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.
In late March, Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno) stood up in the Assembly chambers to make history — coming out as openly pansexual, one of just three such state legislators in the country.
“Being celebrated for my queerness is weird,” she wrote on Twitter after the floor session. “Being bisexual and pansexual comes with so much guilt and questioning. Am I queer enough? Am I gay enough? What if I end up heteronormative, am I straight? Y'all, we are all enough and worth celebrating!”
But Nevada, as with many other states, has a long history of not celebrating but persecuting individuals who identify as LGBTQ. Almost 160 years ago, state lawmakers enacted anti-sodomy laws that were used to terrify, blackmail and persecute members of the LGBTQ community — laws that weren’t repealed until 1993.
But the path toward full recognition and equality for LGBTQ populations hasn’t always moved in one consistent direction. Six years before voters approved the same-sex marriage ban, the first openly gay member of the Legislature — David Parks — was elected, kicking off a two-decade legislative career that contributed to the state being named one of the best for LGBTQ rights by the time he left office in 2019.
Peters’ ability to share her sexual orientation on the floor of the Legislature without immediate political or social repercussions is not an overnight shift, but rather a product of decades of advocacy and legislation, LGBTQ advocates and lawmakers say.
Figures such as Parks, former Sen. Lori Lipman Brown, an ally who helped overturn Nevada’s anti-sodomy laws, and Sen. Pat Spearman (D-Las Vegas), the first openly lesbian woman to serve in legislative office, are among those who pushed for equal treatment under the law regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Parks, an introvert by nature, never expected to run for office, but after much “arm-twisting” from members of the state party and after he considered the difference he could make as a legislator, he tossed his hat into the ring in 1996 to run for Assembly.
As an active member of groups addressing HIV/AIDS issues, Parks knew that hiding his sexuality on the campaign trail was not an option.
“There was no way that I could deny that I was gay,” he said. “I don't know if it's the fact that being gay, that I’ve used my life experiences in a way that I'm able to connect with voters from a wide variety of backgrounds, but I seemed to have had a really good connection in that respect.”
Throughout his campaigns, Parks described facing vitriolic, anti-homophobic sentiment from opponents, but he was able to maintain his seat and pass landmark legislation — often signed by Republican governors — that provided funding for HIV and AIDS programs, banned gay conversion therapy programs, established trans-inclusive health benefits, addressed “gay panic” defenses and implemented anti-bullying laws.
“I went through some pretty hard knocks,” Parks said. “[A USA Today headline] said ‘Nevada Ranks the Best State in America for LGBTQ People.’ And that's, I think, a major accomplishment that 25 years ago, I would not have thought that.”
Parks termed out of office after the 2019 session, but his legacy is still felt in the Legislature. Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) said he not only blazed trails for the LGBTQ community, but also brought forward legislation that benefited everyone.
“Growing up, I used to think, if I'm ever going to run, I probably need to move to San Francisco in the most liberal district,” Harris said. “I've got tattoos on my arms and just thought, it's probably not going to happen anywhere else.”
Harris said she did not think it was possible for her to run for public office until she was first appointed in 2018.
While she was in high school, Harris remembers pulling “protect marriage” signs advocating for banning gay marriage in the state Constitution from yards. Nearly two decades later, she watched voters undo the ban from her seat in the Nevada Senate — an office she ran for with a picture of her and her wife and their child on a campaign mailer.
Spearman vividly remembers the inception of the federal policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which condemned discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community but also prohibited military service members from being openly queer.
An Army veteran, Spearman said that discussions around repealing the policy ultimately led her to come out to her community and the church where she was serving as pastor.
“It angered me when I heard some politicians in Washington saying, ‘we don't want them in the military because it would destroy morale and the good order,’” Spearman said. “We've been there. We're in graveyards. We're in Arlington National Cemetery.”
Seven members of her congregation left, Spearman said, but she did not want to hide who she was.
“I'm always conscious of the fact that I am intersectional. I'm Black, I'm a woman and I'm a same gender-loving woman,” Spearman said. “I have to look at it through all of those lenses because that's who I am ... and if you have a problem with it, then one of us probably needs to leave and I'm taking a seat right here.”
Watching Spearman run for office made running as an out bisexual woman much easier, said Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas). She wondered aloud in an interview with The Nevada Independent about past lawmakers and historical figures who had to mask their identity.
