Nevada’s 6-day special session yielded action on 4 issues

David Calvert/Nevada Independent via AP, Pool

From left, Assembly members Greg Smith, Will McCurdy II and Dina Neil leave their chamber to tell the Senate they have completed the business of the 32nd special session of the Legislature and are ready to adjourn sine die on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, in Carson City. The Legislature concluded an emergency special session early Thursday, Aug. 6, after passing a slew of policies that address issues that have arisen amid the coronavirus pandemic and protests over systemic racism.

CARSON CITY — Lawmakers early Thursday wrapped up the second special legislative session of the summer, capping off a six-day stream of lawmaking on issues including election reform, police reform and liability protections for businesses in the COVID-19 era.

The second session was called by Gov. Steve Sisolak a little over a week after lawmakers were summoned to the capital to deal with a billion-dollar hole in the state budget. During their time in Carson City this week, lawmakers approved four pieces of legislation — all of which Sisolak has either already signed into law or indicated he would accept.

“I want to thank the Nevada Legislature, the Legislative Counsel Bureau, state agencies, and all those who contributed to this Special Session, the second held this year,” Sisolak said in a statement. “I applaud the hard work of everyone involved who acted swiftly to pass this much needed legislation protecting Nevadans.”

Here’s a look at the highlights of the session:

Mail-in ballot expansion set for November general election, Trump files lawsuit

Passage of an election-reform bill on straight party-line votes in both the Democratically controlled Assembly and Senate will ensure that every active voter in Nevada will receive a mail-in ballot for the November general election.

The legislation allocates $3 million to the secretary of state’s office to pay the cost of the mail-in balloting. The bill also requires a minimum of in-person and early voting locations in each of the state’s 17 counties, based on population. It also expands who can submit completed ballots for voters — a change that Republican lawmakers staunchly opposed.

The bill attracted national attention with President Donald Trump stating it should be met with “immediate litigation” and Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, stating the bill would “create more opportunities for fraud and allow ballot harvesting.”

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let a partisan hack like you use this pandemic to suppress Nevadans’ right to vote,” Cannizzaro tweeted back at McDaniel. “Nevada will have a free, fair and secure election this November.”

Trump made good on his threat of litigation Tuesday evening, when his campaign, along with the RNC and the Nevada Republican Party filed suit to stop the bill’s implementation. The action came despite Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s testimony at an assembly hearing that there were zero instances of fraud during the June mail-in primary elections.

Lawmakers pass police reform, but progressives wanted more

Two of the eight bills introduced during this week’s session took aim at police reform.

Lawmakers approved a bill that backtracks on a 2019 law that had extended increased protections to law enforcement officers. The new law would remove limits on the use of officer testimony in civil cases, strip officers of the right to review evidence against them before testifying in departmental misconduct investigations and give victims more time to file complaints with police agencies.

Many progressive activists wanted the bill to go further and entirely repeal the 2019 law, Senate Bill 242.

Another piece of legislation approved during the session bans the use of chokeholds by police and affirmed the public’s right to film police. The bill, which received bipartisan support among lawmakers, was supported by both police departments and some progressives, though many activists thought the bill should go further.

Sondra Cosgrove, president of the League of Women Voters of Nevada, filed public comment stating some of current police responsibilities should be redistributed.

“This bill will help to stop interactions between law enforcement and the mentally ill from ending in death and will add elements of accountability, but we need more,” she said. “We must relieve law enforcement from the burden of delivering healthcare and enable our healthcare community to treat our family and neighbors who may experience a mental health crisis.

Lawmakers start the process of increasing mining taxes

Lawmakers passed three resolutions throughout the session that would begin the process of amending the state constitution to increase taxes on the mining industry.

Currently, mining taxes are constitutionally capped at 5% of net proceeds, and any increase must go through a cumbersome and lengthy amendment process.

Two of the resolutions call for raising the cap to 7.75% of gross mining proceeds (one of which would send the proceeds directly to Nevadans, much like the oil dividend paid to Alaska residents); the other would raise the cap to a maximum of 12% of gross proceeds and create a floor based on local property tax rates.

