As Las Vegas' rebound picks up steam, hospitality workers still waiting for callbacks push for "Right to Return" bill

Mario Sandoval was a waiter at Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel’s steakhouse in downtown Las Vegas for 36 years but has not worked since mid-March of 2020 — when casinos were closed because of the pandemic — along with thousands of Nevadans in the tourism and hotel industry. 

Months passed and several hotels, casinos and restaurants reopened with capacity limits, including Binion’s, but the restaurant where Sandoval worked remained closed.

In January of this year, he received a letter informing him that he had been terminated. Sandoval, who is 53 years old, says he does not have the time or skills to pursue a new career, nor can he retire early.

“What we're seeing is a lot of older workers who are in their 50s or 60s, they just have maybe 10 years to retirement or five years to retirement, and they are really worried that they won't get these jobs now that they're competing with everyone else for the job they had previously,” said Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for the Culinary Workers Union.

Thanks to his daughter, who lives with Sandoval, he was able to get by during the pandemic. Sandoval said his daughter never stopped working and took on the responsibility of covering household expenses and supporting him.

Although Binion’s has a contract with the Culinary Union, Sandoval fears his former restaurant managers will not call him back, preferring to hire someone new with a lower salary. He not only fears for himself, but also for his colleagues in other hotels and casinos who do not have contracts with the union.

“Companies should not waste time and money trying to hire and train new people when there are people like me with so much experience just waiting for our workplaces to bring us back,” Sandoval told The Nevada Independent. “I should not be replaced or abandoned for a younger worker when I have spent my life working for this company. I should not have to start my career over when I am so close to retiring with dignity.”

Culinary Union officials hope to avoid that competition with SB386, the so-called “Right to Return” bill, which would require companies to offer any employees laid off during the pandemic their jobs back, but negotiations between the resorts and Culinary Union are ongoing.

During the bill's first hearing, opposing testimony from the Las Vegas Chamber, Henderson Chamber of Commerce, Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Airlines, Boyd Gaming Corporation and Caesars Entertainment included objections about a provision they said would cause unnecessary litigation: It would allow workers to bring civil actions against employers who do not comply with the requirements of the bill.

Some opponents of the bill also said that companies have supported their employees through the pandemic and that the measure would hinder efforts to bring back employees because of its “time-consuming” requirements and the potential of distracting management from its rehiring efforts to deal with lawsuits.

A statement from an attorney with South Point Hotel Casino and Spa submitted in opposition said that management continued to pay health insurance premiums after furloughing employees out of a “concern for the employees’ welfare.” 

Mario Sandoval, a Culinary Workers Union member who was a waiter at Binion's Hotel Casino's steakhouse for 36 years, he was furloughed during the pandemic. Bethany Khan/Culinary Workers Union

The proposal

The measure was presented on April 7 by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and aims to ensure that laid-off hospitality and tourism employees are granted the option to return to their prior positions.

If passed, the law would apply to workers who were laid off after March 12, 2020 and who were employed for at least six months prior to the first COVID-19 emergency declaration issued by Sisolak.

The measure received a waiver so negotiations could continue past legislative deadlines between the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, the Culinary Workers Union and hotel companies.

Khan declined to elaborate on the state of negotiations this week. Asked about the status of negotiations on Thursday, Virginia Valentine of the Nevada Resort Association said her group is carefully watching the bill and having conversations about it.

“It’s a complicated bill with a lot of stakeholders so I wouldn’t expect to hear anything right away,” she told The Nevada Independent

Khan said one of the benefits of the bill for union members would be the right to be recalled from a layoff for up to two years, depending on contracts with the company.

Essentially, employers would be required to reinstate a laid-off employee before hiring someone new for that same position. For example, if a former employee has not worked since March 2020, the employee could return to work at the company until March 2022 — if their employment contract allows for that two-year recall period, Khan said.

Under this protection, union members would be called back to work by seniority, and would keep the same job title, benefits, salary and health care plan.

The risk

Maria Balandrán was a buffet cook assistant for 18 years at Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson, a Station Casinos property that does not have a contract with the Culinary Workers Union. 

