Gaming incubator Black Fire viewed as UNLV’s contribution to Nevada’s economic diversification

Visitors to UNLV’s Black Fire Innovation research institute will find much of what they might expect inside a 15,000-square foot showroom dedicated to newly created products for the gaming and hospitality industries.

In addition to games and systems for the casino floor and sportsbook, a working eSports venue also serves as a Ted Talk-style amphitheater. Innovative creations for hotels are displayed, such as a laundry-free bed linen product that is broken down and reconstituted as new bedding after a single usage.

A translucent television designed to double as a hotel room window is prominently exhibited.

A personal “Gita” robot can be tested. Adorned with Las Vegas Raiders logos, the device follows its user around the facility, carting the visitor’s belongings in its storage area.

Gaming is a featured element in what is expected to become a university-run innovation hub tasked with bringing new business and industries to Southern Nevada. Black Fire Innovation is the first building within the 122-acre UNLV Harry Reid Research and Technology Park, located in the southwest area of Las Vegas and roughly 11 miles from the UNLV campus.

Through Black Fire, the gaming industry serves as a connection to the overall vision for the technology park. The reach, however, goes far beyond the Strip.

UNLV Vice President of Economic Development Bo Bernhard stands in front a board displaying the logos or companies associated with Black Fire Innovation at the UNLV Harry Reid Research & Technology Park in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

UNLV Vice President of Economic Development Bo Bernhard said Black Fire is the initial piece of an academic inspired innovation center similar to facilities associated with universities around the country, such as the Research Triangle in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina near the state’s three universities.

A building projected to house medical research and development was completed at the Technology Park this year. Other facilities will follow for what is best described as a location that mixes entrepreneurship with the business and financial community.

“This is Nevada’s innovation hub,” said Bernhard, who added the economic development position to his long-standing responsibility as executive director of UNLV’s International Gaming Institute.

“The idea is to create a meeting space between industry and academia,” he said.

Black Fire Innovation and a co-working space cover more than 43,000 square feet of the top two floors of the four-story building.

UNLV President Keith Whitfield, responding to emailed questions from The Nevada Independent, said the research and technology park will become “an unprecedented resource” and a center of “new cutting-edge” products and activities.

“Because it will connect UNLV faculty and students with tech companies – both established and startups – research and development large companies, and financial entities looking to serve as startup or angel funding, it will be a unique environment that will provide a number of synergies for those who work on that new campus,” Whitfield said.

New casino products are displayed at Black Fire Innovation at the UNLV Harry Reid Research & Technology Park in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Filling up

Office space in the Black Fire building has been leased to a diverse cross section of tenants.

US Capital Global, a San Francisco-based asset manager and investment bank, is relocating its back office, analysts and due-diligence teams into Black Fire. Digital payments provider Sightline plans to share office space at the location with Vancouver, Canada-based GeoComply, a geolocation, fraud protection and cyber security business.

“We're a tech focused investment bank with some hospitality stuff and we’re in the medical tech and FinTech (financial technology field as well,” US Capital CEO Jeffrey Sweeney said. “It's a good move for us out there. The goal is to use Las Vegas as an economic hub for companies that want another location that’s a little more cost effective. We have companies from Europe that want a U.S. presence.”

Sweeney said US Capital is moving one of its clients, Sounzone, an Italy-based music streaming service, to Las Vegas.

Sightline Executive Vice President Omer Sattar said Black Fire allows the financial technology business a location where it can collaborate easily with casino operators and other technology companies working in an industry effort toward cashless gaming and digital payment technology. Sightline is one of five gaming technology providers that created a cashless payment program for both gaming and non-gaming activities at Resorts World Las Vegas.

“Our partners are there, and we are working with the (International Gaming Institute), so we see this a good collaboration,” he said.

Sattar said taking space in Black Fire allows Sightline to consolidate all its Las Vegas employees into one location and that sharing space with GeoComply “made sense” because the companies “have grown up together in the space and are working with similar customers.”

Also, the Association for Gaming Equipment Manufacturers, the trade organization for the casino suppliers, is building office space at Black Fire.

Whitfield said the university will work to create additional partnerships with gaming companies.

“There is no innovation ecosystem like Black Fire,” he said.

Black Fire Innovation is located at the UNLV Harry Reid Research & Technology Park in Las Vegas, seen on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Reid secured the site

Economic development in a community is often connected to a university and academia, Bernhard said. Attempts to diversify the Southern Nevada economy in the past often led to “seeds being thrown out into the desert, hoping to take hold.” The infrastructure wasn’t there and efforts fell short.

UNLV first eyed the land as an innovation zone and economic development vehicle in 2004 when then-Nevada Sen. Harry Reid pushed legislation through Congress and secured the acreage from the federal government near the I-215 beltway and the intersection of Sunset Road and Durango Drive.

The UNLV effort now involves more than just the school. To highlight that point, Bernhard listed more than 70 companies that have current or planned offices at Black Fire, products on display, or have donated to the university’s effort.

The combined net worth of those businesses is valued at more than $1 trillion.  

Casino giants Caesars Entertainment, MGM Resorts International and Boyd Gaming, as well as international gaming technology companies including Slovenia-based table game provider Interblock and Entain Plc, a United Kingdom-based sports betting and online gaming operator, are among the group. That’s expected, said Bernhard.

But the list also includes non-gaming businesses, such as Panasonic, LG, Adobe, Intel and Zoom.

“This is not just about gaming,” Bernhard said.  

UNLV Vice President of Economic Development Bo Bernhard touches sheets created by Purlin, a laundry-free linen product, at Black Fire Innovation at the UNLV Harry Reid Research & Technology Park in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Gaming is still the draw

Access to the casino industry through Black Fire is the lure to entrepreneurs. But the reach is beyond the Strip.

Since 2013, the International Gaming Institute’s Center for Gaming Innovation has filed more than 50 patent applications with the U.S. Patent Office for new games and casino products developed by students. Nearly two dozen applications have resulted in patents with eight products being used in casinos.

Black Fire, Bernhard said, will work side-by-side with the Center for Gaming Innovation, providing students access to resources that can help bring their ideas to market. UNLV graduates with ideas for products or business ideas will be recruited to Black Fire, allowing them to continue to work with experts to create a start-up business.

For example, the bed linen product was created by Purlin, one of five 2020 winners of UNLV’s Lee Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

“On campus, we have labs. That’s where the stuff is invented. This is where it is commercialized,” Bernhard said. He noted that today’s students are far more entrepreneurial than previous generations.

“Making your own future has gone from option C to option A for many graduates,” he said.

Bernhard said students have the ability to get their products “in front of the right people” at Black Fire. “We never had resources like this before,” he said.

Bernhard, who has a Ph.D. in sociology, has long viewed the Strip as one of the greatest laboratories in which to study humanity. Today, he views the location as a stepping off point for degrees of separation in economic development.

He cited the move to Las Vegas by the Raiders last year as “one degree of separation from the Strip.” The team, which is playing in the $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium, “is a new industry to Las Vegas,” but using the market’s expertise in hospitality and special events as “part of its ecosystem.”

At the same time, the emergence of the NFL and the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights created the need for the development of sports medicine, which he said will become part of UNLV’s Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine.

Medical innovation, he said, leads to another degree of separation from the Strip.

“By the time we’re at six degrees, we can’t even see the Strip,” Bernhard said. “That is how economic diversity works — and we’re getting started.”

As for the gaming industry, Bernard believes Strip resorts will benefit from developments at Black Fire and the technology park in the same manner the Hollywood film industry has fed off the innovations created at the University of Southern California Film School.

“As much as anything, the film school has been responsible toward maintaining Hollywood’s status as the global intellectual capital of a certain type of entertainment, film making,” Bernhard said. “This is what UNLV needs to become.”

Whitfield expects UNLV will continue to provide the platform for economic diversification in the region and nationally.

“Black Fire will be an incredible resource for innovation and entrepreneurship in our students, a real-world learning lab if you will, that will provide students an experiential leg up with competing in the workforce as they graduate,” he said.

An eSports arena doubles as a Ted Talk venue inside Black Fire Innovation at the UNLV Harry Reid Research & Technology Park in Las Vegas. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Nevada Indian Country celebrates wins at the Legislature, including greater access to higher education for students

Tribal leaders and advocates are eyeing their communities’ futures with more hope after priority bills for Native leaders made it across the legislative finish line last week. 

