As Nevada’s eviction moratorium comes to a close, a recently introduced bill aimed at ensuring tenants are connected with rental assistance faced opposition Monday from property managers, who argued that the measure disproportionately favors tenants and could prove ruinous for landlords across the state.
During a joint hearing of the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committee, lawmakers presented AB486, which aims at avoiding an eviction cliff once moratoriums are gone after June 30. Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) said the legislation seeks to integrate the rental assistance program into the state’s eviction and mediation process, ensure that people have access to neutral third parties to settle disputes and provide greater assistance to smaller “mom-and-pop” landlords who may not be able to access federally funded rental assistance.
“Assembly Bill 486 [is] a measured plan that balances the interest and pressing needs of all Nevadans to ensure tenants are able to maintain their housing, landlords are able to be made whole and our courts and social services systems aren't overwhelmed,” Yeager said.
Clark County’s housing assistance program has helped about 27,000 households to date, averaging about 1,000 a week, even though it has enough funding to support 40,000. It has a backlog of 9,000 applicants, down from the 20,000 reported at the end of last year, possibly as a result of the assistance program having new income and documentation requirements.
Trade groups representing property owners came out in strong opposition against the measure. Their opposition was summed up by Southern Nevada property manager Molly Hamrick, who said the bill would only serve to “keep landlords from providing a product in the marketplace that tenants desperately need.”
“It has been a struggle to get many of our tenants to apply for rental assistance, much less respond to us. We know that both landlords and tenants alike have found it very difficult to navigate the governor's directives, the eviction moratorium and local ordinances to determine what applies to them, and when it applies,” Hamrick said. “The legislative changes this session will only confuse matters worse.”
The $360 million in federal rental assistance left in Nevada is generally out of reach for tenants who make more than 80 percent of the area median income, or the midpoint of a region’s income distribution, and tenants must be involved in the process to secure the funds, which ultimately are sent to the landlord. The bill includes a separate $5 million allocation aimed at providing a safety net for small landlords who may be falling into a “doughnut hole” of support.
“So if for whatever reason, there's a tenant who is not being responsive, and we cannot get them to be responsive through the eviction mediation process,” Treasurer Zach Conine said, “what we wanted to create was a safety net for small landlords starting at $5 million. That if nothing else works, we could still try and make them whole.”
One of the goals of the legislation, Conine said, is to be able to reach the tenants that may be unresponsive to their landlords, to find a middle ground through the mediation process and get all the Emergency Rental Assistance money the state received “out the door,” instead of burning too quickly through the $5 million slated in the bill.
Under the bill, any eviction proceedings would be required to go through mediation to ensure that rental assistance dollars are used and that landlords and tenants can resolve cases out of court whenever possible.
Conine said that it is critical to pass the legislation because landlords and tenants are only eligible for assistance before an eviction takes place. Integrating the rental assistance process into the individual eviction mediation cases will ensure that landlords don’t lose out on payment, he said.
The bill offers landlords with unresponsive tenants the opportunity to collect 75 percent of the rent that is in arrears in exchange for not evicting the tenant for 90 days. Opponents said that provision would “deprive” landlords of their property rights and the $5 million set aside in the bill is not sufficient to make up for lost rent.
“Simply put, AB486 is an impairment of a landlord's right to contract and a violation of due process as a deprivation of property rights,” Susy Vasquez, executive director of the Nevada State Apartment Association, said during the meeting. “The $5 million dedicated to fund this bill is a drop in the bucket – the apartment association is bleeding over $17 million a month in rental arrears.”
A major provision of the bill allows tenants to use a landlord’s refusal to accept rental assistance money as an affirmative defense in an eviction proceeding. If the measure passes, courts would be required to dismiss eviction proceedings if a tenant receives rental assistance while proceedings are underway or if a landlord refused to accept rental assistance on behalf of the tenant.
Courts would also be authorized to impose civil penalties on a landlord found to have wrongfully evicted a tenant and would also require the landlord to pay a plaintiff’s costs and attorney fees.
A friendly amendment proposed by Yeager and attached to the bill would make the bill effective as soon as it is passed, something supporters say is needed because the state-level moratorium ends June 1 and the original July 1 effective date would have been too late. It would also expand the protection to apply to all nonpayment evictions, both rapid “summary” evictions and formal unlawful detainer civil actions.
Supporters said that the measure will help to smooth out confusion and delays when connecting landlords with federal dollars available through rental assistance, and that the bill will help smaller landlords.
“This bill will ensure that we don't leave a single federal dollar on the table for rental assistance. It will also make sure that there's no tenant who gets evicted when there are funds available to keep them in their homes,” Conine said.
Holly Wellborn of the ACLU of Nevada testified in support of the bill, saying the bill is necessary as a response to the “impending eviction crisis.”
“This crisis affects all Nevadans but the history of toxic and discriminatory housing policies and the persistent racially exclusionary practices caused this crisis to disproportionately impact people of color,” Wellborn said. “This bill is necessary to ensure that vulnerable residents do not fall off the cliff of an eviction crisis.”
The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.
The bill, AB486, comes amid reports that landlords are declining to accept rental assistance because of strings attached with doing so — such as a prohibition on evicting a tenant for a certain period of time after receiving the money. Treasurer Zach Conine, whose office is involved in administering the $365 million in federal rental assistance the state has received, said delays in connecting landlords, tenants and the money have emerged amid conflicting interests and motivations.
“Say you own a home that’s a rental home. That home's value has increased, perhaps exponentially, over the last couple of years. And so if you have a renter who's behind on the rent, or even if they're current on their rent, you might want that asset back so you can sell it,” Conine said. “Now, that's obviously in a bit of conflict with what the government's goal here is, just to keep people safe and keep people in their homes.”
Proponents of the bill have described their work in recent weeks as a way to slow the eviction process enough such that tenants can be matched with assistance dollars so the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid is put to use and not reverted to the government.
“In late March, I extended the eviction moratorium for a final time and promised to work with the Legislature toward a solution that will help both landlords and tenants as we approach the end of the moratorium,” Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a statement after the bill was introduced. “This proposed legislation will help ensure federal rental assistance makes its way to the tenants and landlords who need it and will also provide an opportunity for eligible small landlords to apply for and access rental assistance directly.”
Though Clark County’s rental assistance fund is thought to be enough to help 40,000 households, applications are only being approved at a pace of about 1,000 per week; 27,000 have been approved in the county since the program began last July, according to Assistant County Manager Kevin Schiller.
Schiller said the Clark County CARES Housing Assistance Program is looking to receive a third round of funding to continue rental assistance and rehousing efforts. The program administered $92 million in aid in the first round, and right now is working with $160 million.
A major provision of the bill allows tenants to use a landlord’s refusal to accept rental assistance money as an affirmative defense in an eviction proceeding.
Under the bill, a court would be required to dismiss eviction proceedings if a tenant receives rental assistance while proceedings are underway or if a landlord refused to accept rental assistance on behalf of the tenant. Courts would also be authorized to impose civil penalties on a landlord found to have wrongfully evicted a tenant and also would require the landlord to pay a plaintiff’s costs and attorney fees.
The measure also seeks to address the requirement that a tenant must apply for aid, and that a landlord cannot apply on their behalf, even though the money eventually ends up with the landlord. The bill sets up a process for determining whether a landlord is eligible for rental assistance, stipulating that state-affiliated nonprofit Home Means Nevada would create an electronic form that landlords can fill out if they want to receive rental assistance on behalf of tenants who defaulted on rental payment.
To receive rental assistance, the bill specifies that a landlord must meet the following criteria:
Own a single family residence
Seek rental assistance for at least one dwelling unit in the single family residence
Lives in Nevada or employs a property manager in the state
Has an annual gross revenue from all rental units in Nevada of less than $4 million.
Once Home Means Nevada determines that a landlord is eligible to receive assistance, the organization would forward the information to an appropriate housing or social service agency that would then attempt to connect with the tenant.
On the condition that the state receives federal funding on or after July 1, as expected, the bill would also require the state to disburse $5 million dollars of that money for additional rental assistance. The goal is that that allotment would have fewer restrictions than money pre-designated for rental assistance from the federal government — particularly over the requirements that tenants be involved.
“We were trying to figure out a funding source that was going to not have the restrictions that the rental assistance does for those cases when landlords have tenants aren't being responsive,” said Assemblyman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas). “So that there's a pot of money for them when they say, ‘look I would accept … the money and not evict, but I can't get the tenant to engage.'”