Balandrán and her fellow employees voted to unionize in 2017, but the company legally challenged the formation of a union. A D.C. Circuit Court denied the company’s final appeal in 2020, but no union contract has yet been established. 

In May 2020, someone told Balandrán to check a Facebook page where the names of people who had been terminated had just been published. And there she saw her name.

Balandrán has no guarantee the resort will hire her again in her same position. As it stands, she will have to reapply for work alongside dozens of people who have lived the same situation and are also looking for work. 

“My daughters depend on me and on what I earn. When they took us out of work I had to ask for unemployment. I had never asked for unemployment, I have always worked,” Balandrán said in Spanish in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “And I had to apply for [Medicaid] for my daughters, and I had to apply for food stamps, things that I had never done. It is the first time that I have had to depend on these benefits in order to support my daughters.”

Since then, Balandrán, who is a single mother of three daughters, has been able to survive and support her family with help from the state and federal government, including unemployment support, food stamps and stimulus checks. 

“Workers like Maria that are terminated and want to go back to work, would have to reapply, reinterview, compete with other workers for her job but she had before. And then be at risk of getting paid $3 to $4 less an hour for the same exact job she was doing for 18 years,” Khan said.

A Station Casinos spokesperson testified in opposition to the measure during the bill’s hearing, saying that the measure would “damage those employers who are still fighting to recover from the pandemic by creating burdensome, time-consuming requirements that complicate and discourage rehiring.”

The spokesperson did not answer The Nevada Independent’s inquiries about the company's rehiring processes — or about former employees finding out about terminations through a Facebook post.

“I know it is difficult because everyone is unemployed, and finding another job again is very difficult. In whatever that is available, the point is that I have to support my family,” said Balandrán. "What I would like is that they give us the right to return, that they pass SB386 so that they give us the right to return to work with our salary, our benefits as we had before ... I hope the politicians pass this law.”

Unemployed casino worker Maria Balandrán stands outside her home in Las Vegas on Friday, April 30, 2021. She has been unemployed since March of 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The reopening

Sandoval is hopeful that when business capacity returns to 100 percent, many of his industry colleagues will be able to return to their jobs. In recent months, some local hotels and casinos have held several job fairs to fill open positions. 

“We know those companies are going to open, and they're going to open soon because June 1 is coming. And they’re supposed to change the [capacity] mandate to 100 percent, and that's when you're going to see money,” Sandoval said. “We're a well-trained staff and ready to go back to work. Don't have to train you, or any of it. We're just ready, and been waiting.” 

A year after Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered nonessential businesses in the state to shut their doors, including hotels and casinos, most have reopened and the number of visitors is increasing.

McCarran International Airport announced that it saw nearly one million more domestic flight passengers in March, a 60 percent increase compared to February. And Nevada casinos made more than $1 billion in gambing winnings last month, the state’s highest monthly gaming win in eight years, according to new data from the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

Starting May 1, Clark County will increase the indoor capacity limit for businesses to 80 percent, outdoor service will have no capacity limit and the social distancing requirement will be reduced to three feet. Buffets, adult entertainment venues and nightclubs can all reopen under these new regulations.

This week Wynn Resorts and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas announced that more than 80 percent of their active workforce has been vaccinated against COVID-19. As a result, the Nevada Gaming Control Board will allow the properties to open their casino floors to 100 percent capacity. 

Valentine said many large casino companies are already doing callbacks “to a large extent.”

“We're bringing people back to work as fast as we can,” she said. “We're confident that we're going to bring as many people as possible, and obviously getting everybody vaccinated will help us a lot with getting fully open. The more people are vaccinated, the more people that are going back to work.”

According to the Culinary Union, 50 percent of the 60,000 members of the Culinary Workers Union have returned to work, but the other half are still waiting.

That figure does not include the hundreds of employees of properties that do not have a contract with the union.

Boyd Gaming told The Nevada Independent that its rehiring process includes first calling past employees to verify that they are interested in returning, but some have decided not to return and so the company has had to hire new team members. David Strow, spokesman for Boyd Gaming also said that as demand increases and business continues to recover, the company will “step up” its hiring efforts. 

