Nevada lawmakers met for a marathon day of hearings and votes on Saturday as the clock continued to count down to the end of the 120-day legislative session on Monday.
Amid ongoing behind-the-scenes debate on the future of the state’s two-year budget and the fate of a proposed extension of the state’s payroll tax — vehemently opposed by Republicans — lawmakers passed major bills allowing for collective bargaining for state workers, a wide-ranging gun bill and expanding eligibility for need-based college scholarships.
Although the Legislature is entering its final two days, lawmakers have introduced and scheduled hearings on several major pieces of legislation, including raising campaign finance standards, a possible ballot question increasing property taxes in Reno and a study on a public health care insurance plan.
But much of the work Saturday was done behind the scenes as Senate Republican lawmakers doubled down on their opposition to a payroll tax bill worth an estimated $98 million over two years and presented data showing lawmakers still had hundreds of millions of dollars in unallocated revenue left over after legislative budget cuts. But Democrats have held firm to plans to continue the tax rate, through the form of a bill that would tie revenue to school safety and K-12 education programs.
Here’s a look at what lawmakers passed and introduced on Saturday:
AB155: Silver State Opportunity Grant Eligibility
Senators voted unanimously to pass this bill, which would expand eligibility for the need-based Silver State Opportunity Grant to students taking fewer than 15 credits.
The measure is sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Selena Torres and would give first priority to students taking 15 credits a semester, but allow any surplus to flow to eligible students who are in their final semester of school and then to students taking as few as 12 credits.
Assembly members passed the bill earlier in the week, with proponents arguing that the program had a surplus of close to $1 million after serving all eligible students and those funds could be used to support more students.
Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, who sponsored the bill that originally created the program, has resisted lowering the credit threshold on the grounds that students taking a higher credit load are much more likely to finish school in a timely fashion. He pointed that the scholarship, under the current high rate, has a 60 percent graduation rate that is significantly higher than the rate overall.
But he joined in support of the bill on Saturday. The measure now heads to the governor’s desk.
AB291: ‘Red flag’ laws
Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus moved to refer a major gun bill, AB291, to the Ways and Means Committee on Saturday in the middle of the vote on whether the Assembly should concur with a Senate amendment to the bill.
Republican Assemblyman Chris Edwards argued that it would be “irresponsible” not to refer the legislation to the money committee, while his colleague Al Kramer said the bill had an “unfunded mandate.” Assembly Ways and Means Chair Maggie Carlton, however, disagreed and said that in the event that local governments do have concerns about implementing the legislation, they can seek additional funding from the Interim Finance Committee.
The bill creates a mechanism for law enforcement or family members to petition a court to temporarily seize an individual’s firearms if they display signs of high-risk behavior. It also creates a criminal penalty for negligently storing a firearm where a child could access it, lowers the maximum blood alcohol content for possessing a firearm and bans trigger modifications similar to bump stocks.
The motion to concur on the amendment passed 26-15, with all Assembly Republicans and Democrats Greg Smith and Skip Daly in opposition.
SJR8: Equal Rights Amendment in state constitution
On a bipartisan 18-3 vote, members of the Senate approved a measure that could eventually add the Equal Rights Amendment to the state’s Constitution by 2022. It now heads to the Assembly for consideration.
SJR8, which was introduced last week by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, would add language guaranteeing equal rights under the law regardless of gender, race, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, ancestry or national origin. It will be added to the state Constitution if it is approved in the 2019 and 2021 legislative sessions, and is then approved by voters on the 2022 ballot.
The bill was opposed by only three senators — Republicans Ira Hansen and Pete Goicoechea, and Democrat Marcia Washington. Hansen said he got his political start opposing a similar ballot question in 1978, raising a host of concerns from how the bill would possibly allow for wider abortion access to equality in sports under Title IX.
“I think it’s unnecessary exercise in political futility,” he said. “These rights already exist, there’s nothing we can’t do in this chamber. There’s no issue involving inequality that we can’t address under the Nevada Revised Statutes.”
Democratic Sen. Melanie Schielbe bristled at the suggestion, saying that the amendment should be viewed as codifying equal protections under law and not in the vein of expanding or restricting abortion access.
