What Happened Here: A company town turned ghost town during the COVID shutdown starts to rebuild

The vehicles streamed into the pickup lines on a recent Monday, some with popped trunks awaiting cargo.

In a North Las Vegas parking lot, they inched toward a white tent, where workers loaded brown boxes and white plastic bags filled with food into cars, trucks and SUVs. The assembly line-like operation outside the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas popped up in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown to help thousands of furloughed workers put food on the table.

A year later, it hasn’t stopped. Instead, the Culinary Academy expanded and began allowing all community members to access the roughly 40-pound batch of fruits, vegetables, grains and meat — complete with recipe cards — designed to feed families.

As of early March, the food assistance program had donated 11.5 million pounds of groceries, or the equivalent of about 35 million meals. On any given week about 6,000 to 8,000 vehicles roll through the drive-through-style line, and that figure doesn’t include deliveries made directly to those in need who cannot leave their homes or food distributed at smaller pop-up sties.

“I can tell you that the lines aren’t getting any shorter at all,” said Mark Scott, chief executive officer of the Culinary Academy. “...This past year is really a hole fairly wide and fairly deep for people, and it’s going to be a long time before people are able to dig out.”

But across town another pickup line was seeing equal, if not greater, activity —  the passenger pickup area at McCarran International Airport. Hordes of flight-weary travelers, some donning face masks, scanned the line of cars as horns honked and doors opened and shut. 

A year ago, this was not the case. The normal hustle and bustle of a busy airport had been swiftly replaced by an eerie quiet.

Now, the two pickup lines — separated by miles and purpose — nod to the region’s hopeful but challenged circumstances. 

Nevada is, once again, healing, just as it did after the tourism industry was rocked by 9/11, the Great Recession and 1 October. Vaccination numbers are climbing, case numbers and hospitalizations remain relatively low and spring has brought forth not just tourists but an increasing sense of optimism about the future.

But the truth is Nevada’s healing has only ever been surface deep, its wounds still raw beneath and ready to break open at even the slightest injury. 

Amid all the talk of economic diversification over the last decade, experts say Nevada has failed to invest in the necessary level of change to build a more stable economy. The memories of past economic devastation often quickly fade as Nevada once again returns to boom times and trusts the glittering lights of the Las Vegas Strip to save it.

Some would say Nevada’s close relationship with business is what gives the state an edge. When Nevada struggled to secure necessary supplies for hospitals in the early days of the pandemic, for instance, gaming and mining companies donated millions of pieces of personal protective equipment, money and other resources through the governor’s private-sector COVID task force.

But Nevada’s reliance on industry to save the day has also time and time again left the state dependent and vulnerable. At first it was mining, an industry so valuable, and powerful, that it was granted a special, favorable taxation structure when the state’s Constitution was written in 1864. 

Then it was the casinos, who have so wholeheartedly opposed industry-specific taxes that they have gone so far as to support a widespread tax increase that would equally affect all larger businesses in Nevada. There was Tesla, Faraday Future, the Raiders and, now, Blockchains, all enterprises touted as the state’s next economic cure-all.

In its nearly 157-year history, Nevada has been unable to shrug off being a company town. This time, it’s put the state in the impossible position of choosing between saving its residents from COVID or financial devastation. 

Now, the question is whether, as the lights on the Las Vegas Strip grow brighter, Nevada will once again be drawn like a moth to flame or whether it will truly diversify its economy while fixing a long-ailing unemployment system. The question is what the future holds for Nevada’s workers — many of them workers of color — who are the lifeblood of the economy and the first ones to suffer when good times turn bad.

The question is whether history will once again repeat itself.

The shutdown was swift.

Six hours after Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on March 17 that nonessential businesses would be required to shut their doors to halt COVID-19’s advance on the state, all gambling activity statewide ceased. It was the first time Nevada’s lucrative gaming industry had been prohibited from operating since gambling was legalized statewide in 1931.

Other quintessential Nevada businesses, including strip clubs and brothels, and other everyday establishments, such as salons, gyms and malls, were given an extra 12 hours to wind down their businesses.

The decision hadn’t come as a shock to gaming establishments, many of which had been on multiple calls with the governor leading up to the decision and some of which had already been making plans to shutter operations in light of canceled bookings and an increasingly bleak future for the tourism industry. Billy Vassiliadis, longtime Las Vegas adman, estimated there was 80 to 90 percent agreement among the resorts by the time the governor made his decision that the shutdown had to happen.

Plus, some casino operators saw what was happening half a world away and started preparing. Casinos in Macao shut down for 15 days in February last year.

“I think we could see that it was going to be a very serious matter and definitely going to affect operations based on what we had seen happen in Macao,” said Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association. “But I don't think anyone knew just how big an impact there was going to be or that there would be extended closures.”

More than six months earlier, the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) had carried out “economic cycle planning,” preparations that recognized a 10-year streak of economic growth would inevitably come to an end and unemployment would grow. But the domino of casino closure announcements was ominous for then-director Tiffany Tyler-Garner.

“Over time, there's this growing concern of ‘oh my gosh, yet another employer is indicating that they're putting folks on leave’ … and that all those tens or hundreds, or whatever size those businesses were, were headed our way,” she said.

The prospect of shutting down the gaming industry was more complex than it perhaps appeared from the outside. For starters, some casinos scrambled to find padlocks to secure their entryways. Locks, as it turns out, were not a standard feature in the 24-hour establishments.

Casinos also had to quickly devise plans for counting and safely storing cash, either on site or transferring via armored trucks to banks. Sandra Douglass Morgan, former chair of the Gaming Control Board, said regulators were fielding call after call from casino operators who wanted to ensure they were in compliance with all the logistical and accounting matters. At the same time, gaming properties were handling people-centric problems, such as notifying and accommodating hotel guests and standing up employee assistance programs for the wave of people facing sudden furloughs.

“If we had to do it all over again, obviously we would have said, ‘Okay, you have a week to close,’ to make sure all that information was put into place, but we didn’t at the time,” Morgan said. “But everyone was very understanding.”

State officials within the Department of Business and Industry, meanwhile, scrambled to help other businesses figure out whether they were considered essential and, therefore, whether they were required to shut down. The initial list of essential businesses Sisolak announced could remain open was specific, if incomplete: Grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, hardware stores, truck stops, daycares, gas stations and health facilities.

That left the rest of the non-casino businesses in somewhat of a grey area. Workers at the Tesla Gigafactory, Allegiant Stadium and several marijuana dispensaries reported for work as usual on March 18, unclear whether their employers would be sending them home at noon.

Clarification came that afternoon — an hour after businesses were supposed to close — in the form of a “Risk Mitigation Initiative” document, which outlined 20 essential services and sectors. Among them were ones the governor hadn’t mentioned the previous night, including veterinarian services and pet stores, laundromats and dry cleaners, and auto repair services. Construction and mining businesses were, separately, granted permission to remain open as well.

But, at the time, there was little to no federal guidance about how essential businesses ought to remain open safely to protect themselves, their workers and their customers. So, state officials hurried to come up with their own guidelines. Terry Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state ended up being about two or three weeks ahead of the federal Department of Labor in the guidance it released for Nevada businesses and employees.

“Businesses can’t wait three weeks,” Reynolds said. “They need to know what they need to know quickly.”

Some of the issues state officials grappled with included how to keep small banks, which were legally required to stay open during the shutdown, running when their employees fell ill, and how to help restaurants safely pivot to a takeout model as dine-in operations closed. Reynolds said some restaurants were able to successfully shift their operations.

“Others did not shift very well,” he added. “It was very unfortunate because I think a lot of those may not come back at all.”

Echo & Rig, a popular steakhouse near Summerlin, saw a massive uptick in customers visiting its on-site butcher shop during the initial shutdown period when only takeout was allowed, chef and owner Sam Marvin said. But that alone didn’t spare the restaurant from feeling the sting of no in-person dining. 

At least half the Las Vegas restaurant’s employees were furloughed, and Marvin said a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established early on in the pandemic to help small businesses make payroll, “made the difference in us surviving or not surviving.”

The restaurateur doesn’t hold a grudge against state officials. Compared with California, where he operates two restaurants, Nevada gave a much earlier green light to some in-person dining when the state started to reopen. Because of all the uncertainty surrounding the virus initially, Marvin said he didn’t disagree with the shutdown, though he acknowledges his opinion may differ from others in the restaurant industry who couldn’t hang on financially.

“How can you disagree if you don’t know better?” he said. “Better safe than sorry.”

Echo & Rig’s furloughed employees were just a small slice of the hundreds of thousands of employees who lost their jobs almost overnight, pushing Nevada unemployment to levels worse than those seen during the Great Depression. In April, more than 28 percent of Nevadans were unemployed, up from 3.6 percent in February.

Those hundreds of thousands of newly jobless Nevadans quickly overwhelmed the state’s unemployment system, which was accustomed to handling about 2,500 initial claims a week but received more than 92,000 as the shutdown began. In the past year, half a million Nevadans have collected at least one week of unemployment benefits out of a workforce of 1.5 million, and the agency has received nearly two million initial applications for benefits.

“We were in response mode, without knowing exactly what the floor or ceiling would be,” Tyler-Garner said.

DETR’s problems were numerous, including a staff that had atrophied over the past decade as the federal government drew down funding. Issues as small as a vacation payout to a claimant would trigger “adjudication,” or an analytical review, but Tyler-Garner estimates only about seven people in the agency were qualified to manage that step when the crisis hit, for example.

Early on, the federal government answered pleas to support gig workers ineligible for traditional unemployment by creating the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, but Nevada officials feared that adding PUA programming into the brittle system processing traditional claims would crash it and cut off claimants already receiving benefits. They bought a separate software product to administer PUA in the name of speed and IT stability, but it created a bifurcated system that bedevils claimants to this day.

Mike Powers, a guitarist who worked for a talent agency that dispatches musicians for gigs ranging from conventions to sidewalk entertainment, is one of them. From the first day he applied to PUA, the system flagged his Social Security number as tied to another existing claim, and he believes he’s stuck in limbo a year later because someone in California filed a fraudulent application in his name. 

Every day is a financial emergency, he says, but he holds out hope that he’ll someday emerge from the Byzantine system and claim the tens of thousands of dollars he believes he’s owed.

“I would hate to think that I was so close to solving the riddle and then, you know, it did not happen,” he said. 

Much of the messaging from Sisolak early on was about the public health crisis at hand and flattening the curve of what was at the time an unknown and deadly virus. But to the quarter of Nevadans who were unemployed and struggling to wend their way through the bureaucratic nightmare that was the state’s unemployment system, it often felt like they were being left behind.

Joshua Meltzer, 29, worked as a singing gondolier at the Venetian and switched to the business side of live entertainment just before the pandemic hit. But a year later, he hasn’t been paid unemployment, and after months of trying to make it with the help of friends, he left the state for Minnesota and is working a clerical job to make ends meet.  

He described the last year as a financial, emotional, philosophical and spiritual crisis all rolled into one. He’s always seen government as a force for great good, but its inability to help him has challenged that belief.

“I feel betrayed, in a way, by Nevada, which has been a place of … rejuvenation,” he said. “If that community doesn't take care of its own in crisis, I don't know if that can be my long term home anymore.”

Claimants have also criticized elected officials’ handling of the situation, from the governor failing to mention the unemployed in certain press conferences to formulaic responses when claimants poured out their hearts in desperate emails to their congressional representatives.

“The best thing you can do is just listen better and realize that there are people that are truly hurting,” Powers said. 

Reflecting back on his public communications to unemployed Nevadans, Sisolak said he “tried to speak to their plight.” He also said he wishes the state had an “army of people” to quickly work through the hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims that poured in, noting it can take up to an hour for a state worker to process some of the more complex claims.

But, mostly, he blamed yearslong underfunding and neglect of the state’s unemployment system. During a period of record low unemployment in 2019, DETR told lawmakers that after years of successive budget cuts, it was struggling to handle its call volume and expected to be able to handle only 2,800 phone calls a week in 2020.  

During the pandemic, a single claimant from Dayton reported calling DETR 2,200 times during a two-week period in April, and many others reported placing hundreds of fruitless calls a day.

“You've got a system that was basically ignored session after session after session,” Sisolak said. “Then when suddenly you're hit with a pandemic that you get claims that are 20, 25 times what you are normally getting, no system is going to work under that situation.”

To make matters worse, state officials were also tasked with sifting fraudulent claims from the legitimate ones. While DETR hasn’t quantified how many illegitimate claims were approved and how much the state paid out on those claims, they estimate they prevented billions of dollars of fraudulent payouts through blocking payment on hundreds of thousands of claims on which they couldn’t verify identity.

As of March 4, DETR reported there were 306,632 claims with pending identity issues that are suspected to be fraudulent. At least another 437,000 PUA claims were denied over identity verification issues in two rounds of mass disqualifications last year.

“The amount of fraud that was happening was unconscionable,” Sisolak said. 

But a focus on fraud has had unintended consequences for claimants. Amber Hansen, an administrator of a popular Facebook group for PUA claimants, said it casts a stigma on PUA applicants “that we’re fraudulent … some of us are inherently bad.”

“We still do have people that have eligible claims, and that need to be helped,” she said. “We have to kind of move off that issue.”

Jason Guinasso, a Reno attorney who studied DETR’s backlog as a court-appointed special master last year, said the unemployment agency has erred too much on the side of trying to control fraud, and is making policy “based on the exception, not the rule.” He compared it to a department store assuming all its customers showed up to steal.