When asked about their rehiring process, Caesars Entertainment and Wynn Resorts chose not to answer. MGM Resorts International did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

Khan said SB386 would guarantee workers are not penalized or abandoned by their employers.

“Our stance is we cannot have a full recovery in Nevada without workers who make the number one industry in Nevada, which is tourism and hospitality,” Khan said. “Workers cannot be cut out or left out of the recovery.”

Mining gave half a million dollars to Sisolak-affiliated PAC shortly before session that could raise tax on industry

Sign in front of the Nevada State Capitol building

A political action committee affiliated with Gov. Steve Sisolak raised more than $830,000 in the last three months of 2020, including $500,000 from Nevada Gold Mines — a joint venture between mining giants Barrick and Newmont — and another $260,000 from the pharmaceutical lobbying group PhRMA, according to campaign finance documents filed Wednesday.

Those major contributions came just months after the Legislature had raised the prospect during a special session of expanding mining taxes to cover massive revenue losses amid shutdowns related to the pandemic — and the issue is expected to be revived during the ongoing 2021 session.

The PAC also received funding last quarter from the pro-gun regulation group Everytown for Gun Safety ($25,000), UFC parent company Zuffa ($20,000), a subsidiary of Caesar’s Entertainment ($10,000), an LLC linked to the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas ($10,000) and Nevada REALTORS ($5,000). 

Though the Home Means Nevada PAC was initially founded to fund Sisolak’s transition to governor following his win in 2018, the group has since shifted its focus, doling out funds largely to the state Democratic party apparatus. 

A spokesperson for the governor’s office declined to comment, and a representative for Home Means Nevada PAC told The Nevada Independent that the governor was “not involved” with the PAC and that the group was issues-focused. 

Still, Wednesday’s filing showed the PAC contributed $390,000 in the fourth quarter, of which more than half — $250,000 — went to the state Democratic Party. An additional $100,000 was given directly to the Senate Democrats’ fundraising arm, while $10,000 contributions were made to Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft (D-Las Vegas). 

The PAC also gave $10,000 — the statutory maximum in Nevada — to campaigns for Wendy Jauregui-Jackins and Kristee Watson, two Democrats who lost their bids for competitive legislative seats last year.

This is a developing story.

Update, 3/3/21 at 5:03 p.m. - This story was updated to reflect that a spokesperson for the governor's office declined to comment.

The Cosmopolitan allows gamblers to donate spare change directly to charity instead of cashing out

Photo of The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas

Slot players who end up with spare change may not have much use for these leftover pennies, but The Cosmopolitan knows some organizations that do.

The Las Vegas Strip casino is giving gamblers the option to donate their change directly to charity, a program that has raised more than $26,000 in its first six months. It recently announced the four charities guests can donate their winnings to when they cash out from January to March 2020: HELP of Southern Nevada, Goodie Two Shoes, SHARE Village and the American Heart Association. 

HELP of Southern Nevada is a non-profit whose services include homeless centers and work readiness programs. Goodie Two Shoes provides disadvantaged children with socks, shoes, and other essential items. SHARE Village, previously known as Veterans Village, helps people transition out of homelessness with a particular focus on serving veterans.

The only national nonprofit on the list, the American Heart Association, funds research in an effort to reduce disability and death due to cardiovascular disease. 

The donation process is meant to be simple in order to encourage participation. When guests are cashing out at any ATM on the casino floor, a prompt on the screen asks whether they would like to donate their change. If the guest chooses to donate, they select which charities they prefer and the donation is then distributed between them.

The program first debuted in Las Vegas in 2017 at the M Resort Spa Casino, but The Cosmopolitan was the first casino on the Strip to take part, starting in July 2019. Since then, there have been more than 124,000 donations, averaging $0.21 cents each.

Carey Leslie, visiting from Portland, had already donated some of her winnings. She said she hadn’t seen a program like this before and that she’s excited to recommend The Cosmopolitan to other visitors because of it. 

“I already did tell people,” said Leslie. “We talked about it, and we thought it was pretty cool.”

