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Tales from #NVLeg: Notes on the 81st Session of the Nevada Legislature

Nevada Legislature

The 81st Session of the Nevada Legislature ends at midnight tonight. So what exactly have they been doing this spring, and what do they have to show for it? On this final day of the session, we take stock one more time of what they’ve done, and of what they ultimately decided not to do.

Editor’s Note: Scroll down to the bottom for updates on the bills featured in this article.
Elections and voting rights: Wait, they did something?
COVID-19, Donald Trump, Corona Scams, This Week in Corona Scams
Photo by Andrew Davey

Of all the policy realms we’ve been tracking in Carson City this year, this is where we’re seeing the most action. After a bit of a hiatus in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee (also known as the Assembly’s “money committee”), AB 126 and AB 321 finally passed out of Ways and Means last Tuesday, then passed the full Assembly last Friday (AB 126 on a 30-11 vote, and AB 321 on a party-line 25-16 vote). AB 126 finally revokes the state’s blessing of the party-run presidential caucus, and instead moves Nevada into a state-run presidential primary. And for all the latest Republican trolling over “AB4-ever”, AB 321 really just permanently extends AB 4’s establishment of universal vote-by-mail (VBM) alongside the continuation of in-person early voting and traditional election day voting, and it includes some election security enhancements. Both bills are set for final Senate floor votes today. 

While national media pundits continue to speculate over AB 126 and Nevada possibly supplanting Iowa and New Hampshire as “first in the nation” for presidential nominating contests, AB 321 marks the more monumental development in voting rights and election administration. As pro-Trump Republicans move to restrict ballot access in swing states like Georgia, Florida, and Texas, and as Trump-aligned Republicans in the Arizona Legislature continue to conduct an “audit” of the 2020 election that’s becoming more and more of a full-blown shambolic fiasco, Nevada offers a stark contrast by expanding and protecting ballot access, and by aligning our election administration process with “gold standard” voting rights leaders like Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. 

As I warned last week, former President Donald Trump and the fascist movement whom he embraced continue to haunt the entire nation, and they continue to taunt us all with threats to overthrow our elected government under the guise of “stop the steal”. As Congressional Democrats remain stuck in a stalemate over national voting rights legislation and the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rules that continue to hold this legislation back, Democrats in the Nevada Legislature showed some real leadership by moving ahead with AB 321. In addition to AB 126 and AB 321, AB 422 recently passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously, and this bill aims to establish a statewide voter registration database. 

As expected, the tax reform initiatives were buried under a mountain of “conversations”.
Nevada Legislature, Nevada Supreme Court
Photo by Andrew Davey

Now that we walked through some brighter news in Carson City, let’s return to the dark and grimy side that we’re accustomed to navigating. Two weeks ago, we assessed how the Legislature’s reaction to the Nevada Supreme Court’s ruling on the 2019 tax and budget agreement is just a continuation of our state’s long-time status quo of kicking the tax can down the road. And last week, we warned about the Legislature priming themselves to kick the tax can even further down the road by blowing off not one, not two, but all three of the mining tax constitutional amendments that the Legislature initially passed during the 32nd Special Session last August. 

Just as we expected, AJR 1, AJR 2, and SJR 1 all died due to Democratic leaders’ decision not to move any of these bills out of committee last week. As a result, none of these initiatives will be on the 2022 general election ballot. Since it looks unlikely that Democratic leaders will reverse themselves again and introduce tax initiatives in any upcoming special sessions (remember, we will need one later this year for post-Census redistricting), any tax initiatives that advance in the near future will have to do so by way of a citizen-driven initiative.

As they were laying the groundwork for killing the mining tax initiative bills, Democratic legislative leaders said they were “having conversations with stakeholders” about an alternative tax deal to recoup some of the lost revenue from this month’s Nevada Supreme Court ruling. For quite a while, those “conversations” didn’t seem to result in any actual legislation generating any new revenue. Instead the Assembly passed AB 487 on a 26-16 party-line vote last Wednesday, and this bill aims to simply suspend previously scheduled Rainy Day Fund transfers while legislators await the start of some $2.738 billion worth of American Rescue Plan dollars flowing into state coffers. It initially passed the Senate on a 12-9 party-line vote yesterday, but that action was rescinded pending the long awaited “mining tax deal” that finally emerged over the weekend.

