What to watch in the 2019 legislative session: A guide to the biggest policy debates
Democrats might control both houses of the Legislature and the governorship, but party unity doesn’t mean the upcoming legislative session will be easy.
Lawmakers will face tough decisions about how to fund a range of educational programs with scarce dollars. They’ll have to balance demands from different ends of the political spectrum on how much — or whether — to raise the minimum wage. And they’ll have to decide how far they’re willing to go on a slate of recommended criminal justice reforms, some of which have law enforcement officials up in arms.
The Nevada Independent has compiled a list of some of the most interesting storylines emerging in the Legislature. Check back daily as we follow the progress of policy debates that will shape the future of the state.
Funding formula: Groups have been working for years to update Nevada’s 51-year-old education funding formula. But their goal of funding education “adequately” could cost hundreds of millions of more dollars each biennium. Gov. Steve Sisolak has said he’s open to working on the issue, but there’s not yet a consensus plan and it’s unclear whether lawmakers are interested in raising the money this session to take a major stride toward that goal.
Read by Grade Three: If this year’s third graders can’t read at grade level by the end of the school year, they will be held back. An estimated 9,000 students are currently at risk of being retained, although there are multiple workarounds that will likely reduce that number. Democrats tried to change that high-stakes provision last year but couldn’t with a Republican governor responsible for creating the policy, but they’re still interested in overhauling it, and Sisolak has suggested he supports such an endeavor.
Opportunity Scholarships: These scholarships promise to be the big school choice battle of the session, with advocates of the program pushing for an additional $20 million in tax credit capacity to maintain and even increase the number of participants who receive scholarships to private schools. Sisolak has said he would rather see the funding go to public schools (although the money is from private donations given by businesses in exchange for tax credits), while advocates argue that students will be booted from the private schools they like if Sisolak doesn’t act. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said that lawmakers “have to be mindful of the children and the families that have taken advantage of this opportunity that would be negatively impacted if it were taken away from them,” but stressed that some families can’t afford private school tuition even with the scholarships and would benefit more from those dollars going to public education.
Surprise emergency room billing: Hospitals, doctors and insurance companies agree that patients experiencing an emergency shouldn’t have to worry about ending up with thousands of dollars in emergency room bills if they accidentally land in a hospital or see a physician who is out of his or her network. Now, they appear poised to reach a compromise this session that would take the patient out of the middle and establish a formula for settling disagreements between providers and insurers. Sisolak, who included the issue in his health-care platform during the campaign, has additional funding in his budget for state workers to assist with this issue, too.
Drug prices: Several lawmakers have expressed concerns over the rising prices of prescription drugs, and Sisolak has expressed a desire to “rein in” pharmaceutical companies. But after last session’s landmark diabetes drug bill, it is unclear what action lawmakers might take. Sisolak has expressed support for setting up Silver State Scripts, a drug purchasing coalition, and establishing a Patient Protection Commission to look at drug costs and other health-care issues.
Opioids: After much outcry from the physician community over a wide-ranging opioid bill backed by former Gov. Brian Sandoval last session, lawmakers may consider a number of tweaks to the law. One bill would require the State Board of Pharmacy to disseminate an explanation or technical advisory bulletin to doctors, dentists, nurses and other prescribers of controlled substances about the opioid law and related regulations, while another would make changes to the prescription drug monitoring database and access to it.
Medicaid reimbursement: Sisolak has included a 15 percent increase for the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and a 25 percent increase for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit per diem rates for Medicaid in his budget. His budget also proposes a rate bump for supported living arrangement services, personal care services, personal assistance services and the Community Options for the Elderly program. But expect asks for increased Medicaid reimbursement rates to come from other medical and mental health providers, too.
Stabilizing the individual market: With the future of the Affordable Care Act again in limbo pending an outcome of the Texas vs. Azar case, Democratic lawmakers have expressed significant interest in continuing to codify portions of the federal health-care law in state law. Legislation to add the ACA’s protections for patients with pre-existing conditions into state law will likely receive bipartisan support, while other efforts to enshrine the ACA into state law may face more pushback.
