Major bills pass, last-minute surprises abound as Legislature wraps up 120-day session
After a grueling final week, lawmakers closed the 120-day session at midnight by passing an education funding formula overhaul, putting enough money into schools that Clark County School District says it can pay teachers raises and adding tens of millions more to school safety and building projects.
The last day of session is notorious for surprises, and Monday was no exception: Portions of a left-for-dead tenants rights bill were amended into another measure on summary evictions, and nearly $60 million extra was added to projects including a new courthouse in White Pine County, a new engineering building at UNLV and increased Medicaid reimbursement rates.
Much of Monday’s drama came over the Senate vote on SB551, which would extend an expiring payroll tax rate indefinitely and send $98 million in revenue to school safety and funds for teacher raises. Senate Republicans opposed the bill, saying it should require a two-thirds majority to pass and threatening a lawsuit if its signed by the governor, but it moved forward after passing on a simple majority in the Senate and two-thirds in the Assembly.
The final pieces of lawmakers’ major project of revamping a 52-year-old funding formula did not fall into place until the last two hours before sine die. While the bill seemed to be in jeopardy just a day earlier, a last-minute amendment removed a requirement that school funding increase in line with inflation and instead gave the governor wide latitude in setting the schools budget.
And the final day apparently cleared away one of the biggest clouds hanging over lawmakers: Whether the Clark County School District would have enough money to afford teacher raises the governor promised. The district had omitted the raises from a budget finalized last month, saying it could not afford them without making cuts.
“My intention is to work with Trustees through our collective bargaining process to develop a plan to distribute those funds to all our employees,” Superintendent Jesus Jara said in a statement. “Thanks to Governor Sisolak and legislative leaders, we look forward to providing our hardworking employees with an average of a five percent raise.”
Here’s a look at what moved forward on the last day of the Legislature:
Final budget bills pass
Both the Senate and the Assembly finished their main legislative responsibilities — passing a two-year budget — early Monday afternoon.
The Senate voted unanimously to advance three budget bills — the capital improvements project, state worker pay and appropriations bills — early Monday afternoon, sending them to the governor’s desk. The Assembly also voted to pass SB553, the authorization budget bill.
The bills now head to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s desk for his signature.
Nearly $60 million in additional or restored spending not included in the state’s budget were added on Monday to two separate bills that fund a variety of projects from a new courthouse in rural White Pine County, $20 million for a new UNLV engineering building and increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates.
Introduced Monday morning, the amendment to SB501 would in total appropriate roughly $6.7 million to the following projects:
- $1 million to relocate the National Atomic Testing Museum
- $1 million to the Reno Rodeo Association for the advance planning and schematic design of a master plan to “rehabilitate, repair, renovate and improve” the Reno-Sparks Livestock Center
- $500,000 to the UNLV William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration to increase the “diversity of leaders in the gaming industry”
- $3 million to the Springs Preserve Foundation, including $1 million to renovate the Nature Galley and develop ”classroom and indoor play spaces for children” and $2 million for the “design of the Science and Sustainability Center to expand exhibit space and construct a large classroom facility.”
- $709,150 to Vegas PBS for production of the Outdoor Nevada television series (which was cut out of earlier budget recommendations)
Late Monday, members of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee introduced an amendment to SB528 allocating more than $53.7 million in last-minute projects, including:
- $20 million for design and construction of a new UNLV engineering building
- $9.5 million to Nevada Medicaid and Check Up programs to increase the acute care per diem reimbursement rates by 2.5 percent.
- $5.5 million for school resource or school police officers
- $5 million to funding for a new White Pine County Courthouse
- $4.7 million for programs of social, emotional and academic development in public schools
- $2.7 million in block grants for social workers in schools
- $2 million to the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health
- $1.1 million to the Lou Ruvo Center for operations previously funded through the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine
- $1 million to the Nevada Blind Children’s Foundation for afterschool programs
- $1 million to the Office of Grant Management and Procurement for a pilot program to offer matching funds for federal grants
- $1 million to accommodate displaced state government employees during a remodel of the Grant Sawyer government building in Las Vegas
- $649,300 to the Department of Motor Vehicles for computer software
- $458,000 to Great Basin College for a welding lab expansion
- $105,000 to Western Nevada College for refurbishment of Marlette Hall
AB309: Authorizes sales tax increase, casino workforce development
Senators voted along party-lines to approve this bill by Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson that would authorize counties to increase sales taxes by a quarter-cent for education and anti-homelessness programs — but only after adopting an amendment authorizing tax proceeds to be used for workforce training for the casino industry.