Another casino guest said she had purposely cashed out when she saw her ticket had $0.99 in change just to make sure she could donate the full $0.99 before it crossed the dollar line. 

Since the program began, 12 percent of guests have chosen to donate their change. The Cosmopolitan matches up to $10,000 of guest donations each quarter. The majority of the nonprofits chosen for The Cosmopolitan’s program are local, and in the past have included The Shade Tree, Opportunity Village, and the Nevada Humane Society.

Biden brings in biggest total from itemized donors in Nevada, Sanders pockets most individual donations

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaking during a campaign event

Democratic presidential hopefuls pocketed more than half a million dollars in itemized contributions from Nevadans in the third quarter of the year as they prepare for a final push ahead of the early nominating contests in February.

Former Vice President Joe Biden raised the largest total sum, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders received the most individual itemized donations, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission last week. Other candidates who raised significant sums from Nevadans include Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Federal campaign finance reports only list itemized contributions — those that are more than $200 or, when combined with other contributions over the election cycle, exceed $200 — meaning that the analysis does not take into consideration smaller sums that the candidates may have raised from Nevadans. For instance, Sanders’ campaign said that they received more than 30,000 individual donations, both itemized and not, from nearly 10,000 Nevadans, but other campaigns were not able to readily share similar data with The Nevada Independent.

The campaign finance reports hint at the kind of support the campaigns have here on the ground in Nevada, with Biden raising significant sums from well-known casino executives and former elected officials while Sanders and Warren tended to bring in generally smaller amounts from everyday donors. They also reveal how candidates may or may not be gaining traction here: Self-help author Marianne Williamson has been to Nevada eight times since launching her campaign and raised about $15,000 here this quarter, while former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who has been here 10 times, only raised $2,800.

Some in Nevada also aren’t willing to choose a side yet. The reports show that Democratic donor Stephen Cloobeck donated the maximum $2,800 primary contribution to four candidates — Biden, California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — and $1,000 to Buttigieg, while former Regent Jill Derby has spread $4,660 among seven Democratic hopefuls.

At the same time, the sums they are raising individually are dwarfed by what President Donald Trump raised in the state in the third quarter — about $320,000 across roughly 5,000 individual donations.

Below, The Nevada Independent takes a look at which corners of the state the candidates are raising the most from and breaks down each individual candidate’s Nevada donations.

Joe Biden

The former vice president brought in the biggest haul of any Democratic presidential hopeful — about $206,000 once refunds were taken into account — from itemized donors in Nevada in the third quarter. He was the fifth top fundraiser overall among the Democratic field this quarter, bringing in $15.7 million in donations.

His list of Nevada donors this quarter includes many of the who’s who in Las Vegas, from gaming executives to members of prominent families, and is largely made up of big money donors, with $191,902 of his total coming from contributions of $1,000 or more.

Two of his biggest contributions came from Bob Boughner, who sits on the board of directors for Boyd Gaming and donated $5,600 to Biden’s campaign, and UNLV President Marta Meana, who contributed $5,000. 

He received the maximum $2,800 contribution to a primary campaign from several notable Nevadans, including MGM Resorts Chief Hospitality Officer Ari Kastrati; Diana Bennet, co-founder of Paragon Gaming, Dr. Larry Lehrner, a nephrologist and husband of former Rep. Shelley Berkley; Marilynn Mack, daughter of the late real estate investor Jerry Mack; Amy Greenspun Arenson, daughter of Las Vegas Sun publisher Brian Greenspun; and Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners.

Other notable contributions: Biden received a $500 sum from Tina Quigley, the head of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, and several installments totaling $500 from former Rep. James Bilbray and his wife, Michaelene Bilbray.

Both Bilbray and Berkley have endorsed Biden in his presidential bid.

In total, Biden received about 570 individual itemized contributions in Nevada.

Bernie Sanders

The Vermont senator raised the second most among the Democratic field in Nevada, about $104,000 after refunds, but had the most individual itemized donations. Still, the 2,900 individual itemized donations Sanders received is eclipsed by the 30,000 total individual donations — including unitemized donations — his campaign says he received in the Silver State.