“I look back at all the pictures on the walls of all of the former legislators ... and I don't think we'll ever know how many gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans, nonbinary, asexual, otherwise, not cis-gender heterosexual legislators there have been in Nevada,” Scheible said.
Others, including Harris, said that having that representation matters and helps young people to grow into adulthood without having to hide their sexual orientation.
“If there is one kid who was like, ‘Oh, that person's like me. I could do that’ and it inspires them to be their best selves, if that happens, then I have done more than enough,” Harris said. “There is serious power in being here, in walking the halls, in speaking up, and that's just as important, if not more than, the small pieces of the Legislature.”
When Parks was first elected to office, he estimated that there were roughly 50 openly gay individuals serving in public office across the nation, most of them located in coastal areas and major metropolitan cities. Now there are five openly LGBTQ lawmakers serving in the Legislature and 979 openly LGBTQ elected officials in the U.S. which account for 0.19 percent of all elected officials. A little more than 28,000 LGBTQ people would need to be elected to achieve equitable representation in the U.S.
And LGBTQ lawmakers past and present say there’s still a lot of work to be done.
For Scheible, having an openly transgender legislator would indicate increased social progress. Harris said she would like to see more non-LGBTQ members of the Legislature pass LGBTQ-focused laws.
“I think we're all better off when we have everyone thinking about everybody,” Harris said.
Though Scheible, Harris and Spearman are driving much of the legislation surrounding the LGBTQ community, the lawmakers said their focus extends beyond that community.
As a bisexual, white woman, Scheible can mask her identity and does not have to be vocal about LGBTQ or other issues, Spearman said. However, Spearman said Scheible’s outspokenness and willingness to raise awareness is what all lawmakers should strive for, regardless of background.
“It's important for other people, who have access to privilege that I will never have, to understand what courage looks like,” Spearman said.
Below is an overview of bills introduced this session with implications for Nevada’s LGBTQ community.
Equal Rights Amendment set for the ballot box
Nevada voters will have a chance to codify the Equal Rights Amendment in the state Constitution on the 2022 ballot, after lawmakers approved SJR8 this session. The measure would formally guarantee equal rights, regardless of race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry or national origin, and copies language from the still-unapproved federal Equal Rights Amendment.
Democratic lawmakers and a handful of Republicans supporting the amendment hailed it as a landmark change that would codify protections for all Nevadans.
"Despite passing laws that have incrementally eroded pieces of inequality, barriers still exist, laid bare for the world to see in the midst of a global pandemic," Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) said.
Republican Sens. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks), Carrie Buck (R-Henderson) and Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) voted against the proposed constitutional amendment, which was approved on an 18-3 vote in the Senate.
Hansen said that he voted no out of fear that the law would remove protections given to minorities, and the inclusion of gender identity and expression in the bill would allow biological males to compete in women’s sports.
"I don't want to see this body give up the rights for all of my female children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, or any other women in the state of Nevada," Hansen said.
Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) voted in favor of the bill.
"I do understand the concerns of my constituents, that the language will be misinterpreted and misused to promote changes in social order that is incompatible with their personal beliefs," Pickard said. "But while I may share those concerns, I still believe that we should be supporting equality under the law."
Adoption bill passed by committee would allow multiple parents to adopt a child
Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) introduced AB115, which would allow multiple parents to adopt a child without removing another parent from the birth certificate.
The bill would recognize the parental rights of stepparents and same-sex parents and would allow for children who are born to surrogate parents or who have divorced parents to have more than two names listed on a birth certificate.
Cathy Sakimura, deputy director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the bill is vital for children's well-being and would ensure diverse and multi-parent families are "protected and given the same dignity and respect as other families."
Members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the bill on March 12. The bill awaits a vote in the Assembly.
Addressing HIV stigma
To destigmatize human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a bill sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) would update Nevada law to treat the virus in the same way as other communicable diseases.
The bill, SB275, would repeal a Nevada statute that makes it a felony for someone who has tested positive for HIV to intentionally, knowingly or willfully engage in conduct intended or likely to transmit the disease.
Repealing that statute would mean a person who has contracted HIV and engaged in such behavior would instead receive a warning for a first offense. For a second offense, the individual would be guilty of a misdemeanor — a punishment in line with the treatment of other communicable diseases, such as chlamydia and SARS.
"The priority for me is equality," Harris said during a hearing on the bill. "The goal is to remove the statutory stigma that was intentionally placed into our laws all the way across the country that's done nothing but harm to those who have contracted HIV."
