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GOP State Senators on the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Behind the Bar is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature. 

In this edition: How lobbying might look once the legislative building re-opens, a controversial home-schooling bill, raising the smoking age to 21 and education bills making it easier to fire principals and requiring all charter school teachers be licensed. Plus, the debut of ‘Carson City Restaurant Spotlight.’

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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 protected]

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There’s finally a path forward for opening up the Legislative Building to the public.

If you missed the story yesterday, staff of the Legislative Counsel Bureau and other “folks in the building” will begin receiving COVID-19 vaccines starting next week. It’s the Moderna vaccine, so it requires the four week waiting period between shots (some folks are trying to guesstimate when that would allow for the building to be opened up again, with predictions for early April. (Nothing set in stone)

Obviously, this is a huge deal in many ways. Republicans in both chambers have been asking for more clarity on reopening plans, and just about every lawmaker I’ve spoken with regardless of party wants the building to be open, as long as proper safety measures can be put in place.

Public participation in the legislative process is important, and while moving to virtual committee meetings has been a great change in terms of increasing public access (versus having to take time out of your day to head to Carson City or the Grant Sawyer building), there is clearly an appetite for a return to some form of in-person meetings.

But thinking back on past legislative sessions, outside of occasional hearings on bills related to school policy or firearms, there really haven’t been huge crowds of people inside the actual legislative building. Again, part of that is access; if you’re a working person in Las Vegas, it isn’t realistic to expect an in-person appearance at the state capital hundreds of miles away.

In a way, the group of people most affected by opening up the Legislative Building will be the state’s lobbying corps — possibly the only group of people I can think of who might be looking forward to being in the building.

So what will the lobbying process look like, assuming the building re-opens in stages?

Several hints were dropped during the bill hearing on AB110, the measure that sets up the new registration system for lobbyists (recall that there has been no lobbyist registration this session, as state law requires them to be in the building).

LCB Director Brenda Erdoes said the measure would require lobbyists to “backdate” their lobbying activities to the first day of the session — meaning that lobbyists can’t get cute and avoid listing clients that they lobbied on behalf of before the bill goes into effect.

By taking out the requirement that a lobbyist be in the building, the bill is likely to pull in additional lobbyists who either don’t normally go to the building or who will avoid going even after it opens in order to avoid potential COVID exposure.

Lobbyists who were registered in the 2019 session also received an email last Friday with a few other bits of information as to how the process will work. For in-person testimony during committee meetings, LCB plans to add an option to the existing virtual online registration system.

LCB is also tentatively planning to have a video conference site available at the UNLV student union, and is working on preparing other sites for remote public comment, per the email.

That said, expect the process and rules put in place for in-person attendance to not be finalized until much closer to whatever date the building opens again (recall that the move to virtual committees wasn’t announced until the Friday before the session started).

But I know many lobbyists are looking forward to in-person interactions in the Legislative Building once again. I thought Nevada Right to Life’s Melissa Clement (regardless of what you think of her politics) made a poignant point during the AB110 hearing — that it’s a lot easier to dismiss and not engage with voices you disagree with when the interaction is virtual, not face to face.

“Right now if I'm lucky enough, and high enough in the queue … I'm just a disembodied voice which you can easily ignore,” she said during the hearing. “It's a little more difficult for you to ignore me when I ride up on an elevator with you, or in the case of Chair (Brittney) Miller when I hang out right in front of your office on those comfy chairs, and I ask you how your kids are, how your small business is doing, or how your drive up from Las Vegas was. This humanizes me. The short little conversations can turn into respect, and a longer conversation on my subject matter expertise. And this, of course, is the basis of lobbying.”

— Riley Snyder

Bill requiring charter school teacher licensure would only affect a few dozen

A bill recently introduced in the Legislature would require all charter school teachers to be licensed — a change that may affect a few dozen people who largely work as specialists.

But the proposed legislation, AB109, would offer a grace period for unlicensed teachers employed on or before July 1, which is the date the bill would take effect if approved by the Legislature. Those teachers would have five years — or until July 1, 2026 — to obtain a license.

The bill was submitted on behalf of the Legislative Committee on Education, which met during the interim. Rebecca Feiden, executive director of the State Public Charter School Authority, declined to comment on the bill. 

But the Charter School Authority — which is the third-largest district from an enrollment standpoint — weighed in on possible changes in September when it sent a briefing memorandum to the Legislative Committee on Education. Only 36 teachers working in SPCSA-sponsored charter schools did not have an active license with the Nevada Department of Education as of October 2019, according to the memo. The vast majority — 2,251 out of 2,287 teachers — did have one.

“The remaining 36 teachers that were identified as not having a record of an active license were primarily “specials” teachers such as Dance, Yoga, Band, PE, Animation, Photography, Weight Training, and Media Arts,” Feiden wrote in the memo.

Existing Nevada law requires that at least 70 percent of charter school teachers have a license or “subject matter expertise”; however, all teachers working with students who receive special education services or those learning English as a second language must have a license. Additionally, it allows some licensing flexibility for charter schools that have three or more stars under the state’s performance framework system.

