Lawmakers have been in Carson City since Friday for the 32nd special session of the state Legislature.
It’s the second special session this summer – the first one made deep budget cuts to make up for a $1.2 billion hole in the state budget caused by the pandemic.
This time around, they’re focused on policy.
Over the weekend, the State Senate passed a measure that would allow the courts to pause eviction cases for 30 days.
Senate Bill 1 would allow tenants and landlords to meet with an arbitrator and settle things, instead of going straight to court.
The eviction moratorium expires Sept. 1, and the Guinn Center just released a report predicting more than a quarter-million people could be affected.
Nevada Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty told state senators this reform would help courts deal with that wave. He said if the predictions are even close to accurate, it will mean more than three times the number of cases they usually see in a full year – and they could all happen at once. Hardesty said that would overwhelm the courts.
The bill would give renters an opportunity to come up with a payment plan. They could use that extra time to catch up without getting kicked out.
The arbitration could also help landlords, because if you have a bunch of cases jamming up the courts, it could take a really long time to get through them all. A lot of those landlords wouldn’t be getting rent while they wait for their case to be heard.
So, if they can come to an arrangement, it would be a win-win. And it could also give tenants time to apply for the state’s $30 million rental-assistance program.
The Assembly hasn’t voted on the bill yet but it did get bipartisan support when it passed in the Senate, so it looks like it will pass the Assembly, too.
Another big topic lawmakers are looking at is police reform. Those pushing for reforms want to see changes in use-of-force policies, along with greater transparency and accountability from police.
Assembly Bill 3 would ban police from using chokeholds. It would also require departments to share data on traffic stops and it says people have the right to take video of police officers while they’re on duty.
Taken video of police officers is protected by the First Amendment but the bill would explicitly add it to state law.
There’s also Senate Bill 2, which reverses some parts of the “Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights,” or SB242, which the Legislature just approved in the last session.
One of the big things it does is allow people to get access to police officer statements about use-of-force incidents during lawsuits, which was blocked by the last bill. Advocates say that was a big step back in terms of transparency.
Northern Nevada Senator Ira Hansen said it’s unusual to consider a non-budget item like police reform in the special session. Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College, seems to agree.
“I think it’s a matter of timing,” Lokken said, “With a part-time legislature, we only have one shot at it every other year. And that can be extremely frustrating for those who have been here, seeing what other states have been able to enact already. And technically having to wait until February to even begin the conversation.”
Basically, this is the kind of thing legislators usually deal with during the regular session, but there’s a lot of public pressure to deal with this right now.
Another item that lawmakers needed to deal with immediately is how to safely conduct the general election in November.
Both houses approved a plan to send mail ballots to every active, registered voter in the state. The governor is expected to sign it into law at the end of the session.
Assembly Bill 4 creates a new category of elections called “affected elections.” Those happen after the governor or the Legislature declare a state of emergency.
Once that happens, the state automatically sends out mail-in ballots. They’re similar to a normal absentee ballot, you just get one automatically as long as you voted in one of the last two elections. Otherwise, they’ll try to remind people to reregister.
The bill does not eliminate in-person balloting. County and state governments will have to provide polling places. Tribal governments have the option to do that, as well.
There’s also an option to drop your ballot off at a dropbox if you want. People will also be able to register to vote on election day at their polling place.
And AB4 sets a minimum number of polling places, because there weren’t enough of them during the June primary and some people ended up waiting hours to vote.
The system will be similar to the mail-in balloting that was done during the primary election in June. Back then, the state sent mail-in ballots to voters so they wouldn’t be exposed to COVID-19.
Voter turnout went up as compared to the 2016 primary. In Washoe County, for example, it was about 10 percent higher.
Emily Persaud-Zamora is the executive director of Silver State Voices. She thinks AB4 is a victory for voting rights.
“What the primary told us was that when we provide ballots to Nevada voters via their mailbox with paid postage, it increases their ability to participate in the election,” she said.
But this bill only made it through on a party-line vote – no Republicans voted for it. Persaud-Zamora that was really disappointing, because voter engagement shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
Monday morning, President Donald Trump spoke out against Nevada’s decision.
In a tweet, he called it an “illegal, late-night coup” and accused Democrats of “using COVID to steal the state.”
Political and government editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal Steve Sebelius told KNPR’s State of Nevada that lawmakers wanted to make the rules around mail-in balloting, which was already allowed under the Nevada Constitution, more explicit.