Other changes within the bill would remove discriminatory language.
"These laws were written back in the '80s and '90s," said André Wade, chair of the state's Advisory Task Force on HIV Exposure Modernization. "Whenever there's a specific call out of HIV, instead of including it as a communicable disease … then that, in and of itself, is stigmatizing."
The bill was heard on April 1, and as of Friday had not been scheduled for a committee vote.
Sponsored by Assemblywoman Venicia Considine (D-Las Vegas), AB214 would replace language related to sexual assault crimes with gender-neutral language. The bill would remove references to “he or she” and “himself or herself,” replacing those pronouns with “the person’s,” “the child,” and “the perpetrator.”
The bill was heard on March 12, and passed out of the Assembly Judiciary Committee on March 24.
Study on services for veterans
AB172, introduced by Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas), would require the Nevada Veterans Services Commission to conduct a study on the effectiveness of its services for LGBTQ people, women or people of color.
The study would analyze services provided to veterans and military members, and spouses and dependents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, persons of color and women.
The bill hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing, but was given a notice of exemption from legislative deadlines in early March. State lawmakers usually limit the number of interim studies, and wait until the end of the session to approve which studies will go forward.
Strengthening protections against discrimination and harassment
SB51, which comes on behalf of the state's human resources department, would require the state to ensure that its employees do not engage in sex or gender-based harassment. The bill was heard on March 11 but hasn’t yet been voted out of committee.
The bill prohibits state employees from engaging in such behavior against anyone in the workplace, including a job applicant. It also creates the Sex-or Gender-Based Harassment and Discrimination Investigation Unit within the division and requires an investigator to prepare a written report of findings.
The state is already practicing a majority of SB51's proposals, but passing the bill would protect and solidify the investigation unit's role, said Peter Long, an administrator for the Division of Human Resource Management.
In a similar vein, SB109, sponsored by Sen. Pat Spearman (D-Las Vegas), aims to protect LGBTQ individuals by ensuring that their personal information related to sexual orientation or gender identity remains confidential. Proponents say the bill would help address the many disparities LGBTQ persons already experience in health and welfare, including high rates of poverty, suicide, homelessness and violence.
Under the bill, which was heard on March 26 and is scheduled for a committee vote on Monday, individuals would not have to provide a government agency with any information about sexual orientation or gender identity or be denied services or assistance from a governmental agency for failure to provide that information.
A bill on the table would seek to codify a defendant's right to be judged by a jury of peers.
The bill, SB223, sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), would stipulate that the opportunity for jury service cannot be denied or limited based on race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age or physical disability of a person.
"These protections are not a new idea," Harris said during the bill's presentation on March 23. "They just need to be codified to be preserved."
Language in the bill would not affect the process of creating a jury by dismissing people. Instead, it would ensure that the attorneys on the case are not removing people from the already-selected jury based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, age, physical disability, race or religion, Harris said.
"Such discriminatory treatment undermines the justice system and could hurt crime victims by preventing a fair trial by jury of their peers as well," Harris said.
Harris added that although the Supreme Court has ruled that excluding a juror based on race or gender is unconstitutional, neither the Supreme Court nor federal law explicitly prohibits discrimination in jury service based on other characteristics, such as sexual orientation.
SB258, sponsored by Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas), would require the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) to adopt new standards for transgender and non-binary inmates, including adding cultural competency training for correctional staff. The bill was heard on March 29, and was voted out of committee on April 1.
Under the bill, the director of prisons would have to adopt regulations outlining standards in each institution and facility of the department for the supervision, custody, care, security, housing and medical and mental health treatment of transgender, gender non-conforming, gender non-binary and intersex inmates.
Standards would also include the use of respectful language and currently accepted terminology that accounts for and protects the rights of those inmates.
Debora Striplin, coordinator of the Prison Rape Elimination Act at NDOC, said during a hearing that there are about 50 inmates who have self-identified as transgender.
Some committee members worried that broad standards surrounding the fluidity of gender could lead to inmates lying about their gender identity.
"My concern is that we're just perpetuating the same problem if we don't give them clear guidance ... What standards are we going to make the NDOC follow if it's not biological science?" said Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson).
Another bill introduced by Assemblywoman Sarah Peters, AB280, would require all single-occupancy public restrooms to be gender-neutral. Transgender rights activists praised the bill as a necessary step to make people who are nonbinary or transgender feel safer.