“Imagine if they ran their store based on trying to stop shrinkage, and that's all they cared about,” he said. “Your experience going to Macy's to buy a dress would be a lot different than it would be if they were running their store to cater to the majority of people [who] are not there to steal.”

The governor praised the staff at DETR, which increased the number of people working on unemployment issues threefold by January and had many staffers working overtime to process unemployment claims under immense pressure, scrutiny and even threats, including to the director of the department. But he also acknowledged the state’s shortcomings.

“Could we have done a better job? Certainly we could have done a better job,” Sisolak said. 

As spring pushed toward summer and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 started to decline, the number of people unemployed because of COVID-19 creeped higher. Pressure mounted on Sisolak to start reopening the state’s economy. Leaders in some local jurisdictions signaled they weren’t going to wait for the governor’s lead, touting their own plans for reopening.

At the end of April, Sisolak announced the state would begin an “active transition” toward reopening that would start with some of the safest businesses, including indoor retail spaces, before progressing to the riskier establishments, such as casinos. At the time, he credited Nevadans’ “incredible discipline” in halting the spread of the virus.

The casinos had a model for reopening: Macao. Casinos in the special administrative region in China had already opened their doors again. But when they did, it was with significant capacity limits, social distancing at table games and slot machines, temperature checks and face masks. Resorts in Las Vegas could essentially take the Macao playbook, make a few adjustments for scale, and put it into practice.

Casino floors — known for their winding paths that keep gamblers wandering and shoving money into slot machines — would have considerably more elbow room. The Gaming Control Board issued a policy document in May spelling out some of the new rules of the trade.

Table games now have player limits: six people for craps, three for blackjack, four at roulette and poker tables. Some slot machines, meanwhile, were placed in an extended hibernation to make way for social distancing. Conversations also occurred around how to disinfect gaming chips without compromising their integrity.

And then there was the human aspect.

The Culinary Union lobbied hard for the approval of SB4 during a special legislative session last summer. The bill, which passed and was signed into law by the governor, shields many Nevada businesses from frivolous lawsuits related to COVID-19 — but only if the companies adhere to the strict, government-imposed health and safety protocols that prevent spread of the virus. Union officials pushed for the measure in honor of Adolfo Fernandez, a utility porter at Caesars Palace who died in June after falling ill with COVID-19.

Despite the bill’s passage, the union wants to see more done to protect hospitality workers, many of them on the front line interacting with people who have traveled to Las Vegas. D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, the parent organization of the Culinary Union, said he was unhappy that food service and hospitality workers weren’t prioritized higher up in the state’s vaccination schedule. Casino workers in Clark County did not become eligible for vaccines until Thursday. 

He framed it as both a safety and equity issue.

“Who are workers on the frontlines?” he said, referring to the union’s membership. “They’re predominantly female and people of color.”

For Las Vegas, as a tourist destination, the focus was not only on safety but how to effectively communicate to tourists how seriously the industry was taking precautions. This wasn’t the first time the city had to pivot its branding strategy. In the years after 9/11, the “What happens here, stays here” slogan was born. In the wake of 1 October, it was, “#VegasStrong” and a message of resilience.

But the city had never had to market itself in the middle of an ongoing public health crisis. In the weeks before casinos reopened, cases had been fluctuating. In early June, right around when casinos opened, cases started to climb.

"This one, you didn't know where we were going,” said Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, the ad agency for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It was like we were in this abyss, making decisions and consulting with folks with daily information that was fuzzy at best.”

The message Las Vegas ended up adopting was one that balanced safety with freedom. A weekend in Las Vegas, even with masks and social distancing, was still a lot more fun than a weekend stuck at home ordering DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats.

“We didn't need to have the old Las Vegas for them to feel free,” Vassiliadis said. “They just needed more freedom than the restrictions they had been living under for the previous three months.”

There was just one catch: Sisolak didn’t announce a statewide mask mandate until 20 days after casinos reopened. While employees were wearing masks, it was up to casino patrons whether to don that extra layer of protection. In mid-June, the Gaming Control Board issued an industry notice that required patrons to wear face masks at table games if there was no barrier or shield separating the players and dealers.

Even Caesar himself — the statue version, that is —  wore a giant mask in a bid to encourage others to follow suit. By the second week casinos were open, Morgan, then the state’s chief gaming regulator, said it was clear many people weren’t heeding that advice.

“It was harder for casino staff to tell people to wear masks if it wasn't mandated,” she said.

The governor’s order, issued on June 24, turned the option into a requirement. But controversy surrounding the decision spilled into gaming properties where some security officers suffered injuries after upset guests lashed out when told to wear a mask, Morgan said.

“No one should have bodily harm being threatened because you’re just doing your job telling people to comply with the mask mandate,” she said.

Pre-opening visitor surveys showed it was a “much younger and more rambunctious crowd” that was eager to return to Las Vegas, Vassiliadis said. And those surveys were borne out in reality: The crowd that first returned to Las Vegas was made up of younger, healthier people who were less concerned about contracting the virus and more concerned about busting loose after months of quarantine, and low room rates meant that some of Las Vegas’s top properties were now affordable for younger people, particularly if they stayed two or three to a room.

In the wake of its reopening, Las Vegas saw fights, shootings and stabbings on the Las Vegas Strip. In response, resorts stepped up their security and the Las Vegas Metro Police Department increased its police patrols.

“Underscoring that's not tolerated here to a lot of those visitors, I think, changed the situation rather quickly,” Vassiliadis said. “I don't think we suffered any kind of reputational long-term hit. I know we haven’t.”

At the state level, the governor’s office sought to convey to surrounding Western states the tightrope Nevada was walking by trying to balance the state’s economic and public health needs. In some ways, Nevada needed the buy-in of surrounding states so that they would keep sending their residents to Las Vegas and not blacklist the state through a travel advisory.

Michelle White, Sisolak’s chief of staff, recalled having “candid, open conversations” with other members of the Western States Pact, a compact established early on in the pandemic between Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, about Nevada’s difficult situation.

“We have states around us who I think were exceptional in understanding the situation that we were in … and genuinely were rooting for us to be OK,” White said. “Being able to explain that to folks and talk through that I think was really, really helpful in our efforts.”

Still, at one point in early December, California — which is home to 1 in 5 visitors to Las Vegas — issued a travel advisory encouraging residents to avoid nonessential travel to other states; it was a little less a month after Sisolak had encouraged visitors to continue traveling to the state even as cases surged in Nevada.

“If there were times where [Western states] said, ‘You know, we're concerned for our residents in a surge and so we're going to require quarantine,’ that’s an acceptable, reasonable thing to do for other leaders who are concerned about their residents. The way it was discussed, at least, was never about in response to Nevada directly,” White said. “It was more of, ‘This is a step we're going to take, this is another mitigation measure we're going to take to try to slow the spread and the surge.’”

For other businesses, reopening would bring with it a host of questions: Would employees have to wear masks? Could they hold meetings in person? What happens if an employee tests positive for COVID-19? There were also industry-specific considerations. How should salons disinfect their equipment? Could movie theaters open their snack bars? Would vehicles need to be sanitized at car dealerships between test drives?

To answer those questions and more, the state authored a series of reopening guidelines. Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state got feedback on reopening plans from a number of different industries, from the Retail Association of Nevada to the REALTORS.

“In most cases, they were extremely helpful in terms of giving us perspective on what to look at and what can be done to keep things going and what we needed to do, how we need to approach things in concert with the medical advice that we got,” Reynolds said.

But businesses had to make adjustments beyond those required by the state to stay financially afloat as they reopened under strict capacity limits. Echo & Rig, for instance, added more seating in a second patio area that had previously been largely unused and trimmed its menu — from 60 to 42 items — as a cost-containment measure. 

Some menu items went up in price as well to balance the ripple-effect felt throughout the supply chain. Restaurants are still dealing with changes in where they’re able to source certain food items, he said. Some of their beloved vendors went out of business.

Marvin, the restaurant's owner, was pleasantly surprised by the number of people willing to venture out and dine at Echo & Rig once it opened its doors. He’s hopeful that customers, at his restaurant and other eateries, will continue to offer them patience — knowing that things will still look and feel a bit different because of safety protocols and other changes designed to keep the businesses viable.

Once businesses reopened their doors, the next challenge was enforcement. Reynolds said state officials took a “one, two, three” approach, giving businesses guidance on how to come into compliance on their first two visits before issuing citations on the third visit.

“A lot of businesses basically just needed a little bit of training on how to do things,” Reynolds said.

To date, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has conducted about 13,000 first visits to businesses. Compliance with the state’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols is about 92 percent in Northern Nevada and 90 percent in Southern Nevada, though Reynolds noted that compliance on first visits has been 100 percent most weeks since January.

Reynolds said that of the businesses found to be not in compliance with the state’s rules, he estimates only less than 10 percent were truly thumbing their nose at the state’s requirements. 

“We were tough on the front end on a lot of these businesses, but I think now we’re seeing for the last six, seven weeks good compliance overall,” he said.

And some businesses that initially seemed uninterested in complying with the state’s guidelines eventually came around, Reynolds said. About $60,000 in health and safety-related fines were issued to Walmart before it came into compliance.

“All of a sudden, corporate culture came in and started working on it very strongly,” Reynolds said. “It just took time. Once they did, it grabbed hold and they’ve done well.”

Even as businesses began to heal, Nevada workers continued to struggle.

When nonessential businesses started opening in May and the 78-day casino shutdown lifted on June 4, it didn’t have the same lightswitch effect with unemployment. There were still 285,610 people seeking Nevada unemployment benefits the first week of March — nearly one in five people in the state’s labor force.

A report by the Anderson Economic Group, which has been following the economic effects of COVID-19, described the December jobs numbers as a “continued trend of lethargic recovery.” Between November and December, the leisure and hospitality industry lost 2,000 jobs in Nevada, though gains in other industries offset that.

Only about 50 percent of the members of the Culinary Union, which represents roughly 60,000 resort employees across the state, including guest room attendants, cooks and porters, have returned to work since last year, though their work hours may not be the same. At the height of the shutdown, 98 percent of the union’s members were furloughed.

“Our industry — the hospitality industry overall — has been the hardest hit,” said Taylor, UNITE HERE’s president, said. “Now, we always see signs of life coming back in certain areas, which is great, but until people feel very safe travelling, until they feel safe with indoor dining and staying indoors, it will be challenging.”

Mary Ann Bautista is among those who haven’t been called back to their union jobs. Before the pandemic, she spent 14 years as a buffet food server at The Strat. 

As a single mother with several teenagers still living in the house, she said it has been difficult to make ends meet on unemployment benefits alone. Bautista has leaned on the Culinary Academy’s food assistance program for help over the past year. She longs for the day when she can resume her job. 

“This is not our fault. We didn’t do this,” she said. “This is a pandemic. We didn’t ask for this. We work hard.”

DETR Director Elisa Cafferata said when she arrived at the agency in August, there were nonstop calls from constituents needing help and a major backlog. To this day, she said the applications haven’t tapered off as much as she expected.

“We've definitely made a lot of progress. There's still a lot of hard work to do,” she said. “The thing I'm most focused on is how do we sort of pivot and help people start thinking about going back to work.” 

But the employment figures also highlight a troubling trend, said Brian Peterson, director of public policy and economic analysis with the Anderson Economic Group. In Nevada, nearly 74,000 people dropped out of the labor force completely between February and December of last year. These are people who have reported not actively looking for a job in the past four weeks.

“The big question is, what are those 74,000 people doing?” he said. “Have they become discouraged? Are they planning on waiting out the pandemic? My guess is that at least some of those 74,000 folks want to have a job, but they just haven't been able to find anything.”

There is a certain optimism within the resort industry about Las Vegas’s ability to once again come roaring back as a tourist destination. 

Las Vegas has already, essentially, been at the capacity allowed under the state’s emergency directives for some of the recent three- and four-day weekends, Vassiliadis said. World of Concrete is slated to be the first major convention to return to Las Vegas in June, and Cirque du Soleil is hoping to bring back its aquatic acrobatics show “O” at the Bellagio by July.

Tourism officials say the old notion of Las Vegas — a great escape in the desert where fun and freedom trump judgment — could be the very reason it will bounce back more quickly than other destinations. Sure, it might currently lack some of the traditional offerings. Nightclubs, for instance, aren’t jam-packed with partygoers on the dance floor. But the sunshine, warm weather, dining and gambling options might be enough to lure travel-hungry guests, even if other entertainment options are somewhat limited.

“People want to see family and then they want to get away, and when they want to get away, Vegas tops that list,” said Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Of course, this all boils down to people’s willingness to travel. Vaccine deployment will play a crucial role boosting that confidence level, state leaders say. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t exactly given would-be tourists its blessing. The nation’s top health authority recently issued guidance discouraging travel among fully vaccinated people — a point that has received pushback from some within the travel and health industries. 

Plus, it’s unclear whether COVID-19 cases will remain at their current plateau or see a springtime surge as a result of the increasing spread of variants and loosening restrictions. In Las Vegas, tourism outpaced projections when casinos initially reopened last summer but then took a nosedive toward the end of the year as coronavirus cases multiplied again.

“I'm pretty optimistic about the direction we're headed in now,” Hill said. “But we didn't anticipate the extreme nature of the spikes that we saw around Thanksgiving and Christmas and how much damage that did to the economy here.”

