegas’ urban core with more low-income residents.

“From an equity standpoint, that’s a huge problem,” he said.

In any plan, climate organizers stressed the need for broad participation. Vazin, along with the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition, has pushed Clark County to do additional outreach.

Respondents of a Transform Clark County survey, which solicited feedback on several topics, were mostly white and affluent, according to the results. It led Vazin to ask: “Is that the only demographic that we want to be building our future on?” A later survey, with a Spanish option, yielded results from a more diverse group, but the results still do not reflect the full population. 

Dexter Lim, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, echoed these concerns and said he wanted to see a Master Plan revision with input that matched the demographics of the county.

"It could be another 50 years before we look at this again,” he said.

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

Late-season fires: Multiple fires ignited in Northern Nevada and California Tuesday evening as fierce winds whipped through a region where there was already dry fuel. The Pinehaven Fire, in southwest Reno, burned through a suburban area — it destroyed five homes and damaged 15 — and sent smoke billowing across the city. The Reno Gazette Journal has more coverage.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. But the fire burned with high winds in an area with dry conditions (Reno set a record of no precipitation in September and October). It’s hard to pin any one fire to climate change or make a direct link in this case. But overall, warming in the West has meant a longer and more extreme fire season, said Tim Brown, director of the Western Regional Climate Center at the Desert Research Institute. He said that, in general, he likes to think of it this way: “climate enables fire, weather drives fire.” Climate trends set up the underlying conditions for fire, increasing the risk, but weather often dictates how a fire will move. Brown said the way cities are built can also come into play as more people are living in what is known as the Wildland-Urban Interface, the area where houses begin to blend with the natural landscape. “It’s as much of a people concern as it is a climate change concern,” Brown said.

A new carmaker alliance: “One of the stranger things that has happened during the Trump administration—a category with no small amount of competition—is that the car industry and the oil industry have grown to resent each other,” writes The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer. With global demand for electric vehicles, car companies have forged new alliances. On Tuesday, about 30 companies (Tesla, Uber, Rivian), electric utilities (PG&E, Duke Energy) and lithium developers (more on that in a second) announced a new trade group: The Zero Emission Transportation Association, or ZETA. Its goal is to lobby Congress for policies that make car sales all-electric by 2030. Notably, ZETA’s founding members include several lithium mining companies and a trade association for the copper industry. Among those mining companies is Albemarle, which runs the only U.S. lithium operation outside of Tonopah, and ioneer Ltd, a lithium miner eyeing a project (also near Tonopah) that has faced pushback from environmental groups and ecologists. The proposed mine poses a threat to a rare buckwheat species found only on about 10 acres.

  • Mining, Biden and electrification: “With Biden proposing to hasten the demise of coal and other fossil fuels with his $2 trillion climate plan, miners of so-called strategic metals are hoping Biden’s team sees them as partners, not foes,” reports Reuters. Electrifying the grid is going to require a lot of lithium and copper, among other minerals, and the industry is already lining up to make the case for mining projects on federal public land, including the ioneer project and another proposed lithium mine north of Winnemucca. 

What the solar industry is asking for: The solar industry’s top trade association is prioritizing the renewal of a federal tax credit and changes to trade policy as it prepares for the incoming Biden administration and a new Congress, Greentech Media’s Emma Foehringer Merchant reports. You can read the Solar Energy Industries Association’s full policy agenda here

Geotagging, gatekeeping and access: Wyoming Public Radio’s Maggie Mullen takes a thoughtful look at the backlash to geotagging on social media and the evolving conversation around the issue of sharing natural places. Can anti-geotagging be a form of gatekeeping?

The new battle: As demand for coal declines, environmentalists are focusing their attention on natural gas. The Los Angeles Times’ Sammy Roth looks at some of the fault lines developing, at the national level, over transitioning from natural gas. Meanwhile, states bordering Nevada are debating natural gas policies. California cities and counties have moved to prohibit natural gas in new homes. Utah, following Arizona’s lead, is the latest state in the West, to consider banning local governments from taking such action, Brian Maffly reports for the Salt Lake City Tribune. 

Update: This story was updated at 1:20 p.m. on Nov. 19, 2020 to indicate that business impact statements are not required for planning and zoning ordinances.