The problem that landlords and tenants are not always cooperating in the process of soliciting assistance was acknowledged recently by the Biden administration. The U.S. Treasury has issued guidance aimed at working around the hitch by requiring rental assistance dollars to be given directly to tenants if landlords choose not to cooperate and emphasizing that aid could be used to get a tenant set up in a new home rather than only to keep them in the same living situation.
Schiller said Clark County is working to keep landlords informed and engaged with the rental assistance and eviction prevention programs by holding town hall meetings. Landlords now also have the option to use a portal to submit documentation, which Schiller said would help to expedite payment.
“When we reviewed our initial rental assistance program … the fact that landlords have to put in their vendor information and their W-9s, confidentiality is a key issue in that,” Schiller said at a press conference announcing an eviction prevention program in Clark County that will be a collaborative effort between local and state entities. “We actually did I.T. upgrades to support that portal so they can do that independent of those applicants, which tends to be a barrier to expediting payment in the process.”
Another tenant protection measure that passed out of the Senate on a party-line vote with Republicans in opposition, SB218, would have strengthened tenants’ rights to reclaim their security deposits and would have limited landlords to charging an application fee to no more than one prospective tenant at a time. But the bill died without a hearing in the Assembly.
Some protections survived, including a bill, AB308, enshrining in law a three-day grace period before landlords can charge late fees for overdue rent.
Meanwhile, Clark County officials prepare for the moratorium to end by establishing an eviction prevention program, a collaborative effort between the county, the CARES Housing Assistance Program (CHAP), Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, Home Means Nevada and the justice courts of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson.
When tenants who are served an eviction notice file a response with the court, that will trigger a process that involves a Clark County case worker reaching out to them, guiding them through a rental assistance application and connecting them with other resources as needed.
“Now in the next couple of months, Legal Aid Center, as part of this plan, will be focusing on outreach to tenants. We have been doing our best over the last year to get the message to tenants about what they need to do to protect themselves from eviction,” Jim Berchtold of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada said in the press conference, adding that the outreach efforts will be in multiple languages.
The program is expected to continue past the pandemic to treat housing needs that may follow.
“We're anticipating a wave of evictions with the roll off June 1. We just don't know what the size of that wave is … But we know we're going to have to rehouse people, there will be evictions,” Schiller said. “We know there's a wave coming, our goal is to get as many life rafts in the water as possible… this will not be a short-term process but a long-term process.”
Updated at 5:56 p.m. on 5/20/21 to add comments from Yeager, Schiller, Berchtold and Sisolak.
“Launching the state's infrastructure bank will play a major role in helping to immediately create pathways for good paying jobs in Nevada, while helping to build projects for communities who need it,” Sisolak said during a committee hearing. “We know that our state needs better roads, better schools, more affordable housing and more sustainable forms of energy.”
The hearing focused on SB430, the governor’s proposal to restructure the bank. The proposal expands eligibility for financing to projects that seek to tackle several pressing issues, including renewable energy, access to health care, affordable housing, food insecurity and water. It would also add a representative from the Governor’s Office of Energy to the bank’s board.
But SB430 is meant to complement Sisolak’s $75 million budget proposal to fund the bank. That appropriation, Treasurer Zach Conine said at the hearing, would be enough seed funding to get the long-sought infrastructure bank going. Yet the bank will need more funding in the future.
The initial $75 million in funding would come through a general obligation bond through the Treasury. But Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said he was “alarmed at the small number,” noting that other states have faltered in establishing infrastructure banks because they were undercapitalized. Conine acknowledged that the $75 million is only a starting point for the bank.
He said federal recovery and infrastructure funding could be layered onto the seed money, and there might be opportunities for private investment once the bank was operational. He said there are “billions of dollars in capital” from pension funds and investors seeking a high return without making a riskier bet on the stock market.
“We think, based on all of our conversations and talking to these funds, that there's an opportunity for that money to come to Nevada,” he said. “This is the tool that helps us get it.”
Lawmakers on the Senate Growth and Infrastructure Committee also wanted to ensure that the bank was filling gaps in the current system and reaching out to communities that could most benefit from the financing. Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) stressed the importance of reaching out to underserved communities, especially as it related to entrepreneurship in the new energy economy.
During the hearing, Conine said “the focus of the infrastructure bank is on helping underserved and unserved communities.” That mission, he suggested, could be incorporated into the bank’s rubric for identifying projects. Lawmakers voted SB430 out of committee on Wednesday.
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Tiny specks of degraded plastics have been documented in the snowpack around Lake Tahoe — and in the lake itself. They have been found in the Las Vegas Wash. The phenomenon is not unique to Nevada. Microplastics, the end product of our plastic consumption, have been found in ecosystems across the world, even in remote areas.
Microplastics are small — less than 5 millimeters — but they are not uniform. They can have different shapes and vary in size. Microplastics from clothing can appear as synthetic fibers, whereas degraded plastic from bags or water bottles might take on a different composition.
That is what we know, and it’s a trend that researchers have documented for many years now. But there are a lot of open questions when it comes to microplastics. Where exactly do they come from? How do they spread throughout the environment? And how harmful are they?
“There is a lot we don’t know about microplastics, and this is part of why it’s so exciting as a scientist,” said Monica Arienzo, who leads a microplastics lab at the Desert Research Institute.
Arienzo is looking to answer some of the many questions posed by microplastics, and she is focusing on the distribution of microplastics in areas like the Sierra, environments characterized by snowpack. In an area like Lake Tahoe, snowpack melts into streams and makes its way into the lake. Researchers want to better understand how microplastics move through watersheds.
Arienzo’s work was recently recognized with an award from the National Science Foundation that comes with a five-year grant to fund microplastic research. We spoke to Arienzo about the growing body of science investigating microplastics and what questions she wants to answer.
There are a lot of unanswered questions, and a big one is trying to figure out where they originate and how they spread. Current research, specific to the Western U.S. has uncovered microplastics in snow, rainwater, freshwater streams and freshwater lakes, Arienzo said. In her own experience, she said basically everywhere she has looked, she has found microplastics.
“We have found microplastics in fairly remote areas,” she said. “So really we are getting this picture that these are fairly ubiquitous, so we’re finding them all throughout the environment.”
But there are a lot of questions about where they originate. Arienzo’s lab has looked at clothing dryers, which vent hot air outside of your house, as one potential pathway for microplastics. In addition to understanding how they spread, other research groups are looking at the toxicology of microplastics in ecosystems and the chemical variations in how microplastics are composed.
A starting point in the Sierra. The Desert Research Institute’s microplastics lab has focused locally on the Sierra and the Lake Tahoe Basin. The National Science Foundation grant, Arienzo said, will look at the distribution of microplastics across the Sierra and over a multi-year period.
“Do we see variations as we move from Tahoe, where there’s a lot of people that are recreating, to other parts of the Sierra where maybe there’s more remote locations,” she asked. “Do we see a different amount or type of plastics? And then how does it change as we go from year to year?
It’s those types of questions that Arienzo said hopes to answer with the new grant.
Whether we like it or not, nearly all of us have a connection to plastics, and we can make an effort to curb our use. One of the things Arienzo said she finds fascinating about studying microplastics is the human connection that we all have to plastics. They are in many everyday products: our clothing, our car tires, our computer keyboards (just to name a few).
“It’s not this sort of ambiguous chemical,” Arienzo said. “We all interact with plastics and we all have a role to play in helping to reduce our plastic use [and] encourage recycling.”
Even proper plastic disposal, in addition to reuse, can make a difference. This week, divers are set to begin circumnavigating Lake Tahoe to help clean up underwater trash that has made its way into the lake, as the Reno Gazette Journal recently reported. Arienzo said divers in Tahoe find a wide variety of trash, including plastic materials that can break down into smaller bits.
“So we know that people still aren’t properly disposing of trash, which is unfortunate,” she said, noting the plastic trash found in Lake Tahoe. “But hopefully we can all do a little better.”