“I say unequivocally there’s never been a better time to be Indigenous and live in the state of Nevada,” said Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, during an event last week at the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, where Gov. Steve Sisolak signed three bills affecting Nevada tribes  — AB262, AB88 and AB270 — into law. 

Stacey Montooth, Executive Director of the State of Nevada Indian Commission speaks during a bill signing ceremony with the Governor at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The legislation prioritized by Native leaders that cleared the lawmaking session include measures that waive fees at Nevada colleges and universities for Native students; prohibit racially discriminatory language or imagery in schools; and provide environmental protection for sacred sites, among others. 

Marla McDade Williams, an enrolled member of the Te-Moak Tribe of the Western Shoshone and lobbyist for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said legislation crafted with input from Native community members has been steadily increasing over the last few years in the Legislature, a trend that continued this spring.

“As long as people just continue to keep issues at the forefront, there's always going to be a legislator who is willing to bring those issues forward and see how we can craft a solution that is beneficial for the Native American community and tribes,” she said. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) said the inclusive legislation fosters unity amid an era of reckoning with historical injustices. 

“This is, I think, a groundbreaking legislative session for advancing the rights and issues of Indigenous people and fostering inclusion among all of us, because while we come from many different communities, we're also all one community and all Nevadans,” he said during the bill-signing event. 

Governor Steve Sisolak during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City after signing bills AB88, 262 and 270 on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Here’s a look at the bills that passed during the session, all of which have also been signed into law by Sisolak, that affect Nevada tribes:

AB262: Fee waiver for Native students 

One of the top priorities this session for Native leaders and advocates, AB262 waives registration, laboratory and other mandatory fees at Nevada System of Higher Education institutions for Native people who are members of federally recognized tribes in Nevada or descendants of enrolled tribal members. With in-state tuition, waiving fees at universities and colleges significantly reduces the financial burden to attend school for students.

The law goes into effect on July 1. 

At the signing event, Montooth said the measure “exponentially broadens” the futures of 70,000 Native Americans in the state. 

“I use that large number, not to scare NSHE (Nevada System of Higher Education), but because in Indian Country, when one of us earns a degree, our entire family earns a degree,” she said. 

Tribal leaders, such as Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez, who advocated for the bill during the session said the increased access to education will help lift tribes and their community members out of disproportionate poverty rates. 

Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Reno), who sponsored the bill, told The Nevada Independent that her hope is that it will ultimately benefit those who live on tribal lands. 

“The goal is really for students to be able to attend school and then come back hopefully to the community so that way we can get Native American doctors on the Native lands, we can get an attorney on Native American land — those things make a difference,” she said. 

Assemblywoman Natha Anderson attends a bill signing with Governor Steve Sisolak for AB88, 262 and 270 during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Cheryl Simmons, an enrolled member of the Washoe Tribe, said she’s excited for the measure to be implemented in time for her classes to start in the fall. As a single mother of two children who is also helping raise her grandchild, she said the fees pose a barrier to people such as herself who want to work toward an associates or bachelor’s degree. 

“I’d like to see that change in our school system because it’s penalizing [students] to learn more,” she said, adding that she’s working toward her fifth associates degree in criminal justice at Western Nevada College. She has other degrees in general studies, art and business management. 

Besides being an enrolled Nevada tribal member or descendant of one, students also must be eligible for enrollment in a university or college, be a Nevada resident for a year or more, maintain a 2.0 grade point average and fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to be eligible for the fee waiver. 

The bill also requires the Board of Regents to submit a report to the Legislative Counsel Bureau regarding the number of students eligible and the total funding available for the waived fees by Sept. 1, 2022, in order to provide accurate data for future legislative bodies.

The original version of the bill included providing in-state tuition at colleges and universities for members of tribes outside of Nevada, which was amended out of the final version. 

In a fiscal note, the Nevada System of Higher Education stated it could not determine the financial impact of the bill as it depends on how many students will take the opportunity to use it. 

The Assembly approved the bill nearly unanimously, with Assemblyman John Ellison (R-Elko) as the lone lawmaker who voted against it, and the Senate unanimously approved it on the final day of the session. 

AB88: Bans offensive, racially discriminatory imagery in Nevada schools 

Sponsored by Watts, the measure bans offensive or racially discriminatory language and imagery, names, logos or mascots in Nevada schools. 

The legislation came about during a time of reckoning across the country, with Native people calling for sports teams, businesses and schools to remove offensive names. Earlier this year, UNLV retired its Hey Reb! mascot after taking its statue down last June in response to a history tied to confederate symbolism and, last year, the Squaw Valley Ski Resort announced it would drop “squaw” from its name after years of protest from the Washoe Tribe. On the national stage, the Washington professional football team announced a name change in January, dropping the “Redskins” title after 90 years. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts attends a bill signing with Governor Steve Sisolak for AB88, 262 and 270 during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Watts said the goal of the measure is to continue promoting awareness about the injustices of the past in order to move forward. 

“That's really what Assembly Bill 88 tries to do is help educate people about some of the racially discriminatory aspects of our history, from our school mascots, to the names that we've given to places, places that were named first by Indigenous peoples, and then renamed when settlers arrived, and also addressing the issue of sundowner sirens,” he said during the bill-signing event. “I believe that by confronting these issues, and working together to address them, we can all move forward together and have a brighter future for the state.”

Nevada schools may still use language, imagery or mascots in connection with tribes as long as they have consent from local tribal leaders to do so. For example, the Elko band of the Te-Moak Tribe allowed the Elko High School Indians mascot to remain the same. 

Signs and flags of the Elko Indians at the Elko High School in Elko, Nevada. (Famartin / Creative Commons)

The bill also prohibits Nevada counties, cities and unincorporated towns from sounding sirens, bells or alarms historically used to alert people of color to leave town at a certain hour, known as a “sundown ordinance.” The bill specifically applies to Minden in Douglas County, which repealed the sundown ordinance in 1974 but continues to sound the siren at 6 p.m. each day. Tribal leaders have asked for years that the siren be removed, or at least changed to a different hour of the day.

Serrell Smokey, chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, said the measure gives the tribe a better “foothold” in its fight against the siren, which is triggering for some tribal elders who lived through the era of sundown ordinances. 

“We’ve seen this even in some elders nowadays, if you ask them about the siren, they'll say, ‘Don't mess with that, don't talk about it,’” Smokey said. “That's historical trauma. They're still scared about it and they don't want to address it. Us younger generations have more fight in us and we know we need to capitalize on taking action with social injustices that have been going on throughout the world.” 

The bill also asks that the State Board on Geographic Names recommend name changes for geographic features of places in the state that have racially discriminatory language or imagery. The board includes two Native representatives. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill 36-6 and 12-8, respectively, with some Republican lawmakers voting against it. Sisolak signed the bill into law during the event on June 4. 

AB270: Stewart Indian School preservation

Sponsored by Assemblyman Philip O’Neill (R-Carson City), the measure allows the museum director of the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum designate certain buildings and grounds of the former boarding school for Native children for special events and authorizes the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages at such events. 

The Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The bill also earmarks any funds made through the special events to be paid into the State Treasury for credit to the Nevada Indian Commission Gift Fund. Those funds must be used by the commission to maintain and preserve operations and cultural integrity of the Stewart Indian School. 

During the bill-signing event in Carson City, O’Neill said the measure will help ensure the museum can continue to educate the public on the harsh history of the boarding school. The measure also includes preservation efforts for the State Prison. 

“[The Stewart Indian School and the State Prison] are long standing in our Nevada history, both good and bad. And we need to teach that, have that available, so our future generations do not repeat. And that's the strongest part of all of our bills today is that we prepare our future generations to be better than we are,” he said. 

Assemblyman P.K. O'Neill attends a bill signing with Governor Steve Sisolak for AB88, 262 and 270 during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The Stewart Indian School was one of hundreds of federal boarding schools in the United States that housed Native children, often kidnapped from their families and forced to attend, in order to assimilate them into white culture. Their traditional long hair was cut short and their languages and spiritual practices were forbidden. It reopened last year, after receiving funding from the state, as a museum to share the story of what happened there, as told by school alumni, some of whom are still living in the state. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously, and Sisolak signed it into law during the event on June 4. 