Bill would prohibit insurers from denying treatment for gender dysphoria
Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) presented a bill on March 12 that would require insurance companies, including Medicaid, to provide for the treatment of gender dysphoria.
Scheible said SB139 would ensure “trans people are treated equitably and with dignity” and address instances of insurance companies denying medically necessary surgeries.
“When insurers fail to cover medically necessary care, people suffer anxiety, depression, social ostracism, and a higher risk of suicide,” transgender rights advocate Brooke Maylath said during the bill presentation. “SB139 is designed to send a clear message to the greater healthcare community – discrimination is not acceptable in Nevada.”
Those seeking gender reassignment surgery already require separate letters from a psychiatrist or psychologist and a medical doctor. The letters have to attest that the patient has performed certain levels of therapy and medical interventions before qualifying for the surgery.
In 2015, the Nevada Division of Insurance issued bulletin 15-002 prohibiting the denial, exclusion or limitation of medically necessary health care services based on gender identity or expression. For example, a plan covering a medically essential mastectomy for a cisgender woman must also cover a medically necessary mastectomy for a transgender man.
“Despite these laws and policies, transgender persons still experienced denials of coverage,” Maylath said. “Those denials are most heavily felt amongst our Back and brown sisters and brothers. These exceptional marginalizations cause multiple barriers to health and opportunity.”
Treatment, including hormone replacement therapy and surgeries, is considered medically necessary because, without them, the mental health of people who have gender dysphoria would suffer.
“The policy is fairly rigorous to ensure that an individual has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria disorder and has sought several levels of treatment prior to having the surgery paid for and authorized by Medicaid,” said DuAne Young, deputy administrator for the Division of Healthcare Financing and Policy.
Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) has introduced a bill that would broaden the definition of the term “disadvantaged business” in existing law to include Nevada's LGBTQ community, allowing those businesses access the same type of assistance and loan programs afforded to other minority-owned businesses.
The bill, SB237, was heard on March 23 and would apply to businesses owned by an individual who identifies as LGBTQ or have at least 51 percent of its ownership held by one or more individuals who identify as LGBTQ.
“As we work through Nevada's economic recovery, we're going to need to make sure that all of Nevada's small businesses have the resources they need,” Nevada Treasurer Zach Conine said during the hearing. “By elevating the voices of our LGBTQ business community, we can work collaboratively to create a state that is more inclusive and prosperous for all Nevadans.”
Committee members raised the question of whether business owners would require "proof" they are part of the LGBTQ community and worried about potential fraud.
Tim Haughinberry, president of the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Nevada, said the law already requires businesses to be certified to participate in the assistance and loan programs.
“I hear this question a lot, and the truth is, no one is out there masquerading as a disadvantaged person in order to gain some perceived advantage,” Harris said. “This is actually not an issue in practice and generally these types of arguments are only used to suggest that LGBTQ businesses, or even LGBTQ persons, don't need any additional protections.”
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.
Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. This newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.
I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at email@example.com.
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.
Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. The newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.
I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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).
Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a bill Friday morning that provides an additional $50 million for small businesses struggling in the pandemic.
The virtual bill signing of AB106 brings the total expenditures of the Pandemic Emergency Technical Support (PETS) Grant Program to more than $100 million, making it the largest small business assistance program in Nevada history, according to the governor’s office.
The bill was fast-tracked and passed unanimously by the Legislature this week. During the hearing on the bill, Treasurer Zach Conine said that more than 4,500 small businesses and nonprofits have received funding through PETS, which provides awards of up to $10,000 — but the overwhelming response to the program has left some applicants waiting.
“These businesses aren't just brick and mortar. They're people,” Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) said via Zoom at the signing ceremony. “They're the backbone of our communities. By providing direct relief to small businesses and owners and nonprofits, we can help our community businesses keep their rent paid, keep the lights on and keep their workers on their payroll.”
Although the bill was mentioned as a priority in Sisolak’s 2021 State of the State address, Republican lawmakers have this week been critical of the governor’s handling of the pandemic in regards to small businesses.
“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,” Assembly Republican Caucus leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) said at Wednesday night's Assembly floor session prior to the vote on AB106.
On Thursday evening, the governor announced that he is loosening some COVID-19 restrictions starting Monday, including lifting capacity limits for indoor establishments to 35 percent for restaurants, places of worship, gyms and casinos, and to 50 percent for libraries, museums, art galleries, aquariums and zoos.
At the bill signing ceremony, Titus said she was “pleased” that the first signed bill of the 2021 legislative session had unanimous bipartisan support.