Sanders was technically the second highest fundraiser this quarter nationally, at $28 million, but only behind billionaire Tom Steyer who spent $47.6 million of his own money on his campaign this quarter for a total of $49.6 million raised. 

There are a lot fewer familiar names on Sanders’ list of Nevada donors, which includes a maintenance worker at Walmart, a bartender at Caesars Palace and a busser at the Cosmopolitan. (It also includes lawyers, nurses, dentists, and teachers, among others.)

His top donations this quarter came from Levi Blaney, an engineer at the tech company Flux7 ($2,000) and investment banker Pranav Merchant ($1,694). He also received nine $1,000 donations from some doctors, a medical social worker and an accountant. One notable donor — health care advocate and former congressional candidate Amy Vilela, who has endorsed Sanders, contributed $1,449.38

Elizabeth Warren

The Massachusetts senator raised far less in itemized contributions from Nevadans than either Biden or Sanders, bringing in a total of about $48,000 in the third quarter over nearly 650 individual donations. She was the third top Democratic fundraiser overall this quarter, raising $24.7 million.

Like Sanders, Warren has sworn off high-dollar fundraisers in exchange for spending more time on the selfie line after her rallies. As such, her list is also filled with many unfamiliar names and small dollar donations.

Her top contributions include $2,500 from Dr. Osama Haikal, a gastroenterologist, $1,500 from a retiree named Carson Miller, and $1,300 from Reno-based MS advocate Vivian Leal. Her top donors also include several UNLV professors, lawyers and consultants. Only five of her donations were sums of $1,000 or more.

Two interesting donors — Assemblywoman Connie Munk, who has not yet endorsed in the race but donated $525 to Warren’s campaign this quarter in small installments, and Clark County Democratic Party Chair Donna West donated $85.03. (Munk also donated $160 to Booker’s campaign.)

Pete Buttigieg

The South Bend Mayor brought in the fourth biggest haul in itemized donations from Nevadans this quarter at about $35,000 after refunds through a little more than 500 individual donations. He received nine $1,000 contributions, including from Cloobeck, a physician assistant, a lawyer and a broadband planner. He also received $500 from Patrick Duffy, president and CEO of Nevada School of the Arts.

He was the fourth top Democratic fundraiser overall, raising $19.2 million over the quarter.

Andrew Yang

This tech entrepreneur who has slowly inched up in the polls over the last few months raised the fifth most in itemized donations from Nevadans, totaling about $27,000 after refunds. Yang’s top contributors include several professional gamblers and poker players, consultants and a cocktail server at the Bellagio.

He raised $9.9 million overall this quarter.

Kamala Harris

The California senator came in just shy of Yang’s total itemized donations in Nevada by $13.70 after accounting for refunds, placing her at the sixth highest for itemized contributions in the state. Like Yang, she also raised just about $27,000, but came out ahead of the tech entrepreneur in total fundraising nationally this quarter at $11.8 million.

Her top donor was Cloobeck, but she received several $1,000 sums including from a nurse, a lawyer and an environmental biologist.

Marianne Williamson

The self-help author, who didn’t qualify for the October debate stage, actually managed to raise the seventh most in itemized donations from Nevadans in the third quarter at about $14,000 after refunds. Her top donor in Nevada was Aileen Getty, a philanthropist and the granddaughter of J. Paul Getty, who donated $2,500 tied to an address at a Reno office park associated with her foundation. Other contributors include two atmospheric scientists, an ecclesiastical assistant and a yoga instructor.

Others who made the debate stage

Several other Democratic hopefuls who raised enough money and scored high enough in the polls to qualify for the October debate stage raised far smaller sums. Klobuchar and Booker each brought in a little north of $10,000, while former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke raised just a little less than that sum.

Two notable Klobuchar donors — Las Vegas Sun publisher Brian Greenspun and his wife, Myra Greenspun, who collectively donated $3,800. His sister-in-law, Robin Greenspun, donated $500 to Booker.

Dan Lee, CEO of Full House Resorts and husband of Rep. Susie Lee, donated $275 to O’Rourke.

Steyer raised a little less than $6,000 in the state, while Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard raised about $4,500 and Castro raised just a little less than $2,800 after refunds.