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
CONGRESS AND CARSON CITY
Jobs, jobs, jobs: That was the mantra of a hearing, as repeated several times by Treasurer Zach Conine, on efforts to restructure and fund the State Infrastructure Bank. Why write about the bank in a newsletter focused on the environment? SB430, backed by Gov. Steve Sisolak, aims to make several water, renewable energy and sustainability/recycling projects eligible for loans or financing from the bank, once it is up and running. A one-page summary outlining the governor’s legislation said that it was intended “to maximize job creation, ensure that Nevada can address the climate crisis, and allow the State the ability to prioritize infrastructure projects that will yield the highest returns for communities in need of investment.” The larger story here: Tackling climate change and creating jobs can be complementary goals, not exclusive tradeoffs. Addressing climate change requires new infrastructure — and jobs. Sisolak is leaning into that.
Interestingly, one type of project that is eligible is desalination. I tweeted about this earlier in the week and Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) asked more about it during a hearing Monday. “I’m not aware of any seashores that we’d be pulling seawater from,” Pickard said. “Why are we authorizing that kind of work?” Conine responded: “All of the definitions you’ll see are intended to be as broad as humanly possible, so if there was an opportunity to get involved in a project that made sense from a job creation [standpoint] or for some other economic reason, we would be able to, but we don’t know of any seawater either.” He also noted the state’s track record in exporting water technology.
Federal funding coming toward Nevada: Are we serious about an all-of-government climate approach? Over the next few weeks (or months), it will be worth watching how policymakers view $2.7 billion in federal funds and more than $500 million in additional state dollars. Certainly some of this funding will go to infrastructure. But what kind?
Rep. Susie Lee asked about Yucca Mountain, as my colleague Humberto Sanchez reported. Lee also plans to launch a nuclear waste caucus with Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.)
Coming up: Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) is expected to introduce an energy bill this week.
WATER AND LAND
A tremor in the North: A 4.7 magnitude earthquake struck the area near Truckee last week, and the tremor was felt across the Reno-Tahoe area. The earthquake is an important reminder that although California and the San Andreas Fault gets a lot of attention, Nevada is seismically active. The U.S. Geological Survey released an excellent Twitter thread on what happened.
Drought across the West: On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom extended a drought declaration to most of the state, The Sacramento Bee’s Dale Kessler reports. About 95 percent of Nevada is experiencing severe to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Pockets of southern Nevada and eastern Nevada — an area that accounts for about 40 percent of the state — are experiencing exceptional drought, the most severe level of drought. For a deep dive into what’s going on here, check out USDA’s May water supply outlook.
The challenge and opportunities of a water law: In 2014, California passed legislation to regulate the overuse of groundwater, an extreme problem in parts of the state. High Country News’ Nick Bowlin examines some of the issues around implementing the new water plans.
Industry influences: The Arizona Republic’s Ian James published important reporting on how representatives from major industries helped shape the state’s new clean water rules. It is a great piece that offers insight into how businesses can influence the regulatory policy process.
ENERGY AND MINING
A new mining law reform effort: “For Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, the heightened focus on minerals like lithium, cobalt and copper, means the time is right to completely overhaul the nation's foundational hardrock mining law,” James Marshall reports for E&E News.
Nevada mine operator Barrick posted big quarterly profits: “Canadian miner Barrick Gold has reported adjusted net earnings of $507m in the first quarter of 2021, a 78% year-on-year surge benefitting from increase in gold and copper prices,” Mining Technology reported.
Energy transition means more mineral demand: The International Energy Agency released a new report showing increased demand for minerals to support the build-out of new infrastructure as governments across the world look to meet its climate goals. The IEA report offered several recommendations for moving forward, including recycling. CNBC’s Ammar Frangoul has more.
Reporting from Nevada’s Thacker Pass, New York Times reporters Ivan Penn and Eric Lipton look at the rush to source more lithium in the West and “a fundamental tension surfacing around the world: Electric cars and renewable energy may not be as green as they appear. Production of raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel that are essential to these technologies are often ruinous to land, water, wildlife and people.” The piece offers a lot of good context about national and corporate efforts to secure lithium. I’ll be writing about Thacker Pass in the coming weeks.
Buffett defeats climate measure: “Warren Buffett helped to defeat a shareholder resolution Saturday that urged his sprawling conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc. to inform investors of the risks it faces from climate change. The billionaire also offered a full-throated defense of the oil and gas industry,” E&E News’ Corbin Hiar reports. Berkshire Hathaway (the conglomerate’s energy division owns NV Energy) plays a major role in the renewable energy transition.
Smart-from-the-start planning: TheLas Vegas Sunpublished an editorial last week calling for comprehensive planning for where to locate solar projects, a growing issue around Las Vegas.
Utility regulators to look at the future natural gas: An investigatory docket has been opened.
Tahoe tourism spike: “Lake Tahoe’s recreational resources have been popular for generations, but last year when the pandemic descended upon us the number of people heading for the beaches, the hiking trails, and sledding hills reached new heights,” Tim Hauserman writes for The Sierra Nevada Ally. Some interesting data from the Tahoe Rim Trail Association in the story.
Behind the Bar is TheNevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature.
In this edition: Is this the session lawmakers find a funding solution for the Millennium Scholarship? (No). Plus, it’s another deadline day, the future of Read by 3, building trades back Innovation Zones, major changes to a mental health hotline bill for first responders and details on an affordable housing campaign backed by the home builders.
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Near the end of his 1999 State of the State address, Gov. Kenny Guinn shared a major announcement: His administration would use its sizable share of the national tobacco settlement to fund a universal scholarship program for graduating high school seniors.
That program — dubbed the Millennium Scholarship — was promoted as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide Nevada’s children with the means to advance their education in a way never thought possible.”
“Using 50 percent of the settlement money to fund these scholarships, and reverting the unused portion of the initial years to an endowment fund, will enable us to fund these scholarships in perpetuity,” the governor said at the time. “Without an increase in taxes.”
More than two decades later, the program has become an unabashed success, helping more than 143,000 Nevada students pay for college over its 21-year-existence.
But continued success of the program (as well as Nevada’s population growth over the last two decades) has left the state in an uncomfortable position — the program has grown so large that it now takes general fund (i.e. tax) dollars to continue funding it.
Former Gov. Brian Sandoval started allocating general funds to the program in 2013, and every session since then has seen the state chip in more general fund revenues to help keep the scholarship program afloat. Gov. Steve Sisolak’s 2021-23 budget calls for a hefty $44 million one-shot appropriation for the scholarship program.
Discussion around finding a more permanent and reliable funding source for the scholarship program isn’t new — it came up in 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Now, in 2021, lawmakers are prepared to finally figure out the funding solution for the scholarship program. The only problem is that solution will have to come next session, in 2023, and only maybe.
Any progress on a permanent Millennium Scholarship funding solution will have to come from SB128, a bill sponsored by Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) that would create an interim study focused on ways to improve the scholarship program (as well as the Promise Scholarship and Silver State Opportunity Grant).
“At some point, we have to find a permanent solution for funding these scholarships, but before we can have that discussion, we need to make sure that they're being run as efficiently and that they're accomplishing what they need to,” Denis said during the Thursday hearing.
The study will focus on both student outcomes of the scholarship programs, as well as a “comprehensive evaluation of the short-term and long-term financial viability” of the programs, as well as estimated cost of administering them in the future. It’ll be overseen led by state Treasurer Zach Conine’s office and funded out of the state college savings endowment account.
Conine has been a vocal proponent of finding a permanent funding source for the program, and made what I think is a really good point back when I interviewed him on this topic two years ago — eventually, the size of the scholarship program is going to grow so large that it’ll be nigh impossible to avoid cutting it during any sort of budget downturn.
“Any solution that we can come up with that doesn't require general fund appropriations every year stops the Millennium Scholarship from having this possibility of being a random casualty of the budget process,” he said at the time.
— Riley Snyder
Read by Grade 3 is being downsized and diluted. A new bill would take us back to 2015
There’s no shortage of bad headlines about Nevada students’ academic performance, but reading has been a success story: fourth graders in the Silver State performed on par with their national peers in 2019 after being a year behind them in 2009, and their scores are among the fastest increasing in the country.
Many credit Read by Grade 3, an initiative authorized by the Legislature in 2015 that requires students to read at grade level by third grade, calls on schools to designate a literacy specialist to coordinate reading supports and provides about $62 million a biennium to make it all happen.
But funding was zeroed out during the summer special session, and Gov. Steve Sisolak’s recommended budget restores less than half of it. Because of a transition to a new funding formula, the money will also be sent to a large pot and redistributed to all students, rather than being earmarked for literacy in the lower grades.