Another variable: the return of business meetings and conventions, which boost the economy during off-peak travel seasons. There’s even hope that some conventions might return to Las Vegas in the second half of 2021 and then return during their normally scheduled time in early 2022.

The Las Vegas they return to, however, will likely look a little different. Resorts have more eagerly embraced new technologies, such as remote check-in and keyless hotel room entry. In the case of MGM Resorts, a partnership with Clorox as the resorts’ “official guest disinfectant and hand sanitizer brand” is now a selling point.

Jim Murren, former CEO of MGM Resorts, envisions Las Vegas marketing itself as the “preeminent health safety tourist destination in America” — even beyond what resorts are already doing.

“When you do that ... we rip conferences and conventions away from Atlanta and Miami and New York and Chicago and Dallas and LA,” Murren said. “If they have a choice of listening to Lady Gaga in LA versus Vegas, and we can market that it’s safer to do it here, they’re going to come here.”

There is, however, less optimism about the future beyond the Las Vegas Strip. It’s not that state officials don’t believe Nevada’s economic situation will improve across the state — they do — but they worry about the small businesses and workers getting left behind.

Lawmakers have taken steps to help, including authorizing $100 million for the Pandemic Emergency Technical Support (PETS) grant. They hope $10,000 or $20,000 cash infusions backed by federal dollars will keep thousands of small businesses alive.

“It's always easier to keep what you've got … You're so much better off doing that and trying to spur new startups,” said Bob Potts, deputy director with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “The recovery side of things — that has to be paramount.”

Sisolak is hopeful he will be able to work with the Legislature to fix the longstanding problems with the state’s unemployment system. A computer modernization project that could cost up to $50 million is on tap for the next few years pending availability of funding, and a “strike force” led by former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley made extensive recommendations for how DETR could be better prepared to scale up staffing if another crisis hits as suddenly as COVID. 

“Prepare for war in times of peace,” Tyler-Garner advised. “I couldn't underscore more the need to ensure that we're always planning to strengthen our systems, because we never know what the demand might be in the future.”

But there’s also an acknowledgement among many in the state that Nevada’s problems run deeper, and that recovery cannot begin and end with Nevada’s tourism industry, or even with fixing the state’s unemployment system. The goal, they believe, has to be a long-term fundamental shift in thinking about the state’s economy. Murren, who became the CEO of MGM Resorts during the Great Recession, recalled seeing the “economic, social, mental, physical devastation of our community” because of Nevada’s reliance on one industry for a significant chunk of its tax revenue.

“Here we are again, and what did we learn? It seems very little,” Murren said. “Whenever things are doing well here in our state, there seems to be this expectation that they'll always be that way and that we should just not rock the boat.”

Tyler-Garner said before the pandemic, she had been working on how DETR would respond to problems that lurked just below the surface of the state’s illustrious unemployment rate: Wage stagnation. Jobs without adequate benefits. Dramatically higher unemployment in subgroups such as the formerly incarcerated.

“Some of the families that were already working two or three low wage jobs ... I shudder to think of what is happening to those families right now,” she said. “Those segments of our community were invisible.”

For Buckley, who runs Legal Aid of Southern Nevada as her day job and has seen the agency deal with a record of nearly 163,000 clients in 2020 in a region of a little more than 2 million, the pandemic has highlighted the need to invest further in the safety net and — deeper than that — Nevada schools.

“I think that key leadership throughout our state do recognize our shortcomings and are working on plans to change our over reliance on gaming and hospitality,” she said. “But as many have pointed out, it means more of an investment is needed in education and in our schools, to allow us to compete.”

That’s, in part, why the governor’s private-sector COVID-19 task force, which has in the last year helped the state secure personal protective equipment, ramp up testing, build out a contact tracing app and bridge the digital divide for students, plans to focus next on workforce recovery. Nevada was also one of nine states awarded up to $100,000 in grant funding through the National Governors Association to help states prepare for a post-COVID economy.

But Murren, who chairs the task force, believes economic diversification will only happen in Nevada if and when the state chooses to make a significant investment into the quality of life of its residents, including supporting education, health and safety, the elderly and homeless individuals. And he believes it will take the support of everyday Nevadans, too.

“What makes me incredibly angry is that so many people move to our state to avail themselves to our lifestyle, to our weather, to our natural beauty, to our entertainment, to what is great about Nevada, but they don’t contribute to it,” Murren said. “The will of the people seems to be that we don’t want taxes, or little taxes, or we don’t want to raise any revenue, any form of proper investment. Then, you get what you get in Carson City as well.”

Nevada’s budget was already slim to begin with, and it became even slimmer when lawmakers cut nearly a billion dollars from the state’s budget over the summer. That included hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on health care and education. Though Nevada received nearly $25 billion in federal aid in the last year, state officials felt like they were constantly worrying about how to pay for needed services.

“Nevada doesn’t have a huge safety net to provide on the best of days, and that’s the reality of it,” said White, the governor’s chief of staff. “That’s the hard reality of it.”

That reality is visible in places like the Culinary Academy’s parking lot. Its food distribution operation is called Helping Hand, and Scott, the organization’s CEO, said it’s not time to let go yet. The Culinary Academy anticipates providing food assistance to needy families through the end of the year in some form.

Scott knows community members remain appreciative.

It’s not uncommon, he said, to find notes of gratitude waiting in the vehicles’ trunks.

Part III coming Sunday, March 21.

Burdened by the pandemic, Nevada casinos see revenue drop more than $6 billion

The MGM Grand hotel and casino sign

As Nevada grappled with the effects of the pandemic, the gaming industry’s revenue dropped to $18.3 billion in the 2020 fiscal year, down 25.2 percent from $24.5 billion in the previous year, according to a new report from the Gaming Control Board.

The 179-page Nevada Gaming Abstract, which was released Friday, included data on the revenue made from gaming, rooms, food and beverage, and other sources by the 267 casinos that earned more than $1 million in gaming revenue during the fiscal year ending in June 2020. The number of businesses represented in the 2020 report — 267 licensees — marked a decline from the 290 included in the previous year’s report.

“The 2020 Nevada Gaming Abstract reinforces what we’ve known all along – that Nevada’s economic engine and largest taxpayer and employment sector has been devastated by the continuing impacts of the pandemic,” said Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association, in a statement provided to The Nevada Independent.

With statewide revenue down $6.2 billion from the previous year, the gaming industry also significantly cut expenses.

Across all categories listed, payroll costs in the 2020 fiscal year decreased by approximately $215 million over the previous year. The decrease in payroll was matched by a significant loss in jobs during that same period, as the average number of employees in all departments dropped from 162,066 to 135,926.

A lightened payroll also brought the statewide general and administrative expenses down from $10.1 billion in the 2019 fiscal year to just $5.5 billion the following year. With expenses down significantly, the industry’s profit as a whole increased from $2.1 billion to $2.9 billion year over year.

Michael Lawton, a senior research analyst for the Gaming Control Board, said in an email that the increase in profit also came because of several large real estate sales recorded in the Las Vegas Strip area. 

The revenue from those sales, including the sale of the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay properties by MGM Resorts International to the Blackstone Group Inc. in a $4.6 billion deal, helped counteract the significant losses in gaming revenue. 

The report also showed the significant effect that the pandemic shutdown had on the revenue made from rooms. In April 2020, only 2.4 percent of available rooms were filled at the casinos in the report, a massive drop from April 2019, when 87.2 percent of rooms were filled. With far fewer rooms occupied during the second quarter of 2020, the revenue from rooms dropped by 26.8 percent from the 2019 to 2020 fiscal year.

Casino earnings from food and beverage sales dropped similarly. Across the state, revenue from food sales was down 25.8 percent, and revenue from beverage sales was down 28.7 percent, from the previous year.

The casinos on the Las Vegas Strip were more affected than casinos in any other part of the state, as they had the largest decrease in revenue by percent from the 2019 to 2020 fiscal year, dropping 26.7 percent. However, with extra money coming in from real estate transactions, the Las Vegas Strip was also the area with the largest percentage increase in profit, with an increase of 162.1 percent compared to the previous year.

Because of that large increase and the number of major casinos in the area, the Las Vegas Strip accounted for $2.7 billion of the statewide industry’s $2.9 billion profit. In the previous fiscal year, the Las Vegas Strip accounted for $1 billion of the statewide $2.1 billion in profit.

Even as other areas remained profitable, the gaming industry in the rest of the state fared much worse, as casinos in downtown Las Vegas, Laughlin, Washoe County and Elko County all saw significant drops in profit from the 2019 to 2020 fiscal year.

The pandemic has affected the current fiscal year in a variety of ways, from the cancellation of events to capacity limits at venues to reduced travel. The next annual financial report on the gaming industry could paint a similar picture of decreased gaming revenues and low room occupancy rates.

But some are hopeful that a desire for travel and entertainment will help with the industry’s recovery this year. At last week’s Preview Las Vegas 2021, CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority Steve Hill said he thinks people will likely feel more comfortable with traveling by the second quarter of 2021. Valentine also noted the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

“A critical component of our recovery depends on the distribution and acceptance of the vaccine,” Valentine said. “The sooner hospitality employees, which represent roughly one in every four Nevada jobs, can be vaccinated, the swifter we can restore our tourism-based economy, welcome back large events and trade shows, reopen dormant businesses and bring more Nevadans back to work.”

Interest groups push COVID liability, criminal justice, worker protections for second special session

As Nevada lawmakers publicly debate cutting $1.2 billion from the state’s budget, the business community, progressive activists and unions are behind the scenes pressing lawmakers to consider a host of proposals from criminal justice reform to liability protection during a second special session.

Although lobbyists and members of the public have been barred from the physical legislative building, a host of interest groups are making their demands known and pushing for their priorities to be included in the proclamation that will establish the parameters of what lawmakers can consider in their second special session. Gov. Steve Sisolak is expected to call the next session once lawmakers finish finalizing cuts to the state budget during the first special session, which started Wednesday.

In announcing the first special session, Sisolak said that he planned to issue a subsequent proclamation to “consider policy items that rise to the extraordinary occasion of a special session.”

Although Sisolak and top legislative Democrats have previously expressed interest in taking up topics related to police misconduct and criminal justice reform, a host of other potential special session topics have bubbled to the surface, including efforts by some of the state’s top businesses and casinos to include liability protection for businesses against COVID-19 related lawsuits. Other possible topics include election reform and worker protections.

Here’s a look at proposals that are being pushed for behind the scenes.

COVID liability protection

A consortium of powerful business groups — including the Nevada Resort Association, Vegas Chamber of Commerce, Nevada Builders and Retail Association of Nevada and others — launched the hashtag #ProtectNVJobs on Saturday to promote adding liability protections for businesses against COVID-19 related lawsuits. 

But the effort to bring the topic of COVID-19 related liability to the special session has been in the works since before Saturday.

Backers of the now-public effort — which is also mirrored on a federal law — say it’s necessary to protect against frivolous lawsuits aimed at businesses struggling to reopen their doors and attract customers amid the state’s new health and safety requirements during the reopening process.

“Businesses have been financially hit hard by this pandemic. We need to make it easier - not harder - for them to recover and preserve jobs,” Vegas Chamber president and CEO Mary Beth Sewald said in an email. “The Vegas Chamber is urging the Governor and legislators to pass this legislation as soon as possible as a major step forward in rebuilding our fragile economy,"

Legislators in both political parties have said they’re open to the concept. Democratic Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson said on a call with members of the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce prior to the legislative session that many lawmakers had a “comfortable level with ensuring that we have language in the law so that employers are protected,” while keeping in place gross negligence standards.

Republican Sen. Heidi Gansert, who sent out a campaign email prior to the start of the special session last week listing “COVID19 liability reform” as a pressing topic, said Monday that “the longer businesses are open without protection, the greater the threat.”

She added that she had heard radio advertisements for potential lawsuits against long-term care facilities related to their COVID-19 response, and wanted to avoid the issue by nipping it in the bud.

“If there's an opportunity, we're anticipating that the lawsuits will follow,” she said.

The Nevada Resort Association, the politically powerful trade group representing many large casino gaming properties, has also publicly backed the concept of liability protections related to the coronavirus. 

The group’s president, Virginia Valentine, sent a letter to Sisolak last Wednesday asking the governor to take up liability protections during the upcoming legislative special session, writing that the “risk of frivolous litigation that mounts each day threatens the Resort Industry’s continued operations.”

“We ask you to consider enacting a targeted and limited safe harbor from liability for companies that implement strict public health guidelines related to the transmission of COVID-19,” she wrote in the letter. “Nevada businesses cannot wait any longer for purported federal action.”

In a statement sent Monday, she said that the resort association was concerned with the “threat of opportunistic lawsuits that would derail our ability to bounce back from the economic crisis and further threaten Nevada jobs.”

“Given the importance of this issue and the need for immediate action, we’ve asked the Governor and legislative leaders to bring liability protections up for discussion during a special session,” she wrote in an email. “Without liability protections, large and small businesses face a daunting choice of closing or staying closed and risking bankruptcy or reopening and risking a business-crippling lawsuit – any of which will only further damage Nevada’s already fragile economy.”

But the Nevada Justice Association, a trade group composed of trial attorneys, sent a separate letter to Sisolak on Friday urging the governor to not “incentivize unsafe practices,” and to avoid rewarding “those businesses who engage in unsafe practices and penalize Nevada workers, consumers and tourists who contract COVID-19 because of those unsafe practices.”