Indy Environment: In the 2020 election, climate change, clean energy remain on the ballot

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

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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

The election is two weeks away. Thousands of Nevadans have already cast their votes by mail or in person, and environmental issues are on the ballot — they always are. And they are on the ballot at every level of government. With 12 days to go until Election Day, the newsletter is taking on a different format this week, highlighting what’s at stake:

Starting with climate change: The decisions made by whoever occupies the White House for the next four years could have serious long-term consequences for whether or not we address climate change — and other countries are watching (BBC). This is not a normal election year. President Donald Trump has no climate plan and pulled the country out of the Paris Agreement, while former Vice President Joe Biden wants to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 (National Geographic has a good comparison). Biden’s plan is in line with the targets set out by Nevada’s Democratic-majority Legislature last year, a goal being implemented by Gov. Steve Sisolak.

But it doesn’t end there: Many of the decisions to address climate change come at the state and local level — in the Legislature, at zoning boards, at transportation meetings. Environmental groups have made some endorsements at the local level, but despite their importance, climate change and environmental issues more broadly have not played a role in most races. And many have not had to articulate a position. KNPR asked both candidates in Congressional District 2. 

A green recovery? Biden’s plan includes a $2 trillion infrastructure plan to achieve the 2050 net-zero goal. For many voters, the economy tops the list of issues facing the country, but the economy is interwoven with climate change. With the government poised to inject more stimulus funds into an economy hard-hit by COVID-19, renewable industries see an opportunity to invest in infrastructure that can facilitate a transition away from fossil fuels. The New York Times/Siena College poll this week found that such a package is supported by about 66 percent of voters. 

Question 6 is back: In 2018, voters approved Question 6, an initiative to amend the Nevada Constitution to require utilities have a renewable energy portfolio of at least 50 percent by 2030 (my colleagues Riley Snyder and Joey Lovato put together an explainer on the measure). Only a few months after voters approved Question 6, the Legislature adopted a similar standard. But because Question 6 seeks to amend the Constitution, it must be approved a second time and remains on the ballot. Unlike legislation, the constitutional provision would be harder to undo.

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

‘The extraordinary promise of geothermal:’ That’s from an excellent article published this week by David Roberts, an energy reporter at Vox. Geothermal is a big energy story in Nevada, and it is increasingly getting more attention as utilities transition away from fossil fuels and look for alternative supplies of 24/7 power. The story reviews four geothermal energy technologies and the potential for the industry to play a role it could play in decarbonization. Geothermal, he writes, has the added benefit of providing renewable energy jobs to skilled workers from the oil and gas industry, which has lost more than 100,000 jobs during the pandemic. 

Tesla’s lithium play: The Financial Times’ Henry Sanderson begins this article with a great anecdote. In September, Tesla invited executives from two U.S. lithium producers, Livent and Albermarle, to a “battery day” event only to announce that the carmaker wanted to take away a slice of their business. At the event, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that the car company had acquired rights to mine lithium in Nevada. But industry experts told the Financial Times that the announcement might have been designed more to put pressure on existing lithium producers.

Wildfire smoke sets a record: On Monday, we published a story looking back at a summer of wildfire smoke and what it meant for public health. The story included some striking data about the extent to which wildfires degraded air quality in Reno. In 2020, the Washoe County Health District recorded 24 days that exceeded air quality standards, more days with poor air quality than any other year since officials started monitoring small particulate matter in 1999.

Where the water goes: High Plains Journal featured a new tool, developed in part by Nevada researchers, to better track data on evapotranspiration, water that is evaporated from land and from plants. It sounds complicated, but evapotranspiration (or ET) is an important piece of the puzzle in understanding how water is being consumed and how it can be conserved. 

Heat and inequality: "In the coming century, when wealth inequality will likely increase and the spaces where humans can live comfortably will shrink, the heat gap between rich and poor might be the world’s most daunting challenge." An important story from The Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk II on the challenges we will likely face as the planet continues to warm.

After decades of backing Republican presidential candidates before swinging blue for Obama, Clinton, Washoe again a battleground in 2020

For decades, Washoe County has been a study in contrasts.

