Business, education meetings dominated Sisolak's calendar amid legislative session
In retrospect, May 21 was one of the most important days of the 2019 Legislature.
A bill getting rid of a scheduled reduction in the state’s payroll tax was introduced for the first time; lawmakers voted out bills adding Nevada to the National Popular Vote Compact (later vetoed) and decriminalizing abortion; and long-awaited hearings were finally held on bills creating a cannabis regulatory agency and substantially overhauling the state’s K-12 education formula.
Gov. Steve Sisolak was similarly busy on May 21, but for different reasons. Amid a packed schedule that saw him attend a wildfire status briefing and the cannabis bill hearing, the governor was also busy on the second-to-last Tuesday before the end of the Legislature calling several high-profile business and gaming executives — Eldorado Resorts’ Gary Carano, Peppermill Resorts President Billy Paganetti and Ultimate Fighting Championship COO Ike Lawrence Epstein.
Described by his office as general check-ins, the scheduled calls were part of a slew of calls made by Sisolak as the legislative session drew to a close, indicating that the governor kept open lines of communication with top business leaders even as lawmakers approved bills raising the minimum wage and requiring large private employers to offer paid sick leave — panned as anti-business by Republicans.
Those meetings and others held between Sisolak with high-powered lobbyists, legislators with major pending bills, federal government officials and a slew of well-known business leaders were revealed in a public records request submitted by The Nevada Independent for the governor’s calendar through the legislative session.
Meetings scheduled in Sisolak’s calendar don’t necessarily confirm that they actually happened, and often provide few details as to the point or reason for them. But information on the scheduled meetings of the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades provides insight into the power structure and important relationships that define and influence what laws and policies are (or aren’t) adopted.
“The calendar provided to the Nevada Independent is the Governor’s working calendar, maintained by staff,” Sisolak spokesman Ryan McInerney said in an email. “Some of the calendared appointments occurred as scheduled, others did not occur at all, or were managed entirely by staff. Moreover, travel schedules for the Governor, First Lady Kathy Sisolak, and the Governor’s family were redacted to ensure the safety of the Governor and his family.”
Although he positioned himself as a natural successor to popular and moderate Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval on the campaign trail, meetings scheduled by Sisolak throughout the legislative session included comparatively more meetings with labor leaders and other constituencies of the Democratic Party. They also reveal details about which individual interests were able to secure time with the governor ahead of major decisions on bills affecting energy, collective bargaining for state workers and health care issues.
But like Sandoval, many of Sisolak’s scheduled meetings show the names ofthe same Carson City power brokers, lobbyists and business leaders who continue to wield the same influence and effect on the legislative process, regardless of the party in power.
Not all details of Sisolak’s calendar were made public — at least 67 events on the calendar provided to The Nevada Independent were redacted. Sisolak’s office said that in addition to travel, the office also redacted telephone numbers and personnel information such as start and end dates.
Here’s a look at the people, groups and constituencies Sisolak met with during the 2019 legislative session.
Sisolak made an effort to meet with all 63 members of the Legislature during the first few weeks of the legislative session — a hectic schedule reflected in the early February weeks of his calendar.
But meetings held with lawmakers outside of those initial meet and greets shine a light on Sisolak’s involvement in the legislative process beyond just signing bills.
The lawmaker who scheduled the most meetings with Sisolak was Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks, who previously served one term in the Assembly and is married to Sisolak’s chief of staff, Michelle White.
Brooks and Sisolak met three times — once on March 13 (the day Sisolak announced the state would sign onto an agreement to follow the Paris Climate Agreement), again with legislative leaders on March 15 and a final meeting on April 2 (the day a hearing was held on SB358, which raises the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent by 2030).
Brooks confirmed in an interview that the meetings were related to several bills related to energy that Sisolak had identified as priorities on both the campaign trail and in his State of the State address. He said early on that he and White had established a “firewall” and worked with other staff in the governor’s office to arrange meeting and discuss strategy.
“We were pretty adamant about making sure she wasn’t involved personally,” he said.
Other meetings held between Sisolak and individual lawmakers include:
- A March 27 meeting with Republican Assembly Leader Jim Wheeler and Blockchains CEO Jeff Berns, described by the governor’s office as a meet and greet that veered into a discussion of issues with wild horses
- An April 30 meeting with Democratic Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez Thompson, related to her bill AB400, which removed certain types of taxes from possible economic abatements. The bill was signed into law by Sisolak.