The letter stated that the association wants to find common ground with the state’s business community on the issue, and included several proposals including:

  • A heightened fraud-level pleading standard, which would require lawsuits be pled with “particularity,” with the intent of allowing frivolous lawsuits to be more easily and summarily dismissed
  • Creating a “rebuttable presumption” standard, meaning that any business following the rules is presumed to have no liability, and thus immune from negligence lawsuits
  • Allowing workers who return to work and contract COVID-19 to have a rebuttable presumption that they obtained the virus from their workplace. The group said that would ensure contracting COVID-19 is covered under the state’s worker’s compensation law, and that it “will provide comfort in knowing they will be cared for were they to become sick upon returning to work.”

Attorney Matthew Sharp, who serves as a board member on the group, said the state’s current laws around negligence were adequate to cover any potential lawsuits related to the pandemic, and that the state had bigger issues to face during the current pandemic.

“You're searching for a problem that already has a solution,” he said. “That's why I don't think a special session is necessary; the law already provides the solution.”

Several left-leaning groups also panned the proposal, saying that legislators should focus on protections for workers and not cover for businesses that do not take proper precautionary and safety steps. Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada Executive Director Laura Martin said her organization was staunchly opposed to the proposal, instead saying legislators should take up topics such as police reform, vote-by-mail, ballot collection for tribes and evictions.

“Protections for unfounded liability already exist and it’s up to the courts to decide whether or not a lawsuit is warranted, not for-profit businesses,” she said in an email. “Nevadans are dying and the only thing these corporations care about are being shielded from lawsuits. What a shame.”

A spokeswoman for Sisolak did not return an email asking whether the governor planned to include that item on a special session proclamation. 

Adolfo Fernandez bill

Casino workers, however, are pushing their own bill headed into the second special session. 

The Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 workers in Las Vegas and Reno, has proposed legislation that would require enhanced cleaning procedures, mandatory social distancing, free testing for all workers before going back to work or after being exposed to someone with COVID-19, temperature checks for workers, detailed plans for how to respond when a worker contracts the virus or is exposed to someone who has it and additional safety training for all employees.

The union has nicknamed the legislation the Adolfo Fernandez Bill after the 51-year-old utility porter at Caesars Palace who passed away last month after contracting COVID-19. His daughter, Irma Fernandez, shared in a statement the concerns her father had about returning to work amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“My father would tell me every day ‘I’m gonna get sick - the company is not keeping us safe.’ He would constantly tell me how stressed out he was,” she said. “He would call me on his break all the time to tell me about what was going on and how he was feeling. He would say that he didn’t want to go back to work, but he had to because he needed to financially support his family.”

Nineteen Culinary Union workers and members of their family have died after contracting COVID-19, according to the union. In advance of the special session, Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer, sent Gov. Steve Sisolak a draft of the bill and a letter urging him to place it on the agenda for consideration. 

“In these uncertain times, it is imperative that we protect Nevada’s workers, tourists, and economy,” Argüello-Kline said “Another economic shutdown could have disastrous effects on our economy which would make recovery even harder. We believe that the measures in the Adolfo Fernandez Bill would put Nevada on the path towards a full economic recovery.”

The finer details of the bill, however, are not yet clear. Neither the Culinary Union nor the governor’s office responded on Monday to The Nevada Independent’s request for the union’s draft language of the bill.

Election reform

Advocates working on expanded voting access want to see legislators adopt policies that vastly expand mail-in voting and send a postage-paid ballot to all active voters and potentially inactive registered voters, too.

While Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske ordered the mostly mail approach for the June primary, the setup of November’s election remains undetermined. Clark County Registrar Joe Gloria is open to repeating the mostly mail election, but advocates don’t want the policy enshrined only in emergency directives or at the discretion of individual clerks.

“Then it kind of gives everybody room for interpretation,” said Emily Zamora of Silver State Voices, a voter rights advocacy group.

Zamora said advocates are also interested in expanding the number of ballot drop-off sites for voters who are uncomfortable dropping their mail-in ballot in a mailbox. Voters had the option of dropping off their ballots at in-person early voting and Election Day sites, but Zamora said the drop-off box plan wouldn’t necessarily align with the early voting sites.

Another ask — her group is hoping for policies that would allow people to turn in ballots for people beyond just themselves and their immediate family. Rules against “ballot harvesting” prevent that, but Zamora said it adversely affects people who live in remote areas including Indian reservations, which have been in lockdown for some of the pandemic.

She said she’s received positive cues from multiple legislators that there’s an appetite to take up election reform during a special session.

“I think folks overall did walk away from the primary election really with the understanding that we can do better for the general,” she said.

Criminal justice reform

Republican Assemblyman Tom Roberts, a former Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department assistant sheriff, said he hasn’t seen language of any proposals from Democratic leadership as of Monday, but said he believed draft language of a proposal existed and was being worked on.

Nonetheless, Roberts said that there were a litany of possible changes that could garner bipartisan buy-in, including:

  • Adding more community members to various law enforcement advisory boards in the state
  • Changes to the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training agency to add citizen participation and review misconduct
  • Changes to use-of-force policies, including limits on vascular neck restraints and requiring training on “duty to intervene.”

Roberts said that the truncated nature of special sessions made it hard to delve into complex policy issues in a limited time. Additional pressure to not draw out a second special session comes from the lack of input from the public owing to limits on entering the physical legislative building, as well as the recent COVID-19 positive test of a legislator. 

“There might be some things that you might be able to know right away from feedback that you got from stakeholders on both sides of the issue, that you might be able to find some middle ground and make some changes now, and then come back for some more substantial discussion about some of the more complex issues,” he said on Monday. But, you know, I think there could be room for some, but really some of the really more complex things, we probably should or could wait.”

Holly Welborn, policy director at ACLU of Nevada, said the reforms her organization is seeking to get passed during the special session don’t even scratch the surface of criminal justice reform needed in Nevada. But she said it would be “more than a disappointment” if legislators did not pass something in the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.

“The community is demanding action, and if there isn’t action at a time when this group of legislators is convened, that is going to be a failure for the community,” she said.

One of the most discussed potential reforms is a repeal of provisions in SB242 — a bill sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro in the 2019 session that, among other things, bars comments police officers make during an internal investigation from discovery in any civil litigation stemming from misconduct. With officers seldom facing criminal charges when people die at the hands of police, removing the provision would make it easier to hold officers accountable civilly.

“They’re definitely open to discussing the problems with the bill,” she said about legislative leaders.

ACLU leaders are also calling for a ban on chokeholds, mandatory collection of data on police activity in Nevada by demographics, and legislation that would mandate independent, rather than internal, investigations into police misconduct.

While the ACLU has signed on in support of a call for repealing the death penalty, Welborn acknowledged that the request was a “heavier lift” and something like banning chokeholds or addressing SB242 is more “low-hanging fruit.”

Resort Association moves to get involved in court fight over independent redistricting commission ballot question

The Las Vegas Strip at night

The Nevada Resort Association has filed to intervene and oppose a federal lawsuit seeking more time to collect petition signatures for an independent redistricting commission ballot question.

The politically powerful trade association of the state’s largest casino resort companies filed to intervene in the lawsuit last week, along with a politically connected Las Vegas pastor who is actively suing over the ballot question’s language in state court.

The motion to intervene doesn’t challenge the merits of the ballot question supported by Fair Maps Nevada, which seeks to adopt a constitutional amendment moving the responsibility for Nevada’s once-a-decade redistricting process from the Legislature to an independent, bipartisan commission.

Instead, the group is asking to intervene in the lawsuit because it opposes allowing electronic signatures and an extension of the signature-collecting deadline; two things that it says would harm its ability to challenge other proposed initiatives — including one seeking to raise the gaming tax — and disregard protections in state law.

“The NRA and its members will be directly and adversely affected if an initiative petition is permitted to qualify for the ballot, despite the fact that it does not comply with Nevada law because, for example, signatures are turned in late, or it contains fraudulent signatures,” Nevada Resorts Association head Virginia Valentine said in court documents. “The NRA and its members would be harmed because they would have to expend resources in a campaign that, if the law were followed, would never have occurred.”

The proposed ballot question was first introduced in November 2019, when the League of Women Voters of Nevada and the Brennan Center for Justice filed initial paperwork with the secretary of state’s office. Approval of the initiative would create a seven-member redistricting commission with the power to draw legislative and congressional maps, but wouldn’t come online until 2023.

That’s because Nevada law requires any constitutional amendment to be passed by voters in two subsequent elections, meaning the soonest the amendment and new commission could get to work would be in 2023 — two years after the Legislature is scheduled to approve new electoral maps following results of the 2020 federal Census.

But the measure was almost immediately challenged by a politically connected Las Vegas pastor, Rev. Leonard Jackson, who soon after filed a lawsuit challenging the “Description of Effect” listed on all petition signing forms. That matter is still pending before the Nevada Supreme Court.

Earlier this month, Fair Maps Nevada filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking both the ability to collect signatures electronically and pushing back the deadline to turn in signatures, stating that emergency shutdown orders made in light of the COVID-19 pandemic should afford them more flexibility in signature gathering efforts. In order to qualify, backers of the measure need to collect at least 97,598 signatures by June 24.

In their motion to intervene in the federal case, attorneys for the resort association and Jackson wrote that allowing electronic signature collection or an extended deadline to gather signatures “would effectively gut the safeguards in Nevada law” protecting against fraud.

“If the Plaintiffs are permitted to electronically gather signatures, this would directly contravene clear requirements of Nevada law,” they wrote in the filing. “It would open the door to exactly the kind of ‘massive fraud’ that the statutes were intended to prevent.”

The resort association filed a lawsuit in February challenging the language used in a proposed initiative by the Clark County Education Association to raise the state’s gaming tax to help fund K-12 education. That lawsuit is also still pending in the Nevada Supreme Court.

In a response filed on Tuesday, attorneys for Fair Maps Nevada said the court should reject the motion to intervene for both parties, saying it would result in “additional and unnecessary parties reiterating arguments made by the named defendants.”

For the resort association, the attorneys wrote that the group did not have standing to intervene because it was opposing a statutory, as opposed to constitutional, initiative in state court, which operate on different timeframes.

“There will be two years between submission of the Gaming Tax Initiative for verification and the general election in connection with which it will appear on the ballot,” they wrote. “Therefore, even if there is a protectable interest in litigating a verification challenge to completion, that interest will not be subject to any shortened time period for resolution.”

A telephonic hearing has been set for Thursday at 10 a.m. in Judge Miranda Du’s courtroom.

gov.uscourts.nvd.143189.15.0_2 by Riley Snyder on Scribd

gov.uscourts.nvd.143189.15.0_2 by Riley Snyder on Scribd

Multimillion-dollar marketing contract with Raiders draws scrutiny at water authority's advisory committee

A photo rendering of the Las Vegas Stadium

A contentious $30 million, 10-year marketing deal between the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Las Vegas Raiders is still on the table after two months of delay, but several members of an advisory panel that was tasked to review the agreement have raised questions about how cost-effective it is.

The deal — a multi-year contract for digital and physical advertising and other outreach perks involving Raiders branding and team members — was discussed Wednesday during a two-hour presentation on the agency’s conservation efforts to date. Business and conservation voices on the Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Committee brought up several concerns about the contract, including its target audience and unpredictable outcomes in customer behavior.

“Looking at where that advertising is happening … Is it the people in the Las Vegas Valley who need to hear it or is it a stadium full of people from out of state?” asked Andy Maggi, a committee member and executive director of the Nevada Conservation League. “I think differentiating where the targeting is happening, with that amount of money, is very important.”

Two committee members, Nevada Resort Association chief Virginia Valentine and economist John Restrepo, agreed that the proposed outreach and marketing efforts do not guarantee that customers will conserve more water.

“I don’t know how you tease out, with the Raiders sponsorship, enhanced compliance,” Valentine said. “If enhanced compliance means getting people to not water on Sunday, and all the stuff in the campaign is geared toward the [Vegas Golden] Knights or Raiders telling you not to water on Sunday, it seems like a really difficult thing to measure.”

Valentine also expressed concern about the length of the contract, saying that changes in technology might provide more efficient conservation means that would have more predictable returns on investment than the Raiders outreach effort might have.

Officials have said that the marketing campaign would allow the water authority to reach an estimated 169 million impressions and would yield an annual average estimated water savings of 900 million gallons.

General Manager John Entsminger said that outreach efforts cannot be quantified in terms of gallons per capita per day (GPCD) customers use, but that outreach efforts provide a needed boost to achieve the water authority’s 105 GPCD benchmark goal. In 2018, the GPCD was hovering around that, at 113.

The contract, which the water authority board and the Raiders have been negotiating since July, had not been presented to the committee for consideration prior to Wednesday’s meeting, according to water authority public services senior manager Scott Huntley. It was initially scheduled for approval during the November meeting of the full SNWA board, but was re-scheduled for the advisory board’s meeting in January.

Huntley said the decision on the Raiders deal, which was presented to the advisory committee as part of the conservation package presented on Wednesday, was deferred so that the board could “take the temperature” of the committee before proceeding. 

The advisory committee is expected to produce a recommendation report on all conservation strategies proposed to the committee by March. Depending on those recommendations, the board may choose to act on the Raiders deal as a separate item, or group the multi-million dollar contract in with the larger conservation package that was presented to the committee on Wednesday — similar to marketing deals between the authority and the Vegas Golden Knights and the Aviators minor league baseball team. 