Take the 1964 election. The overwhelmingly Democratic electorate in Washoe at the time voted to give its party’s presidential nominee, Lyndon B. Johnson, his first full term in office, a little less than a year after he ascended to the presidency in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But residents of Nevada’s second largest county that year also resoundingly supported Paul Laxalt, the Republican challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon.

A decade later, Washoe would again back Laxalt, by then the former governor of Nevada, for U.S. Senate, buoying him with a 8,334-vote margin, or about 19 percentage points, this time helping him defeat a young man by the name of Harry Reid by 624 votes statewide. At the same time, Washoe resoundingly supported Mike O’Callaghan, the popular Democratic governor, in his 1974 re-election bid by an overwhelming 47 percentage point margin.

It has happened time and time again in Washoe. Over the last 60 years, there have been 20 election cycles in which two marquee races — presidential, gubernatorial or senatorial — were on the ballot in the same year. Of those, Washoe County split its votes between the Republican and Democratic candidates in half of the cycles. 

In the other 10 cycles, Washoe voted for two Republicans seven times and two Democrats three times. Four of those double Republican wins were when the county was made up of more Democrats than Republicans, and two of those double Democratic wins were when the county had more Republicans than Democrats.

"When the state was two and a half to one Democrat, Paul Laxalt was elected governor and United States senator twice,” said Pete Ernaut, a longtime Republican consultant in the state. “That goes back to the spirit of Nevada, which I think is still alive.”

Most recently, Washoe County was responsible for helping to carry former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to a narrow victory over President Donald Trump. She won the county by 1.3 percentage points and the state as a whole by 2.4 percentage points. But Washoe also voted in support of Joe Heck, the Republican congressman, though his slim, 0.8 percentage point margin in Washoe wasn’t enough to carry him to victory over Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic former attorney general, who drummed up so much support in Clark County that she won while losing every other county in the state.

Political observers have a number of theories about why Washoe has been so swingy — and so willing to ticket split — over the decades. They chalk it up to the small town feel in Washoe, home to Reno, nicknamed the biggest little city, where the kind of retail politics that can feel somewhat antiquated in the digital age still matters. They chalk it up to personality, saying that who a candidate is and what they stand for matters more than the D or R behind their name. They increasingly chalk it up to the significant growth of registered nonpartisans in the county.

With politics polarized at the national level, some believe the state’s independent streak — with Washoe County as a microcosm of that — may be fading. Ticket splitting is becoming less and less common around the country, and candidates down the ballot are often tied to the person at the top of the ticket.

Nevada has increasingly been thought of as a blue state, and even Washoe County has swung bluer than it has in a long time in recent years. Barack Obama, in 2008, was the first Democratic presidential candidate Washoe voted to back since LBJ — and the county voted again for Obama in 2012 and then for Clinton in 2016. Last cycle, Washoe voted to support both Jacky Rosen and Steve Sisolak for U.S. senator and governor, respectively — two Democrats from the south — snubbing their Republican opponents from the north.

Though Washoe may appear bluer than it’s been in a long time, Republicans and Democrats alike are taking Washoe County seriously this year — and they have to. Besides the presidential race, there’s a key state Senate seat that if Democrats flip while holding on to two competitive seats could mean Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, and Republicans only have a 0.2 percentage point voter registration advantage in the county.

“The Democrats have been fired up and done amazing outreach and amazing work for multiple cycles, and we’ve seen some incredible wins,” said state Sen. Julia Ratti, a Democrat who represents parts of Reno and Sparks. “But it still just always feels like it’s in play. The margins are always close enough that I would never take anything for granted.”

If the year 2020 proves one thing, it may be this: There’s Red America, there’s Blue America, and then there’s Washoe County.

Campaign signs in along McCarran Boulevard on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 in Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The rise of nonpartisans

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve is well acquainted with Washoe County’s independent streak. She is, after all, a registered nonpartisan herself.

As a small business owner turned politician, Schieve has witnessed firsthand some of the most significant changes in Washoe County over the last decade, from the revitalization of Midtown in Reno to a tech boom that has brought Tesla, Panasonic, Amazon and Apple, among others, to Northern Nevada. As tech companies have sought to expand in tax friendly Nevada instead of California, their employees have flocked to the Silver State, finding that things that seemed out of reach in the Bay Area, such as owning a home, are attainable in Washoe County.