The bill also allows school districts some flexibility with restricted funding directed to certain “categorical” programs, which would permit them to use the money for operational expenses. Clark County School District said the measure would free up $13 million toward their shortfall.
But an amendment sponsored by Democratic Sen. Yvanna Cancela late Monday expands what categories that proceeds from the sales tax can be allocated towards — originally only anti-truancy, preschool, adult education, affordable housing, incentives for teachers in high-vacancy schools and reducing homelessness. The amendment allows for tax funds to flow toward “joint labor-management programs of workforce training in the hospitality industry.”
Republicans, including Sen. Keith Pickard, said they did not see the amendment until after it was introduced on the Senate floor, and said it appeared to be a handout to “special interests” including the Culinary Workers Local 226 union, which would benefit from such a training program.
AB236: Criminal justice reform
The Senate voted 19-2 to approve AB236, an omnibus criminal justice reform bill that seeks to enshrine some of the 25 recommendations developed during the interim as a way to reduce the prison population.
“I think this bill is founded in data and years of research on what works effectively on recidivism. It’s the kind of change that we need in our state,” Democratic Sen. James Ohrenschall, who is a juvenile public defender, said about the measure. “We need to ship resources from incarceration to policies and practices which make our communities safer and ensure that people don’t get entrenched in what can be a revolving door in the criminal justice system.”
The latest version adopts more recommendations from prosecutors, including keeping all drug possession charges a felony, albeit on a scale with lower-level penalties for smaller quantities. Drug trafficking charges do not kick in until there are 100 grams, with a higher-level trafficking penalty kicking in at 400 grams.
It also proposes higher penalties if someone has burglarized cars more than once; the previous version of the bill charged that crime as a low-level Category E felony.
As recommended by prosecutors, the amended version excludes people deemed to be habitual criminals from “geriatric parole,” a house arrest option for elderly offenders.
Prosecutors were staunchly against an earlier version of the bill at a hearing on Friday, but said they might come around to support if their amendments were approved. Las Vegas police and fiscally conservative business groups joined progressive groups in support of the measure.
Republican Sen. Keith Pickard said the bill had several things he didn’t like, but on the whole supported the concept of lowering some penalties and improving access to diversionary programs.
“I know it’s not perfect, but we need it,” he said in a floor speech. “We’ve been saying for years on both sides of the aisle that we need to change from merely housing criminals to rehabilitation, making corrections really the right word to use. I think this is really a step in the right direction.”
But Republican Sen. Ira Hansen urged his colleagues to side with law enforcement, who had previously opposed the bill until Las Vegas police came around to it later in the process.
“Even a tiny error on our part could in fact result in people in our community being harmed by, frankly, criminals who should be locked up,” he said before voting against the bill. “I would tell my colleagues to listen to the law enforcement community who opposed this bill.”
SB287: Public records overhaul
The Assembly voted unanimously to approve an omnibus public records overhaul. The bill would, for one, impose fines on agencies that do not comply with the state’s public records law, with $1,000 for the first offense and $10,000 for the third and subsequent offenses within 10 years. Those fees would be paid into an account for us by the Division of State Library, Archives and Public Records.
Other changes the bill makes include requiring an agency to tell a requester the earliest date and time after which it believes the records will be available and mandating that they make a reasonable effort to assist the requestor in focusing his or her request so the records can be produced in a timely fashion. An amendment adopted by the Assembly, however, removes the specific ways in which an agency must assist the requestor in narrowing the request.
The amendment also limits the penalties to just those who “willfully” fail to comply with records requests and specifies that the second and third offense penalties only apply to repeat violations within a 10-year period.
The measure is the result of a bipartisan compromise between Democratic state Sen. Melanie Scheible and Republicn state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer. It passed the Senate unanimously on Sunday in spite of opposition from lobbyists for local government agencies. It now will head to the governor’s desk.