The arrangement is drawing criticism from several corners, including Republican senators Heidi Gansert and Ben Kieckhefer, who introduced a bill last week, SB273, calling for keeping Read by Grade 3 money in a separate account and requiring specific accountability for it. Gansert said she’s not necessarily opposed to the new funding formula overall, but is concerned about diluting the funding toward literacy and not establishing a special “weight” of funding for children who can’t read.
“This program is also focused on very young students versus the entire spectrum of age groups that are in K through 12,” she said in an interview. “Literacy is essential.”
The Nevada State Education Association teachers union argued that an unintended consequence of following through with the funding formula transition during a recession could erase progress Nevada has made since 2015 through “strategic investments” in student mental health, Zoom and Victory schools.
“The most important line of accountability between districts and the state is blurred,” said NSEA lobbyist Chris Daly. “While requirements may continue in statute, the impetus for districts to deliver on these legislative priorities is watered down.”
Federal funding might help bail to blunt the pain. Nevada schools are receiving $477 million from the late-December stimulus bill.
But officials with the Nevada Department of Education weren’t able to answer any specifics during a Friday budget hearing about where those dollars, which were formally accepted by lawmakers in February, would be going.
“It will take us some time to go back and review each sub grant to identify specifically how each school district has chosen to invest those dollars, but that we'd be happy to provide that information to your staff,” said state Deputy Superintendent Heidi Haartz.
We’ve asked for them to copy us when they have an answer.
— Michelle Rindels
More support builds for Innovation Zones
Building and construction unions across the state are backing Blockchains LLC’s proposal to build a new city outside of Reno and accompanying legislation that would allow developers with large land holdings to establish “Innovation Zones,” autonomous local governments.
On Thursday, two groups representing building unions in Southern and Northern Nevada put their weight behind the proposal, backed by Gov. Steve Sisolak, who pitched the “Innovation Zone” concept as a key economic development driver for the state’s post-pandemic recovery.
Economic impact studies, cited by Blockchains and the governor’s office, claim the company’s proposal to build a technology park and a new city of about 36,000 residents could create, over time, about 123,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs. An economic analysis also said the plan could generate a total economic impact of $16.4 billion.
Rob Benner, secretary treasurer of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Northern Nevada said in a press release Thursday that “Nevada Innovation Zones, and Blockchains' Smart City proposal specifically, have incredible potential to help Nevada thrive again.”
The trades council’s membership includes local unions that represent workers across the region. The Southern Nevada Building & Construction Trades Council also backed the plan.
The Southern Nevada Building & Construction Trades Council contributed a total of $27,250 to sitting Democratic lawmakers in 2020, according to an analysis by The Nevada Independent. The Building and Trades Council of Northern Nevada contributed $2,500 to Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro.
— Daniel Rothberg
Mental health support for first responders bill severely watered down
A bill that would have established a dedicated commission and hotline focused on mental health issues for emergency responders has been overhauled to severely limit the bill’s impact, after the Division of Public and Behavioral Health estimated the financial impact to be more than $1 million per budget cycle.
With a conceptual amendment from the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson), AB96 would no longer require the establishment of a hotline, and instead would just authorize government agencies that license and regulate first responders (including firefighters, police officers and emergency medical service providers) to contract a non-profit organization to carry out peer support counseling for those first responders.
“I'm just looking at the amendment, right. We're doing just a gut and replace,” Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) said during the bill’s first hearing on Wednesday. “It feels local governments have established relationships… This is definitely meant to kind of be complementary to anything that might be happening within a local entity already.”
With the amendment, the bill would only require the Division of Public and Behavioral Health to maintain a website with information for first responders about available peer support services. That would simply build off of what is already available to first responders in the state through the Nevada Peer Support Network — which offers peer support, mental health resources and toolkits throughout the state.
Cohen acknowledged that the slimmed down version of the bill is the result of a lack of funding. But it would still provide more structure to existing peer support provided to first responders in Nevada, and, as Cohen put it, “basically promote peer support for first responders.”
And though the impact of the bill is limited, those in the meeting discussed an important need to provide support for first responders.
“We have a lot of national data out there that tells us that our first responders are in crisis,” Benitez-Thompson said.
From June through February, a warmline for health care workers that is run by the UNLV School of Medicine received 30 calls. And calls for the Nevada suicide prevention Lifeline increased from 19,000 in 2019 to 21,000 in 2020.
— Sean Golonka
Home builders behind Facebook ads for affordable housing, praise Sisolak
With Nevada lawmakers debating dozens of proposals aimed at addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis, an advocacy group backed by the Nevada Home Builders Association has started running a social media campaign urging the governor and Legislature to “Do no harm.”
Nevada Housing Now, a self-described "grassroots arm of the Nevada Home Builders Association," has in recent weeks launched a digital ad campaign highlighting articles discussing Nevada's record-high rent prices, statistics characterizing the affordable housing crisis and messaging targeted at lawmakers not to make housing more expensive.
"Nevada Housing Now is a key stakeholder that helps promote legislation like SB 257, a measure that streamlines insurance requirements for multifamily for purchase developments," the group wrote in an emailed statement to The Nevada Independent. "We want to work with all advocates and stakeholders to solve Nevada's affordability crisis and assure the problem does not get even worse."
According to Facebook’s ad library, the group has spent more than $450 on the social media platform over the last week, and nearly $40,000 since the page was launched in 2019.
Charges also show that the Nevada Home Builders Association spent less than $100 on advertisements related to the Nevada Housing Now page, but Nevada Housing Now would not provide additional details on its connection with the Nevada Home Builders Association or further comment on its plans for the legislative cycle.
Nevada Housing Now isn’t registered as a political action committee with the secretary of state’s office. The group’s website describes the organization as a “coalition of more than 7,000 homeowners, renters, and homebuilding professionals and organizations including the Nevada Home Builders Association.”
The majority of the group’s advertisements feature statements thanking Gov. Steve Sisolak for protecting housing affordability during the pandemic.
"NHN applauds the efforts of Governor Steve Sisolak during the pandemic to not only keeping the employees in the homebuilding industry working, but also adding nearly 10,000 new homes to a shrinking supply of shelter," the group wrote.
Real estate companies, developers and PACs funded by those groups contributed more than $1.3 million to lawmakers' campaigns with funds from the Nevada Home Builders Association PAC making up 6 percent or $79,500 of that overall total and establishing it as the fourth-largest donor out of those groups for the cycle.
The Nevada Home Builders Association could not be reached for comment.
— Tabitha Mueller
Upcoming bills of note
Lawmakers heading into the eighth week of session have stacked their schedule with a bevy of high-profile measures, ranging from licensing cannabis-friendly events, increasing protections for tenants, upping the penalties for public record violations and making it easier for women to obtain birth control medication.
Below, we’ve listed the hearing times and short descriptions for those high-profile measures. They’re accurate as of Friday afternoon, but are subject to change at any time (given that the Legislature is exempted from Open Meeting Law). For links and times to watch committee meetings, check out the Legislature’s website.
Here’s what to watch this week in the Legislature:
Monday, 8 a.m. - The Senate Commerce and Labor committee will hold a hearing on SB209, a bill from Sen. Fabian Doñate that expands the types of activities and reasons for an employee to request paid time off. It’d also require the Legislative Committee on Health Care to conduct a study regarding the long-term health implications of COVID on casino and frontline workers.
Monday, 9 a.m. - Members of the Assembly Government Affairs committee will hear AB187, which formally designates the month of September as “Ovarian and Prostate Cancer Prevention and Awareness Month” in Nevada. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson — who underwent treatment for prostate cancer complications last week — will present the bill.
Monday, 3:30 p.m. - Legislators in the Senate Growth and Infrastructure will hear details of SB232, which would generally require that any car traveling on a two-lane highway in the state has to keep its headlights on, regardless of the time of day.
Tuesday, 9 a.m. - Members of the Assembly Government Affairs committee will hold a hearing on AB276, a bill by Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas) that increases the size of court penalties in any lawsuit brought about over a delay or denial of public record requests.
Tuesday, 1 p.m. - The Senate Judiciary committee will hear details of SB223, which would prohibit those in the legal system from denying someone’s ability to serve as a juror on the basis of their race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age or physical disability.
Tuesday, 4 p.m. - Members of the Assembly Revenue committee will hold a hearing on AB322, which provides a licensing and regulatory structure for events where the sale and consumption of cannabis and cannabis products is allowed.