Schieve said those employees have brought with them a much more socially liberal mindset, some a bit more pro-business than the typical Democrat.

“There’s a pretty big California influence happening here,” Schieve said. “They tend to be much more socially liberal, but economically, fiscally responsible.”

At the same time, Schieve has noticed a growing disillusionment with the major political parties as people find their views don’t line up with the traditional party lines.

“People say to me all the time, ‘I might have a D or an R behind my name but I’m so much more a nonpartisan.’ I hear that all the time. I don’t think it’s black and white,” Schieve said. “‘There’s a lot of things I agree with D’s on, a lot of things I agree with R’s on.’ I hear that a lot. I don’t think it’s cut and dry.”

The data bear out that nonpartisans are playing a bigger role in Washoe County than they ever have. Voter registration numbers are up by about 78,000 countywide over the last decade. Nonpartisans, who have seen about 33,000 new registrations over that period, make up a little less than half of that, which has driven down the share of both Democrats and Republicans in the electorate.

Nonpartisans currently make up about 22.5 percent of voters in Washoe County — up from 15.4 percent in 2010 — with Republicans and Democrats now nearly even in their voter registration numbers, 35.4 percent and 35.2 percent, respectively.

As their numbers have grown, a lot of time and effort has been spent on figuring out just who, exactly, nonpartisans are. Some are what are sometimes called “closet partisans,” those who consistently vote the party line even though they are registered as nonpartisans. Others are voters who split on issues between the two parties — perhaps someone who is concerned about climate change but fiscally conservative.

“I think part of it is they don’t feel at home in either of the major two parties,” said Greg Ferraro, a Republican consultant in Reno. “You can mix and match the issues because they don’t feel that either party is representative of their collective viewpoint.”

There’s a third subset of nonpartisans, those who are registered to vote but not actively politically engaged.

“I think the main commonality in all of those groups is they generally don’t like the conflict associated with politics,” said Jeremy Gelman, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Not registering is a way to express that displeasure. These are people who watched the debate and were put off by it.”

There is, however, a great deal of speculation as to how swingy nonpartisan voters truly are and how many of them are undecided about, say, whether to vote for Donald Trump or Joe Biden for president. 

A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found about 92 percent of likely voters in Nevada have decided who they’re voting for; only 8 percent said they could still change their minds. But among those not registered with either major political party, that certainty dropped to 83 percent, with 15 percent saying their vote could change.

“There are a lot of people moving into Washoe County from California. That’s a certainty,” said state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, who represents parts of Reno, unincorporated Washoe County and Carson City. “But I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion about which way they’re going to vote.”

All the same, Democrats have had more success in Washoe County as of late than they’ve had in the last six decades. In addition to the growth of the tech industry, Ernaut attributes recent Democratic successes to the fact that college educated women just aren’t voting Republican.

“Traditionally Washoe County has really been driven by women voters,” Ernaut said. “So when you take the fact that most college educated women aren't voting Republican, regardless of what party they're in, and you add to that a changing and more liberal demographic, though registration is sort of even, I think from a performance standpoint Washoe is much more decidedly Democratic than it's ever been before."

A crowd listens to Douglas Emhoff, husband of Vice Presidential candidate, Senator Kamala Harris speak outside Washoe Democratic Party headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 in Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Looking back through time

Although Washoe County is voting more Democratic than it typically has, it once used to be an overwhelmingly Democratic county — at least in voter registration. In 1960, Democrats had a 14 percentage point margin over Republicans in the county and yet overwhelmingly voted for Richard Nixon for president by 10.4 percentage points.

Republicans wouldn’t overtake Democrats in voter registration numbers until 1984 and still Washoe County voted year over year — with the exception of LBJ in 1964 — for Republican presidential candidates.

“Nixon wins Washoe County in ‘60, Kennedy wins Nevada, but Nixon wins Washoe. Nixon wins again in ’68 and all the way until ’08 it is Republican,” Ferraro said. “So I don’t know that registration is an indicator.”

It’s not exactly clear why the tides turned red in Washoe in the 1980s. Some say it had to do with the increasing number of retirees moving to the county. Others attribute it to Ronald Reagan and the rise of Reagan Democrats. Whatever the case, it became increasingly popular for politicians to shift their registrations from Democrat to Republican.