But wait, the long awaited “tax deal” emerged! But wait, how big of a deal is this really?
Nevada Legislature, mining, tax
Photo by Geomartin, licensed by Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

Last weekend Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) announced another last minute bill, AB 495, to establish a mining excise tax with a 0.75% rate on gross revenue from $20 million to $150 million, and a 1.1% rate on gross revenue over $150 million, and all in all this is expected to generate $170 million in new revenue over the next two years. This bill also includes a grab bag of appropriations, including $4.745 million to revive the Opportunity Scholarship “lite” private school voucher program that was paused in 2019. 

Though the Assembly Ways and Means Committee voted to pass AB 495 last night, it still needs at least two Republicans in the Assembly and at least two Republicans in the Senate in order to reach Sisolak’s desk. Though progressive groups ultimately came around to publicly endorsing AB 495, there has been plenty of private angst over Democratic leaders’ willingness to capitulate on (more serious) tax reform yet again. Also, keep in mind that the amount of mining excise tax revenue that AB 495 is expected to generate doesn’t even match the amount of revenue lost by the Nevada Supreme Court’s decision on the 2019 budget deal, let alone the amount of funding that our public schools, our health care system, and the rest of our public infrastructure needs just to sustain the 3.1 million people who now call Nevada home.

As of this morning, AB 495 awaits an Assembly floor vote. If Democratic leaders can’t get this bill across the finish line tonight, even after they had all those “conversations” that resulted in mining industry “stakeholders” publicly accepting AB 495, that will only strengthen the blow of them killing off all three of last year’s mining tax initiatives.

Here are some updates on some additional bills we’ve been tracking.
U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen Join Governor Steve Sisolak to Discuss the Affordable Care Act and Health Care in Nevada at First Person Care Clinic in Las Vegas: Photo by Andrew Davey

Following the Senate’s unanimous passage of SB 448 on May 21, Senator Chris Brooks’ (D-Las Vegas) omnibus climate and energy bill (with key backing from NV Energy), the Assembly made a few more tweaks in committee. Should SB 448 finally clear the Assembly floor later today, it’s virtually guaranteed to score Sisolak’s signature. 

Following the Senate’s 12-9 party-line vote to pass SB 420 last Monday, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s health insurance public option bill finally scored a 26-15 party-line vote of approval in the Assembly late last night. Since the Assembly only made a few minor changes to the bill with Cannizzaro’s blessing, the Senate is virtually guaranteed to concur with the Assembly’s amendment later today. Sisolak hasn’t yet declared what he intends to do with SB 420, but the growing national attention surrounding this bill that will make Nevada the second or third state (after Washington, and Colorado’s Legislature is currently moving its own public option legislation) to provide some kind of fulfillment of a long-time Democratic Party promise of a public option to enhance the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) may prove too difficult for Sisolak to even consider denying Democrats this milestone achievement.

Photo by Andrew Davey

SB 452, Cannizzaro’s bill to streamline the process for law enforcement to remove trespassers who carry guns from their properties, only passed the Senate 11-10 after Senator Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas) joined all Republicans in voting against the bill. Neal voiced some progressives and civil rights activists’ worries about this turning into a “stop and frisk” regime targeting vulnerable communities, so SB 452 ran into a roadblock in the Assembly and remains stuck in committee as of this morning. Meanwhile the final version of AB 286, Assembly Member Sandra Jauregui’s (D-Henderson) bill to rein in the trafficking of 3D-printed guns and other “ghost guns” that are designed to evade gun safety regulations, was agreed to by Democrats in both houses (as in, AB 286 passed both houses on party-line votes) and delivered to Sisolak for his signature.

On criminal justice and racial justice, we still have three bills in play: SB 369 and AB 424 to reform the state’s bail rules (and comply with a 2020 Nevada Supreme Court ruling limiting the use of cash bail), and AB 440 to limit the detention of defendants accused of non-violent misdemeanors. As of this morning AB 424 now sits on Sisolak’s desk, while SB 369 and AB 440 are trapped in the biennial tradition of super-last-minute legislative “horse trading”, or the negotiation on bills during the final days of the session that occasionally results in otherwise unrelated bills becoming each other’s bargaining chips. Meanwhile Sisolak has already signed into law SB 50, Attorney General Aaron Ford’s (D) bill to limit the use of the kind of surprise “no-knock warrants” that contributed to the murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, last year.