Wednesday, 8 a.m. - The Senate Commerce and Labor committee will hear details of SB190, a bill by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro that would create a standing order for birth control medication from the state’s chief medical officer — allowing women to get birth control without a prescription from their doctor, and still be covered by insurance.
Wednesday, 1 p.m. - Expect fireworks during the Senate Judiciary hearing on SB218, a bill by Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) that would make several tenant-friendly changes to state law. Those changes include a clearer definition of a “security deposit,” give tenants a chance to address any issues with a dwelling that could affect the security deposit before the end of a rental agreement, exclude “normal wear” from costs that can be taken from a security deposit, require a grace period on late payment of rent, prohibit application fees for prospective tenants, and also prohibit any fee charged to a tenant not explicitly authorized in state law.
What we’re reading
Lawmakers say they want to stop jailing people for traffic offenses — a practice one critic says is out of a Charles Dickens novel — but the bill faces a wall of local government opposition, Michelle Rindels reports.
A citizen review board that’s supposed to monitor police misconduct rarely contradicts the police, the Review-Journal’s Art Kane finds. Martha Menendez, an Indy columnist and former member, called it “chummy” with the cops.
Things are getting increasingly serious with Republican former Assemblyman Brent Jones’ company Real Water — one consumer needed a liver transplant, and another woman blames the beverage for her sister’s liver failure death, the Review-Journal’s David Ferrara reports.
After the tragic deaths of five cyclists in December, Sen. Joe Hardy wants to bar cyclists from roads with speed limits of 65 mph or higher, but the cycling community is forcefully opposed. Via the Sun’s Ricardo Torres-Cortez.
The 90s-era policy of automatically referring youths accused of certain felonies to the adult system is one throwback that lawmakers want to get rid of this session (Nevada Current)
Do HOA foreclosures feed into systemic racism? Sen. Pat Spearman says yes (Nevada Current)
Vegas PBS’ Nevada Week digs into a Sen. Ben Kieckhefer-endorsed effort to make the state the Esports capital of the world.
Remaining Bill Introductions Deadline: 0 (Monday, March 22, 2021)
First Committee Passage: 18 (Friday, April 9, 2021)
Behind the Bar is TheNevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature.
In this edition: A bill on “Stablecoin” that is totally not related to Innovation Zones, increasing utility regulator fines, changes to wrongful conviction compensation and heartburn on abolishing education-focused commissions, including one created by beloved former Assemblyman Tyron Thompson.
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I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about Texas.
Everyone is generally aware of the massive power grid failures that left millions of Texans without reliable electricity, natural gas service, or even clean water in the midst of a massive winter storm. Dozens of deaths have already been reported and the toll is expected to rise.
I’ve avoided commenting on much of the news in Texas because I’m just not an expert in ERCOT, natural gas pipeline infrastructure or the wild confluence of factors that led to the greatest forced blackout in American history (I also have to write this newsletter). There have been some greatbreakdowns of what exactly happened to the Texas power grid, as well as some not-so-great ones.
But back in 2017 and 2018, I spent probably too much of my time following the debate and issues around potential implementation of a similar retail energy market in Nevada, in the form of Question 3. It would have amended the state’s Constitution to require that Nevada set up a retail electric market similar to the one in Texas and a handful of other “choice” states (I wrote a long story about why the measure failed).
Even if Question 3 had passed, Nevada would still be in a much different position than Texas. ERCOT, the grid manager for Texas, isn’t connected to any other state’s grid in order to avoid federal regulation. Nevada also has a much different mix of fuel resources than Texas, a different geographical layout and different weather conditions and patterns that affect electric supply and demand in different ways.
I don’t want to get too far in the weeds on retail choice states and what happened to Texas last week, again because this is nominally a newsletter about the Legislature and not Riley’s Thoughts About Electric Markets.
One universal takeaway from last week is this: our lives are governed by increasingly complex systems, whether it be the electric grid, health insurance, unemployment insurance or even the operations of the state government and Legislature. At the same time, expertise in those areas is harder to find, and people tend to apply their political priors to complex systemic issues.
It’s why I’m glad to work in a newsroom where I have the flexibility to spend a few days digging into regulatory filings for a more-than-surface level dive into resource adequacy and how worried Nevadans should be about a California or Texas-size grid disaster happening next summer.
I think there’s real value in reporting on complex issues that is not only deep and accessible, but free to the general public. So while stories on utility regulatory filings aren’t going to get the same attention as a story on which players the Golden Knights have signed, there is a real public service in digging into these issues before they reach the catastrophe phase.
— Riley Snyder
Conine prepares Stablecoin bill, says it’s not related to Innovation Zone run on Stablecoin
Treasurer Zach Conine wants to prepare Nevada government agencies to accept the cryptocurrency Stablecoin as payment — although he insists his bill on the subject is unrelated to Blockchains LLC’s well-publicized proposal to create an entire “Innovation Zone” that secedes from the surrounding county and brings in tax revenue through a Stablecoin product.
Conine discussed the concept on Wednesday as SB39 at a hearing in the Senate Committee on Government Affairs, where he fielded a question about the polarizing Innovation Zone concept.
“The way I'm interpreting this bill is that it is connected to this innovation city. And this is a foundational piece for it to work,” said Democratic Sen. Dina Neal.
“It's not connected,” Conine retorted. “So the ability for us to take payment in the form of Stablecoins — and Innovation Zones, at least to the extent that I understand them — have nothing to do with each other.”
Stablecoin is a type of cryptocurrency that is tied to a reference point such as the U.S. dollar, in contrast to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin that don’t have such a peg and are much more volatile. Conine’s bill authorizes government entities to accept Stablecoins as payment in government transactions, just like they can accept credit cards.
“Now one of the reasons we want to put it into statute versus, say, just doing it in the same way that we don't necessarily contract a new piece of statute when we do PayPal or Zelle or something like that, is because we want companies to know that Nevada is open for business, to try and attract businesses that do this kind of thing to try it here,” Conine said.
Stablecoin operators, like credit card companies, can charge a fee for transactions using their Stablecoin. Blockchains LLC envisions creating its own Stablecoin to power “Painted Rock Smart City” and also be circulated well beyond the semi-autonomous Innovation Zone, according to a draft presentation of the proposal obtained by The Nevada Independent.
“In today's connected world, technology changes rapidly and government is often the last to keep up,” Conine said. “Senate Bill 39 presents an opportunity for the state to not only keep up, but to forge a path ahead.”
— Michelle Rindels
Utility regulators seek update to fining powers largely unchanged for four decades
Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission assessed a $200 million fine against Pacific Gas & Electric Company for its role in the deadly 2018 Camp Fire that left 85 people dead.
But if a similar tragedy happened in Nevada, caused by negligence by one of the state’s utility companies, the Nevada Public Utilities Commission would likely only be able to assess a much smaller fine — somewhere in the ballpark of $100,000.
That’s the reason the PUC filed SB18, which was heard Thursday in the Senate Committee on Growth and Infrastructure. PUC officers said that updating the fine amounts (many of which were set up to 40 years ago and never updated) would give the regulatory body the ability to levy fines that would be more than a flesh wound to the massive, investor-owned utilities like NV Energy or Southwest Gas that the commission currently oversees.
“Ultimately, the purpose of this bill is to empower the PUCN to impose fines that are concerning to those companies,” PUC Executive Director Stephanie Mullen said during the hearing. “We don't want the maximum fine amount to be something that they're comfortable paying, nor do we want the fine framework to be so prescriptive that it allows for companies to engage in a cost benefit analysis as to whether it makes business sense to comply with the law.”
For violations of rules and laws covering natural gas storage facilities and pipelines, the legislation (per a proposed PUC-backed amendment) would raise the fine amounts from up to $1,000 per day to $200,000 per day, with a maximum fine set at $2 million (previously set at $200,000). PUC General Counsel Garrett Weir said those amounts were in line with existing federal standards.
The bill would also create an administrative fine category — anyone who provides the PUC information which is “inaccurate or misleading and which the person knew or should have known was inaccurate or misleading.” Doing that, or violating any rulings or orders of the PUC, could now be punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 per day (up from $1,000) and a top-line limit of $10 million (up from $100,000).
It would also raise the fine amount for the unusual crime of operating a public utility without first obtaining a certificate of public convenience (or failing to file a report required by the Commission) from a modest $500 penalty to a maximum fine of no more than $50,000.