Medicaid buy-in: Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle said in an interview earlier this month that he plans to reintroduce his Medicaid buy-in legislation from last session that was vetoed by Sandoval. The bill would again allow Nevadans to buy into a Medicaid look-alike plan, and Sprinkle said that it would be available for purchase by “pretty much everybody” and that employers could also potentially purchase it as a group plan. As far as how it would be administered, Sprinkle said that Nevada Medicaid could either run the plan itself or contract with a managed care organization. Sisolak has said that he isn’t sure he would have signed Sprinkle’s 2017 bill “in the form that it was in.”
Renewable standards: The question for the 2019 Legislature isn’t whether Nevada’s Renewable Portfolio Standard — currently set at a 25 percent goal by 2025 — will increase, but rather how high it will go. Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson said prior to the session that he plans to push legislation moving the RPS target to 100 percent over time, and Sisolak said during his State of the State address that he would sign legislation raising the standard to 50 percent by 2030 at a minimum. One area to watch is whether lawmakers will require large businesses such as MGM Resorts or Caesars Entertainment, which have departed NV Energy’s service, to meet higher renewable standards.
704B: Although a ballot question challenging NV Energy’s electric market monopoly went down in flames in the 2018 election, lawmakers will likely take up legislation affecting another major issue for the utility — a 2001 law (704B is the resulting Nevada Revised Statute) that’s allowed a slew of large businesses to depart utility service and purchase power on the open market. Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks said he has submitted a bill draft request to amend the exit process for the businesses, giving few details but saying he wants to bring more transparency and predictability into the process.
LAND & WATER
State action: Three bills from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources propose to make changes to Nevada water law. State regulators say the legislation will provide much needed flexibility in how water is managed and appropriated. Opponents are likely to push back on the legislative package, arguing that the bills infringe on property rights or enable unsustainable development. Some rural officials and environmental groups worry that one bill, which allows water regulators to use mitigation plans, could enable the Las Vegas pipeline.
Overappropriation: In aquifers across Nevada, there are more rights to water than there is groundwater that can be pumped sustainably. This dynamic is known as overappropriation, and it’s an issue that has been the subject of several regulatory actions and court cases. A bill draft requested by the Senate Committee on Natural Resources looks to curb this problem in future aquifers. The bill, in its current form, would prevent state regulators from appropriating all of the water available in the aquifer by setting aside 10 percent of the available water as a reserve
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM
Reducing penalties: An outside group did a top-down, data-driven assessment of Nevada’s criminal justice system within the last year and laid out 25 recommended policy changes that could save an estimated $640 million in prison costs over 10 years. But the recommendations include reducing penalties for some types of burglaries and drug crimes — an approach opposed by certain law enforcement officials and prosecutors. A big question is how many of the suggestions lawmakers will get behind.
Death penalty: A bill to end capital punishment failed to gain much traction last session, but the issue is bound to come up again this time, especially after the high-profile planned execution of Scott Dozier was called off twice and then Dozier took his own life. But Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson says the issue is a political “heavy lift” and isn’t sure what movement there might be on the issue this session. Sisolak says he is opposed to the death penalty, though he wavered on the subject during the campaign.
Marsy’s Law: Voters added a “crime victims bill of rights” to the Nevada Constitution last year, but the implications of it are still largely unknown. Sisolak has budgeted $15 million to cover costs, such as courts losing fee revenue because the law requires defendants to pay restitution before other fees. As in other states, the new provision also might face legal challenges in coming months.
Maintaining payroll tax rate: Sisolak’s budget relies on continuing the current rate of the Modified Business Tax (MBT or payroll tax) rather than letting it go down, as was promised in 2015 if other tax revenues overperformed. Maintaining the rate adds more than $100 million to the state general fund, but some groups — including the Nevada Federation of Independent Businesses — are pushing for their expected tax break. It’s possible Republicans will have leverage on the matter: If it’s determined that Sisolak’s plan is a tax increase, it will require a two-thirds vote, meaning Democrats will need to win over at least one Senate Republican to make it happen.