AB261: Expand historical contributions of diverse groups in education 

Sponsored by Anderson, the measure requires that education curriculum used throughout the state promote greater inclusion and accurately reflect societal contributions made by various demographic groups.  

The bill requires the board of trustees of each school district and the governing body of charter schools ensure educational material includes contributions to science, arts and the humanities made by Native Americans and tribes, people of marginalized sexual orientation or gender identity, people with disabilities, people from African American, Basque, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander backgrounds and more. 

The bill addresses frustrations expressed by Native leaders and educators that education generally focuses on Native people as historical figures and fails to acknowledge the historical contributions and modern day presence of Native people and tribes in Nevada. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill in 26-16 and 12-9 votes, respectively, with Republican lawmakers voting against it, and Sisolak signed the bill into law in May. 

AB321: Expanded voting measure becomes law 

Sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), the bill sets in stone the expanded voting measures implemented last year in response to the pandemic. Native leaders and advocates have widely supported the measure as it includes extended deadlines for tribes to request polling locations and so-called “ballot harvesting,” which allows people to submit ballots for non-family members.

McDade Williams, Te-Moak tribe member and Reno-Sparks Indian Colony lobbyist, said the law improves access to voting for tribes. 

“Being able to recognize that tribal communities are isolated and figuring out ways to help them participate in the state selection process — these are all good things for tribes,” she said. 

A Native voter wears a "voting is sacred" T-shirt at a polling location for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Photo courtesy of the Nevada Native Vote Project.

The next step: Educating Native voters about how to access the ballot in time for the midterm election season next year, she said. 

“Hopefully those initiatives can really bear some fruit over the next 12 months, getting some resources at the tribal level to start training voters on how to access the process and how to understand candidates and what to look for in candidates,” McDade Williams said. 

The bill passed along party lines in the Assembly and Senate, and Sisolak signed it into law on June 2. 

AB103: Protecting Indian burial sites in Nevada 

A follow-up to legislation approved in 2017, the bill clears up ambiguities in the law regarding excavation of Indian burial sites across Nevada. Sponsored by Assemblywoman Susie Martinez (D-Las Vegas), the measure clarifies that entities engaged in lawful activity, such as construction, mining and ranching, are exempt from obtaining permits from the State Museum so long as the activity will not affect a known burial site. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously and Sisolak signed it into law following the end of the session in May. 

During a hearing for the bill in March, Michon Eben, manager for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony cultural resource program, said the current law does not protect Native items or objects found across Nevada and is something Native people would like to change in the future. 

AB171: State protection for “swamp cedars” 

The measure sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee grants state protection to Rocky Mountain juniper trees, known as “swamp cedars,” outside of Ely in Spring Valley. Native elders and tribal leaders widely supported the measure because the site where the swamp cedars are found, known as Bahsahwahbee in Shoshone, is sacred to Indigenous people. 

The Assembly approved the bill 29-13. It later passed the Senate in a 13-8 vote, with Republicans voting against it, except for Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks), who crossed the aisle to approve the measure despite raising concerns about historical inaccuracies regarding massacres of Indigenous peoples cited in the bill. Sisolak signed the bill before the session ended in late May. 

AJR4: Federal protection for “swamp cedars”  

Further expanding on AB171, the resolution, also sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, urges Congress and the Biden administration grant protections to  swamp cedars and designate the area as a national historic monument or expand the Great Basin National Park to include Spring Valley.

The Assembly approved the bill 29-13, with Republican lawmakers voting against it, and was later unanimously approved by the Senate. 

AJR3: Naming Avi Kwa Ame a national monument 

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Cecelia González (D-Las Vegas), the resolution heads to Congress to establish Spirit Mountain, known as Avi Kwa Ame in the native Mojave language, as a national monument. Avi Kwa Ame is a spiritual center for several tribes spanning across Nevada, California and Arizona, including the Fort Mojave Tribe. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill largely along party lines, with Republican lawmakers voting against it. 

Adding Native representatives to state groups: 

AB72: State Board on Geographic Names 

The measure adds another spot for a Native representative from the Nevada Indian Commission on the State Board on Geographic Names. The board already included a spot for a member from the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada and includes representatives from the state Bureau of Mines and Geology, UNR, UNLV, the U.S. Forest Service and more. 

The Assembly and Senate unanimously approved the bill and Sisolak signed it into law on May 21. 

AB52: Land Use Planning Advisory Council 

Sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources committee, the bill adds a voting member appointed by the Nevada Indian Commission to the Land Use Planning Advisory Council. The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously and Sisolak signed it into law last week.

AB54: Advisory Traffic Safety Committee 

Sponsored by the Assembly Growth and Infrastructure committee, the bill creates the Advisory Traffic Safety Committee, which will be tasked with reviewing, studying and making recommendations regarding best practices for reducing traffic deaths and injuries. As part of the committee, the bill adds a member representing Nevada tribal governments recommended by the Inter-Tribal Council. 

The Assembly approved the bill 36-4 and the Senate 12-9, with Republican lawmakers voting against it. Sisolak signed the bill into law on May 21. 

AB95: Legislative Public Lands Committee 

Sponsored by the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections committee, the bill adds a member representing Nevada tribal governments recommended by the Inter-Tribal Council and appointed by the Legislature to the Legislative Public Lands Committee. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously and Sisolak signed it into law on May 27. 

Lawmakers begin wrapping up 2021 session; ‘Right to Return’ passes, Death with Dignity fails

The Nevada Legislature building as seen in Carson City on Feb. 6, 2017.

Crunch time has finally arrived for the Legislature, with lawmakers planning to work steadily through Sunday to work out compromises and pass scores of bills with less than a day and a half left in the 120-day session.

Much attention has been paid to negotiations over the long anticipated AB495 — the measure implementing a new excise tax on mining and various other education and health care changes, up for its first hearing on Sunday evening. But many other high-profile measures are finally approaching the finish line — including final votes on “Right to Return” legislation, as well as last-minute appropriations and amendments.

Here’s a look at some of the latest developments in Carson City on the penultimate day of session. 

Physician aid in dying legislation will not advance

A deeply divisive bill that would have allowed terminally ill patients to self-administer life-ending medication is not moving forward.

Bill sponsor Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) told The Nevada Independent on Sunday that there was no consensus on AB351 and the bill would not receive any further hearings or a floor vote. 

“I've lost all hope,” Flores said. “The position of the leadership is just, we don’t think the votes are there.”

Similar legislation divided Republicans and Democrats in 2017, when it passed 11-10 in the Senate. Democrats largely supported the measure, but the bill never made it to a final vote after it died in an Assembly committee. A 2019 measure sponsored by then Sen. David Parks (D-Las Vegas) also never received a floor vote after passing through its first committee.

Flores chalked the death of the bill up to ethical dilemmas and hesitancy to pass such a contentious piece of legislation. But he hopes to continue the dialogue in future sessions.

“It's funny how … there's very contested bills and then one session it just comes in and it goes right through,” Flores said. “And I think it's a lot of just that education component, and then kind of holding out, just being consistent.”

In early April, New Mexico became the latest state to provide a legal pathway for physician aid-in-dying, Flores said, noting that opinions are shifting.

“There's an obvious trend where states are recognizing that there's folk who need it, and should have a right to request it if they want it,” Flores said. “So I think we'll come back in two years and do this whole thing again.”

— Tabitha Mueller

Assembly approves ‘Right to Return’ legislation, bill heads back to the Senate for final vote

The Assembly gave quick party-line approval to legislation that would guarantee the rights of laid-off gaming and tourism industry workers to return to their jobs.

The 26 Democratic Assembly members outvoted 16 Republicans to send SB386 back to the Senate for final concurrence on an amendment. The Senate voted along party lines last Wednesday to approve the legislation.

Lawmakers on Friday evening adopted an amendment that exempts small businesses — ones that prior to the pandemic employed 30 or fewer workers — from being affected by the so-called “Right to Return” legislation. The amendment likely exempts small restaurants and vendors operating in casinos from having to comply with the hiring requirements in the bill.

Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama (R-Las Vegas) urged lawmakers to vote against the legislation, saying its passage would hurt small businesses and 30 “seemed like an arbitrary number.”

However, Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) called SB386 a bill that “protects the people that built this state. They are the economic engine of Las Vegas.”

Carlton said the 78-day shutdown of the gaming industry in an effort to slow the spread of the pandemic a year ago March, “was done for the right reasons. This is also the right thing to do. This protects everyone.”