Fines are remitted to the state’s general budget account and not kept by the PUC.
A cadre of business organization and utility representatives — Southwest Gas, Nevada Resort Association, Nevada Taxpayers Association, Vegas Chamber — testified against the bill, with a general concern that the fines were being raised too much. A lobbyist for NV Energy testified in neutral, saying that the utility agreed the fines should be raised but thought they should be tied to inflation rates.
Weir said the commission was willing to work on adjusting the administrative fine scale, but he noted existing law requires the PUC to consider the appropriateness of the fine to the size of the business and other mitigating factors. A larger fine maximum would give the PUC more flexibility in punishing bad, but not the worst, behavior.
“I think the commission struggles with determining what to fine an offense where, say, $100,000 is the maximum, is appropriate, but you don't want to send a message that that's an egregious violation, as something where there's loss of life, or some sort of terrible outcome,” Weir said. “So it's really a struggle. You hope to have that larger range to assess an adequate penalty when something is bad, but not the worst possible type of violation.”
— Riley Snyder
Advocates seeking more compensation for those wrongfully convicted
Public defenders and criminal justice advocates are concerned that a bill to revise the law on compensation for wrongful convictions does not include provisions accounting for the time that a person spends behind bars prior to their conviction.
“As the bill is drafted, it says you would receive compensation only after the time you were wrongfully convicted,” John Piro, of the Clark County public defender’s office, said during a legislative hearing on Friday. “However, there is time that you spend in jail waiting for your case to go to trial, and those are years of your life that you lose, as well.”
Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), primary sponsor of the bill (AB104), said he thinks opposition for the bill comes from a good place and that he would “probably love to give even more compensation” to those who have been wrongfully convicted. But he also said he was unsure of the proposals from those opposing the bill as it stands.
“The request really is to compensate folks for pre-conviction incarceration,” Yeager said during the meeting. “And as many of you know, people are incarcerated, right or wrong, they're incarcerated all the time before they get to trial. And right now, if you're incarcerated before you get to trial, and you go to trial, and a jury acquits you, the state doesn't compensate you for that time.”
Nobody testified in support of the bill during the hearing. Yeager said that he would continue to work out issues with the legislation before taking it to a committee vote.
The proposed measure builds off of another bill from 2019, AB267, that makes Nevada one of 35 states allowing people who were wrongfully convicted to collect payment from the state as compensation for the time they lost while behind bars.
Mentoring panel championed by Tyrone Thompson may be spared in commission clean-up
A bill proposed by the Nevada Department of Education would revise and abolish commissions and advisory councils that are no longer in use, inefficient or have overlapping duties, but there is a chance that some on the chopping block — such as the Commission on Mentoring — could be spared.
State Superintendent Jhone Ebert presented the bill, SB76, to the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. It states that the duties of the proposed-to-be abolished commissions, councils, and training programs would be transferred to the Department of Education.
The department hopes that eliminating the committees would make the agency more efficient, as it is difficult to recruit to fill seats on the panels and meet quorum. Abolishing the committees would not get rid of the work the department already does in those topic areas, Ebert said.
The Nevada Commission on Mentoring (NCOM), established by the late Democratic Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, was on the list of being abolished, but Ebert said that the bill would be amended to keep it because it is the only place in state law that details mentoring issues in the education landscape. The bill language is expected to be changed so the mentoring commission remains in statute, but the Department of Education would not be providing the administrative support, which allows the commission to operate independently.
Karl Catarata, a youth commissioner in the Commission on Mentoring, commented in support of amending the bill. He said his experience with the commission has come “full circle,” as he was mentored by Thompson and he is now part of the commission.
“I hope that you all consider keeping the state entity that regularly brings together mentoring leaders across our state and vote in the affirmative for the...amendment this session,” Catarata said. “The commission is always willing to work with you all on this committee and the Department of Education to continue successful mentoring outcomes, while being frugal and efficient about resources for our throughout the state.”
Some boards, commissions and councils currently set for elimination include the State Financial Literacy Advisory Council, the Commission on Educational Technology, the Council to Establish Academic Standards for Public Schools and the Statewide Council for the Coordination of the Regional Training Programs.
Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas) suggested that the Education Committee should look at each commission that is proposed to be abolished and have a more in-depth discussion on whether to keep it or not.
— Jannelle Calderon
Bill would stave off court fees for more people facing eviction
Lawmakers are considering a bill that could help Nevadans facing eviction by simplifying a process to avoid court fees.
When someone is given an eviction notice, they must file a summary eviction notice with the court, which costs $71 in Clark County. During a legislative hearing on Friday of AB107, Bailey Bortolin, policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers, said the fee can pose a hardship for those facing eviction.
“That's a real impediment if the reason that you're there is because you didn't have enough money to pay to pay your rent in the first place,” Bortolin said.
The state already has a law in place that allows Nevadans to waive the fees required to prosecute or defend a civil action, but Bortolin said that that law is inadequate.
“By and large, our fee waiver system allows many people, thousands of people, every year to proceed, but it's not specific in who that should apply to,” Bortolin said. “And so what we've found is really just inconsistent results across the state.”
The bill would expand and broaden the qualifications for who can apply to have their fees waived, including any client of a legal aid program, any recipient of a state or federal program for public assistance, or anyone who “has expenses for the necessities of life that exceed his or her income.”
Bortolin also noted that the courts would not bear the burden of waived fees and that the fees for the civil action filings would be paid by the legal aid providers in the state.
Criminal justice advocates noted during the hearing that the bill would make it easier to dispute evictions at a time when many Nevadans are struggling financially.
“Poverty should never be punished by forcing unequal access to justice,” Liz Davenport of the ACLU of Nevada said during the meeting. “Existing law does not provide Nevada's courts a clear and objective standard for granting fee waivers and further does not provide an applicant with clear guidance.”
The Assembly Republicans revealed their 2021 legislative priorities on Thursday. The caucus has also said its official position is that the 2020 election, where Republicans picked up three Assembly seats, was not “fraudulent.”
Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office is backing a bill to ban no-knock warrants, made infamous through the police killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor.
Behind the Bar is TheNevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature.
In this edition: We track campaign contributions from Blockchains LLC, including to a PAC run by Treasurer Zach Conine. Capitol Police are also severely understaffed, and the “death with dignity” bill is back after falling short in 2019.
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This is a huge accomplishment, and ensures that features like the Sisolak Promise Tracker, legislator bios and our major issue tracker are available to readers in two languages. The project only happened this quickly because of the tireless work by Luz Gray, Jannelle Calderon, CJ Keeney and Michelle Rindels to handle translation and other tasks required to convert the page into a second language.
I bring this up not only because I want to promote the hard work of my colleagues, but also to highlight that the language gap can really keep Spanish-speaking Nevadans out of the normal legislative process.
Look, it’s hard enough to follow the Legislature in non-pandemic times, with the weird web of rules, arcane legal and procedural steps and all the other confusing process things that make it difficult to follow along if one is new to the process.
Now imagine doing that in your non-native language. (If English is your first language, can you imagine trying to follow the Spanish-language equivalent of Kevin Powers?)
There is a concerted effort this year to get the Spanish-speaking community more involved in the Legislature (the #nvlegES hashtag has sprung up this session, and the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus has taken steps to publicize issues that could be interesting to a Spanish-language audience).
But there is certainly a role for journalists to provide news, context and information to a primarily Spanish-speaking audience. This is a systemic problem — despite increasing diversity in the Legislature, the vast majority of full-time reporters covering the Legislature are white men (including myself).
This isn’t a problem that can be fixed overnight. But I think — hope — that continuing to publish and promote high-quality Spanish language content will get a broader audience interested in what happens in Carson City.
— Riley Snyder
Follow the Money: Blockchains LLC spread the wealth before Innovation Zone reveal
Local and national attention has been showered upon the proposal from Blockchains LLC to create autonomous, self-governing “Innovation Zones” since the proposal was first publicized in the first week of the legislative session.
Since then, few details have emerged from the governor’s office or state agencies about the “Innovation Zone” proposals, but it has raised many questions and attracted renewed attention as to why the company with more than 67,000 acres of land in Storey County is pushing for what seems like the 21st century equivalent of a “company town.”
But while the proposal may seem fantastical, the company and founder Jeff Berns aren’t exactly new faces to lawmakers or Gov. Steve Sisolak — both have made sizable political contributions since the company first came on the scene in 2018.