“It is my hope that we can expeditiously get businesses back to full operation and quickly,” Titus said on Friday. “I look forward to continuing to legislate in a bipartisan manner as we move forward during these unprecedented times.”
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.”
A pandemic-related grant program aimed at small businesses and nonprofits has already helped thousands of Nevadans, but an overwhelming response to the program’s launch in October has made assisting all of the applicants nearly impossible.
The Pandemic Emergency Technical Support Program (PETS) launched on Oct. 19 after an earlier state effort to administer commercial rent assistance awarded less than half of its approved funds. The PETS program offered broad eligibility, and 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.
Treasurer Zach Conine said that the application period was one of the busiest in the history of ZoomGrants, an online application management system that Nevada and other jurisdictions have used to administer CARES Act funds.
“We've had so much volume through the PETS program that we were slowing down ZoomGrants in the whole country. So there were grant programs in other states and cities that didn't work because there were so many people trying to sign up for PETS,” said Conine.
Through the middle of January, the treasurer’s office and Governor’s Office of Economic Development had sent out more than $40 million through the program to approximately 4,100 small businesses and nonprofits in awards of up to $10,000.
But with so many applications to process, communication between the state and some small businesses has not always been clear.
Roy Brennan, the owner of a hamburger restaurant in Reno called Beefy’s, said he never received a confirmation email after applying for the PETS grant and received only one response from the state that he was in the queue.
Since the pandemic began, Brennan said he has lost one employee and had to reduce his business hours. And in order to expand his restaurant’s capacity, Brennan spends two hours each morning putting up a tent to allow for outdoor seating.
“You're just out there, just lost. It's very frustrating to be left in the dark,” said Brennan.
On Wednesday, the treasurer's office provided comment that Brennan's email was incorrectly listed on his original application, but multiple communications had been sent to him over the last several weeks. And after publication of the story, Brennan said he was in communication with the treasurer's office and that his grant application was approved.
The state has already allocated nearly all of the $51 million that was previously available through the program. But with more PETS funding potentially on the way, applicants, who have not yet received funds through the program, may still be awarded the grant.
In his State of the State address Monday, Gov. Steve Sisolak proposed an additional $50 million in the state budget for the program. That money could be available as early as the first few weeks of February because the Legislature can approve that allocation by designating federal funds from the CARES Act before needing to approve the full budget.
“I’m asking the Legislature, as one of their first items of business, to get this done,” Sisolak said about approving the additional funding for the PETS program.
The program’s process
Conine said that the PETS program is the largest small business assistance grant program in state history. And because the treasurer’s office does not normally manage grants, Conine and his team have had to adjust to new processes that come with administering the program.
“This is something that was generated over the span of a couple of weeks, with a team of less than 10. We've been pretty flexible, looking for ways to speed up the process,” said Conine.
After the application period in October, the first step of the process was to put businesses in a ranked order based on a prioritization list set up by Conine’s office and approved by the Legislature. The list was aimed at those most affected by the pandemic and included disadvantaged businesses, nonprofits, bars, pubs, taverns, breweries, distilleries and vineyards.
After applicants were prioritized, the state began to process requests for funding using a variety of checks. Applicants must have an active business license with the state and have no more than 50 employees, and they must demonstrate that they have faced pandemic-related hardship. Businesses also are reviewed to see whether they are still active and have a physical location in Nevada.
If an application is approved, the recipient must submit paperwork, including a signed grant agreement and banking information, and then the state reviews that information and administers the funds.
But some of those steps can slow the process down. Conine said that he and Michael Brown, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, have had to repeatedly call some businesses to try to verify that the business is real. Conine estimates that of the more than 4,000 approved applicants, he and Brown have talked to 700 or 800 directly.
As Conine and his team handle a massive volume of applications with limited resources, they aren’t always able to provide responses to every applicant.
“I think that our goal here is to communicate with businesses that they are in line, that we're going to fund as many businesses as we can. You know, given the volume of emails and the fact that there's only, including myself, three people answering them, we don't look up everybody's status, when they reach out. And that's just to be fair,” said Conine.
Even as some applicants experience struggles in communicating with the state, others have said that applying for the PETS program was easy, including Kelli Kelly, executive director of the Fallon Food Hub.
“I write a lot of grant applications, usually like to the Department of Agriculture or to the USDA. And this was totally unlike anything I've ever written before,” said Kelly. “It was very straightforward. It was, you know, tell us who you are, provide us with your bona fides, you know, validate the fact that you're a Nevada-based business.”