"You had prominent Republicans like former Lieutenant Governor Bob Cashell, former state Sen. Randolph Townsend or [former Rep.] Jim Santini,” Ernaut said. “When you had people changing parties, and it became sort of fashionable to do that, the whole tide changed in the early 80s in Washoe County for 25 years."

But even after Washoe County turned red, its residents didn’t just stop voting for Democrats. In fact, they still won the county, sometimes overwhelmingly. 

In 1988, Richard Bryan, at the time the Democratic governor of Nevada, carried Washoe County by 4.3 points in his successful bid to oust U.S. Sen. Chic Hecht, a Republican. 

Reid lost Washoe County again in 1986 — though he was still elected to the U.S. Senate — but carried it in three of his four re-election bids, including by 5.1 points in 2010 against Sharron Angle, a former Assemblywoman from Washoe County. He also only lost Washoe by 2.3 points to John Ensign in 1998, though Republicans had an 8.8 point voter registration advantage in the county.

Gov. Bob Miller carried Washoe County by 12.4 points in his 1994 re-election bid, successfully defeating Republican Jim Gibbons, a then-assemblyman representing Washoe County.

And as voter registration numbers have narrowed between Republicans and Democrats over the last decade, Washoe County voters have only ramped up their ticket splitting. In 2010, voters supported Reid for re-election but backed Brian Sandoval for governor — over Rory Reid, the elder Reid’s son. In 2012, they voted for Obama for president but Dean Heller for the U.S. Senate. In 2016, they backed Clinton and Heck.

“In Washoe County I still think it matters how well that person is thought of. It’s not a county that’s going to go right down the line, or at least history tells us that’s not the case,” Ferraro said.

While Democrats carried the top two statewide races in 2018, the rest of the statewide offices were split. Washoe County backed Democrats Kate Marshall and Catherine Byrne for lieutenant governor and controller, respectively, but supported Republicans Wes Duncan, Barbara Cegavske and Bob Beers for attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer. And the county continued to back Republican Mark Amodei for Congress.

“Here’s the paradox in Washoe County. Last election, non-presidential, you’ve got half D, half R in Washoe County,” Ferraro said. “Rosen wins but Amodei wins. Cegavske wins but Marshall wins. Duncan wins but Sisolak wins. It’s mixed.”

Though ticket-splitting is increasingly uncommon across the nation, it still somehow seems to be possible in Washoe County. Most people attribute it, at least in part, to the kind of small town feel that’s still possible in Northern Nevada.

“I remember being at a Reno Aces game — Dean Heller was in the Senate — and after a game, I turned behind me and Dean Heller is standing there all by himself watching his grandkids run the bases too,” Kieckhefer said. “It’s that kind of access and exposure and interaction that people get that is something that helps drive some of those weird outcomes in elections.”

But the nationalization of Nevada politics may be starting to change some of that. Heller, the beloved Carson City boy who earned respect from Democrats during his tenure as secretary of state, lost his re-election bid to the U.S. Senate by 3.6 percentage points in Washoe to Rosen, the first-term congresswoman from Henderson, after carrying the county by 11.1 points in 2012.

Rosen’s campaign had painted Heller as “Senator Spineless,” the nail in his coffin his hot and cold relationship with President Donald Trump and his waffling on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. It was no match for the goodwill he had earned.

“You’re starting to see that creeping of the nationalization into Washoe County politics,” Gelman said. “I think the best evidence of that was Dean Heller lost Washoe County.”

A rally in support of law enforcement organized by the Nevada Republican Party on Thursday, July 30, 2020 outside the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The next three weeks

Residents of Washoe County still have a lot of faith in the power of retail politics. Kieckhefer said that one-on-one interactions with voters can be “incredibly powerful” for a candidate in his experience.

“If someone has a real strong reaction to something that you voted for or something you voted against, walking through that thought process with a voter about why you did something is a really powerful way to connect with that voter,” Kieckhefer said. “Demonstrating you’re thoughtful and you do things for a reason, it’s not a reaction on a party line, they tend to respect that.”