Democratic lawmakers were unsuccessful in the first special session in passing a mining tax increase, falling just short of the two-thirds constitutional requirement required for passage.

Casinos and other businesses get liability protections

The final bill passed by lawmakers early Thursday involved extending COVID-19 liability protections to most Nevada businesses and government agencies — a measure some lawmakers said was necessary to ensure businesses could operate during the pandemic.

Michelle White, Sisolak’s chief of staff, told lawmakers the tourism industry needed to be safeguarded to protect Nevada’s economy.

“No other state in the country is as dependent on the travel and tourism industry as Nevada,” White said. “Our meetings and conventions, and the 42 million visitors we welcome each year are the crux of our economic engine.

The bill would essentially exempt businesses from liability related to COVID-19 lawsuits as long as they have “substantially complied with controlling health standards.”

“Controlling health standards,” as defined in the bill, include federal, state or local laws or regulations determining how a business must operate.

The protections are set to expire either when Sisolak removes the state of emergency related to the coronavirus or in July 2023.

The original bill received severe pushback from teachers and education activists, who did not want schools to fall under the protections.

Lawmakers in the end remove schools from the list of protected businesses, a measure applauded by many, including the Nevada State Education Association.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Julia Ratti, R-Sparks, said she had heard from many teachers worried about the coronavirus.

“They are terrified to go back to school,” Ratti said, stressing one of her friends, a teacher, is scared she will bring the virus home and transmit it to an elderly person who lives with her.

The Clark County Education Association supported the bill once the amendment was added.

“Opening up the schools is critical to opening up the economy. But you can’t do it without a safety and testing program,” said John Vellardita, the executive director of CCEA. “We believe removing immunity from schools forces districts to adopt a safety and testing program.”

Lawmakers also carved out hospitals and nursing homes from the bill’s liability protections, earning praise from those worried about nursing homes, but scorn from hospital administrators.

Sen. Ira Hansen, R-Reno, said exempting medical providers made hospitals and nursing homes “a sacrificial lamb.” The Nevada Hospital Association said it feared potential lawsuits could deter hospitals from offering needed services or accepting visitors.

“By excluding medical facilities from this bill, access to patient care will be impacted,” Nevada Hospital Association President Bill Welch said.

The Culinary Union meets its goal

Before the start of the session, the politically powerful Culinary Workers Union Local 226 pushed for the adoption of what it titled the Adolfo Fernandez bill: legislation that would increase worker protections during the pandemic.

The bill’s namesake was a utility porter on the Las Vegas Strip who died after contracting COVID-19 symptoms.

Among the worker protections that lawmakers will require of casinos and hotels in Clark and Washoe counties are the testing for COVID-19 of employees returning to work, conducting daily temperature screenings of employees, notifying within 24 hours employees who have been found to have been in contact with an employee or customer who tested positive for COVID-19, and giving 14 days off, of which 10 must be paid to any employee who tests positive for COVID-19.

Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline spoke in favor of the liability protections bill, and, in a statement released after the session ended, asked lawmakers to do even more.

“We urge elected leaders to continue working towards extending similar protections to all workers in Nevada. When workers are protected, our entire community — from the hospitality industry to customers and locals are protected,” the statement read.

Federally-funded unemployment benefits extended

One of the most bipartisan efforts of the session was to extend federally-funded unemployment benefits by seven weeks and expanding who qualifies for assistance. Assemblyman Chris Edwards, R-Henderson, was the lone lawmaker in either chamber to vote against the measure.

Nevada’s workforce has been hit hard by the pandemic due to the state’s reliance on the tourism and hospitality industry. The Sisolak administration last week put the state’s unemployment rate at 24.9%, with another 18,000 Nevadans filing initial claims in the previous seven days.

Sisolak signed Senate Bill 3 into law Thursday, saying it will help provide more flexibility to the state to help connect claimants to benefits faster and will extend the number of weeks Nevadans are eligible for additional benefits through this crisis, using only federal funds.

“This piece of legislation is not a silver bullet or the final word, but there is no doubt that it will help Nevadans for both the short and long term going forward,” Sisolak said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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