Gaming interests and the Culinary Union struck a deal on the high-profile legislation earlier last week, agreeing to limit the scope of the bill and exempting certain employee classes including managers and stage performers. The Nevada Resort Association agreed to take a neutral position on the bill in return for those concessions, though not all casino operators are on board with the proposed legislation.

SB386 would allow workers in the gaming and travel sectors the right to return to their jobs, covering those workers laid off after March 12, 2020, and who were employed for at least six months in the year before the governor’s first COVID-19 emergency declaration.

— Howard Stutz

Amendments to a bill pushing citations, rather than arrests, for minor crimes

A bill directing law enforcement to issue citations in lieu of arresting people for misdemeanor crimes, AB440, passed out of a conference committee Sunday morning with two amendments, one proposed by Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) and the other from Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas).

Settelmeyer’s amendment establishes requirements for candidates running for county sheriff in rural Nevada counties. Specifically, the amendment lowers the population threshold for required qualifications from 100,000 to 30,000 and stipulates that a candidate running for county sheriff must have accumulated at least five years of service as a law enforcement officer and have been certified by the state or a federal law enforcement training program.

The other amendment gives law enforcement officials time to implement the measure, specifying that provisions within the act do not apply until the Division of Parole and Probation has sufficient resources to carry out the measure.

The bill passed out of the Assembly and Senate on party-line votes with Republicans in opposition.

— Tabitha Mueller

Gender-neutral bathrooms bill gets messy

A discussion over a bill requiring that single-stall bathrooms be designated as gender neutral going forward turned into a discussion about whether more urine ends up on the floor in men’s rooms.

Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said he would oppose the bill — AB280 from Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno) — because he doesn’t think there should be mandates on businesses to make their restrooms unisex. He also argued that “women have more sensitive sensibilities as a whole.”

“By doing this, we're going to be making all the restrooms men's rooms, and that will create problems for a good number of women in society,” Pickard said.

Sen. Joe Hardy (R-Boulder City), a doctor, also offered an anatomical explanation for why the floor of men’s rooms might be dirtier.

“So, it sounds to me like men are the problem, and they could work on that, but in the meantime, I think the bill is fine,” concluded Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas). 

The committee ended up passing the bill — which “grandparents” in existing restrooms but governs future builds — with Republicans opposed.

— Michelle Rindels

$1 million to Immunize Nevada in AB355

AB355, a bill that already includes a variety of allocations for nonprofits, has a new proposed addition — $1 million for the statewide nonprofit Immunize Nevada.

Sen. Julia Ratti said the organization has seen a deluge of support for the COVID-19 vaccination effort, but much of that is strictly limited to the pandemic. Ratti said she doesn’t want the group to be shortchanged in its normal work.

“This gives them the flexibility to make sure that we're not disrupting the regular programming that they do for flu, back to school,” she said.

So far, the bill includes: $750,000 for the “Expanding the Leaderverse” initiative at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, $350,000 for the “We the People” civics program in schools, more than $3 million for the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, $1 million for the Nevada Blind Children’s Foundation and $2 million for the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas to develop an ethnobotanical garden for teaching indigenous farming techniques.

Assembly Ways and Means Chairwoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) has said that nonprofits often approach the Legislature seeking allocations that they can leverage into further donations, and AB355 is a vehicle for such allocations.

— Michelle Rindels

Assembly approves bill expanding legal resources to immigrant Nevadans

Finding an attorney to represent them in immigration court can be a challenge for people facing deportation proceedings who often don’t have the financial means to seek legal counsel.

In an attempt to bridge the gap, Nevada Assembly lawmakers on Wednesday approved AB376, which allocates $500,000 in state funds for the UNLV Immigration Clinic to expand its no-cost legal services for immigrants.

The bill advanced along party lines, with Republicans voting against it. Bill sponsor and Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas) introduced AB376 during a hearing in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday alongside Majority Floor Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno), who called the funding allocation a “smart use of money… an exciting use of money.”

“We have folks in the community who are doing really great work who are providing pro bono services to our immigrant community, and we know we have populations in need, so how do we help our helpers? And the answer was, get more support to the UNLV Immigration Clinic,” Benitez-Thompson said.

Nevada has the largest per-capita population of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Michael Kagan, director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic, said the funds would be used to create a community advocacy office off the UNLV campus intended to be more accessible for the community and to hire two new lawyers as part of the Immigrant Justice Corps, a fellowship program for law school graduates interested in practicing immigration law.

In addition to allocating half a million dollars to the clinic, the measure would also implement the “Keep Nevada Working Act,” establishing a task force headed by the lieutenant governor’s office and intended to generate strategies to bolster the state’s workforce and economy, including expanding pathways for immigrant workers and entrepreneurs.

The measure also requires the task force submit a report to the Legislative Counsel Bureau by July 1, 2022 with a summary of the work accomplished and recommendations for legislation.

Another section of AB376 requires the attorney general’s office publish model policies for local law enforcement agencies with the priorities of fostering trust between communities and state or local law enforcement, limit to the fullest extent legally possible interactions of state or local law enforcement with federal immigration authorities for the purpose of immigration enforcement. A subsequent section includes the limitation of immigration enforcement at public schools, colleges and universities, health care facilities and courthouses.

Various groups turned out in support of the bill, including the Nevada System of Higher Education, Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and the ACLU of Nevada.

“It's a policy failure that we have not declared legal counsel a right in immigration proceedings, and you have an opportunity to take a step forward by passing this bill and appropriating these funds to this program,” said Holly Welborn, policy director of ACLU Nevada.

The bill also saw opposition from the Nevada Sheriffs and Chiefs Association, members of the Independent American Party and the Nevada Republican Party.

Eric Spratley, speaking on behalf of the sheriffs and chiefs association, pointed to the provision in AB376 that requires the attorney general’s office provide model policies for local law enforcement agencies to adopt. He expressed frustration at the lack of a fiscal note in regards to the funds it would take for local law enforcement agencies to implement new policies.

“Each Nevada law enforcement jurisdiction is different and unique,” he said. “Law enforcement leaders across Nevada are elected or appointed by the people of that jurisdiction, and as such, their local law enforcement operations have policies which reflect how those Nevada residents want their jurisdictions to function.”

Torres clarified that local agencies are allowed to opt out of the model policies drawn up by the attorney general’s office.

“Over the recent months we've seen local law enforcement agencies asking, even in interviews in the media, for there to be model policies and expressing distress that there was no model policies. This would give the opportunity for them to create model policies and local law enforcement agencies can choose to adopt those if it's so appropriate,” she said.

AB376 has survived key legislative deadlines after it was declared exempt in April and has been significantly watered down from its original version, which focused more explicitly on curbing collaboration between local law enforcement agencies and federal immigration authorities (such as ICE).

For years, Nevada immigrants rights advocates have fought for the end of ICE detainers, practices by local law enforcement that hold undocumented immigrants for no legal reason other than to allow federal authorities to pick them up. Advocates argue this violates immigrants' constitutional rights.

A few Nevada agencies continue to participate in the 287(g) program, a formal partnership with ICE, including Nye County, but the informal practice of detaining immigrants for small infractions and flagging them on a database for federal authorities continues.

The measure must still pass through the Senate before heading to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s desk by Monday, when the session ends.

The various costs of deportation

Kagan, the UNLV Immigration Clinic director, said the $500,000 investment from the state general fund to the clinic over the biennium “might be more like $900,000 in impact,” explaining that deportation proceedings cost Nevada money and families separated by deportation end up depending on the state for more resources.

“When someone from Nevada is deported, that means that a family loses a breadwinner,” Kagan said. “That means a child loses a parent, that means that children are more likely to go into foster care, that means that schools may have additional costs for interventions to help that family, and I hope, for the sake of child safety, that is ultimately the state's responsibility and that's why it's important for us to do that work.”

When people avoid deportation and obtain legal permission to work, they can be self-sufficient and pay their taxes, he said, adding that a similar program in New York City generated $1 million in new tax revenue by expanding access to legal work permissions.

People are able to avoid deportation four out of five times, or 80 percent of the time, when they have lawyers to represent them in court, Kagan said, adding that the opposite is true as well.

“Just because they're in immigration court does not mean that people need to be deported,” he said.