According to the memo, the Charter School Authority had proposed doing away with references to “subject matter expertise” and any differentiation based on school performance. It also wanted to keep the requirement that at least 70 percent of teachers are licensed but mandate that those teaching core academic subjects — English language arts, mathematics, science and social studies — have a license.

No bill hearings have been scheduled yet.

— Jackie Valley

Un-repealing principal hiring practices

In 2019, Decker Elementary School Principal Alice Roybal-Benson had an uprising on her hands.

According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the school’s turnover rate was high and staff morale remained low, with one writing in a resignation letter that the principal had “cultivated the most toxic and hostile work environment in which I have ever had the displeasure of working.”

At the time, provisions existed in state law that allowed for principals to be moved to probationary, at-will employment status (meaning they’d be easier to remove or fire) if the school rating declined in consecutive years or if 50 percent of teachers requested transfers for two years in a row.

But state lawmakers in the 2019 Legislature took out those provisions — Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) said it was necessary to repeal the law (originally passed as part of a broader series of education changes in the Republican-controlled 2015 Legislature) to avoid a “chilling effect” on administrative employees at school districts, which included a section requiring principals be considered “at-will” employees for their first three years of unemployment.

“If even one great principal elects to move on to retirement or another career because of (the law), it would be a tremendous loss for Nevada's students, with no discernible benefit,” he said during a committee hearing at the time.

But two years later, Denis has introduced a bill reversing those changes, and un-repealing the sections of the 2015 law that made it easier to remove “bad apple” principals.

The bill, SB120, was introduced on Monday and would again require newly hired principals to be employed at-will for their first three years of employment. Principals could also again become probationary, at-will employees if (again) they see more than 50 percent teacher transfers or school rating declines in subsequent years.

The bill would also allow the school superintendent to recommend immediate dismissal of a principal in the probationary period (subject to approval by the school board of trustees). It would also require any school administrator who completes the initial three-year probationary period to reapply for their position every five years, unless they are part of a collective bargaining unit for principals or school administrators.

In an interview, Denis stressed that he expected feedback on the measure and that changes would likely come before the bill comes up for a hearing, but said that school districts still needed more flexibility in dealing with principals who may clash with teachers or parents. 

“My intent is to see if we can find a happy medium, that there's stuff in there to be able to discipline principles if needed, not punish those that are doing good things,” he said.

Denis said while the original language repealed in 2019 was “too strong” and that school administrators generally needed more training and resources, the state should have some sort of mechanism to remove ineffective or harmful administrators.

“A principal that has issues can disrupt the whole school, and that whole school community of parents and teachers and create a lot of issues,”  he said. “The one thing I have learned in all my advocacy over all these years is that for a school to be successful, they have to have a good leader, (they) have to have good teachers. But good teachers, if they have a terrible administrator, cannot be good teachers.”

— Riley Snyder

In response to outcry from homeschool community, lawmakers clarify that civics includes government

On its face, AB19 seems like a run-of-the-mill bill updating the typically dry subject area of curriculum requirements.

However, the bill from the Nevada Department of Education meant to update the state's curriculum for homeschoolers to match those for public schools somehow garnered more than 1,250 opposition opinions, demarcating it as the most contentious bill this session and drawing the ire of angry homeschool advocates, many of whom claimed that the bill presents an "egregious" overreach of governmental authority.

"As government has grown in power and scope, busybodies have found better ways to satisfy their need to mind everyone else's business," said Michael Kurcav, a homeschool parent, during the Tuesday bill hearing. "Busybodies have always disapproved of others' choices, but today, as busy-bullies, they use government to force others to comply with their will."

Though many public commenters argued that the Department of Education has no jurisdiction to bring forward the bill without consulting and including homeschool families, others focused on the decision to remove government from a list of core subjects and instead add civics, multicultural education and financial literacy.

The addition of financial literacy and multicultural education to the state's educational requirements took place during the 2015 and 2017 legislative sessions. 

Officials with the Department of Education said that when English, including reading, composition and writing, shifted to English language arts in 2015, lawmakers also updated homeschool curriculums to reflect that change. 

Fears about losing government as a subject prompted Chair of the Assembly Education Committee Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod (D-Las Vegas) to clarify the definition of civics education.

"Civics is encompassing of government, we are not removing government at all," Bilbray-Axelrod said. "I think that there might be some misrepresentation out there, and I'm going to assume that it's benign, that government is now being replaced by multicultural education. I can 100 percent tell you that is not the case."

Still, opponents of the bill worry that civics will not provide enough of a focus on government operations.

"I know that civics is included in this bill, but I just question the depth of training in government that our students and our children will receive," Gardnerville resident Bob Russo said. "I'm very concerned about replacing government with the subject multiculturalism, which I believe could open the door to teaching divisive ideologies such as critical race theory that can lead to hatred, divisiveness and hostility among our children, instead of bringing them together as friends and young Americans."

Nevada Department of Education Deputy Superintendent of Student Achievement Jonathan Moore emphasized that homeschool parents will still have the autonomy to determine how to teach the material, and the state is not removing that right.