Many of the larger donations have been documented. Blockchains LLC made max contributions to Sisolak and Republican challenger Adam Laxalt during the 2018 governor’s race, and he made a $50,000 contribution to a political action committee (Home Means Nevada) affiliated with Sisolak. Berns also cut a $50,000 contribution to the Nevada State Democratic Party in 2019.
But the political contributions continued into the 2020 election cycle. Berns himself contributed an aggregate of $34,500 to 11 lawmakers, including three of the four legislative leaders and a $10,000 maximum contribution to Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler (R-Minden). Wheeler also received a $10,000 contribution from Mary Berns, the wife of Jeff Berns. Wheeler’s district includes the headquarters of Blockchains and potential future site of the “Innovation Zone.”
David Berns, former president of the company and brother of Jeff Berns, also made a $1,000 contribution to Assembly members Jill Tolles (R-Reno) and $1,500 to Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno).
Outside of direct contributions, Jeff Berns also made direct contributions to a political action committee affiliated with state Treasurer Zach Conine (Berns also contributed $10,000 to Conine’s campaign account in April 2020).
The PAC, “Let’s Get to Work Nevada,” is registered to Conine and his wife, Layke Martin, and reported receiving $60,000 in contributions from Jeff Berns in 2020 (out of $65,100 total raised through the year). It has little presence outside a bare-bones website, but contributed a combined $20,500 to primarily legislative Democratic candidates through 2020.
In an email, Conine said the PAC was set up to support “candidates and causes that work to advance opportunities for all Nevadans through effective economic growth, strategic investments in infrastructure, and innovative ideas that move our State forward.”
“Jeff Berns shares this same vision, and I'm grateful for all of his support to help elect candidates who are dedicated to building a better and more inclusive Nevada,” he wrote in the email.
(Disclosure: The Nevada Independent has received donations of $35,000 from Blockchains and $375,000 from Jeff Berns. I’ve spoken to Berns twice — once for a story where the company purchased a small bank in Las Vegas, and the other time during an Indy fundraising event in February 2020. Berns was dressed as Jon Snow from Game of Thrones.)
Conine and the state Treasurer’s Office have been heavily involved in several aspects of Sisolak’s economy-focused legislative agenda (including implementation of a small business grant program approved by lawmakers last week), though his office and other state agencies have largely avoided commenting on the Innovation Zone proposal since the State of the State address.
While Berns has made campaign contributions to lawmakers in both parties, the focus on Democratic lawmakers and a PAC supporting them isn’t necessarily surprising given that Democrats control both legislative chambers.
There hasn’t been much organized Republican push back quite yet on the proposal, though the Nevada Republican Party described the concept in a Facebook post as “Sisolak’s new plan to allow Big Tech to create their own governments in Nevada”.
— Riley Snyder
Capitol Police severely understaffed after year packed with protests
Low pay and long hours driven by frequent protests in the last year have left the state’s Capitol Police Division facing a severe staffing shortage.
During a legislative meeting on Thursday, officials from the Department of Public Safety revealed that of the division’s 21 full-time employee positions, nine are vacant and another seven officers have given notices to leave. The Capitol Police Division provides police services to state buildings in Carson City and Las Vegas, including the Capitol Building, Governor’s Mansion and the Grant Sawyer Building.
A recurrent topic throughout the meeting was the department’s recruitment struggles, which were noted by Sheri Brueggemann, the public safety department’s deputy director.
“Again, the pay parity, so the issue with Capitol Police is they are below their sister agencies, which are below the local law enforcement,” Brueggemann said.
Those sister agencies, including the Highway Patrol and Parole and Probation division, along with local law enforcement all had to provide help to the Capitol Police last year, with some agencies sending officers from Las Vegas to Carson City, as the division dealt with an overwhelming number of protests.
From March to June last year, the division spent more than 500 overtime hours responding to demonstrations, as well as another 441 overtime hours policing demonstrations from July through February.
Brueggemann described how Capitol Police face a tough job as they are often the first responders to protests at government properties, and because officers in that division earn 15 percent less than officers in other departments agencies, retention is difficult.
But those struggles stretch far beyond the Capitol Police Division. Department of Public Safety turnover exceeded 100 percent in each of the last three years, reaching a high point last year when the number of sworn officers who left the department outnumbered the cadets hired by 81 to 60.
Aside from the pay disparity, the background investigation and hiring process also eliminates a large number of candidates. Mavis Affo, human resources manager for the department, said that it takes about 100 applicants to get five candidates to attend the training academy.
Death with Dignity legislation is back after failing to pass in three prior sessions
Nevada lawmakers may once again take up the dicey issue of whether people should be able to take life-ending drugs if they have a terminal illness.
Democratic Sen. Dallas Harris’ Death with Dignity bill, SB105, dropped on Tuesday, and she said Democratic Assemblyman Edgar Flores will take up the issue on the Assembly side.
“Believe it or not, as a progressive, sometimes I'd like the government to get out of the way,” she said. “I just fundamentally believe people should have a right to do this in discussion with not one doctor, but two.”
Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office was noncommittal Friday on whether he would sign or veto such a bill. The physician aid-in-dying concept has failed in recent sessions, including in 2019, when such a bill passed out of committee but never came up for a vote on the Senate floor, in spite of the celebrity endorsement of civil rights icon Dolores Huerta.
In 2017, it narrowly passed out of the Senate after a Republican and independent joined Democrats in support, but Democrats Aaron Ford and Mo Denis opposed it. It died in an Assembly committee.
And in 2015, a bill on the issue never came up for discussion. Republican Sen. Joe Hardy, a physician and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, did not grant it a hearing in the committee he chaired.
Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer had been a co-sponsor of such legislation in the past, but said he ultimately grew more uncomfortable with the idea as time went on and switched his position.
“I've waffled,” he said. “I'm not embarrassed to say that when it comes to questions of life and death and the divine spark, that I struggle sometimes.”
Harris said some constraints that have been added to the legislation over time may help allay some of the concerns, potentially making Nevada the tenth state in the country that allows a right to die. She said she knows it won’t be an easy discussion.
“I understand the emotion behind it, right?” she said. “I mean, death is the one thing that unifies us all.”
— Michelle Rindels
What we’re reading
Journalists over-use the phrase “must-read,” but this Daniel Rothberg story on Blockchains, Innovation Zones and water rights is, well, a must-read.
Blockchains founder Jeff Berns also did an interview this week with the Associated Press.
Jannelle Calderon on a proposal by Assemblywoman Robin Titus (R-Wellington) to take derogatory language referring to people with disabilities out of the state Constitution.
Our stories on the hearing and signing of the highly touted bill allocating $50 million in grants to small businesses affected by the pandemic.
The number will likely change, but the $1.9 trillion federal aid measure currently before Congress would send $3.9 billion with a ‘b’ to Nevada, which has potentially major implications for the state budget.
That summer special session for redistricting will now likely be after late September, after the Census Bureau announced another delay in release of information needed to draw new district maps. (New York Times).
More national attention on Nevada’s majority-female Legislature (The Recount).
Rural counties want more secrecy on debating projects with major environmental effects. Open government groups and environmental groups say nuh-uh (Nevada Current).
Some transparency concerns with the closed session, though some advocates say remote meetings open testimony to more people (KUNR).
Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) wants to close the “classic car loophole” (I always enjoy seeing crappy 90s sedans riding around with classic vehicle license plates, but that’s just me) (Las Vegas Sun).
Southwest Gas is already pushing back on Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen’s (D-Las Vegas) planned bill requiring them to file cost-benefit plans with the Public Utilities Commission every three years (Nevada Newsmakers).
State lawmakers are moving quickly to process a bill that would provide an additional $50 million for a pandemic-related grant program aimed at small businesses and nonprofits, holding a hearing and unanimously voting the measure out of the Assembly on Wednesday.
“Response to this program has been incredible, but also clearly demonstrated the need for assistance that exists throughout the state,” Sisolak said at a joint meeting of the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees. “We know the need continues. That's why I announced my recommendation to add another $50 million in funds.”
After the hearing, Assembly members suspended normal rules to process the bill faster, approving it on a unanimous vote. It next heads to the state Senate, where it’s also expected to move quickly through the legislative process.