Disclosure: Managing Editor Elizabeth Thompson's media consulting firm, E Thompson Media, helps produce "the Stat Pack" and "Fact Pack," a business and economic website and newsletter co-published by John Restrepo.

Betting on cannabis: Gaming heavyweights shape marijuana industry, even as regulators hold the two worlds apart

Planet 13 Cannabis Dispensary at night

When Anthony Marnell III initially sought to be majority owner of a Nevada medical marijuana company in 2014, he came with an impressive résumé — he was the CEO of the billion-dollar M Resort, his family had built and run the Rio for its illustrious first decade and his father’s construction company had a hand in some of the most iconic casinos on the Strip, including the Wynn, Bellagio and Mirage. 

But the Nevada Gaming Control Board put the kibosh on his plan on May 6, 2014, issuing an edict that gaming licensees must have no investment or involvement in the nascent cannabis industry. It was somewhat puzzling for executives in Nevada’s largest industry, who argued that they live and breathe compliance measures to retain the privilege of working in gaming — an industry that has overcome its unsavory past and moved to the respected mainstream in large part because of the rigor of state regulation. 

Casinos must ensure minors and card cheats stay out and report any suspected money laundering to the federal government. Prospective licensees go through a vetting process that might best be described as invasive — it includes online and in-person background checks, meetings with gaming regulators in other jurisdictions and a review of all investments, bankruptcies, real estate and even flight logs.

“There is nobody that I can think of that is more qualified to operate what I see as a very highly regulated industry other than a gaming licensee,” Marnell told the Nevada Gaming Commission in 2014. “We are the most investigated, vetted people in the state of Nevada. I have held several security clearances at the federal level … and none of them were as strenuous or as difficult or as thorough as the Nevada Gaming Control Board's process.”

In the end, Marnell withdrew his marijuana plans to stay in gaming, and regulators have not budged on their bright line. But the casino sector has still left its mark on the cannabis industry — its veterans are filling out the leadership teams of marijuana companies, and its regulatory regime is the model that the state hopes to emulate for cannabis.

State records released this spring through SB32 show several former casino executives, casino developers and restaurateurs with a presence inside of casinos as marijuana company owners and board members, along with some who appear to be currently employed by gaming companies. It speaks to the cash and business acumen required to succeed in the marijuana world, where the lack of traditional banking infrastructure has limited access into the industry, and the appeal of a new industry to entrepreneurs and risk-takers who want to get in on the ground floor.

“It has all kinds of upward possibilities. Gaming has become very white shoe,” said Tisha Black, an attorney and president of the Nevada Dispensary Association whose father, developer and former casino executive Randy Black, took over at the Clear River marijuana company when Marnell stepped back. 

But the presence of gaming-affiliated players is also indicative of their success in staying on the good side of a strict regulatory structure.

In 2014, when Gov. Steve Sisolak was making zoning and licensing decisions as then-chair of the Clark County Commission, he said he “put a silver star on every one of the people applying for medical marijuana license who have a Nevada gaming license because they have been vetted.”

Relative to out-of-state applicants, he said, those in the Nevada gaming business are less likely to be fly-by-night characters or flight risks should trouble arise. Black agrees. 

“Where you see those guys that were pillars of the community — in my mind it makes sense that they were some of the original licenses, because they’re a known commodity, they have roots here,” she said.

Veterans of gaming are also attractive additions to ownership teams because of their experience in a more mature industry. 

“You see the people who used to be in gaming bring their influence, and pretty much when they say this is how you do it in gaming, everyone listens,” said Riana Durrett, executive director of the Nevada Dispensary Association. “If they were previously in gaming or they had gaming clients, that’s very influential.”

Early morning photo of the I-15 near the Las Vegas Strip

The Las Vegas Strip as seen Monday, April 10, 2017 while traffic travels near Interstate 15 and Russell Road. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

The great divide

Since the 2014 edict, there have been little more than baby steps in allowing overlap between gaming interests and pot.

Early on, regulators cracked down on people who straddle both industries, blocking slot route operator Nevada Gaming Partners from serving a restaurant in 2014 because the wife of the owner had a minority stake in a medical marijuana company GB Sciences. Regulators said that even if the couple’s businesses were separate enough to satisfy legal requirements, it wasn’t enough to satisfy "the spirit of the notice."

“When the notice was sent out to the industry in 2014 that said you can’t play in both sandboxes, most everyone took that to heart,” said Jennifer Roberts, former associate director of UNLV’s International Center for Gaming Regulation and a lawyer for Nevada Gaming Partners at the time. 

Other gaming licensees acknowledged that they needed to choose between one industry or the other. 

  • Troy Herbst had a 10 percent stake in The Clinic, a marijuana company, and was also a partner in slot route operator JETT gaming. The slot route was a gaming venture for Jerry Herbst, who had already grown the gas station empire Terrible Herbst. Troy’s brother, Tim Herbst, told gaming regulators in 2014 that he would divest from gaming if he won a license, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We’re not going to do anything to disappoint this commission,” Tim Herbst said. Troy Herbst does not have a stake in the industry as of August 2019.
  • Brian Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, gave up his interests in Greenspun Gaming LLC and G.C. Investments — which are partial owners of casinos — to family members as he took an ownership role in Integral Associates, the parent company of Essence dispensaries. He has also recently withdrawn from the marijuana industry and is no longer listed as an owner.

The bright line between the two industries was reinforced through the work of the Nevada Gaming Policy Committee, a group that included then-Gov. Brian Sandoval. The panel’s 2017 workshop on the topic outlined myriad reasons why casinos can’t be landlords for cannabis businesses, accept marijuana money, or in any way be affiliated with the substance.

Because marijuana is still considered a Schedule I controlled substance by the federal government, even basic actions by a financial institution — a category that includes casinos — can run afoul of federal law. Potential crimes include possessing any kind of equipment needed to produce or sell marijuana, using a phone or email to facilitate any operation of a marijuana business, leasing or otherwise controlling the property where marijuana is cultivated or sold; reinvesting the proceeds of a marijuana business into any other business, and any financial transaction at all that involves more than $10,000 in proceeds from a marijuana business.

Interacting with an illegal industry could mean steep fines, asset forfeiture and prison sentences. Those risks have kept casinos out of cannabis, and regulators holding a line. 

“I think that gaming, because they’re now big corporate companies — they can’t. It’s brackish water for them,” Black said. “I understand the state’s concerns and its desires to protect gaming because that’s billions of dollars for the state, not only in jobs but in taxes.”

Gaming provides about three quarters of a billion dollars in tax revenue to Nevada’s general fund each year, about ten times the amount that cannabis does. The tourism industry overall — including direct, indirect and induced jobs — is responsible for about 450,000 jobs in the state.

Multinational casinos must get national and international funding that runs through the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Black said, so dabbling in the marijuana world “could put me in direct opposition with the regulators who regulate me and the institutions that capitalize me.” 

Regulators have made some efforts to clear up ambiguities. In 2018, they moved to allow the development of a tavern on property owned by a landlord who also had contracts with players in the marijuana industry. In 2017, they approved plans for an applicant who is a card-carrying medical marijuana user to expand a gaming business, and members have called for a “balanced approach” as new areas of conflict emerge.

“A regulatory framework that balances the myriad interests by carefully examining whether and to what degree gaming regulatory policy objectives are actually implicated would inure to the benefit of all involved,” Gaming Control Board member Terry Johnson wrote last fall in Nevada Gaming Lawyer magazine. “And protecting the crucial role of gaming to the Nevada economy while respecting the expressed will of Nevada voters need not be mutually exclusive.”

But gray areas persist. A review of state records by The Nevada Independent shows at least four people newly listed as owners and board members of marijuana companies as of August who appear to be current employees of gaming companies or married to licensees, but the Gaming Control Board declined to comment on whether those people are running afoul of the bright line.

“As Nevada statutes and circumstances regarding marijuana change and evolve, the Board often engages in discussions with licensees to identify solutions that will ensure they are in compliance with our gaming laws and regulations and those would be confidential under NRS 463.120,” the board said in a statement. 

Another argument regulators made against mixing gaming and cannabis is that it would reflect discredit on the industry. But even five years ago, lawyers were calling that idea outdated, pointing to polls that showed a vast swath of the public in favor of at least medical marijuana if not recreational (that number is now 91 percent, according to the Pew Research Center).

“All of what we are seeing now is the public opinion is pretty clearly in favor of medical marijuana,” Reno attorney Matthew Woodhead, who was listed as a minority owner on Clear River’s original medical marijuana application, told regulators in 2014. “So the concept of reflecting discredit, to the extent it does involve public opinion, seems public opinion is on our side.”

Buyers outside marijuana dispensary

Hundreds of people line up to purchase recreational marijuana in Nevada at Reef Dispensaries on Saturday, July 1, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

Physical divide

In spite of growing public support for marijuana, Nevada is arguably becoming even more conservative in separating marijuana and gaming. This legislative session, lawmakers passed a law banning marijuana dispensaries within 1,500 feet of a gaming establishment — a buffer larger than the one voters approved between schools and dispensaries.

It was an outgrowth of a dispensary ban the Las Vegas Strip resort corridor already had, and the number mirrors the distance that Clark County escort and outcall entertainment services must be from homes, schools and places of worship. The distance also reflects the separation that pawn shops must have from the resort corridor. 

In testimony to lawmakers this May, casino companies with locations in outlying areas separate from the Las Vegas Strip argued for the same buffer on the basis that it “would level the playing field, and would protect Nevada's largest industry.”

“It exacerbates guest and employee issues that we have,” Erin McMullen, a lobbyist for Boyd Gaming, said about dispensaries and casinos being in close proximity. “We have children at a number of our properties. A lot of our properties have movie theaters, bowling alleys, and we host many student sporting events.” 

It had the support of the Nevada Resort Association, the influential lobbying group representing many of the largest casinos.

“We supported the 1,500 foot buffer because it separates an incompatible land use to nonrestricted [gaming licensees],” said Virginia Valentine, head of the association. “It gives us the protection we need to comply with the federal law.”

The advent of the policy has forced at least one marijuana company — Essence, coincidentally owned by former casino executives — to stand down, scrap plans to build on a lot they had already purchased across from the Peppermill casino in Reno and look for property elsewhere.

Although the approval of the buffer seemed to suggest that the marijuana industry got pushed around by its older brother gaming, Durrett notes that her association wasn’t fighting the measure, and nor were schools or other classes of buildings fighting for a larger buffer than they already had. 

“We had no position on it because it impacted members differently,” she said.

The measure potentially foiled the plans of those who wanted to move closer to casinos or sell their license to a company that did, but those who were grandfathered into the zone or would be unable to move may have been happy to keep the competition out of that zone. 

“I don’t think there should be a mass migration anywhere, whether it’s the gaming corridor or not," Durrett said.

But questions remain about the rationale for the buffer. Longtime Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani , who served on Sisolak’s advisory panel for the future Cannabis Compliance Board, contended there hasn’t been enough explanation for it.

“There may be some very legitimate reasons,” she said. “Let’s have that discussion out in the open. What was it tied to?”

She suspects that future business considerations are at play. If federal prohibitions on marijuana go away, casinos could eventually house dispensaries, and it would be problematic to have competition too close.

“In politics, for people that say they’re free enterprise individual, it’s always about how to stop your competition,” she said. “I’ve never found an ordinance or regulation or state law that hasn’t been advanced in order to accomplish that.”

Buyers outside marijuana dispensary

Customers play baccarat at the Lucky Dragon hotel-casino on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. The 203-room, Asian-themed property opened last November. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

The future

The marijuana industry is continuing to take cues from the gaming industry, which faced the same specter of a federal crackdown decades ago before building what it calls the “gold standard” of gaming regulation.

“We were under threat of federal government basically raiding our casinos and shutting them down because of organized crimes. We had to take regulation to prevent that,” Roberts said.

The state is specifically modeling its forthcoming Cannabis Compliance Board off the Gaming Control Board. Dispensaries also hope to implement some of gaming's best practices.

One of the things cannabis companies want to emulate is a policy called “minimum internal control standards.” That’s an effort to standardize certain staffing levels for accountants, recordkeeping software and other procedures to make it easier for auditors and inspectors to spot deficiencies. 

“I think from the beginning it was always viewed as an aspirational goal,” Durrett said. “Not everything is analogous and comparable between the industry so some things you can’t follow the gaming model, but anywhere you can … It’s the best way to avoid federal interference.”

In spite of the divides on the books, observers say it’s also time to be honest about the fact that with marijuana use legal in Nevada, there's undoubtedly overlap such as tourists partaking in casinos. Giunchigliani said that for the safety of consumers, and to prepare for the future, there should be open conversation about how the two industries should coexist.

“I think everybody is playing a big game if they think that people are not smoking in their hotel rooms,” she said. “It’s legal, it’s not going away, they’re not going away, so how do you make it work for the customer as well as for their concerns in regard to the feds.”

Buyers outside marijuana dispensary

Pedestrians pass Essence Cannabis Dispensary on Las Vegas Blvd. on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

The players

The list of owners and board members in Nevada’s marijuana industry is checkered with the names of former casino executives and others in the hospitality and entertainment sector, including strip club owners and restaurateurs. Below are some of the most notable.