Bottom of the pack

Two candidates who didn’t qualify for the debate stage outraised Castro, who did. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet raised about $4,800 from just seven donors in the state, while Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan raised about $4,300 — with almost all of that coming from three employees affiliated with singer and songwriter Jewel and her company, Jewel Inc.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock raised about $2,700, while former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak raised about $1,500 and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney raised $290. 

NV Energy to pay $1.1 million annually to keep Clark County in the fold

Clark County Government Center

Clark County Commissioners have adopted a five-year agreement with NV Energy that will see the state’s primary utility pay the county $1.1 million a year for promising not to leave its electric service.

Commission members voted unanimously on Tuesday to adopt the proposed contract, which makes the county at least the fourth government agency to receive direct cash payments from NV Energy in return for a promise not to consider leaving NV Energy for another electric provider.

Already, the utility has entered into similar contracts with the city of Henderson, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the Clark County School District exchanging cash payments for both a commitment not to leave the utility and a promise to enroll in a special Optional Pricing Program Rate (OPPR) for large utility customers by 2022.

In a statement, NV Energy spokeswoman Jennifer Schuricht said that approval of the contract would help the utility “actually protect other customers from potential cost increases.”

“NV Energy is pleased that the Clark County Commission is considering a multi-year agreement to remain a customer, which will provide them with long-term value without increasing rates for other customers,” she said in an email on Monday. “Our large business and government entity customers are seeking tailored solutions that meet their unique needs and we are responding to this demand.”

Since May, NV Energy has announced similar long-term arrangements or deals with several other customers, including Station Casinos, the Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas Sands, the Atlantis, Golden Gaming and South Point. NV Energy has declined to say whether those deals, which are not required to be publicly disclosed to the Public Utilities Commission, included similar payments as part of their arrangements to stick with the utility.

The additional $1.1 million that will flow annually to Clark County every year would bring total payments from the utility to government agencies up to $3 million a year, including $1.5 million to CCSD, $250,000 to Henderson and $650,000 to the LVCVA. If similar financial payments are part of the deals struck with private businesses, the utility could be paying tens of millions of dollars annually to keep the business of its largest customers.

The contract itself largely follows the same outline as the contracts with other Southern Nevada agencies — guaranteeing $1.1 million in payments for 2019, 2020 and 2021, and requiring the county enroll in the OPPR program by 2022. The proposed OPPR pricing program, which would offer a flat rate based on new large-scale solar projects, has been touted by the utility as an alternative for large businesses that have flirted with leaving the utility, but has faced criticism as too generous to participants (the utility temporarily withdrew its OPPR application in June).

The exact savings under the OPPR program are still unclear, though in at least one example, the utility estimated that the Nevada System of Higher Education would save $381,000 on its power bills every year under the initially proposed program.

The growing number of large customers who have sought to leave the utility for another power provider under the 704B process — the state law allowing large power users to use an alternative power provider in return for an exit fee designed to keep other ratepayers whole — has prompted worries from NV Energy, which has warned in rate filings and public statements that the departure of its largest customers would cripple future electric demand and likely shift millions of dollars in costs to its other customers.

Since mid-2018, at least 14 large Nevada businesses and government agencies filed 704B applications with the PUC; six have withdrawn their applications, seven were granted the right to leave and one (the under-construction resort The Drew) is still pending.

The contract with Clark County — which never filed a 704B application — also contains language noting the utility plans to file for a $120 million rate reduction in 2021 and includes a requirement to reduce incentive payments based on estimated savings if the PUC approves a higher rate reduction. It also contains a promise to continue cash payments into 2022 and 2023 if the savings from the OPPR rate don’t reach at least $1.1 million annually, and a requirement that Clark County refund all “incentive” payments if the five-year agreement is terminated early for any reason.

And as with the other contracts, the proposal with Clark County contains a confidentiality notice prohibiting either party from issuing “press releases or similar public announcements” without prior written consent of the other party.

Updated at 10:59 a.m. to reflect that the county commission approved the contract.