The immigration clinic is the only place people facing deportation can turn to, he said, as most don’t have the means to hire a lawyer, especially unaccompanied children, who often face immigration proceedings alone. Immigration courts are civil courts, meaning that children facing deportation do not have a right to a government-appointed attorney, which is the case for criminal courts.

Kagan said unaccompanied children are the largest group of clients the clinic works with.

“Most of our child clients have been middle school or high school age but we have had clients as young as three when they first walked in the door. That's not something law school prepares you for very well, that's not a normal kind of client, but those children are victims of violence in their countries and often of child abuse as well,” he said.

With the goal to provide legal services to a growing population of people, Kagan said the funds allocated in AB376 could help propel the immigration clinic’s reach further in the long term.

“It would be the beginning of something bigger,” he said. “This is essential for the community in which we live, for our neighbors, and generally for the value that when someone's family is in jeopardy, they should not stand alone.”

Students successful in petition to cash-strapped UNR to continue funding coordinator position key to supporting immigrant students

As the daughter of immigrants who were displaced from El Salvador during the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992, being the first to attend college and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in 2015, and then earn a master’s degree, were big accomplishments for Jahahi Mazariego. 

But her moment in the sun was clouded by a family member’s pending deportation. 

“Even graduating, it wasn't the happiest moment of my life. It was actually extremely hard,” Mazariego, 28, said during an interview with The Nevada Independent.

Social work degree in hand, Mazariego set out to work with and support the immigrant community in her new career. A year after graduating, she was hired as the first social services coordinator at her alma mater, UNR, working closely with students who were undocumented or protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. 

Jahahi Mazariego poses for a portrait in Reno, Nev. on Thursday, April 29, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Mazariego connected students to resources related to basic needs, such as food or housing assistance, financial aid and scholarship assistance, case management and mental health support. 

University officials created the position in response to petitions from students in 2016 demanding more support for immigrant and undocumented students amid then-President Donald Trump’s policies seeking to eliminate DACA and Temporary Protected Status (TPS). 

There are more than 12,000 DACA recipients and more than 160,000 undocumented immigrants living in Nevada. It’s unclear how many UNR students are protected by DACA or are undocumented. 

DACA survived through a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer, and a federal judge ordered full restoration of the program in December — but it continues to face legal threats. UNR students who were unable to apply for the special immigration status protection during the Trump Administration were eligible earlier this year for the first time since 2017. 

Now, five years since students called on UNR to protect its immigrant population, Mazariego’s position is vacant as she seeks to pursue the same goal she had to support the immigrant community — this time as a licensed therapist. She said that while it may take years of effort and work to change state or federal policy, she realized there’s an opportunity to facilitate change through therapy. 

“In speaking with these students, I learned that oftentimes, we don't have control over these bigger social issues — we don't,” Mazariego said. “But what can we control? We can control how we process and how we behave because of the barriers and the disparities that we face.”

Mazariego’s absence on the UNR campus creates a void for undocumented and DACA students, leading students to once again ask the university to continue funding the position amid budget cuts caused by the pandemic and find a successor. 

In March, UNR Student Senator Dionne Stanfill created a petition to keep the position alive that received more than 1,000 signatures, and she introduced a resolution to the student government body. 

“The academic success of undocumented students is simply just as vital and important as academic success for any other students,” Stanfill said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “And this role is instrumental in accomplishing this mission.” 

In the fall of 2019, 22.4 percent of full-time undergraduate students enrolled at UNR were Latino, just shy of the 25 percent Latino enrollment requirement needed to designate it as a Hispanic Serving Institution. The designation would make UNR eligible to compete for grants through the federal government or private foundations specifically earmarked for minority-serving institutions.

Students persevere, again

A few weeks ago, UNR responded to the calls from students by posting the open job position online, solidifying efforts to continue providing resources and support to undocumented and DACA students. 

The move first had to be approved by the Nevada System of Higher Education chancellor’s office because universities and colleges are under a hiring freeze as a result of the budget cuts caused by the pandemic. 

“We look forward to filling this important position,” wrote a spokesperson for UNR President Brian Sandoval’s office in an email to The Nevada Independent.

Stanfill celebrated the university’s decision, and said it made her realize “that the student voice does matter.” 

Maria Doucettperry, director of the Equal Opportunity and Title IX office at UNR, said she is optimistic the office will have a new social services coordinator hired and trained by early summer. 

The Latino Research Center joined students in advocating for the position in 2016, and continues to stand by them. 

“As a University it is our job to identify talented individuals and foster that talent regardless of documentation status,” wrote Latino Research Center Coordinator in Education, Research and Outreach J. Diego Zarazúa in an email to The Nevada Independent.

Lessons learned and moving forward

In her four years as the first and only social services coordinator dedicated to undocumented and immigrant students at UNR, Mazariego blazed a trail for other Nevada higher education institutions, including UNLV and Truckee Meadows Ccommunity College in Reno, which also created positions dedicated to the same purpose in the last few years. 

Mazariego said that serving students and creating an infrastructure for other institutions to follow was rewarding, but it did not come without challenges. 

“When I first started as the social service coordinator, I knew it would impact me emotionally, mentally,” she said. “It was extremely harmful that I came into this role thinking that I was going to make the loss of my family member from the U.S. meaningful, like, not to see their deportation in vain.”

Her immediate family member, originally from El Salvador and also a UNR graduate, received bad legal advice from a notary as she attempted to apply for legal residency after marrying a U.S. citizen. Her petition was subsequently denied in 2015, and the U.S. barred her from coming back into the country for 10 years, splitting Mazariego’s family across the U.S.-Canada borders (her family member was granted dual citizenship in the northern country). 

Though she said she thinks the experience was generally detrimental to her mental health at the time, it also helped her to personally connect with what undocumented and DACA students were living through, too. For example, she said she could really empathize with students who would reach graduation and not have their parents or other loved ones by their side to see their accomplishments because they had been separated by deportation.

“That experience of like big life moments and graduations is something that I processed with students,” she said. “It's a common story. It happens a lot more than I think people know — that parents can't see their children graduate because of immigration policies.” 

But Mazariego said she loved being part of the students’ healing journeys and helping guide them as they learned to accept and even feel empowered in their diverse racial, cultural and sexual identities. 

“So I wasn't a therapist then, but the work that I did was therapeutic enough for people to understand their identities and their immigration status in this weird dynamic in being a student at UNR,” she said. 

For now, Mazariego is looking forward to continuing the work she’s done and expanding the ways and the people she can help as a therapist outside of the walls of UNR. 

“I really miss being in the community, I miss being back in the ‘hood, I miss being back with people that look like my mom and people that look like my abuelos and my abuelas,” said Mazariego, who grew up in Sparks in a predominantly Latino and immigrant community. 

She also thinks advocacy for support for undocumented and immigrant students shouldn’t stop with one position, but needs to continue with greater institutional and state policy changes. 

Mazariego pointed to AB213, a bill that would remove the requirement to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which requires a social security number, in order to obtain higher education scholarships, such as the Silver State Opportunity Grant. The measure would also provide in-state tuition rates to any graduate of a Nevada high school, regardless of citizenship. The bill was approved by the Assembly in early April and is pending evaluation in the Ways and Means Committee, which will review its fiscal impacts. 

“We can’t have clinical therapists, we can’t have more nurses and doctors, if we don't change this institution policy because it's so expensive to pay out-of-state tuition as a graduate student,” Mazariego said. “So, la lucha sigue, the fight still continues. And I'm hoping the next person is able to continue on with this work.” 

Will high school graduates head directly to college? Enrollment indicators paint fuzzy picture

Jordan Serna applied to a variety of colleges before whittling his list to two separated by some 2,500 miles — Cornell University and UNR.

Now, as Serna’s senior year winds down at Advanced Technologies Academy, he’s mulling a big decision in an unusual year. The pandemic thwarted campus visits. It also pushed schooling online and created some financial turbulence. His father spent three months unemployed after losing his job.

The 18-year-old knows he wants to major in computer science. The question is, where?

“You only know what you hear and what you can experience online,” he said. “That’s not the same as visiting the campus in person.”

On top of environmental factors, there are financial considerations as well. Serna was among thousands of students who applied to scholarships through the Public Education Foundation (PEF), which serves as a financial aid clearinghouse of sorts. The nonprofit administers a variety of scholarships and this year will be awarding nearly $3 million to students. 