Armen Yemenidjian is the co-owner of Integral Associates, widely known as Essence Cannabis Dispensary. He gave up his gaming license and roles as a former executive at the Tropicana casino in Las Vegas when he decided to transition into the cannabis market. 

Beyond the three open dispensaries it has in Nevada, Essence had the highest-scoring application in all eight of the competitive jurisdictions to which it applied in 2018, winning eight additional dispensary licenses. The company’s sale to multistate operator Green Thumb Industries for $290 million closed this year.

Arguably one of the most successful players in the Nevada cannabis industry, Armen was joined by his father Alejandro “Alex” Yemenidjian, who served as president of MGM Resorts from 1995 to 1999, CEO of the company from 1999 to 2005, and CEO of the Tropicana from 2009 to 2015. He joined the Green Thumb Industries board this summer. 

Tony Marnell II owns the Marnell Companies that did construction on some of the biggest resort properties in Las Vegas, and he also served as CEO of the Rio casino for its first few years. He and his son, Tony Marnell III, initially appeared on medical marijuana license applications in 2014 as owners but then dropped off.

Strip club owners have a presence in the form of Jamal Keshmiri, whose Reno-area strip club empire included the flagship Wild Orchid Gentleman’s Club that’s been a target for the city. Keshmiri also owns Ben’s Fine Wine and Spirits, which has six liquor store locations in Reno and Carson City, and is an owner with HSH Lyon LLC and High Sierra Holistics LLC. He has coached track at Reno High School and was a former track star himself.

In Southern Nevada, Peter Feinstein, a partner at Sapphire Las Vegas strip club, was a board member at Nevada Group Wellness for purposes of an unsuccessful license application. Feinstein said he thinks he was sought out to be on the board because, as holder of a privileged license for the strip club and alcohol permits, “I have a long history of being in a regulated industry.” 

Several members of the bar and culinary industry are marijuana company owners. Howard Starr, an owner at Las Vegas Natural Caregivers LLC, is has been a co-owner of the Numb bar and frozen cocktail lounges at Caesars Palace and Harrah’s casino, as well as Chil’m at the Tropicana casino. He said he has since left the industry.

Michael Frey is an owner with BBMC LLC and Naturex LLC, but has owned cigar venues including Casa Fuente at The Forum Shops of Caesars Palace, the Montecristo Cigar Bar and a kiosk store at New York New York casino. He is the stepson of Las Vegas developer Irwin Molasky.

His brother, Robert Frey, is an owner at Caliente Development Company, BBMC LLC, and Naturex. He was CEO and co-founder or Pure Management Group, which at one time owned a large portfolio of nightclubs including the famous but since-closed Pure and the Pussycat Dolls Lounge at Caesars Palace, as well as Coyote Ugly in New York-New York. Earlier this year, the Frey brothers sued their partners in the marijuana business for $125 million, alleging they filed applications for dispensary licenses without them and ended up winning 11 licenses — more than any other applicant.

Restaurateurs Michael Morton and Jenna Morton is an owner with Acres cannabis, but is also the co-founder of Morton Group, which operates La Cave Wine & Food Hideaway inside Wynn Las Vegas, CRUSH inside MGM Grand and La Comida in Downtown Las Vegas. 

Robert “Randy” Black, the real estate developer and owner of Black Gaming, is an owner with Clear River LLC. He divested his gaming interests, which included three resorts in Mesquite, after they were hard-hit by the recession. His daughter, Tisha Black, is the president of the Nevada Dispensary Association.

Steven Nightingale, an owner at WSCC Inc., is a former operator of the Cal-Nevada Club in Reno and also an author and philanthropist. He told the Reno Gazette-Journal he went into the marijuana business because his late friend Joe Crowley, former president of UNR, was so persuasive.

Gary Primm is an owner at Deep Roots Medical but made his fortune from the Prima Donna Resorts, which was sold to MGM Grand Inc. in 1998 for $612 million. His stepbrother Roger Primm is also involved in the same marijuana company, which has at least one dispensary open in Nevada already and won five additional licenses in 2018.

Former president of Grand Sierra Resort Steven Rosen is an owner at THC Nevada LLC and THC Productions LLC. 

“I was a casino executive for over thirty-five years, which is a highly regulated industry,” he told members of the Nevada Tax Commission in January 2018. “I appreciate regulations and I understand they are there to protect the industry.”

Water authority delays $30 million, 10-year marketing contract with Raiders; seeks input from advisory group

Photo rendering of Las Vegas Stadium

The Southern Nevada Water Authority is delaying action until at least next year on a proposed decade-long, $30 million advertising contract that would see the public agency become a major advertiser at the future Las Vegas Raiders’s Allegiant Stadium.

Scott Huntley, an executive with the water authority, said Monday that the SNWA’s executive team had decided to move the proposed contract from the authority’s Thursday meeting and instead kick it to a January meeting of a citizen’s advisory board.

The initial version of the proposed contract would have seen the water authority pay an annual $2.5 million (with an annual 4 percent increase) to the still-under-construction Allegiant Stadium, which will house the National Football League’s Raiders franchise beginning in 2020. The construction cost of the stadium is partially financed by a 0.88 percent hotel room tax that funds a $750 million chunk of an estimated $1.9 billion cost, approved by lawmakers in a 2017 special session of the Legislature.

The contract would have made the water authority a “founding partner” with exclusive physical, television and radio advertising privileges in the new stadium, but would have marked a major expansion of the agency’s marketing and advertising budget. The water authority’s overall marketing budget for water compliance and conservation is roughly $4.9 million a year, and a spokesman for the authority said in an earlier interview that it spent only about $500,000 total in other advertising arrangements with sports teams at UNLV, minor league baseball team Las Vegas Aviators, Las Vegas Lights FC and the National Hockey League’s Golden Knights.

Huntley said the authority’s leadership had decided to take input from a recently re-formed advisory committee — composed of business and labor leaders, conservation advocates and economists — before making a decision on the contract. 

“They would like to have them consider and make a recommendation regarding moving forward in this way to the board, and then consider it after the advisory committee gets a chance to make that recommendation,” Huntley said.

The board that will take the contract under advisement is called the Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Committee, which held its first meeting under its current membership in October and will include discussion on the proposed contract during its meeting in January, where it will discuss water conservation issues. The 11 members of the committee include:

  • Ken Evans of the Urban Chamber of Commerce
  • Peter Guzman of the Latin Chamber of Commerce
  • Boulder City resident Carol Jefferies
  • Nevada Conservation League Executive Director Andy Maggi
  • Paul Moradkhan of the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce
  • Tom Morley of Laborers Union Local 872
  • Bob Murnane of GC Wallace Engineering, on behalf of the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association
  • Jonas Peterson, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance
  • Phil Ralston of American Nevada Company
  • John Restrepo of RCG Economics
  • Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resorts Association

The proposed contract would have given the water authority wide advertising and marketing privileges — digital and physical advertising space on TV, radio and social media in both English and Spanish, sponsorship of a two-minute warning, broadcast rights for the football team’s final non-nationally televised preseason game as well as exclusive advertising rights throughout the stadium’s bathrooms. Huntley estimated that the contract would bring an estimated 169 million impressions yearly and help the water authority bring its conservation message to a larger and more diverse audience than a traditional marketing campaign.

But news of the contract attracted opposition from a variety of groups, from the libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute to dyed-in-the-wool Democratic Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, who made his concerns with the deal known on Twitter.

“The simplest way to conserve water is to charge more and make the rates more progressive - subsidizing rates with sales tax revenue and then spending $ on advertising to encourage conservation seems counterintuitive,” he tweeted on Saturday.

Updated at 4:37 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22 to reflect that Bob Murnane is representing the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association.

Business, education meetings dominated Sisolak's calendar amid legislative session

Governor-elect Steve Sisolak and his wife, Kathy, tour the Governor's Mansion in Carson City

In retrospect, May 21 was one of the most important days of the 2019 Legislature.

A bill getting rid of a scheduled reduction in the state’s payroll tax was introduced for the first time; lawmakers voted out bills adding Nevada to the National Popular Vote Compact (later vetoed) and decriminalizing abortion; and long-awaited hearings were finally held on bills creating a cannabis regulatory agency and substantially overhauling the state’s K-12 education formula.

Gov. Steve Sisolak was similarly busy on May 21, but for different reasons. Amid a packed schedule that saw him attend a wildfire status briefing and the cannabis bill hearing, the governor was also busy on the second-to-last Tuesday before the end of the Legislature calling several high-profile business and gaming executives — Eldorado Resorts’ Gary Carano, Peppermill Resorts President Billy Paganetti and Ultimate Fighting Championship COO Ike Lawrence Epstein.

Described by his office as general check-ins, the scheduled calls were part of a slew of calls made by Sisolak as the legislative session drew to a close, indicating that the governor kept open lines of communication with top business leaders even as lawmakers approved bills raising the minimum wage and requiring large private employers to offer paid sick leave — panned as anti-business by Republicans. 

Those meetings and others held between Sisolak with high-powered lobbyists, legislators with major pending bills, federal government officials and a slew of well-known business leaders were revealed in a public records request submitted by The Nevada Independent for the governor’s calendar through the legislative session.

Meetings scheduled in Sisolak’s calendar don’t necessarily confirm that they actually happened, and often provide few details as to the point or reason for them. But information on the scheduled meetings of the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades provides insight into the power structure and important relationships that define and influence what laws and policies are (or aren’t) adopted.

“The calendar provided to The Nevada Independent is the Governor's working calendar, maintained by staff,” Sisolak spokesman Ryan McInerney said in an email. “Some of the calendared appointments occurred as scheduled, others did not occur at all, or were managed entirely by staff. Moreover, travel schedules for the Governor, First Lady Kathy Sisolak, and the Governor's family were redacted to ensure the safety of the Governor and his family.”

Although he positioned himself as a natural successor to popular and moderate Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval on the campaign trail, meetings scheduled by Sisolak throughout the legislative session included comparatively more meetings with labor leaders and other constituencies of the Democratic Party. They also reveal details about which individual interests were able to secure time with the governor ahead of major decisions on bills affecting energy, collective bargaining for state workers and health care issues.

But like Sandoval, many of Sisolak’s scheduled meetings show the names of the same Carson City power brokers, lobbyists and business leaders who continue to wield the same influence and effect on the legislative process, regardless of the party in power.

Not all details of Sisolak’s calendar were made public — at least 67 events on the calendar provided to The Nevada Independent were redacted. Sisolak’s office said that in addition to travel, the office also redacted telephone numbers and personnel information such as start and end dates.

Here’s a look at the people, groups and constituencies Sisolak met with during the 2019 legislative session.

Legislative interactions

Sisolak made an effort to meet with all 63 members of the Legislature during the first few weeks of the legislative session — a hectic schedule reflected in the early February weeks of his calendar.

But meetings held with lawmakers outside of those initial meet and greets shine a light on Sisolak’s involvement in the legislative process beyond just signing bills.

The lawmaker who scheduled the most meetings with Sisolak was Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks, who previously served one term in the Assembly and is married to Sisolak’s chief of staff, Michelle White.

Brooks and Sisolak met three times — once on March 13 (the day Sisolak announced the state would sign onto an agreement to follow the Paris Climate Agreement), again with legislative leaders on March 15 and a final meeting on April 2 (the day a hearing was held on SB358, which raises the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent by 2030). 

Brooks confirmed in an interview that the meetings were related to several bills related to energy that Sisolak had identified as priorities on both the campaign trail and in his State of the State address. He said early on that he and White had established a “firewall” and worked with other staff in the governor’s office to arrange meeting and discuss strategy.

“We were pretty adamant about making sure she wasn’t involved personally,” he said.

Other meetings held between Sisolak and individual lawmakers include:

  • A March 27 meeting with Republican Assembly Leader Jim Wheeler and Blockchains CEO Jeff Berns, described by the governor’s office as a meet and greet that veered into a discussion of issues with wild horses
  • An April 30 meeting with Democratic Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez Thompson, related to her bill AB400, which removed certain types of taxes from possible economic abatements. The bill was signed into law by Sisolak.
  • A May 17 meeting with Assembly Judiciary Chair Steve Yeager on AB553, the bill creating the Cannabis Compliance Board. Yeager presented the bill in committee about a week later; it was later signed into law by Sisolak.
  • A May 22 meeting with Senator Julia Ratti on her dental therapy bill, SB366. The bill was amended twice after the meeting and eventually signed into law by Sisolak.


Sisolak’s meetings with lawmakers merely tap the surface of his involvement in the legislative process; the Democratic governor met with dozens of lobbyists or representatives for various interests groups throughout the entire 120-day session.

Notably, Sisolak recorded holding a short meeting with National Shooting Sports Foundation executive Larry Keane and the group’s state lobbyist, Patrick McNaught, on April 18. 

The meeting came nearly a week before lawmakers approved major changes to a major gun safety bill by Democratic Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui, AB291, that initially sought to allow local governments to pass more restrictive gun laws than those put in place by the state (a concept called pre-emption).

But the concerns of the NSSF, which holds the annual SHOT tradeshow in Las Vegas, helped almost sink the bill, and contributed to the removal of that language from the bill. Lawmakers instead added in provisions creating a “red flag” law process, which lets law enforcement and family members petition a court to temporarily seize a person’s firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others.