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

The sign at NV Energy corporate headquarters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Drew (exit application filed in April 2019)

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

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

Cosmopolitan (exit application filed in February 2019)

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

LVCVA (exit application filed in February 2019)

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

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

Air Liquide (exit application filed in February 2019) 

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

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

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

SLS Las Vegas (exit application filed in December 2018) 

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

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

Grand Sierra Resort (exit application filed in December 2018)

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

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

South Point Casino (exit application filed in December 2018) 

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

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

Boyd Gaming (exit application filed in November 2018) 

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

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

MSG Las Vegas (exit application filed in October 2018) 

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

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

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

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

Raiders’ Stadium (exit application filed in September 2018) 

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

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

Atlantis (exit application filed in August 2018)

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

Fulcrum Sierra BioFuels (exit application filed in June 2018) 

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

Station Casinos (exit application filed in June 2018)

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

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

NV Energy withdraws, plans to re-file program offering special lower rates for large customers

NV Energy has withdrawn and plans to rework its application to create a new, renewably powered special rate designed to keep large power customers in the company’s fold.

In a filing last week, NV Energy attorneys withdrew the utility’s pending application for its Optional Pricing Program Rate (OPPR), stopping regulatory approval on an alternative pricing mechanism proposed by the utility last year as a way to keep multiple large businesses from filing or continuing with applications to leave the utility.

In a statement, NV Energy spokeswoman Andrea Smith said the company was still working on the pricing program and planned to eventually refile a similar application with the Public Utilities Commission.

“We understand we still have some work to do with various stakeholders to reach a balanced outcome on this program and have withdrawn our original filing in order to take the time to work toward that balanced outcome,” she said in an email. “We fully intend to resubmit the program in the very near future so we can offer this important product to our customers.”

Although the company had already opened up an application window for the program (fulfilled in 20 seconds of opening in Southern Nevada), the program was never approved by the Public Utilities Commission, and commission staff and the Bureau of Consumer Protection had raised concerns that the program would end up costing normal residential ratepayers and benefited an arbitrarily-picked group of customers.

NV Energy filed a motion to delay processing of the OPPR application in late May, before withdrawing the application entirely on June 14.

As proposed, the OPPR rate would have been available only to utility customers eligible to leave its service through the 704B process, used by a handful of major casinos and other large-scale energy users to depart the utility and buy power from other third party providers in return for a usually substantial “exit fee” to ensure new costs aren’t fostered onto other utility customers.

The rate would have been composed of certain non-bypassable charges (such as gas transmission) but would have replaced the standard electric rate with a flat charge based on the utility’s six new major solar power plants adding 1,001 megawatts of solar electricity to the company’s fuel mix.

Although the projected price savings from the program were largely kept private, the Nevada System of Higher Education (which is eligible for the program) estimated that it could save roughly $381,000 a year from enrolling in the program statewide.

But the pricing program has been criticized by commission staff and the Bureau of Consumer Protection, which called it “inconsistent with the very premise of planning and operating the utility as a system for all ratepayers.” The agency estimated that the initial version of the program would have seen roughly 48 percent of the benefits from the new renewable energy contracts — or roughly $65 million — go to OPPR customers, who only represent roughly 5 percent of total electric sales from the utility.

Since initially proposing the OPPR program last year, NV Energy has announced arrangements with some of its largest customers who had flirted with leaving utility service but ultimately decided to stay, including Station Casinos, the Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas Sands, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Grand Sierra Resort, the Atlantis, Golden Gaming and South Point.

NV Energy also supported a bill in the 2019 Legislature that added multiple barriers and new requirements for businesses seeking to leave NV Energy, but allowed the roughly dozen or so businesses that have pending applications before the commission to continue under the old system. That measure was approved nearly unanimously and signed into law by Gov. Steve Sisolak.

Cosmopolitan withdraws application to leave NV Energy

Photo of The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas

Nearly three months after filing an application to leave NV Energy’s electric service, the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas has withdrawn its intent to depart the utility.

In a short letter sent Tuesday offering no details, attorneys for the casino company said it would be withdrawing its application submitted in February to leave NV Energy and purchase electricity from another electric provider. The company was due to have a hearing before the Public Utilities Commission on June 7, with a decision on whether or not to grant the exit application due soon after.