SB557: Campaign finance overhaul
A bill that aimed to require more reporting and greater transparency in campaign finance was stripped back significantly late Monday night.
Sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and introduced just two days ago, the bill initially proposed requiring any organization that contributes more than $10,000 to political candidates to file annual reports with the secretary of state’s office detailing each contribution over $100 and cumulative total under $100. But an amendment proposed to the bill by Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson during a behind the bar meeting late Monday repealed that provision entirely.
The bill now prohibits candidates from paying themselves a salary out of campaign donations and clarifies “personal use” expenses that cannot be paid out of campaign dollars.
Republican Sens. Heidi Gansert and Keith Pickard introduced an amendment earlier Sunday on the Senate side to ban cash donations to political campaigns and requiring quarterly as opposed to annual reporting from campaign donors while lowering the reporting requirement down from $10,000 to $1,000. But Democratic lawmakers opposed the amendment, citing concerns that it could limit political speech. Current Federal Election Commission rules set a $100 limit on any cash donations to a federal political campaign.
The measure passed the Senate unanimously and the Assembly 40-1 on Sunday. Democratic Assemblyman Skip Daly was the lone vote in opposition.
SJR8: Equal Rights Amendment in state constitution
The Assembly voted 33-8 to advance a measure that would eventually add the Equal Rights Amendment into the state Constitution by 2020. The resolution would add language guaranteeing equal rights under the law regardless of gender, race, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, ancestry or national origin.
The measure needs to be approved by the Assembly and Senate once again in 2021 and then it will head to a vote of the people in 2022.
Several Assembly Republicans lauded the diversity of the Legislature, but questioned why the measure was introduced with only about a week left in the session, and said they couldn’t be sure if it carried unintended consequences, including ones dealing with women’s sports.
Democrats eventually called to cut off debate on the measure and take a vote.
The proposal passed the Senate 18-3 on Saturday.
SB151: Evictions and tenant rights
Portions of Democratic Sen. Yvanna Cancela’s bill establishing various rights for tenants were revived and amended into a bill limiting use of summary convictions during an early-morning conference committee.
Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Julia Ratti, SB151 adds limits and a minimum time period before an individual can be served an action for a summary eviction, and was passed on party lines in both the Senate and Assembly.
But in a conference committee early Monday, two provisions of Cancela’s bill were revived — limiting late fees on rental payments to 5 percent of monthly rent, and requiring a person who is evicted be given an opportunity to obtain personal effects from their former dwelling within five days of eviction.
Cancela’s original bill, SB256, was staunchly opposed by real estate interests and developers who said the measure would raise rents and unfairly target landlords. The bill passed out of the Senate on a narrow 11-10 vote and failed to move forward in the Assembly.
The amendment was adopted by the full Senate on a narrow 11-10 vote, with all Republicans and Democratic senators Nicole Cannizzaro and Marilyn Dondero Loop opposed — mirroring the initial vote on Cancela’s initial bill, SB256.
AB139: Child marriage ban
A bill that would prohibit anyone under the age of 17 from getting married was amended in a conference committee Monday afternoon.
The legislation had initially proposed barring anyone under the age of 18 from getting married, but was amended to allow 17-year-olds to get married if both parties in the marriage are Nevada residents, the minor has parental permission, and a District Court has signed off on the union following an evidentiary hearing that the marriage will serve in the best interest of the minor.
The minor will not, however, have to have a high school diploma or general educational development certificate in order to get married following an amendment adopted in the conference committee.
SB508: Wildfire funding
The Senate adopted a last-minute amendment introduced by Assemblywoman Heidi Swank Sunday night to appropriate up to $5 million for wildfire prevention, restoration and long-term planning. Under the amendment, the allocation will be made available to match funding from the federal government, grants or donations.
The measure passed the Senate 40-1 on Sunday, with Republican Assemblyman Chris Edwards opposed.
The provision came out of an informal wildfire working group that met this session with the goal of bridging state and federal firefighter efforts. That group took input from federal land agencies, state natural resources agencies and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s office. Wildfires burned more than two million acres in Nevada over the past two years.
SB544: Patient Protection Commission
The Assembly voted unanimously on Sunday to approve a bill to create a Patient Protection Commission, one of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s legislative priorities.