Kieckhefer is of the mind that Washoe County voters are discerning and unwilling to buy into what he framed as the “broad brushstrokes” of national politics that state and local candidates are often painted with.

“I think that the majority of people see through that crap, frankly. You can’t sit here and try to tell me that Catherine Cortez Masto is the same thing as Nancy Pelosi and that’s going to drive my vote,” Kieckhefer said. “That’s not how people in Northern Nevada are going to do that.”

The question this year, then, is how the power of those personal relationships built through retail politics might be diminished by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

On the other hand, perhaps the better question is how they might be enhanced.

Ratti said that where a candidate might have once been excited to get 40 people to show up for a town hall at a library, they can host a virtual town hall over Zoom and a couple hundred people will show up.

“In some ways, the pandemic in our political lives and our personal lives has increased connection,” Ratti said. “We’re not doing the same things we used to, but we’re still connecting.”

Both the Trump and Biden campaigns have made significant investments in Washoe County this cycle. Trump Victory spokesman Keith Schipper said that the campaign has made more than 600,000 voter contacts in Washoe and has had staff on the ground in the county for more than a year.

In fact, the first Trump Victory office anywhere in the United States outside of the national headquarters was in Reno, Schipper noted.

“All the people that have visited, the investment we have made, obviously Washoe having the first field office in the country shows not only how important Washoe County is for winning Nevada, but it says a lot when you put the first office in the country in Washoe County,” Schipper said.

Trump was initially scheduled to rally supporters in Reno last month, but the venue was changed to Minden after officials at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport scuttled the event on the grounds that it would have violated state coronavirus health and safety directives. Several thousand supporters, most of them not wearing masks, showed up to the outdoor rally at the Minden-Tahoe Airport.

At the same time the Biden campaign, which has primarily run a virtual campaign since the beginning of the pandemic, though it recently announced a transition to some in-person campaigning, has been recruiting volunteers, phone banking and texting voters from afar and recently opened a campaign material distribution center at the Washoe County Democratic Party headquarters. The campaign is also now doing lit drops at voter doors four days a week with plans to ramp that up.

Alana Mounce, Biden’s state director and most recently the executive director of the Nevada State Democratic Party, attributed recent Democratic electoral success in Washoe County to the effort Democrats have put in to get voters to turn out. In 2018, Republicans had a 1.9 percentage point voter registration advantage over Democrats but Rosen defeated Heller by 3.6 points.

“In 2018, Democrats had a 2 percent voter registration disadvantage and because of the work that we focused on with independent voters, nonpartisan voters, we were able to win in Washoe County,” Mounce said. “2020 is no different. Part of the broad base of people that we are talking to, engaging with, is our nonpartisan voters, especially in Washoe County, but across the state."

With ballots now mailed out to every active registered voter in Nevada, the unknown this year is just exactly what turnout will look like in November. The primary, which saw more than 490,000 ballots cast, the vast majority of them mail-in ballots, was one of the highest turnout primaries in the state’s history.

The recent New York Times/Siena College poll taken earlier this month found that about 42 percent of respondents plan to early vote — traditionally the most popular voting method in Nevada — with another 27 percent voting by mail and 24 person voting in-person on Election Day. This year is also the first year that voters are able to register to vote on Election Day and still cast a ballot.

“I expect turnout to be very, very high, between mail-in ballots, early voting, and in-person voting with same-day registration,” Ferraro said. “We have a presidential race that will drive turnout higher … I think all of those combine to drive turnout really high.”

As unusual as this year has been, it has made it even harder to forecast what the outcome will be next month.

“The ways that we have contact with people are just so different that I don’t trust my experiences the same way that I might in another year,” Ratti said. “I feel less confident about how I even think about what’s happening in our county. And it’s not that I’m not having contact, but the contact is just so different that trying to benchmark it against any prior experience feels difficult, feels unreliable.”

As for the future of Washoe County, those who have worked in politics for a long time in the county are hopeful that its community spirit will persist even in the face of a polarized national electorate.

"I think the natural order of things at some point will mean that the pendulum will swing back to the center in Nevada,” Ernaut said, “because that's what Nevada's DNA is — to be more center and more independent.”

State Senator Heidi Seevers-Gansert drops campaign literature in Northwest Reno on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)