But heading into an unconventional college recruitment and scholarship application season, there was a cloud of uncertainty. No one knew what soon-to-be high school graduates would want amid an ongoing pandemic despite signs of improvement in recent months. Leaders at PEF nervously waited to see what would transpire on both the donor and applicant side of the scholarship process.

Ultimately, about 90 percent of donors maintained their scholarships and, in fact, the pot of scholarship money available this year grew slightly, said the foundation’s president, Kirsten Searer. One of the new donors is Penn National Gaming, which launched a $1 million scholarship program for children of its employees.

The organization saw a small decrease in the number of students who applied for the scholarships, Searer said, but the number of applications submitted increased dramatically — by 39 percent. That’s because many students were submitting applications for more than one scholarship.

Last year, students applied for an average of two scholarships through PEF. That average doubled this year. Additionally, more than half of applicants are first-generation college students.

“It’s heartening because we have seen so many students who have expressed a lifelong dream of going to college and they recognize that if they put off that dream, they may never get there,” Searer said. “They want to go to college. It has been nice to watch the process this year because it’s a combination of students and donors stepping up and saying this remains a priority even while the world is uncertain.”

While the scholarship process perhaps signals an eagerness among students to proceed directly to college, other indicators paint a less-certain portrait. 

In Nevada, the number of completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms has fallen 11 percent compared with the prior academic year. Only 2 out of every 5 high school seniors statewide had completed a FAFSA form through April 9.

Students are encouraged to fill out a FAFSA form because it’s the mechanism to unlock federal grants, work-study opportunities and loans — sometimes opening their eyes to the aid that exists to make higher education more affordable.

Nevada isn’t an outlier in the dip, though. Nationally, the FAFSA completion rate is down nearly 7 percent compared with last year.

In October, the Clark County School District held a series of virtual events to spread awareness about the importance of the FAFSA and other scholarship opportunities, said Chad Gregorius, a high school counseling specialist. Somewhere between 700 and 800 families participated.

“It’s not bad,” he said. “We would have hoped for a lot more.”

Still, Gregorius cautioned against reading too much into the FAFSA numbers, which tend to increase over the summer. In other words, it’s too early to draw conclusions about students’ post-secondary plans based on that information.

Students study on an outdoor balcony at UNLV on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Steve McKellips, associate vice president for enrollment and student services at UNLV, shares that sentiment. The college recruitment process has been so atypical this year, he said, it’s difficult to predict what enrollment will look like once fall semester classes begin.

Applications are about even compared to last year, but that’s after a 6 percent increase since March 1, McKellips said. Accepted offers of admission also increased by 7 percent since then, though overall accepted offers are down a bit compared to last year.

University officials are reluctant to cite any specific reason for the volatility of the admissions cycle this year because they haven’t heard directly from students. But the springtime spike in applications and acceptances would suggest a correlation with greater COVID-19 vaccine availability and some loosening of virus-related restrictions. 

The university, for instance, has placed the following message on the top of its website:

“UNLV will resume in-person classes this fall.”

McKellips said the university has tried to be as helpful as possible to prospective students during the pandemic despite not being able to visit high schools, attend college fairs or show people around campus. He encouraged students to reach out via phone, email or social media with questions.

“If you’ve made your decision, we need you to identify that so we can tell you what needs to happen going forward so we can get everything done in time,” he said.

As for Serna, he recently received good news on the scholarship front — an award package through the Public Education Foundation totaling $11,500. If he chooses to go out of state, he would receive roughly half that amount because of geographic restrictions tied to some scholarships. 

Serna said he knows many of his friends are planning to attend either UNLV or the College of Southern Nevada. And after more than a year doing distance learning, he is relieved to hear many higher education institutions are gearing up for in-person courses again by the fall.

But he hasn’t returned any acceptance offers quite yet. He’s still weighing the pros and cons — much like students did before the pandemic complicated decisions for prospective students.

“Do I want to stay in a safer environment?” he said. “Or do I want to go out and experience something new for a lot more debt?”

Proposed economic development overhaul calls for affordable housing investment, limits on abatements

Assembly Majority Floor Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson, right, speaks with Deputy Minority Whip Robin Titus, on Friday, July 31, 2020 during the first day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City.

Economic development authorities pushed back against a bill Thursday that would limit the Governor's Office of Economic Development's suite of tax incentives and shift the office’s focus to addressing development inequalities.

AB449, sponsored by Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno), would place the office under stricter oversight, shift the focus of the office to championing “mom and pop” businesses and generate more funding for affordable housing by requiring that businesses receiving tax incentives make payments into a state fund for affordable housing.

"We have to talk about housing at the same time that we talk about economic development," Benitez-Thompson said during a presentation to the Assembly Committee on Revenue.

It’s the latest effort by Benitez-Thompson and other legislative Democrats to improve the state’s at-times criticized collection of incentives and abatements on sales and use taxes, property taxes and payroll taxes to businesses that meet certain capital investment, job creation or minimum hourly wage targets. Most of the incentive programs were set up under former Gov. Brian Sandoval, but some Democrats (and at times, Gov. Steve Sisolak) have criticized the office for being too generous with abatements.

If economic development is working, out-of-state companies relocating to Nevada will attract more people to the state, Benitez-Thompson said. But by bringing additional workers to the state, the companies also are causing “growing pains” and contributing to a housing shortage that needs to be addressed, she added.

"It makes the most sense to me to say ‘let's land some dollars [in our affordable housing trust fund] to show the world ... that Nevada has a commitment to not only grow, but to grow well,’” she said.

The bill proposes an overhaul of existing law and would:

  • Make extending tax credits and incentives permissive, not mandatory for businesses that meet certain baseline qualifications
  • Require the GOED board to consider the number of employees a company has that are on Medicaid before awarding tax incentives
  • Require approval from the GOED board for all tax incentives; currently, the director can unilaterally approve incentives up to $250,000
  • Require that businesses receiving abatements pay 10 percent of the dollar amount of the abatement for each year it is in effect toward the Housing Division's Account for Affordable Housing, which supports the preservation and construction of affordable housing in the state and is funded through a real estate transfer tax that generates anywhere from $8 to $10 million a year (but advocates say that amount barely makes a dent in the affordable housing market)

Under the legislation, money deposited into the Account for Affordable Housing would have to be used in the county where the business is located. A business that fails to make payments to the fund would have to repay the abatement it received.

Current law holds that to be eligible for a partial abatement of personal property taxes, businesses must either make a capital investment of at least $1 million in a program at UNR, UNLV or the Desert Research Institute or invest at least $500,000 in schools within the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE), along with other stipulations.

The proposed legislation also would reduce the amount of capital investment needed to be eligible for an abatement to $500,000. It also would increase the average hourly wage that must be paid to employees from at least 100 percent of the statewide average hourly wage rates, about $24.41 for all occupations in the state, to at least 110 percent — and would remove the requirement to employ a certain number of full-time employees for the duration of the abatement. 

Benitez-Thompson said she was still adjusting and workshopping the proposal in regard to capital investments.

Critics of the bill said it would make Nevada less competitive for business relocations and expansion and worried that it would benefit neighboring states such as Arizona and Utah if passed.

"The level of competition among states for new jobs right now is very high, and compared to other states, our current incentives are minimal," said Jonas Peterson, president and CEO of Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance. "We do lose deals — deals that we should win —  because our incentives are simply not competitive enough. With Southern Nevada's high unemployment, now is simply not the time to reduce any of our job creation tools."

Supporters said the bill would help balance out the billions of dollars offered to corporations as abatements or subsidies and establish a more equitable economic development policy.

"Without a significant increase in available resources, it would take our state nearly a century to catch up to the current need for affordable housing," wrote J.D. Klippenstein, the state director of the nonprofit advocacy organization Faith in Action Nevada. "We cannot continue to subsidize corporate welfare while ignoring the welfare of every day Nevadans."

The Department of Business and Industry already offers tax credits for affordable housing that are not widely utilized, countered Lynn O'Mara, spokeswoman for the Northern Nevada Development Authority. She added that the affordable housing provision is redundant and would not accomplish much.

Development authorities also fought against the inclusion of Medicaid as a factor for offering abatements to companies looking to come to the state.

"When we're talking about Medicaid, my biggest complaint is that we're not treating businesses fairly," said Derek Armstrong, Henderson's director of economic development.

Thousands of Nevada workers and their dependents receive health insurance benefits through Medicaid; an analysis by The Nevada Independent found that many of those employers were awarded tax incentives or abatements by the state prior to expanding in the state.