The commission will be charged with a top-to-bottom review of the state’s health-care system. It will be composed of 11 industry representatives and patient advocates appointed by the government and allowed to establish subcommittees to review major health-care topics in the state, including prescription drug affordability and access to care issues.
The commission will be granted two bill draft requests for the next legislative session and will have only an advisory role with no regulatory teeth.
The measure passed the Senate unanimously last month and will now head to Sisolak’s desk.
SB448: Affordable housing tax credits
The Assembly gave the green light to a measure that authorizes up to $10 million every fiscal year in transferable tax credits for developers working on low-income, affordable housing projects.
The credit is expected to spur development of 600-800 new affordable housing units each year, according to Democratic bill sponsor Sen. Julia Ratti.
SB366: Dental therapy
A bill to establish a new, mid-level dental provider type passed the Assembly 31-10 on Monday, with Republican Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner and Democratic Assembly members Alexander Assefa, Shea Backus, Edgar Flores, Ozzie Fumo, Michelle Gorelow, Lisa Krasner, William McCurdy, Brittney Miller, Connie Munk and Selena Torres in opposition.
Under the legislation, the providers, called dental therapists, will be allowed to perform a number of routine dental procedures currently performed only by dentists, including extracting loose teeth, filling cavities and applying sealants. Proponents say the legislation will help expand access to oral health care for underserved communities.
In hearings on the bill, dentists expressed concerns over the safety of such a proposal and whether it would really expand access to oral health care in underserved populations. An amendment to the bill adopted on the Senate side addressed the latter concern by limiting where dental therapists can practice to only a number of public health settings, including rural health clinics, tribal health clinics, and any other clinics that primarily serve Medicaid patients or other low-income, uninsured individuals.
An amendment adopted to the bill on the Assembly side on Monday deletes a provision that a patient on whom a dental therapist performs service must have been examined by that dental therapist’s supervising dentist within the prior 18 months. It also removes a requirement that dentists be citizens of the United States or lawfully entitled to remain to work in the United States.
The bill cleared the Senate 17-4 last month.
AB81: Department of Indigent Defense Services
Assembly members gave their final approval to AB81, which creates a Department of Indigent Defense Services to replace the expiring Nevada Right to Counsel Commission. The bill creates an accompanying board to oversee an executive director and will help establish minimum standards for indigent defense services, such as guidelines on how many cases individual attorneys should handle.
It would also exercise oversight over county public defender offices.
The bill previously had a $15 million appropriation, but that has been removed.
SB80: Handle With Care Program
Assembly members voted 41-0 to pass SB80, which calls for a Handle With Care Program within the state’s Office for a Safe and Respectful Learning Environment. Law enforcement officers would be required to notify the program if a child has experienced a traumatic event, including domestic violence, the death of a family member or the arrest of a parent.
The program then relays that information to the appropriate point person at the child’s school, who responds to the child’s needs according to their training.
AB84: Conservation bonds
Legislation authorizing up to $217 million in bonds for conservation and wildlife management coasted through the Senate 20-1 with Republican Sen. Ira Hansen the lone vote in opposition. The bill continues a program, approved by voters in 2002, to fund state parks, the Las Vegas Springs Preserve and Truckee River restoration.
The bill, which had bipartisan support in both houses, was backed by several conservation groups. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, one of the main beneficiaries of the bonds, expects to draft regulations during the interim and start the program after the next legislative session.
AB486: Division of Outdoor Recreation
The Senate approved legislation 20-1 to create a Division of Outdoor Recreation, a state office to promote conservation, recreation opportunities and outdoor businesses. States across the West, from Montana to Colorado, have set up offices devoted to growing an economic sector — outdoor recreation — that is often overlooked in valuing public land use.
The bill charges the office, housed in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, with promoting the industry and improving recreation opportunities, while coordinating with other state agencies like the Nevada Department of Wildlife and Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs.
The Assembly moved to pass on a voice vote SCR10, which would direct the Legislative Commission to study the feasibility of establishing a public health insurance program by allowing Nevadans to buy into the state Public Employees’ Benefits Program.
It also approved SCR11, which would establish an interim panel to study the issue of pretrial release of defendants in criminal cases, on a voice voice.
Taylor Avery contributed to this report.