The NSSF itself issued several warnings about Sisolak in the run-up to the 2018 election, noting that he had promised to institute a long-stalled voter-approved gun background check initiative and to ban assault weapons. NSSF spokesman Mark Olivia said that the meeting was similar to ones the group had across the country and in Washington D.C. with other elected officials, and that the organization was grateful that Sisolak took the time to listen to their concerns.

“This is what any trade association is going to do to make sure their concerns are heard,” he said.

Other major lobbyists that Sisolak met with during the legislative session include:

  • Former Assembly Speaker turned lobbyist Richard Perkins and clients on February 19 in Las Vegas
  • Former state senator, current lobbyist Warren Hardy on February 19
  • A meet and greet with the Jewish Federation and former Rep. Shelley Berkley on March 5. Both supported a bill, AB257, that would have authorized creation of a Holocaust memorial museum in Nevada; the bill failed to pass
  • Former Rep. Dr. Joe Heck on March 8
  • Dwayne McClinton on behalf of Southwest Gas on March 19
  • Golden Entertainment, Dollar Loan Center and Republic Services lobbyist Sean Higgins on March 27
  • Barrick Gold Corporation executives Christina Erling and Rebecca Darling on April 17
  • Kolesar and Leatham lobbyist Joe Brown on May 6
  • Nevada’s Women Lobby lobbyist Marlene Lockard on May 15
  • Griffin Company lobbyist Josh Griffin (and “group”) on May 20 
  • Las Vegas Metro Chamber CEO Mary Beth Sewald on May 23, to discuss “legislation relating to Nevada employers,” a spokesperson for the Chamber said
  • Ferraro Group founder Greg Ferraro and former Fennemore Craig lobbyist Jim Wadhams on May 29, in a meeting regarding pending bills and the close of the legislative session. Wadhams also met with Sisolak on April 1.

Greg Smith

Within hours after Democratic Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle announced he was resigning from the state Legislature over multiple claims of sexual harassment, Gov. Steve Sisolak was already meeting with his eventual successor — though the governor’s office claims it was just a coincidence.

While reporters scurried and stalked the legislative building in attempts to find Sprinkle or get comments from other lawmakers on his resignation, Sisolak had scheduled a meeting with Greg Smith — the husband of former Democratic state Sen. Debbie Smith. The meeting on March 14 came two weeks before his appointment to the Assembly and over a 15-person field of candidates who filed to replace Sprinkle. 

But Sisolak’s office said the meeting was just a coincidence; Smith was brought in to advise the office on several pending bills related to apprenticeship programs (Smith is a retired union apprenticeship program administrator.) Smith did not return several calls seeking comment on the meeting.


On the campaign trail, few organizations were more helpful to Sisolak than the Clark County Education Association, which endorsed the future governor early in the campaign and spent more than a million dollars in third-party campaign ads ahead of the 2018 election.

Once in office, Sisolak’s door was open to the teacher’s union and its polarizing leader, John Vellardita. The governor and Vellardita met or called at least twice (once on March 14 and again on April 8), and held a meet and greet with CCEA educators on April. In contrast, the Nevada State Education Association (which endorsed Sisolak’s primary opponent) held a scheduled meeting with Sisolak just once, on March 19. 

And in a legislative session defined by massive shifts to the state’s antiquated funding formula and calls for more funding, Sisolak also met with various school district and higher education leaders. He met with Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara twice (once on March 4 and again on March 26), Washoe County School District lobbyist Lindsay Anderson on April 4, Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly on February 27, and UNLV President Marta Meana on April 24.

Sisolak also met with State Board of Education chair Elaine Wynn on May 21, the same day as the first legislative hearing on the revamped K-12 education formula.

Business interests

Calls to major business and gambling company executives took up a sizable amount of Sisolak’s time, especially as the legislative session drew to a close.

Sisolak’s calendars show meetings with Anthony Marnell (CEO of Marnell Gaming, which operates the Sparks Nugget) on April 10, Golden Gaming CEO Blake Sartini on April 21 and Grand Sierra Resort and SLS Las Vegas owner Alex Muerelo on May 9. One of his last calls made before the legislative session ended on May 27 was to Virginia Valentine, the director of powerful casino trade group the Nevada Resorts Association. Valentine said the call was to relay the gaming industry’s support for AB533, the bill to create the Cannabis Compliance Board.

Other notable meetings or calls arranged between business executives and Sisolak include:

  • Eli Lilly executives on February 12
  • Beau Wrigley, the heir to the Wrigley chewing gum fortune and CEO of Suterra Wellness (a cannabis company that operates in Nevada and other states) on April 1
  • Fidelity National Financial executive Peter Sadowski on April 10. Fidelity is owned by Bill Foley, the owner of the Golden Knights hockey team.
  • Former Nevada Cattlemen's Association president Joe Guild and lobbyist Richard Perkins on April 23. Both lobbied for Union Pacific Railroad
  • Kaempfer Crowell attorney Jennifer Lazovich on April 26

2020 Candidates

At least four of the Democratic presidential candidates met with or calling Sisolak during the legislative session, including billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. Sisolak’s office also said he met with California Sen. Kamala Harris during her trip to Nevada, and that all candidate visits were accommodated based on the governor’s schedule and availability.

He also met with former New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg — who considered but ultimately decided against a presidential run — on February 26, after state lawmakers approved a bill implementing a long-stalled gun background check law. Bloomberg helped fund the group that backed the initial ballot question in the 2016 election.

Sisolak said during an AFSCME forum earlier this month that he wasn’t sure whether he would endorse any candidate before the state’s presidential caucus in February.

Federal government

Unlike his predecessor Sandoval, who in the 2017 legislative session scheduled calls or meetings with at least 17 Cabinet secretaries and other high ranking officials in Trump administration, Sisolak made relatively few calls to officials in the Trump administration during his first legislative session.

Sisolak arranged a call with former Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Feb. 5, and another call with former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on March 28, the same day Nevada joined a group of states intervening in a lawsuit defending the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

Sisolak also scheduled a call with Delaware Sen. Tom Carper on April 30, the same day he sent a publicized open letter to Carper and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso to reiterate the state’s “strong opposition to the Yucca Mountain project” (Barrasso and Carper serve on the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works).

Grants management lawsuit

Sisolak’s office also scheduled a meeting entitled “Streamlink Discussion” on April 15, a day after The Nevada Independent published a story detailing how litigation brought by Streamlink had gummed up a grants management software contract that state officials believed could help tap into millions of dollars worth of federal grants.

Although the state took no immediate action after the story was published, Carson City District Court Judge James Russell ruled against the state and in favor of Streamlink in May, leading the Department of Administration to announce it would drop future appeals and re-open bidding on the grants management software contract. 

The contract was reopened in July, and the office expects to have the system fully functional by 2021.


Sisolak’s calendar also shows meetings with higher-profile individuals than the normal slew of Carson City insiders.

The governor scheduled a meet and greet meeting with actress Patricia Arquette on March 8, the same day the actress attended a press conference with Democratic lawmakers on several equal pay bills. Sisolak’s office said the meeting was indeed scheduled but never actually happened.

On May 15, he scheduled a meeting with former football star Boomer Esiason on the topic of cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that Esiason has highlighted through creation of a foundation after his son was diagnosed with the disease.

Sisolak also met with legendary labor organizer Dolores Huerta on April 3, and presented her with a proclamation. Huerta came to Carson City to testify in favor of a bill that would allow for physician-assisted aid-in-dying. The bill, SB165, failed to advance out of the Legislature.

Snyder Production 6.24.19 by Riley Snyder on Scribd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, Garcia knew better.

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

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

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

City preliminary approvals aside, their reasoning was pretty sound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Careful, smart guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregarious, diligent, headstrong: Sisolak brings big personality to Nevada’s top office

Gov. Steve Sisolak greets children as the Nevada Legislature begins its 80th session on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 in Carson City, Nev. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

On the morning of the first day of his first legislative session as governor, Steve Sisolak was squatting on the floor of the legislative building in a suit and leather-topped sneakers high-fiving children.

Unlike Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske or Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall, Sisolak was incidental to the day’s proceedings, which largely consisted of lawmaker swearing-ins and mundane legislative business. But instead of holing up in the Capitol as snow swirled outside, the newly inaugurated governor had decided to hobnob in the halls of the legislative building.

His presence marked a departure from the distance that his predecessor, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, put between himself and the legislative process.

Although Sandoval also set a goal after he was elected to meet with every lawmaker, he was more likely to summon lawmakers to the Capitol for formal meetings in his office. Sisolak made the short walk across the snowy courtyard to meet with lawmakers on their own turf.

“He hasn’t served in the Legislature before and so he wanted to go over there and get to know folks,” said Michelle White, his chief of staff, “and let them know he meant what he said about being accessible and wanting to sit down with them and go to where they are.”

The gesture didn’t go unnoticed by lawmakers on either side of the aisle, several of whom tweeted out pictures of their meetings with the governor.

“It was much more casual than last time,” second-term Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod, a Democrat, said of her meeting with Sisolak. “Going over to his office was very formal, I would say, with Sandoval.”

But the man-of-the-people persona he’s exuded in his first several weeks in office as he and his wife have embarked on an eating tour of Carson City and toured the rural portions of the state belies the reputation Sisolak earned as a headstrong negotiator in a decade serving on the County Commission.

Those who have worked closely with him describe him as someone who not only won’t back down from a fight, but will sink his teeth in further when challenged — qualities on display in a battle with firefighters over their sick leave system and a clash with ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft.

Although former commission colleague Tom Collins characterizes his style as bullying, primary opponent Chris Giunchigliani said he can be “controlling” and critics see his frequent public and media appearances as evidence of egotism, his supporters view him as accessible, a tough fighter with the wherewithal to lead the state.

“What I saw from him is, when he does believe in something, he is a pitbull. But I don’t see him as a bully,” said Susan Brager, who spent 10 of her dozen years on the County Commission serving with Sisolak and sided with him against a fellow commissioner in a fierce Democratic primary. “I think when you stand strong, it can appear that you’re doing that, but that’s his character, nature, compassion and passion.”

For his part, Sisolak describes himself as a “solutions-oriented consensus-builder.”

“Throughout my service on the Board of Regents and Clark County Commission, I worked hard to forge consensus among diverse groups of people to achieve results for Nevada families,” he said in a statement. “I am willing to sit down with anyone to discuss common-sense solutions that are in the best interests of working families in our state.”

What remains to be seen is how Sisolak’s style translates to his new role as the state’s top executive, where he’ll have the final say in heated debates on gun control and collective bargaining for state workers and power to shed more light on the mostly opaque cannabis and pharmaceutical industries.

In his first days in office, he flexed his political muscle with a sharply worded statement, a self-assured press conference appearance and a series of legal maneuvers when the federal government shipped plutonium to Nevada without consent.

“We all got fired up, too, and I think a lot of Nevadans across the state would agree — they want a governor who is going to be aggressive in their approach and go get something done and take bold steps and get angry because that wasn’t the right thing to do,” White said. “He gets fired up when he thinks regular Nevadans are going to be harmed by something.”

Ron Knecht, a Republican former state controller who served on the Board of Regents with Sisolak, said he’s seen both the friendly and forceful sides of the governor.

“He’s personable, he’s got a likeable personality, the kind of guy … you’d either drink beer or scotch with him,” Knecht said. “He’s a strong leader. And sometimes just on the edge of being too strong.”

Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak during a meeting at the County Government Center on Tuesday, May 2, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

A budget hawk

Sisolak has touted his fiscal conservatism in the past. He put that aside during the gubernatorial primary when he sought to win over the hearts and minds of progressives, but people who have known him for years say budget hawkishness is his default.

“I consider him to be a hard-nosed negotiator, particularly on issues related to money,” said Don Burnette, who was the county manager for Clark County from 2011 to 2016. “He treated taxpayer money … as if it were his own … He’s definitely the guy you want on your side if you’re going into a fight and it involves money.”

As a member of the Board of Regents, Sisolak earned a reputation for “crunching budget numbers,” a skill he told the Las Vegas Sun he was looking forward to applying to the County Commission. Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick says it will serve him well in his current role.

“My hope is and my expectation — because I think he’ll do it — is to take things into consideration on the budget that he balanced for many years,” Kirkpatrick said. “The county budget is similar to the state budget.”

When Sisolak took office as a county commissioner in 2009, he became part of the first all-Democrat commission the county had seen in 40 years. It was also a time of great scrutiny on spending as the extent of the recession became more clear.

“The cutbacks were fairly painless to begin with — things like trying to reduce travel and training and discretionary spending, and that got progressively worse,” Burnette said. “About the time I became county manager, the only way left to deal with revenues that were still on the decline was to go through widespread layoffs.”

Sisolak was supportive of the county’s efforts to whittle down its budget during the recession, saying that the county should be a good steward of taxpayer dollars in good economic times as well as bad ones. After all, local government employees who have the right to collectively bargain generally make significantly more than state employees who don’t, according to state-sanctioned salary studies.

He questioned the many opportunities county workers had to boost their pay.

“There are so many of these things — cost-of-living raises, step increase, merit raises, longevity bonuses, whatever you want to call them, you have to start asking: For what?” Sisolak told the Sun. “I talk to people in the private sector who are just happy to keep their jobs, and we’re giving all this money away. We have got to put a tighter rein on this. The county has to get a handle on it.”

The county considered a host of proposals to cut its budget, including streamlining business practices, shifting the burden of providing social service assistance to the state and abandoning licensure of certain types of medical homes and offices.

But then came the hard part — the layoffs.