Assemblywoman Robin Titus (R-Wellington) also asked the governor to loosen restrictions on businesses, while emphasizing that there is urgency to pass the bill soon, as it requires all funding to be committed by the end of June. That’s when the state’s fiscal year ends, and any spending after that date is limited because of constitutional requirements that the state fund K-12 education before any other program.
“I am supportive of the $50 million in funding to help our small businesses that have been impacted by our blanket restrictions since last spring. I encourage the governor to loosen restrictions upon them and allow people to make a living,” Titus said.
Small business owners, including Las Vegas-based Empowered Cafe co-owner Cassandra Barslow, said their businesses had been able to stay open through the pandemic because of financial support received from the PETS program.
“The PETS grant just infused this capital for us to be able to keep those doors open and to keep our employees,” Barslow said. “We were about to make tough decisions where we were gonna have to let our employees go and just my husband and I run it, and we didn't want to do that.”
PETS launched on Oct. 19 with $20 million in funding, after an earlier state effort to administer commercial rent assistance awarded less than half of its approved funds. After the approval of more federal funding shortly after the program’s launch, the number of dollars available for small businesses and nonprofits through PETS swelled to $51 million.
In the four days the program was open for applications, the state received more than 13,500 submissions — about 10 times the amount the rent program received.
Conine said that there are no plans to reopen the program to new applicants even with the additional funding because he wants to get the grant money out to those that have been waiting. Conine expects the additional funding will allow grants to be awarded to another 4,500 applicants.
“If we get that additional [$50 million], we'll be able to really chip away at that, and the majority of people who applied in October will get funding,” Conine said in an interview in January.
The bill also requires that all funds be committed by June 30 and requires the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) to send a report to the Interim Finance Committee by that date that details the expenditures made from the funds. GOED Director Michael Brown, said that report would likely include more detailed information about the geographical spread of program funding across the state, as well as more information about how awardees have spent the funds.
Still, small business owners said that grants through the program were a huge relief.
“I am grateful that I was the recipient of the PETS grant, which really helped us tremendously to keep our doors open and for me to make payroll,” said Trina Giles, owner of Gritz Cafe in Las Vegas. “Your approval of this, of this bill will help many other small businesses like myself.”
In a rush to avoid an end-of-the-year reversion back to the federal government, Nevada lawmakers have signed off on a plan that will allocate roughly $207 million in federal COVID-19 pandemic relief dollars largely to equipment costs and salaries of state employees.
During a Friday meeting of the Interim Finance Committee, a body composed of legislators that make budget and fiscal decisions when the Legislature is not in session, lawmakers signed off on the plan recommended by Gov. Steve Sisolak’s budget office to allocate remaining federal dollars largely to salaries and equipment costs that have played a role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not all of the dollars will go to salaries or equipment costs — lawmakers also approved spending $10 million to refresh a commercial rental assistance program and money to support a planned media campaign publicizing rollout of COVID-19 vaccines next year.
But the reason for the rush of spending decisions is because of deadlines set in the federal COVID relief bills, most notably the $1.8 trillion CARES Act, that require all allocated federal dollars be spent by the end of the year or revert back to the federal government.
State budget officials said a combination of that pending deadline, plus clarified guidance on whether coronavirus relief dollars can fund costs in the state prison system, drove the funding decisions presented to lawmakers on Friday.
But a handful of Republican lawmakers, including state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, said that they had concerns that the proposed funding could have instead been used to support more direct relief efforts. Kieckhefer said it would be a “travesty” if federal relief dollars had to be reverted back to the federal government and ultimately voted in favor of the spending proposal, but said that using the dollars to backfill already-funded salaries and personnel costs was too similar to a criticized move by the City of Las Vegas to use CARES Act dollars to fund payroll expenses and employee bonuses.
“I do remain concerned that us using some of these dollars to shore up our ending fund balance may help relieve us of some of the difficult decisions we are going to have to make down the road, but could be put to a higher and better use, considering the needs our constituents are feeling,” he said.
State budget analysts defended the proposed spending, saying state employees including corrections officers have been directly dealing with or on the front lines of the COVID pandemic. The state’s prison system is experiencing a mass outbreak of COVID-19 cases, with more than 3,000 cases among staff and inmates.
Governor’s Finance Office Director Susan Brown also noted that lawmakers had previously approved close to $1 billion in budget cuts during a summer special session, and that initial tax revenue forecasts for the upcoming budget cycle were projecting another down year in 2021. Sisolak has also asked state agencies to prepare up to 12 percent cuts in their budgets for each year of the coming budget cycle, down from the levels approved during the 2019 regular session.
“Putting some of this money back into the state to help bolster the state budget during this fiscal crisis seems like a prudent thing to do,” she said.
Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, who chairs the committee, said coronavirus relief dollars had been spread “fairly equitably across all of the pain” and had addressed multiple community needs without prioritizing one need over another.
“When you have a big pie like this, not necessarily each piece do you like, but in general, I do believe we're doing the right thing for the state at this time,” she said.
In total, lawmakers approved spending of $207 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, with about $176 million of that total dedicated to state agencies — largely dedicated to salary or purchases of protective equipment or cleaning supplies. Out of the $176 million for salary reimbursement, $81.6 million is dedicated to salaries of the Department of Corrections.
Other notable transfers of federal coronavirus relief dollars approved on Friday include:
A $10 million transfer to the School Remediation Trust Fund, with funding allocated on a per-pupil basis for school districts in the state for pandemic-incurred expenses, such as technology, ventilation upgrades, and salary for qualified positions
$6 million to the state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation for a call center contract to deal with unemployment claims
$25 million in salary reimbursements to the Nevada Highway Patrol
$1 million to purchase Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis and Pneumonia vaccines to lessen the burden on hospitals during the pandemic, and $650,000 for an “enhanced vaccination media campaign.” Also $2.2 million in federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention grants for immunization programs and services for flu vaccinations.
Additionally, lawmakers approved allocating another $10 million to the Pandemic Emergency Technical Support Program (PETS), a broad-based grant program for small businesses and nonprofits that have suffered pandemic-related hardship.
The program, which generally gives grants of up to $10,000 to individual small businesses, will benefit 3,486 businesses and nonprofits as of Friday morning, a total that includes funds from the extra $10 million approved for the program by state lawmakers.
“We've talked to dozens and hundreds of businesses, and dozens of them have said this is the money that is the difference between them being able to keep employees on, or shutting down,” state Treasurer Zach Conine told lawmakers during the meeting. “I'm hopeful that we can keep as many of those businesses afloat as possible through this and other programs.”
The former head of the most prominent marijuana trade association in Nevada is one of the final two members named to the board regulating the state’s legal marijuana industry.
Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on Monday that he had appointed Riana Durrett, the recently departed executive director of the Nevada Dispensary Association, to the Cannabis Compliance Board. He also named Dr. Bryan Young, a Reno physician, to the five-person panel.
“These final appointments to the CCB each bring their own unique expertise and insight to the table,” Sisolak said in a tweet. “I am confident their contributions to this board will only amplify the sound judgment and strong regulation carried out by the CCB.”
Durrett had been executive director of the dispensary association since 2015 until the group announced late last month that Layke Martin, a lawyer and the wife of state Treasurer Zach Conine, would take over. Durrett has a law degree from UNLV’s Boyd School of Law and is pursuing a master’s degree in gaming law and regulation.
She represented the industry as a lobbyist through major shifts, starting when the first medical marijuana dispensaries were opening in Nevada in 2015, to the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016 and numerous changes to law and regulation since. She is married to Democratic state Sen. James Ohrenschall.
Young worked as a physician in Las Vegas and has spent the last 12 years practicing in the Reno area. He has his medical degree from the University of Nevada School of Medicine.
Other members of the board include former Gaming Control Board chair Dennis Neilander and Las Vegas banker Jerrie Merritt. The board is chaired by former Nevada Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Douglas.
The bill authorizing the board requires that the panel include a cannabis industry expert, an attorney, a doctor, a finance expert and someone with law enforcement or investigation training.
The board took over cannabis industry regulation duties from the Nevada Department of Taxation on July 1 with a vision of bringing Nevada’s “gold standard” gaming regulation protocols to the marijuana industry. In its first few months of operation, the board has adopted new regulations on the industry, lifted a freeze on license transfers, and levied complaints and record-setting fines against companies accused of violating state rules.
Board members, who are appointed by the governor, work part-time and are paid annual salaries ranging from $20,000 to $27,500.