Benitez-Thompson said that companies with more than 500 employees on Medicaid are fobbing off high costs on the state. The bill does not set any numbers or say GOED has to follow any protocols; it only says that the office should consider Medicaid usage.

"There's concern that the sky will fall and everything will dry up and go away," she said. "I don't think that's true."

The bill was heard for the first time on Thursday, but the committee did not take any action on the legislation. Friday marks the deadline for bills to pass out of their first committee.

Proponents of free college for Nevada Native students say it will right historical wrongs, strengthen tribes

Before white settlers arrived in the state, the Washoe and Paiute people lived along and north of the Truckee River, in the area that is now downtown Reno.

It’s also now home to the UNR campus, which stretches across 290 acres and is scattered with red-brick buildings, tree-lined sidewalks and grassy blocks where students relax or work on assignments between classes.

The history of the state’s flagship university is intertwined with the dispossession of the Washoe and Paiute Indigenous land and the displacement of its people as the state’s only land-grant university. Founded in 1874, UNR was funded by the Morrill Act, which turned Indigenous lands into colleges across the country meant to focus training in agriculture, science and engineering in the 1860s and later again in the 1990s. Federal or state governments often repossessed the land by force. 

Tribal leaders pointed to this history earlier this week during a legislative hearing in the Assembly Committee on Education as they testified in support of AB262, which would waive tuition and fees at Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) institutions, including two-year and four-year schools, for citizens of the state’s 27 tribes. It also would provide in-state tuition for citizens of federally recognized tribes outside of Nevada. 

“It seems really ironic and strange that we have to petition the institutions for access, when these institutions are built on the blood and bones of our people,” Brian Melendez said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “It’s a fair ask.”

Brian and Teresa Melendez of the Nevada Native Vote Project on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020 at the University of Nevada, Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Melendez, a member of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony of Northern Paiute, Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone descent, worked with lawmakers to craft the bill, along with other tribal leaders including his uncle and Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez.

The chairman told committee members that tribal governments strongly support the bill in the hopes that having greater access to a higher education can economically enrich Native communities. 

“It will also strengthen our tribal communities with a skilled workforce which in turn would greatly enhance our tribal government sovereignty, our tribal economies and our tribal culture. When tribal nations are strong, then the state of Nevada is strong also,” Arlan Melendez said. 

Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Sparks), a primary sponsor of the bill, presented it Thursday.

“We need to do something as a state if we're going to start to recognize the importance that this community has had for us,” Anderson said. 

NSHE Budget Director Julia Teska said that institutions may see a financial impact, specifically a loss in out-of-state tuition, but that NSHE cannot determine the amount because it would depend on how many students meet the criteria and which institutions they choose to enroll in. 

In 2018 and 2019, Native American students at four-year NSHE institutions had the lowest graduation rate of any other demographic at 25 and 22 percent, respectively. The low graduation rates are compounded by other factors, such as higher-than-average poverty and unemployment rates across Native reservations.  

“We're looking at this process of trying to get our communities out of these disparities, trying to get our people out of these socioeconomic strongholds, in trying to bring them into places of prosperity,” Brian Melendez said. “And the only way that we've been able to do that is through education.”

Blood quantum and who counts

The bill’s text includes citizens of federally recognized tribes, but also those who “are certified by such a tribe or nation as being of at least one-quarter Indian blood.” 

Blood quantum refers to the level of blood the U.S. government required a Native person to have in order to enroll as a citizen of a tribal nation. Native people are the only demographic in the U.S. who have to prove to the federal government that they belong to their respective group. 

Additionally, Native people’s identity regularly gets mistaken for a racial or ethnic one. It is actually a political identity, hence the sovereign authority of tribal nations. Nowadays, tribes independently and individually decide how to determine citizenship, just as the U.S. government does. 

Depending on how strict the tribe is on citizenship requirements, some Native people who have descendancy from multiple tribes may not meet the blood quantum levels necessary to be considered a citizen for one specific tribe.

Brian Melendez said the bill language about blood quantum was included as a result of consultation with various tribal leaders who recognized the complex system of tribal enrollment could cause some Native students to be left out of the measure. 

“What that provision is in there for is to provide services to that base of tribal individual, that phenotype that we know is out there and perpetually just doesn't get services,” he said. 

Building generational wealth through education

Myrton Running Wolf, associate professor of race and media at UNR, is one of the university’s two Native professors. Running Wolf, who is of Blackfeet descent, said the university faces a Native student enrollment crisis, with only three new incoming Native students this year, down from 18 last year. He sees AB262 as a way for Nevada colleges to not only invest in and support the Native population, but also to develop a greater relationship to the state's tribal nations.

“This shows, in a real way, a real investment in the health and the wellbeing of our tribal communities and their children, specifically their children,” Running Wolf said in an interview with The Nevada Independent.

Native students account for less than one percent of the student body at both UNR and UNLV. From 2017 to 2018, Native students were 0.8 percent of the UNR student body, and in the fall semester of last year, Native students were 0.3 percent of the UNLV student body. 

Native people account for 1.7 percent of the state population. 

Many who testified in support of the bill during the hearing pointed to financial struggles as the greatest obstacle to building the numbers of Native students at Nevada colleges and universities. 

“I want to debunk the myth that being enrolled in a tribe automatically yields a free education. It does not. While I had some tuition assistance, I still graduated in 2003 with over $70,000 in student debt,” said former Assemblywoman and Cherokee Nation member Shea Backus, who is a graduate of Arizona State University’s law school. 

UNLV student and Walker River Paiute Tribe member Ryan Boone said that in addition to being a full-time student, he is currently working two jobs and searching for a third in order to help his mother with utility bills, his own car payments and the increasing costs of tuition. 

“This tuition waiver would sustain our education for generations to come,” Boone said. 

Boone added that his friends, who are also Indigenous students, have considered dropping out “because of the stress of lingering debt paired with unjustifiable lack of support,” and that his own sister dropped out of UNLV as she was pursuing a path to veterinary school. 

“What I hope for and long to see is myself and my Native peers graduating and going back to our communities to support and uplift,” Boone said. 

Many of the bill proponents expressed providing greater access to higher education for Native students as a moral imperative for the state. 

“This issue is beyond partisan perspective, this is a matter of morality, this is a matter of educational justice,” said Brian Melendez.

Freshman Orientation: Assemblywoman Clara "Claire" Thomas

As in sessions past, The Nevada Independent is publishing a series of profiles featuring new state lawmakers. This is the thirteenth installment in the series. Check out our other profiles for additional stories on new legislators' backgrounds, interests and policy positions.

  • Freshman Democrat who succeeds Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson (D-North Las Vegas), a four-term assemblyman and longtime education advocate who passed away while in office in 2019
  • Represents District 17, located in North Las Vegas
  • District 17 leaned heavily Democratic (48 percent Democratic, 21 percent Republican and 25 percent nonpartisan) in the 2020 election
  • Thomas ran unopposed in the 2020 Democratic primary and then defeated Republican Jack Polcyn in the general election with 66.2 percent of the vote.
  • She will sit on the Government Affairs, Health and Human Services and Legislative Operations and Elections committees.

FAMILY AND EDUCATION

Thomas came to Southern Nevada in 1982 while she was serving in the Air Force as an air traffic controller. After 20 years of service, she retired and decided to settle in Las Vegas. Thomas then pursued higher education, working two jobs to put herself through school and raise her two children. 

Thomas holds an associate's degree from the College of Southern Nevada and earned a bachelor's in psychology and then a master's in public administration from UNLV. In her free time, she enjoys babysitting and spoiling her grandchildren.

CAREER

An Air Force veteran, Thomas now works as a court clerk in the Clark County district attorney's office and is a member of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 1107. 

Assembly members Cameron (C.H.) Miller, left, and Clara "Claire" Thomas on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

PROFILE

When Thunderbirds fly across the sky, jet streams trailing behind, Thomas said she feels a sense of pride, duty, excitement and hope.

A retired air traffic controller with the Air Force, Thomas said that the feeling of watching Thunderbird flyovers is how she describes the feeling of the start of the 81st legislative session as a first-time lawmaker. 

Thomas never intended to run for political office. She loved spending time with her grandchildren, working as a member of several Democratic Party groups and as a volunteer with various organizations, including the Rape Crisis Center of Southern Nevada.