“So to say, 'if this situation or a similar situation happens again, then we will have procedures in place to do it,'” he said.
Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske didn’t think there was a need to do a mail-in election in November. Sebelius said she didn’t want a mostly mail-in election because she believes the state is safely opening up after the coronavirus lockdown.
“She goes out and says, ‘Look, I see people at the mall. I see people going to restaurants and bars. We’re wearing masks. We’re taking precautions but the state is opening up,’” he said, “If the state is opening up and you can wait in line at other places, you can go safely to the polls and do it.”
He said Democrats were concerned about Cegavske’s reluctance and wanted to make sure mail-in balloting was ramped up quickly.
Republicans are concerned that mail-in balloting will lead to more voter fraud, but election experts have said there is little evidence of that.
Sebelius noted that when more people vote the better Democrats do. So, it makes sense that the GOP would be worried about an increase in voter turnout through the mail.
Sebelius said there are very few legitimate arguments against increased voter turnout, and if a politician is against more voters voicing their opinion, then he or she has bigger problems.
“If your strategy depends on suppressing rather than increasing turnout, I think you’ve got a problem that has nothing to do with the voting systems and more to do with your campaign and your platform and your turnout mechanism,” he said.
Besides mail-in balloting, lawmakers in Carson City are also taking another crack at raising mining taxes. That effort failed in the last special session a few weeks ago.
The caps on mining taxes are enshrined in the Nevada Constitution. To change them, lawmakers need to change the Constitution or get a two-thirds majority to adjust tax incentives and abatements for the industry.
Instead of trying to get to two-thirds, Sebelius explained lawmakers are trying to change the Constitution, which is a lengthy process but it’s a process that can be started with a simple majority.
So, lawmakers are kickstarting it now instead of waiting for the regular session. Doing it that way shaves about two years from the process, Sebelius said.
“Tinkering with it now is something that appeals to Democrats, not so much to Republicans,” he said, “They are lockstep against any of that, which is not surprising because the majority in the Republican Caucus in both the Assembly and the Senate come from Northern Nevada and rural Nevada and that’s where mining is big industry.”
While changing the tax structure for the mining industry will take several more years, lawmakers are trying to make changes to the unemployment system, which needs to be done immediately.
Senate Bill 3 would allow people to waive certain regulations, send documents via email instead of through regular mail and generally speed up the process, Sebelius said.
“I think most lawmakers said on the floor last night it was a good first step but it's not going to fix the problem and it’s not going to go and get rid of the backlog,” he said.
With record-high unemployment from the coronavirus pandemic, Nevada’s system has been overwhelmed, leaving thousands of people waiting for paychecks. Some of those who are still waiting told lawmakers about their struggles during a hearing on the issue.
“There were some heartbreaking stories that were told in that testimony,” Sebelius said.
Despite the Senate bill to address problems, Sebelius is not sure that an overhaul of unemployment is likely during this special session.
“Nothing that would make a systemic change that would say, ‘Look in the future, if we see an unusual rise in unemployment claims, we have these mechanisms at our disposal,'” he said.
While it may not solve all the problems, everyone in the Legislature seems to be on board with the bill to address some of the problems with unemployment. Sebelius noted that the bill processed out of the Committee of the Whole with a unanimous vote, which is very rare.
The bill, which actually hasn’t been introduced yet, that everyone expects to create the biggest fight is the COVID-19 liability bill.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal obtained a copy of the bill draft request, which is simply draft language but not the exact wording. Sebelius said, in essence, the bill would protect businesses that have followed health and safety regulations from being sued by workers or customers who become infected with the coronavirus.
The business community supports the bill but workers groups, especially the Culinary Union, are likely to be unhappy with it, he said.
Another faction that is unhappy with the idea is the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
“While I’m told the governor is very supportive of this legislation… he’s having trouble finding the votes in the Democratic Caucus,” Sebelius said, “This is an intra-party fight. There are some Democrats, especially on the progressive side, that say, ‘No. We are not going to give business carte blanche because we don’t think they’ll follow the rules and giving them liability is outrageous at a time like this.”
Sebelius said the GOP will definitely support a bill to give immunity to businesses but some Democrats won’t.
Ultimately though, Sebelius believes the bill will pass.
Bert Johnson, legislative reporter, KNPR; Steve Sebelius, politics and government reporter, Las Vegas Review-Journal
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