“If anybody believes they are going to stop abortion by stopping equality, then their priorities are not in line with what this chamber has always stood for, which is to treat people as equals,” she said. “And we can argue over what that means, or how that manifests, but to suggest that we remove equality from the equation in order to get the result that we want, is just plain wrong.
Passage of the bill comes two years after lawmakers approved ratifying the national Equal Rights Amendment on a mostly party-line vote, with Republicans Sen. Heidi Gansert and Assemblywoman Jill Tolles voting alongside Democrats to approve the measure.
SB135: Collective bargaining for state workers
The Senate voted 13-8 on party lines to advance a bill that would give more than 20,000 state workers the right to collectively bargain but would allow the governor to have the final say on their wages.
"I have concerns about the long term significant fiscal impact this bill could have on the state, as well as the fact that I think this Legislature is giving up significant authority to the executive branch of government,” Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer said on the floor.
Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer also raised concerns about a section of the bill that gives the governor unlimited bill draft requests as necessary to carry out the collective bargaining legislation.
"I just don't feel it's wise to grant that many more bill drafts,” Settelmeyer said.
The bill would allow state employees to join 11 separate bargaining units starting in 2021 to negotiate for salary and other benefits. But the results of the collective bargaining wouldn’t be binding as they relate to wages, retirement contributions or other provisions negotiated, such as mandatory staffing ratios.
Gov. Steve Sisolak promised during his State of the State address to allow state workers to collectively bargain, and it has been a major priority for AFSCME.
SB388: Public records metadata bill
The Senate voted 15-6 to approve a bill that would exempt certain personally identifiable information collected by government agencies, such as metadata, from the state’s public records law. Several Republican lawmakers expressed concerns on the floor that the bill goes too far in its attempts to protect private citizen data from disclosure.
“I'm about transparency. I certainly have supported the bill that allowed us to protect first responders and the members of the judiciary and others related to them to make sure that they aren't targeted but this seems to go well beyond that kind of protection and make it very difficult for people to obtain the information particularly where it's already government record,” said Republican state Sen. Keith Pickard. “ I certainly agree that we should be protecting personalized information, but this language I believe goes too far.”
The bill would allow government agencies to deem personally identifiable information collected by automated means over the internet or otherwise confidential if it’s determined to “create negative consequences, including, without limitation, financial loss, stigmatization, harm to reputation, anxiety, embarrassment, fear or other physical or emotional harm, for the person to whom the information pertains.”
Democratic state Sen. Mo Denis indicated earlier this week that he was working on a bill to narrow the language to only apply to metadata collected as part of the Smart City program. However, the bill passed without amendment.
SB556: Property taxes for police and firefighters
As expected, Democratic state Sen. Julia Ratti introduced a bill on Saturday afternoon to allow cities and counties to ask voters in 2020 whether to raise property taxes to pay for more police officers and firefighters. The legislation, SB556, would allow cities and counties to ask voters whether they want to pay a 5 cent property tax per $100 of valuation.
A lobbyist for the city of Reno, which is pushing for the legislation, projected that the proposal would allow the city to raise $4 million a year. The introduction of the bill comes as lawmakers have decided not to take up the issue of property taxes this session in the form of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed depreciation in property taxes to reset on sale.
The bill would only apply to counties and cities located in counties with a population of less than 700,000, meaning Clark County is ineligible. Clark County has raised additional revenue for more police officers through an increased sales tax.
The Senate Revenue and Economic Development Committee heard the bill Saturday night.
SCR10: Public health insurance plan
The Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee introduced SCR10 behind the bar late Saturday night to direct the Legislative Commission to study the feasibility, viability, and design of a public health care insurance plan that can be offered to all Nevadans.
The introduction of the resolution comes after efforts to develop a Medicaid buy-in health insurance program stalled earlier this year following the resignation of Democratic state Sen. Mike Sprinkle, who had spearheaded a working group on the issue between legislative sessions. Sprinkle’s bill draft request to create a public option wasn’t picked up by another lawmaker, and the concept never moved forward this session.
Instead, the bill requires the Legislative Commission study the feasibility of offering a public option health insurance plan through the Public Employees' Benefits Program, as well as possible effects on premiums and the state budget.