- A May 17 meeting with Assembly Judiciary Chair Steve Yeager on AB553, the bill creating the Cannabis Compliance Board. Yeager presented the bill in committee about a week later; it was later signed into law by Sisolak.
- A May 22 meeting with Senator Julia Ratti on her dental therapy bill, SB366. The bill was amended twice after the meeting and eventually signed into law by Sisolak.
Sisolak’s meetings with lawmakers merely tap the surface of his involvement in the legislative process; the Democratic governor met with dozens of lobbyists or representatives for various interests groups throughout the entire 120-day session.
Notably, Sisolak recorded holding a short meeting with National Shooting Sports Foundation executive Larry Keane and the group’s state lobbyist, Patrick McNaught, on April 18.
The meeting came nearly a week before lawmakers approved major changes to a major gun safety bill by Democratic Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui, AB291, that initially sought to allow local governments to pass more restrictive gun laws than those put in place by the state (a concept called pre-emption).
But the concerns of the NSSF, which holds the annual SHOT tradeshow in Las Vegas, helped almost sink the bill, and contributed to the removal of that language from the bill. Lawmakers instead added in provisions creating a “red flag” law process, which lets law enforcement and family members petition a court to temporarily seize a person’s firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others.
The NSSF itself issued several warnings about Sisolak in the run-up to the 2018 election, noting that he had promised to institute a long-stalled voter-approved gun background check initiative and to ban assault weapons. NSSF spokesman Mark Olivia said that the meeting was similar to ones the group had across the country and in Washington D.C. with other elected officials, and that the organization was grateful that Sisolak took the time to listen to their concerns.
“This is what any trade association is going to do to make sure their concerns are heard,” he said.
Other major lobbyists that Sisolak met with during the legislative session include:
- Former Assembly Speaker turned lobbyist Richard Perkins and clients on February 19 in Las Vegas
- Former state senator, current lobbyist Warren Hardy on February 19
- A meet and greet with the Jewish Federation and former Rep. Shelley Berkley on March 5. Both supported a bill, AB257, that would have authorized creation of a Holocaust memorial museum in Nevada; the bill failed to pass
- Former Rep. Dr. Joe Heck on March 8
- Dwayne McClinton on behalf of Southwest Gas on March 19
- Golden Entertainment, Dollar Loan Center and Republic Services lobbyist Sean Higgins on March 27
- Barrick Gold Corporation executives Christina Erling and Rebecca Darling on April 17
- Kolesar and Leatham lobbyist Joe Brown on May 6
- Nevada’s Women Lobby lobbyist Marlene Lockard on May 15
- Griffin Company lobbyist Josh Griffin (and “group”) on May 20
- Las Vegas Metro Chamber CEO Mary Beth Sewald on May 23, to discuss “legislation relating to Nevada employers,” a spokesperson for the Chamber said
- Ferraro Group founder Greg Ferraro and former Fennemore Craig lobbyist Jim Wadhams on May 29, in a meeting regarding pending bills and the close of the legislative session. Wadhams also met with Sisolak on April 1.
Within hours after Democratic Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle announced he was resigning from the state Legislature over multiple claims of sexual harassment, Gov. Steve Sisolak was already meeting with his eventual successor — though the governor’s office claims it was just a coincidence.
While reporters scurried and stalked the legislative building in attempts to find Sprinkle or get comments from other lawmakers on his resignation, Sisolak had scheduled a meeting with Greg Smith — the husband of former Democratic state Sen. Debbie Smith. The meeting on March 14 came two weeks before his appointment to the Assembly and over a 15-person field of candidates who filed to replace Sprinkle.
But Sisolak’s office said the meeting was just a coincidence; Smith was brought in to advise the office on several pending bills related to apprenticeship programs (Smith is a retired union apprenticeship program administrator.) Smith did not return several calls seeking comment on the meeting.
On the campaign trail, few organizations were more helpful to Sisolak than the Clark County Education Association, which endorsed the future governor early in the campaign and spent more than a million dollars in third-party campaign ads ahead of the 2018 election.
Once in office, Sisolak’s door was open to the teacher’s union and its polarizing leader, John Vellardita. The governor and Vellardita met or called at least twice (once on March 14 and again on April 8), and held a meet and greet with CCEA educators on April. In contrast, the Nevada State Education Association (which endorsed Sisolak’s primary opponent) held a scheduled meeting with Sisolak just once, on March 19.