The Cosmopolitan filed its initial exit application in late February, citing a desire to “explore” options of finding other power providers that would allow the resort to “procure renewable energy resources to power some or all of its operation in its continued commitment to sustainability.”

But in recent months, NV Energy has begun opening applications for a new rate program for large businesses eligible to leave utility service called an Optional Pricing Program Rate, or OPPR. Although that pricing program has not yet been approved by the Public Utilities Commission, the proposed rate could offer a way for the utility to retain companies that have flirted with leaving the utility in recent months.

Although no order on the Cosmopolitan’s departure had been issued by the PUC, commission staff recommended an impact fee of either $3.9 million up-front or $4.7 million paid over several years.

Withdrawing its application also means that the company would no longer be “grandfathered” in under a bill currently pending in the Nevada Legislature that would add multiple new requirements and payments for future companies that attempt to depart the utility, but not require new payments or charges for companies that have already left the utility or have filed an application to leave.

Grand Sierra Resort withdraws application to leave NV Energy, citing transmission shortage

The sign at NV Energy corporate headquarters

Grand Sierra Resort has withdrawn its application to leave NV Energy as an electric customer, the first high-profile withdrawal from the slew of companies that filed to leave the utility over the last two years.

In a letter sent to members of the Public Utilities Commission on Monday, attorneys for the Reno-based casino company wrote that they would be withdrawing their application to depart NV Energy’s electric service and purchase electric power from a new provider, ending a nearly five-month process and ensuring the company stays a customer of NV Energy.

In an email, Grand Sierra Resort representative Andrew Diss said the company was withdrawing the application because of “transmission capacity concerns” in Northern Nevada — an unexpected shortfall brought up as an issue in January by NV Energy.

The news is a welcome sign for the utility, which has made several moves this year to address the looming issue of more than a dozen businesses that have filed to leave its electric service over the past two years, allowed under a 2001 state law that requires departing businesses pay an “exit fee” to offset any unexpected costs that would otherwise be paid by other utility customers.

A total of 13 businesses have filed the so-called 704B applications with the PUC over the last two years, including the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and The Cosmopolitan so far in 2019. The utility has also offered a carrot to businesses flirting with leaving its service, announcing it would offer a revamped special reduced-cost rate on renewable energy for its largest customers. Already, the city of Las Vegas said it would likely take advantage of the program after an outside power wholesaler withdrew its pitch to take over electric service for the city.

Grand Sierra Resort filed its initial application in December along with the SLS Las Vegas, which are both owned by businessman Alex Mereulo, citing a desire to “capitalize on our state’s abundant natural resources.” Diss said SLS Las Vegas is continuing with its application to leave the utility.

The staff of the PUC estimated in March that the company’s electric load made up about 0.5 percent of the utility’s annual energy sales in Northern Nevada, and recommended a $2.2 million “impact fee” for the right to leave the utility’s service.

But that wasn’t the only obstacle to leaving NV Energy.

Similar to the process undertaken by NV Energy in applications of other businesses filing to leave the utility, the company filed an “alternative analysis” calling on the PUC to assess impact fees over a much longer period of time and to reject the application unless it specifically showed a public benefit. It projected that the suggested impact fee would not be enough to cover the costs to other customers, estimating that a departure would result in a $1 million shortfall despite the $2.2 million exit fee.

Shawn Elicegui, a consultant for the utility, wrote in accompanying testimony that approving the application would likely lead to higher rates for residential customers and more a reason for large customers to leave utility service, perpetuating the cycle.

“By placing upward pressure on rates in classes where customers are eligible to submit a 704B application, more of these customers may conclude it is in their economic interests to seek out an alternative energy provider and thus perpetuate additional upward pressure on rates,” he wrote.

The utility also identified shortfalls in Northern Nevada transmission capacity, saying it would likely need to commission a multi-year transmission study and build out additional capacity — likely costing hundreds of millions of dollars — if additional so-called 704B applications are approved.

Cosmopolitan files to leave NV Energy's electric service

Photo of The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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