And finally, some last words on the last days of this 81st Session of the Nevada Legislature
Nevada Legislature
Photo by Andrew Davey

Last week, I warned, “The 81st Session of the Nevada Legislature remains on track to cement its reputation as ‘the session of missed opportunities’.” On this last day of the session, I see a few green shoots emerging in some corners while a whole lot of cement hardens elsewhere.

Sure, the Nevada Legislature ultimately took some timely action on a few important issues. Perhaps most notably, they acted to protect Nevadans’ voting rights and expand voting opportunities while our next-door neighbors in Arizona are stuck fighting off the political zombie apocalypse brought on by Donald Trump and his Big Lies. Beyond that lowest hanging fruit on voting rights, Nevada Democrats ultimately agreed to take a few more baby steps on health care via SB 420’s public option, on racial justice and criminal justice reform, and possibly even on tax reform. At least we’re seeing some baby steps, but let’s be real: After falling deep into the hole, we will ultimately need more than just baby steps to get out any time in the near future.

Still, there’s so much more work to do. Sooner or later, the Nevada Legislature will have to go beyond the usual pattern of taking baby steps, kicking the can down the road, and allowing a few green shoots to grow amidst the hardening cement. Sooner or later, they will need to pick up the can and care for the green shoots if they actually want the garden to grow.

May 31 Postscript/Update: Finally, the #SineDie train is leaving the station.
Nevada Legislature
Photo by Andrew Davey

As of 6:15 PM tonight, the biggest final piece of the puzzle finally came on board. AB 495 passed the Assembly 28-14, with Assembly Members Jill Tolles (R-Reno) and Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) joining all 26 Democrats to approve the tax bill following the inclusion of a $15 million appropriation for charter schools and a new legislative study “on the composition of boards of trustees of school districts”. (Hint: Here we go again with the CCSD hand-wringing.) As I’m writing this update now, the Senate passed the (even more) amended AB 495 16-5, with Senators Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno), Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno), Keith Pickard (R-Henderson), and Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas) joining all 12 Democrats in support.

Pivoting to criminal justice, one bill I left out of the original story but want to highlight here is AB 116 to finally decriminalize traffic tickets and other minor vehicular offenses. Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty was warned about how this exacerbates institutionalized racism since at least 2017, and the Legislature finally did something about it this session. The Senate passed AB 116 20-1 earlier today (only Ira Hansen [R-Sparks] voted against), so it’s looking very likely that Sisolak will sign it into law. In grimmer news SB 369 remains stuck in conference committee, though Assembly and Senate leaders finally reached an agreement on AB 440.

The SB 448 omnibus climate and energy bill passed the Assembly 32-10 earlier today, so it’s off to Sisolak’s desk. Cannizzaro’s SB 452, however, remains stuck in the Assembly. And on voting rights, the Senate passed AB 126 15-6 and passed AB 321 12-9 earlier today, so it’s looking like Nevada will get a presidential primary and permanent universal vote-by-mail after all.

June 1 UPDATE: Finally, the 81st Session of the Nevada Legislature has concluded.
Nevada Legislature
Photo by Andrew Davey

Now that Sine Die has happened, we have more certainty on the final end of the #NVLeg end game. With a bloc of progressive Assembly Democrats still opposed on civil rights and criminal justice grounds, and with Republicans still completely opposed despite MGM Resorts’ support, SB 452 died on the vine last night.

However, a tougher restriction on defendants’ possessing guns upon pre-trial release made it into the final version of the SB 369 bail reform bill, and Assembly and Senate Democrats finally concurred on this latest amendment. Staying on criminal justice reform, AB 440 also finally made it out of conference once Assembly and Senate Democrats agreed upon an amendment to tighten qualification for “citation, not incarceration” and exclude defendants accused of DUI’s from this change.

And finally, following up on our earlier coverage of the end of Nevada’s state eviction moratorium, the Senate passed AB 486 17-4 yesterday following a final amendment being added. The amendment tightens up the language specifying that this new renter protection only applies to qualified residential tenants until June 5, 2023. This bill also secures Nevada’s housing assistance funds from the American Rescue Plan by setting up such a procedure to assist renters in need.

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