Kelly said the only problem she faced while applying was the grant website crashing, and technical issues were among the most common problems people experienced during the application process.
“With the exception of ZoomGrants and some technology issues, which are more of a function of volume than anything, we think the process has been relatively smooth ... for a thing that's never been done before in the history of the state,” said Conine.
Jonathan Bradley, who operates a frozen yogurt food truck in Southern Nevada called Spoon-a-Bowl with his wife Ashley, also said the application process was “super easy.” But with limited channels of communication between the treasurer’s office and PETS program applicants, Bradley had to get creative in order to hear back about his grant request.
Bradley said he finally received a response to his application after tweeting at Erik Jimenez, senior policy director for the treasurer’s office.
“I just, kind of tongue in cheek, sent him a message or sent him a tweet saying ‘us next please,’ you know, we desperately needed it at that point,” said Bradley. “And he got right back to me and told me that he was going to look into our profile, and literally within the next 30 minutes, I got a phone call from him — and you know there's few things in life that have given my wife and I more joy than that phone call.”
For Bradley, receiving the grant was a lifeline. As food truck operators, Bradley and his wife had to completely shift their business model when the pandemic hit. Instead of selling their frozen yogurt at events, they had to start delivering their product — and after being denied a grant from the city of Henderson, they were in need of help.
“Looking back on it, had we not gotten that grant, I'm fairly certain that our business would have gone out of business,” said Bradley.
With the grant money, Bradley said he was able to catch up on bills and that he’ll have enough money to survive until his selling season starts up again.
Across the state, other small businesses have experienced flashes of relief because of the money they were awarded through the PETS program.
Cassandra Barslow, co-owner of Empowered Cafe in Las Vegas, said the $10,000 her business received allowed her to hold on a little bit longer.
Barslow trains and employs blind workers, and when the pandemic shut her business down for a few months, she had to let her workers go. Barslow said she was able to reopen in June with the help of a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, but the PETS grant was another huge boost in allowing her to pay her employees.
“We literally cried cause we just got the PETS grant and we—I honestly thought I was going to have to let my employees go again,” said Barslow.
Wyndee Forrest, who owns CraftHaus Brewery in Las Vegas, also was awarded money from the PETS program. Forrest said she had to change her business model four different times to pivot with all of the challenges posed by the pandemic. She applied to the program hoping for a little help with providing for her team.
“It's not going to save us from going bankrupt. It will help us inch by to maybe cover, you know, a two week payroll timeframe, but any grant is always welcome,” said Forrest.
The program’s future
The treasurer’s office is still administering the last of the $51 million that was previously allocated to the PETS program, and Conine said money continues to go out every day. But if the Legislature approves the governor’s request to allocate another $50 million to the program, Conine’s office can begin to approve funds for many more of the nearly 14,000 original applications as early as the first few weeks of February.
That extra funding would come from money left over from the CARES Act, according to Conine. He also added that he wants to get as much money out to small businesses as possible using the PETS program.
A release from the treasurer’s office on Wednesday stated that all applicants who were waiting to hear if they had been awarded a PETS grant, along with those previously denied because of lack of available funding, would be emailed on January 20 with information on the most recent updates to the program, including the possible addition of more funding.
Conine said that there are no plans to reopen applications for the program because he wants to get the grant money out to those that have been waiting.
“If we get that additional 50, we'll be able to really chip away at that, and the majority of people who applied in October will get funding,” said Conine.
Conine also placed a strong emphasis on getting small businesses, in particular, the support and resources they need, and hopes they will help serve as the backbone of the state’s economic recovery.
“Talking to these small businesses, I think it's still very clear how important it is to support their efforts, and try and make sure that they've got the resources they need,” said Conine.
During his State of the State address, Sisolak also announced that Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall will be working to create a Small Business Advocacy Center that the treasurer’s office is also helping with.
As small businesses in Nevada continue to deal with pandemic-related hardships and other problems past the pandemic, the advocacy center is intended to help centralize state resources that exist to help small businesses.
“The goal of that Small Business Advocacy Center, eventually, is to serve as a Nevada 211 for small businesses,” Conine said, “so that they can reach out and say, ‘hey, I'm having trouble doing this,’ and then they can get the help they need to get going.”
This story was updated at 4:00 p.m. on January 27 to include an update about Brennan's grant application.