Advocates of the bill said that Nevada's education system does not reflect its diversity. This bill would be a step toward recognizing and honoring minority communities, they said.

"Unfortunately, when we read about our Black neighbors and Indigenous neighbors, we often don't see that beauty and resilience reflected in the curriculum and how we teach, and that our children don't grow up to learn about the beauty of both cultures," said Teresa Melendez, founder and chairman of TallTree Indigenous Education Consulting. 

Lawmakers did not take any action on the bill or schedule any more hearings.

— Tabitha Mueller

Making the smoking age the same as the drinking age

Lawmakers are looking to bring Nevada in line with a federal law passed in 2019 that raises the legal tobacco sales age from 18 to 21.

If the state doesn’t do so within three years, it could lose millions each year from federal grants and a multi-state settlement with large tobacco companies. That funding supports a variety of initiatives including smoking prevention, but it’s also massively important to keeping the Millennium Scholarship afloat.

Still, the bill — AB59 — wasn’t without controversy in the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Health districts and advocacy groups opposed it because they say they want tougher enforcement — including at least one or two compliance checks at retailers each year and the threat of license revocation for repeat offenders.

They don’t think the current penalties are strong enough. Clerks who sell to minors face a civil penalty of $100 that can escalate to $500 for multiple sales within two years, while retailers receive warnings for the first two sales to minors and then face a penalty starting at $500.

That’s more than the $1,000 fine for the first offense of selling a single loose cigarette. 

But Jessica Adair, chief of staff for Attorney General Aaron Ford, defended the policy as a way not to be too harsh with frontline clerks who may be selling to minors for lack of training.

“We had initially proposed a stronger regulatory scheme and penalty process for retailers. That legislation did not pass,” she said. “We, however, did bring to this state ... for the first time, accountability for retailers who sell to minors.”

Stepping into the breach during the meeting to stress unity was Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, who is often seen taking a smoke break outside the Legislative Building. He disclosed that he started smoking at age 13 and is now 67, and offered his help to get the bill to the finish line.

“I know that quitting smoking is easy because I've done this hundreds of times,” he quipped. “And I don't want to see our kids start smoking at their most vulnerable age.”

— Michelle Rindels

Carson City Restaurant Spotlight

I am a non-ironic Little Caesars pizza loyalist (nothing beats the value of an Ultimate Supreme hot and ready out of the Pizza Portal), but I stretched my horizons a bit when I heard Pizzava opened in Carson about a month ago. 

Locally owned, Pizzava has a location in Midtown Reno but also recently expanded to a strip mall on Williams Street perhaps best known for its Starbucks. 

I can report that the Spicy Alfredo pizza — chicken, bacon, and jalapeño on an alfredo sauce base — is tremendous and has just the right amount of heat. Upgraded to add fresh mushrooms and a garlic parmesan crust, which felt like getting a bonus breadstick at the end of a perfect pizza slice.

For about $28 including tip, got a large pie that fed two for two meals. I opted for pick-up, but Pizzava touts “fast delivery” on its site, and perhaps best of all, it’s open late — till 1 a.m. in Carson and till 3 a.m. in Reno — so perfect for deadline nights or marathon bill-reading sessions.

Check it out at 1426 E William St. #3 in Carson City or give them a call at (775) 600-0505. 

Have a restaurant suggestion for the Spotlight? Tell me at [email protected] FYI: We’re not accepting free food in order to preserve the integrity of the reviews.

A soon-to-be devoured pizza from Pizzava in Carson City, taken on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. (Michelle Rindels/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading

Our latest Freshman Orientation on Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas) and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas).

Sometimes you own the libs, and sometimes the libs own you by renaming the airport after Harry Reid.

Taking a look at the state’s new economic development plan, and how it helped inspire Sisolak’s legislative agenda.

Our story on Speaker Jason Frierson’s bill to move Nevada to the top of the presidential nominating calendar. (A long FHQ piece on why the bill will likely need to be amended to avoid a rascal like New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner from maneuvering around the primary dates).

A group of four conservative/right-wing lobbyists are suing to get back in the legislative building.

Former state Senate candidate April Becker, a Republican, is running for Congress.

Backers of the “Innovation Zones” concept have set up a website and social media feed.

The effort to decriminalize traffic tickets is back (notably, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and Senate Judiciary Chair Melanie Scheible are co-sponsoring the measure) (Nevada Current) (Las Vegas Sun).

More details on Steve Yeager’s bill restoring Nevada Day back to Oct. 31, as opposed to the last Friday of the month. (Las Vegas Sun)

The race for Nevada State Democratic Party chair has coalesced on a key question; does Tick Segerblom have enough progressive bonafides? (Nevada Current)

Nevada’s autism treatment reimbursement rate is “considerably” lower than surrounding states, only four other states have a lower rate. (Nevada Current)

Teachers rallied in Carson City and Las Vegas on Monday. (Associated Press)

Sometimes a headline says it all: “Employees say SNHD contact tracing program a miserable failure” (KLAS)

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 22 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 25 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 102 (May 31, 2021)

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