“It was a very turbulent time for our workforce,” Burnette said. “No one wanted to eliminate positions and we all tried desperately to avoid doing that. But I think Steve understood first and foremost his obligation was to deliver a balanced budget to taxpayers and when the time came to initiate layoffs, it was something that just had to be done.”

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, center, candidate for governor, listens while Robert Jackson asks a question during a campaign stop at Monsigner Shallow Apartments on Tuesday, Oct. 30 2018. (Jeff Scheid-Nevada Independent)


Sisolak proudly proclaimed during his State of the State address that he would not raise taxes in his budget. Although his campaign opponent, Adam Laxalt, tried to frame him as a tax-hiker, some of the battles he’s best known for on the commission had to do with resisting tax hikes.

One of the drawn-out sagas during Sisolak’s tenure on the commission was More Cops, a half-cent sales tax increase narrowly approved by voters in 2004. While the first half of the increase took effect in 2005, decision-makers opted to delay the second part of the increase because it was scheduled to take effect in 2009, just as the economy was tanking.

Over the next few years, Sheriff Doug Gillespie tried repeatedly to persuade commissioners to raise the tax in hopes of hiring another 101 officers. Proponents argued that when accounting for the area’s visitors, Clark County had 1.58 officers per 1,000 people, while the average in North America was 2.42 officers per 1,000 people.

But Gillespie could not persuade Giunchigliani, a county commissioner at the time, or Sisolak, a member of Metro’s fiscal affairs committee, who questioned why the department wasn’t drawing more on a hefty reserve account.

“It’s about the trust that people have in Metro and the transparency that they feel Metro either has or lacks,” Sisolak said in 2014 during an interview with conservative talk radio station KXNT.

The tax gained traction later when it was part of a package of bills the Nevada Legislature approved in its effort to lure the Raiders to Nevada. Sisolak, in turn, voted as a member of the commission to enact the tax hike, telling KSNV that many of the most powerful business interests in Las Vegas were on board.

"I got calls from Mr. Wynn, Mr. Murren, Mr. Adelson, Mr. Jenkin, Mr. Ferttita amongst others all emphasizing how important this was," Sisolak said, referring to casino executives.

But the fight against police funding did not win him fans all around.

“He got on fiscal affairs and he tried to bully Metro — he was just a flat-out bully,” said Collins, who has not been shy about his distaste for Sisolak and who helped Sisolak’s opponents in the gubernatorial campaign. “When crime was rising and we need more cops, he pushes back.”

Sisolak was known for drilling into the details when handling commission business, questioning what the county was receiving from its contracts with consultants and why contracts were renewed without going out to an open bid. In one instance, he pointed out that an architect who was the husband of a Clark County civil engineer had won hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts in an apparent violation of state law.

“He doesn’t drink from the cup that’s given to him by the bureaucrats … he was always skeptical on matters on spending,” Knecht said about their time working together. “He could be a little bit intimidating to some of the bureaucrats. That might be looked at as a real plus to some people.”

His reputation as a fiscal watchdog has influenced how others in his orbit work with him. Tina Quigley, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission, said she advised her staff to be fully prepared before any meeting with Sisolak because he’s someone who always does his own homework on issues.

“He is not afraid of learning the details and asking the hard ‘why’ questions,” she said.

Sisolak struck Quigley as someone never content with being average and never daunted by confrontation.

“He was a strong leader on the County Commission,” Quigley said. “You never had to guess where he (stood) on an issue. He wasn’t afraid of public and ideological debate. I look forward to seeing him bring that same energy as governor.”

Clark County Government Center as seen on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

Feud with firefighters

At the height of the recession, Sisolak turned an eye toward county firefighters, who topped the county’s highest paid lists. He told the Sun that the firefighters were “viewed as untouchable” since the 9/11 attacks and that no one at the county had “even contemplated saying no to anything they asked for.”

Sisolak’s feud with Clark County firefighters began in 2009, his first year on the County Commission. He said he received calls and emails from constituents asking why pay or benefit cuts for unionized firefighters, who were making an average of $180,000 a year in salaries, benefits and retirement packages, weren’t on the table in the cost-cutting blitz.

The county considered “brownouts” — taking a fire truck or station out of service on a rotating basis to cut costs — to balance out the high costs of firefighter salaries. When contract negotiations between firefighters and the county stalled, Sisolak sunk his teeth into the firefighters’ sick leave policy, accusing them of gaming the system by calling in sick so their coworkers could make overtime pay.

Brager remembers herself and others speaking up on the issue, but Sisolak received death threats for being vocal — including from a city firefighter who posted on Facebook that she’d like to shoot him — prompting the county to increase security measures at commission meetings.

“It got pretty vicious with some of them,” Brager said. “There were some ugly emails and threats that came out but the board stood strong, he stood strong on that, and he took a lot of heat.”

An arbitrator eventually sided with the county over the union in contract negotiations in 2011, leaving firefighters with a 5.5 percent reduction in total wages and benefits estimated at the time to save county taxpayers $7.4 million. The arbitrator also agreed with the county that firefighters appeared to be treating sick days like vacation days, including one firefighter who called in sick 48 days but worked 92 overtime shifts which allowed him to earn more than $230,000.

As a result of the decision, management was allowed to ask for a doctor’s note if firefighters called in sick more than five times a year. The department immediately saw use of sick leave drop, which Sisolak saw as proof of abuse within the system.

“This is no coincidence,” he told the Sun. “This is a shame. And it’s not everyone, but they are making everyone in the department look bad.”

Even after the decision, Sisolak sent letters to the FBI, Las Vegas Metro and the Clark County district attorney seeking an investigation into whether any firefighters had engaged in racketeering and fraud through the sick leave system. Multiple firefighters were eventually fired or disciplined for their misuse of sick leave.

Ryan Beaman, who was president of the union during the negotiations, and current president Steve Thompson did not respond to requests for comment.

If campaign contributions are any indication, the wounds from that fight have not yet healed. Clark County Firefighters contributed $53,000 to Republican and Democratic candidates this cycle, including five of the six Democratic statewide candidates.

Sisolak, who received more than $50,000 during the campaign from seven other firefighter unions and associations statewide during the campaign, was the lone exception.

Clark County Commission Chairman and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak and Marc Badain, President of the Oakland Raiders look at the Truckee River before a press conference in Downtown Reno, on Thursday, August 16, 2018 following a tour of potential sites for a Raiders training facility.
(David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Public fights with private business

Sisolak didn’t reserve his ire just for public employee unions, but businesses, too.

He was dubious when Uber tried to make an entree into Nevada before it was regulated, appearing with taxi company representatives and the sheriff at an event in May 2015 to raise concerns about the advent of ride-hailing services. (Taxi and luxury car service companies have donated more than $200,000 to Sisolak’s campaigns since 2011, according to an analysis by The Nevada Independent.)

"We're concerned about the fact that potentially you could put drivers that don't have insurance behind the wheel, that don't have drug tests, that haven't been subjected to training and the vehicles haven't been inspected," Sisolak said at a press conference, which came as the Legislature was deliberating laws authorizing Uber and Lyft.

It was Sisolak who proposed an ordinance requiring drivers with ride-hailing businesses to pay $100 a year in county-level licensing fees, saying they needed to carry their own weight just as other independent contractors do.

"Every business that operates in Clark County, every business, has a business license." Sisolak told KNPR. "And it is unfair for the taxpayers to have to absorb the cost of people who are going to want to operate a business without registering."

In November 2015, the commission also approved a $25-per-year fee for Uber drivers operating in unincorporated Clark County, against the wishes of Uber, which called the fee illegal.

Later that month, Uber emailed its users and drivers, urging them to flood commissioners with messages opposing restrictions on operating at the airport. Sisolak chafed at the campaign, launched after Uber declined to turn over to the county a list of its drivers who would be going to the airport.

“(Uber) hired a lot of high-profile, expensive and powerful lobbyists that will lobby for anyone if they pay them enough money,” Sisolak told the Sun. “I am not willing to succumb to the arm-twisting of their special-interest lobbyists. I’m going to do what I feel is best for the safety of the citizens and tourists of Clark County.”

The power struggle with ride-hailing companies drew criticism from the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial board, which said the license fees would squelch a burgeoning business and was unnecessary and onerous, given that drivers already paid a $200 annual business license fee to the state and are regulated by the Nevada Transportation Authority.

“Local governments have no role in overseeing either company,” the editorial board wrote. “But local elected officials can’t seem to stand that thought, so they’re agitating for a piece of the pie to help supplement budget shortfalls, while also working on behest of the cab companies to throw a wet blanket on a burgeoning business here in the Las Vegas Valley.”

But Brager characterized the county’s efforts to regulate the ride-sharing companies as an attempt to create an equal playing field between the ride-sharing companies and taxis.

“It can’t be that taxis do one thing and Uber can do whatever it wants,” Brager said. “Steve stuck pretty firm to that.”

Sisolak also got in the middle of a tug-of-war between big casinos and slot parlors such as Dotty’s, a chain of taverns that targets women 35 and older and features a small snack bar and slot machines.

Sisolak sponsored an ordinance that would have required that bars make no more than 50 percent of their revenue from slot-machine gaming, aiming to bring them into compliance with a 2011 law specifying that gambling be only “incidental” at a business and not the dominant activity. Dotty’s viewed it as an attempt to put them out of business, but eventually came into compliance with the law by building out full kitchens in many of their slot parlors.

Craig Estey, owner of Dotty’s, has not made campaign donations to Sisolak since at least 2011, while he and three of his family members gave a total of $40,000 to Sisolak’s Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt, during the 2018 cycle.

By contrast, large casino companies that belong to the Nevada Resort Association — a group that for years has taken aim at the Dotty’s business model — have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Sisolak’s campaigns over the years.

Clark County Commission Chair Steve Sisolak, left, and Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, both running for Nevada governor on the Democratic ticket, shake hands during a gubernatorial forum sponsored by Pro-Choice Nevada on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Transitioning to Carson City

Although Sisolak got rave reviews from many Democrats after his State of the State speech, he still has some strained relationships on the Democratic side of the aisle.

The no-holds-barred campaign he ran against Giunchigliani in the 2018 Democratic primary has soured the relationship between the two, who in friendlier times used to have dinner at each other’s homes. He poured an eye-popping $6.3 million in 2018 alone in his attempt to bury her campaign ahead of the general election, and the attacks became deeply personal.

Sisolak and his supporters ran ads casting aspersions on the fact that Giunchigliani had paid her husband — respected political consultant Gary Gray — to run her 2006 campaign for commission. The ads cut deep not only because Gray died in an accident in 2015, but also because he ran the 2008 campaign that landed Sisolak his commission seat.

After the hard loss, Giunchigliani said she would not vote for the Republican, but still opted not to endorse in the governor’s race.

“Steve did not need my endorsement,” she explained in a January interview with KNPR. “The base … that went with me were going to go with the Democrat no matter what, number one. Number two, very truthfully, it took him six weeks to pick up the phone to even call me and leave me a message, and I worked down the hall.”

Still, she pointed out that Sisolak will be able to start his term with a budget surplus and Democrats in both houses of the Legislature.

“I would say that the primary was pretty ugly on their part, the lies about my husband was a factor but … I'm a team player no matter what, and I wish Steve well,” Giunchigliani said in the KNPR interview.

Last month, Sisolak announced that he had chosen Giunchigliani to sit on a marijuana advisory panel that will develop a Cannabis Control Board to oversee the industry, and she had accepted.

“It was a difficult primary, but this is about policy, not about politics,” Sisolak said at the announcement event. “Commissioner Giunchigliani was at the forefront of cannabis legalization back in the early 2000s and we spent a lot of years together on the county commission dealing with these issues … I think she’s got a lot to bring to the table.”

In an interview, Giunchigliani said she appreciated the gesture and opportunity to serve on the marijuana advisory panel. She hasn’t ruled out a more cordial relationship with Sisolak in the future.

But Giunchigliani said she has never been afraid to be her own person, even if it meant clashing with her commission colleague at various points.

“He was always prepared,” she said, describing his leadership style. “He did read his information, but he had a tendency to be very controlling.”

Kirkpatrick, another former commission colleague, sees Sisolak’s strong personality differently.

“Any time there’s a hot topic and you’re trying to do what’s in the best interest of the community, you will get some friction and you will get some push back, but that’s a great quality to have,” said Kirkpatrick, who earned a no-nonsense reputation as Assembly Speaker before joining the commission. “I’ve been beat up for that. People think I’m mean, but at the same time they respect that I do my homework.”

Virginia Valentine, who was county manager for the first years of Sisolak’s tenure, said she believes he honed his leadership skills when he moved from being a regular member of the commission to being its chair, with more power to drive the agenda and effect change.

“I think he’s gone from being one vote to having a more collaborative style. He’s reaching out to more people, he’s gathering more information, I think he’s spending more time not on just understanding issues but understanding how others feel about issues and where others are on issues,” Valentine said.

And if Sisolak hasn’t won over all the members of his own party, he counts some fans among Republicans, who see him as someone they can work with. Knecht said he prefers Sisolak over any other Democrat the state might have had.

“The important thing is that he’s not an ideologue, he’s issue driven so that’s why he and I could find some common ground on things,” said Knecht, who says he’s more concerned about where the Legislature will take the state than what Sisolak will do. “If he’s going to rein them in and restrain them, that’s a good thing.”

Jackie Valley and Riley Snyder contributed to this report.