But that all changed after Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson unexpectedly passed away during the 2019 legislative session.

Suddenly, a larger-than-life figure who supported legislation prioritizing education, homeless people and veterans was gone, leaving behind a gaping hole that needed to be filled, Thomas said.

"He was promoting all of these things, making us aware and bringing everything to the forefront, especially education … I was extremely concerned," she said.

Thomas said she hoped that someone would run to fill the empty seat, but after a few months of waiting and asking leadership whether someone had decided to run, the answer remained the same: no one was coming forward.

"I was like ... if no one steps up, I'd like to step up. And from that point, I threw my hat in the ring," Thomas said.

Though there are many areas that Thomas wants to focus on, she said she is prioritizing health care, education and veteran’s affairs.

"I'm a vet of 20 years, and I think that it's important for us to pay back our veterans," Thomas said. "I work around the courthouse and to see the homelessness and knowing that a lot of them are vets — breaks my heart."

With ongoing discrimination and educational disparities based on race or socioeconomic status, Thomas said she also wants to create a better future for her grandchildren and other young people and be part of a state that is setting a historic precedent.

"We're making a name for ourselves, this little state that people took for granted," Thomas said. "We elected the first Latina senator ... Cortez Masto. Jacky Rosen. It's Susie Lee, Dina Titus .... women that are going forward and making our country what it should be."

To create effective change, Thomas said she and other legislators are going to have to work together.

"I'm one of those believers that in order to get anything done, you actually have to have a cohesive group," Thomas said. "Everyone doesn't believe the same thing, but as far as our politics is concerned, we have different religions, we have different ways of raising a family, but collectively we come together for the betterment of a group.”

One of Thomas's favorite areas of study is history because it holds lessons for the present moment. She said that she is looking forward to bringing her expertise and knowledge to the table, learning from other more experienced legislators and making decisions to help the state.

"I'm just excited to be there and to work and to just forge ahead and make things better for people that are in dire need right now because we have a lot of people that are in dire need."

Assemblywomen Clara "Claire" Thomas, left and Daniele Monroe-Moreno during the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

ON THE ISSUES

Early childhood education

One of Thomas's priorities is increasing access to early childhood and pre-kindergarten education. 

"I believe in early education. And my group of kids that I adore are from the ages of two and four, because they are like sponges and they tell you what's on their mind because they don't know any different, they only know truth," Thomas said. "And I love that."

Affluent families can afford to give their children early educational opportunities. Children from lower-income families often do not have access to that and are therefore disadvantaged before school even begins, Thomas said.

"Our children deserve no less [than early education]," Thomas said. "Every child in every state of the union deserves to be educated and be competitive because as time goes by, we need to be competitive with the rest of the world. Just that simple."

Criminal justice reform

Thomas said she remembers teaching her son what to do if a police officer approached him, warning him that if an officer ever told him to do a jumping jack, then he was going to do a jumping jack.

"Why am I telling my son that? Why am I feeling that my son, when he goes out, that he has to be more compliant to an officer … why is he different?" Thomas said.

Though she did not discuss any specific reform measures, Thomas said she is following legislation around criminal justice reform and looking for ways to increase equality.

Election reform

Thomas applauded the state's ability to increase access to voting and successfully carry out an election amid a pandemic.

"We had a record number of people voting in the state. That's something that's great," Thomas said. "We had young people, 18, voting, out there getting their family members to vote who never vote."

She said that claims of voter fraud have not been supported in court and using mail-in voting increased people's opportunities to participate.

"That's something that we should have been doing for years and being a military member, we voted that way … so why was that fraudulent? It wasn't," Thomas said. "I'm proud of the fact that Nevada's secretary of state, who's a Republican, just embraced that, our local leaders embraced it and we made it work."

Freshman Orientation: Assemblywoman Elaine Marzola

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

  • Freshman Democrat replacing former Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo (D-Las Vegas), who left his seat to mount an unsuccessful bid for Nevada Supreme Court.
  • Represents District 21, which is between Henderson and Enterprise and includes Silverado Ranch 
  • District 21 leans Democratic (37 percent Democratic, 31 percent Republican and 25 percent nonpartisan in the 2020 election)
  • Marzola won the two-way Democratic primary for her district by securing 70.6 percent of the vote and then narrowly defeated Republican Cherlyn Arrington in the general election with 52 percent of the vote.
  • She sits on the Commerce and Labor, Education and Judiciary committees

FAMILY AND EDUCATION

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Marzola immigrated with her family to Las Vegas in 1984. She has twin brothers who both served in the Marine Corps, and her son is a medical student at UNR.

Marzola earned her B.A. from UNLV and graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School at Western Michigan University in Lansing, Michigan. A single mother, Marzola says her son made the higher education journey with her.

CAREER

During her undergraduate studies, Marzola worked for SafeNest Domestic Violence Shelter. After graduating from law school, she worked as a judicial law clerk. The assemblywoman is now the managing attorney and owner of her law practice, Marzola Injury Law.

PROFILE

When she’s not working or spending time with family, Marzola said she likes to crank up the music and dance.

“I am Brazilian,” she said with a laugh. “Looking at now, there’s not [anywhere to go]. I dance in my living room. When I want to let off some steam I put music on … I appreciate even having the opportunity to still be able to dance.”

Marzola, who describes herself as hardworking and dedicated, said her fun side tends to come out around family and friends.

“My son would say, ‘my mom thinks she’s funny,’” she said.

While Marzola said her love of boisterous music and dancing can seem incongruous with her studious side, it’s all connected to her passion.

Marzola decided in fourth grade that she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up.

But, as the first in her family to graduate from college and a single mother, her journey to practicing law was far from straightforward.

"I took many detours. I had my son when I was young and so had to experience that and putting myself through school as a single mom is very tough," Marzola said. "I've always been focused … whatever dream is in my mind, I just work really hard at it."

The daughter of Brazilian immigrants, Marzola came to Las Vegas when she was ten years old. She said her work ethic, which she attributes to her ability to complete law school, stems in part from watching her parents live paycheck-to-paycheck and establish themselves in an unfamiliar city.

Marzola said classmates would bully her in school, and people would make derogatory statements to her father when they heard his heavy accent. The experience frustrated her.

"I wish that people would just understand that people don't come to this country to take advantage or to use the system. They come here for a better life," Marzola said. "We came here with the clothes on our backs. Nothing else."

Becoming a lawyer was a way for her to give back to her family and the community that supported her, she said. That was the same reason she chose to pursue public office.

"I always knew I wanted to run, always knew that I wanted to serve the community," Marzola said. "The seat came open, and it was just perfect timing."

Though Marzola went to law school in another state, she said there was no question about where she wanted to settle.

"This has always been my home," Marzola said. "My family is in Vegas and just our roots are in Las Vegas. If I'm going to give back to the community, I wanted to be in Las Vegas. I want it to be in Nevada."

She said she is grateful her son got to see her graduate from UNLV and from law school, and she wants to increase educational opportunities for others.

"Education is very, very important to me," Marzola said.

Along with education, the assemblywoman said she is focusing on improving health care and helping small businesses get the support they need. The pandemic has been difficult for everyone, and Marzola said she is excited to find a way to ease the burden on working families and those hit hardest.

"So much needs to be done. Nevada needs so much help and assistance and I'm just ready to get the ball rolling," Marzola said.

On the issues

Election integrity

There is no evidence of election fraud and accusations of a rigged voting system in the 2020 elections are baseless, Marzola said.

“File a lawsuit when it's valid,” she said. “But if you don't have any proof, if you're just grasping for things, and you're taking up the court's time and you're suing these people and you're wasting their time, you're not respecting our justice system. You're not respecting our courts, our voters, our judges.”

Electric vehicle use

As the state looks to reduce its carbon footprint, Marzola said that government officials should consider incorporating electric vehicles into the public sector.

Using electric delivery trucks and moving toward electric buses could be a way to reduce gas consumption, the assemblywoman said. One example of this is the City of Austin’s decision to shift to more environmentally friendly vehicles. 

“I don’t want to say anything specifically … but I think that would help a lot,” Marzola said.

Education

One of Marzola’s goals is to make it so that students and teachers can safely return to school, especially during a time when studies have shown that students are falling behind.

“Getting them back safe, so that there are no health issues and we're not putting their welfare at risk. So that's very important to me,” Marzola said.