Property taxes: The state’s disputed property tax formula is likely to again be a key topic of discussion this session. One measure that will again return to the Legislature is state Sen. Julia Ratti’s SJR14, a proposed constitutional amendment that needs a second vote by lawmakers before heading to a vote of the people. The proposal would address one portion of the property tax formula — an allowed depreciation of 1.5 percent per year for 50 years on structures or buildings placed on a piece of property — by allowing the depreciation to rest on sale and equalizing the tax burden between older and newer properties.
Minimum wage: Lawmakers passed and Sandoval vetoed a bill in 2017 that would have raised Nevada’s minimum wage from $8.25 to $12 an hour. The proposal is likely to find new life this session with a Democratic governor who has said that he supports raising the minimum wage to “the $12 range,” though not in “one fell swoop.” He’s suggested possibly raising the wage “a dollar and a quarter a year for three years, four years.”
State collective bargaining: Sisolak promised in his State of the State address to sign a law allowing state workers to collectively bargain “in the years ahead.” The proposal will likely come with a hefty price tag, though it is not included in the state’s budget for this biennium.
Paid sick leave: State Sen. Joyce Woodhouse has submitted a bill draft request to require certain private employers to provide paid sick leave to full-time employees under certain circumstances, something Sisolak has said he would sign. Sandoval vetoed a similar proposal last session, saying that the legislation would have hurt small businesses and that offering paid sick leave is a decision employers should be able to make.
Same-day voter registration: During his State of the State address, Sisolak said that he supports allowing voters to register to vote on the same day they cast their ballot. One bill during the last session proposed establishing certain locations where people could register to vote during early voting and on Election Day but was vetoed by the governor.
Extending early voting: Sisolak said at an IndyTalks event last month that he wants to extend Nevada’s existing two-week early voting period by “a week or two.” A bill last session vetoed by Sandoval would have required early voting to be extended through the Sunday before Election Day instead of ending on the Friday before as it does now.
Cannabis Compliance Board: Sisolak has appointed a team that will design a Cannabis Compliance Board — a regulatory body modeled after the Gaming Control Board. It could mark a sea change in Nevada’s marijuana regulatory regime, which has come under fire recently for how secretive it was in distributing 61 new dispensary licenses late last year. Sisolak envisions the process of choosing winners of the lucrative licenses will be much more public, as it is for casino licenses.
Marijuana Banking: Several lawmakers have requested bills to solve the sticky issue of banking for the marijuana industry, which is almost all-cash because banks are regulated on the federal level and possession of marijuana is still federally illegal. One bill even seeks to create a marijuana stock exchange.
Rainy Day Fund: Revenue from a 10 percent marijuana excise tax is currently going into the Rainy Day reserve fund, but Sisolak wants those dollars directed to the Millennium Scholarship and school safety measures in the upcoming biennium. A bill requested by Sen. Dallas Harris seeks to enact the change, which would divert more than $100 million to educational expenditures over the next two years. The Rainy Day Fund’s balance was at a record-high $293 million at the end of 2018, and Sisolak plans to continue making deposits into it even though marijuana revenue will likely head elsewhere.
Background checks: Democrats have thus far been sparse on details as to how they plan to implement the state’s long-stalled 2016 ballot initiative requiring nearly all private-party gun sales and transfers first undergo a background check. Sisolak said prior to the session that he and Attorney General Aaron Ford were working on a plan to implement the ballot measure, which had previously been declared “unenforceable” because the FBI declined to process the background checks. Sisolak has declined to say exactly how they would be implemented, citing “sensitive” negotiations.
Bump stocks: Sisolak and lawmakers will also likely move quickly to outlaw bump stocks, devices that use the recoil of a firearm to mimic the fire of an automatic weapon. Federal efforts are underway to ban the devices, used by Stephen Paddock in the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, but lawmakers have been unable to ban them under a 2015 law change prohibiting local governments from changing firearm laws.