And in a legislative session defined by massive shifts to the state’s antiquated funding formula and calls for more funding, Sisolak also met with various school district and higher education leaders. He met with Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara twice (once on March 4 and again on March 26), Washoe County School District lobbyist Lindsay Anderson on April 4, Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly on February 27, and UNLV President Marta Meana on April 24.
Sisolak also met with State Board of Education chair Elaine Wynn on May 21, the same day as the first legislative hearing on the revamped K-12 education formula.
Calls to major business and gambling company executives took up a sizable amount of Sisolak’s time, especially as the legislative session drew to a close.
Sisolak’s calendars show meetings with Anthony Marnell (CEO of Marnell Gaming, which operates the Sparks Nugget) on April 10, Golden Gaming CEO Blake Sartini on April 21 and Grand Sierra Resort and SLS Las Vegas owner Alex Muerelo on May 9. One of his last calls made before the legislative session ended on May 27 was to Virginia Valentine, the director of powerful casino trade group the Nevada Resorts Association. Valentine said the call was to relay the gaming industry’s support for AB533, the bill to create the Cannabis Compliance Board.
Other notable meetings or calls arranged between business executives and Sisolak include:
- Eli Lilly executives on February 12
- Beau Wrigley, the heir to the Wrigley chewing gum fortune and CEO of Suterra Wellness (a cannabis company that operates in Nevada and other states) on April 1
- Fidelity National Financial executive Peter Sadowski on April 10. Fidelity is owned by Bill Foley, the owner of the Golden Knights hockey team.
- Former Nevada Cattlemen’s Association president Joe Guild and lobbyist Richard Perkins on April 23. Both lobbied for Union Pacific Railroad
- Kaempfer Crowell attorney Jennifer Lazovich on April 26
At least four of the Democratic presidential candidates met with or calling Sisolak during the legislative session, including billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. Sisolak’s office also said he met with California Sen. Kamala Harris during her trip to Nevada, and that all candidate visits were accommodated based on the governor’s schedule and availability.
He also met with former New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg — who considered but ultimately decided against a presidential run — on February 26, after state lawmakers approved a bill implementing a long-stalled gun background check law. Bloomberg helped fund the group that backed the initial ballot question in the 2016 election.
Sisolak said during an AFSCME forum earlier this month that he wasn’t sure whether he would endorse any candidate before the state’s presidential caucus in February.
Unlike his predecessor Sandoval, who in the 2017 legislative session scheduled calls or meetings with at least 17 Cabinet secretaries and other high ranking officials in Trump administration, Sisolak made relatively few calls to officials in the Trump administration during his first legislative session.
Sisolak arranged a call with former Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Feb. 5, and another call with former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on March 28, the same day Nevada joined a group of states intervening in a lawsuit defending the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.
Sisolak also scheduled a call with Delaware Sen. Tom Carper on April 30, the same day he sent a publicized open letter to Carper and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso to reiterate the state’s “strong opposition to the Yucca Mountain project” (Barrasso and Carper serve on the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works).
Grants management lawsuit
Sisolak’s office also scheduled a meeting entitled “Streamlink Discussion” on April 15, a day after The Nevada Independent published a story detailing how litigation brought by Streamlink had gummed up a grants management software contract that state officials believed could help tap into millions of dollars worth of federal grants.
Although the state took no immediate action after the story was published, Carson City District Court Judge James Russell ruled against the state and in favor of Streamlink in May, leading the Department of Administration to announce it would drop future appeals and re-open bidding on the grants management software contract.
The contract was reopened in July, and the office expects to have the system fully functional by 2021.
Sisolak’s calendar also shows meetings with higher-profile individuals than the normal slew of Carson City insiders.
The governor scheduled a meet and greet meeting with actress Patricia Arquette on March 8, the same day the actress attended a press conference with Democratic lawmakers on several equal pay bills. Sisolak’s office said the meeting was indeed scheduled but never actually happened.
On May 15, he scheduled a meeting with former football star Boomer Esiason on the topic of cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that Esiason has highlighted through creation of a foundation after his son was diagnosed with the disease.
Sisolak also met with legendary labor organizer Dolores Huerta on April 3, and presented her with a proclamation. Huerta came to Carson City to testify in favor of a bill that would allow for physician-assisted aid-in-dying. The bill, SB165, failed to advance out of the Legislature.