The Nevada Senate voted on two bills on Monday, the only two bills to be introduced and passed by the senate so far. One of the bills redistributes money from state projects, and the other changes the requirements for the Millennium Scholarship.
Senate Bill 1 identifies state capital improvement projects that will be canceled or changed to sweep nearly $73 million into Nevada’s General Fund. These are funds that were approved during both the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions. In addition to a handful of canceled projects, several others will either be delayed or proceed only through certain planning stages for the time being.
Some of the projects that will be canceled, delayed or have funds reduced include Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) buildings, youth centers, correctional facilities, state legislative buildings and outdoor projects.
The largest cuts are to come from correctional facilities and NSHE buildings. A $20 million allocation for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, College of Engineering, Academic and Research Building is being cut, which will effectively cancel the project. Nearly $14 million from the construction of the Health and Sciences Building at the College of Southern Nevada and a little over $8 million from NSHE’s Deferred Maintenance Account are being cut.
Over $7 million is being cut from an underground piping and boiler replacement at the Lovelock Correctional Center, and nearly $9 million is being swept from both the Ely State Prison for door lock replacements and the Southern Desert Correctional Center for cooling tower replacements.
The senate unanimously approved SB1.
Millennium Scholarship changes
The senate then discussed Senate Bill 2, which authorizes the NSHE Board of Regents to waive certain requirements like the minimum grade point average (GPA) and amount of class credits for Millennium Scholarship recipients who were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those changes would be in effect until July 1, 2021.
Millennium Scholarship recipients must maintain a 2.75 GPA. NSHE Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs, Crystal Abba, told the senate that about 12% of recipients became ineligible during spring semester amid the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s about 2,200 students.
“In addition to the shift in instruction to distance learning, Millennium Scholarship recipients faced additional stressors due to the pandemic, including loss of employment, caring for family members, etc.,” Abba said.
NSHE is working on implementing an online program where Millennium Scholarship recipients can self-identify that they have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Abba.
Democratic Senator Dallas Harris asked that NSHE make the waiver process as easy as possible for students.
“Is there any particular reason why we have to require students to affirmatively ask for the waiver?” Harris asked. “We know every student who was eligible in spring 2020 was impacted.”
Republican Senator Keith Pickard also shared his concerns about requiring Millennium Scholarship recipients to fill out a form.
“If we’re erring on the side of making sure everybody gets their opportunity, I would suggest that we waive the notice requirement. If we’re not going to look at this from an individualized basis to make sure that we’re making sure that they were negatively affected because of the coronavirus, then I think everybody should get it,” he said.
Abba said the bill allows for there to be a blanket waiver, but it is ultimately up to the Board of Regents.
In order to keep the over 2,000 students on the Millennium Scholarship, it will cost $2.1 to $2.6 million.
The senators raised concerns about the sustainability of the scholarship fund.
Nevada State Treasurer, Zach Conine, responded.
“This will leave us in a place where we’ll go into the next biennium with effectively no money in the trust fund, which will leave us to finding solutions for how to face that problem. With that debt, regardless of what we do here, we’ll need to find solutions for the Millennium Scholarship going into the next biennium, regardless. It’s the difference between having $3.6 million in the account and zero,” Conine said.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno and University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is a big supporter of SB2.
“I know for me, it made a difference, and I’m a proud graduate of two of those institutions, a proud Millennium Scholarship recipient, and just very grateful that the members of this body are considering this particular bill to help keep those kids on those scholarships, and hopefully in the future…” Cannizzaro said.
The senate unanimously approved SB2. The assembly also approved SB1 and SB2 unanimously.
Business closures draw criticisms
Simultaneous to the senate convening during the special session, California Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted that indoor operations for restaurants, wineries, movie theaters, zoos, museums, fitness centers, places of worship, personal care services, hair salons and malls must close in 30 counties.
This move worried lawmakers in the senate, as well as business owners across Nevada, especially as Gov. Steve Sisolak re-closed bars on Saturday.
Republican Senator Ira Hansen said businesses need to re-open.
“I don’t know if we’re going to address this in this special session or not, but I’ve had a tremendous amount of concern expressed to me by the business community over the way the whole COVID situation has been handled by the executive branch of government here,” Hansen said. “I wanted to bring that up right now because while I haven’t said a word about it publicly, and I’ve been supportive of the governor, I think what happened…in California sends up a huge red flag, that the business community in Nevada is vulnerable to that same type of arbitrary action.”
Hansen also voiced his dismay for the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hotline to report on businesses not following safety protocols to mitigate COVID-19.
“There is a growing effort in our state to darn near come up with [an] almost quasi-military response, because another thing that the governor did was he set up an OSHA hotline where you can spy on your neighbors and spy on businesses and turn them in,” Hansen argued. “That has created another huge backlash because that, again, is highly offensive to people to have their neighbors encouraged to spy on them, and face possible foreclosure, or huge fines from OSHA.”
Hansen said he and an assembly person were almost removed from a restaurant due to Sisolak’s recent orders.
“As we were walking into the business, to my surprise, we were glared at by an individual, and then after we were seated, he came over and asked us, ‘Are you part of the legislature?’ And when I expressed I was, he started to say something, and I said, ‘Well, by the way, we’re big supporters of business, and we think you guys should be allowed to make more decisions.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m glad you said that because I was going to ask you to leave my restaurant.’ They are so upset with this constant effort, and this one-size-fits-all policy for the state of Nevada, that they literally were going to ask us to leave the restaurant because we were simply members of this body,” Hansen said.
Sisolak’s order to close bars is not statewide. Instead, the governor said counties must test a certain amount of people per day, calculated by the average number of people tested in the past seven days, divided by the number of people living in the county, multiplied by 100,000.
That number needs to be greater than 150.
Additionally, the amount of people per county who test positive for COVID-19 over the past seven days, divided by the amount of people that live in the county, and then multiplied by 100,000 — known as case rate — must be under 100.
Counties are to divide the number of people who tested positive over a seven-day period by the amount of people living in the county to determine their test positivity rate. Counties must have a case rate lower than 25 and a test positivity rate lower than 7%.
If counties surpass the numbers above, they are ordered to close bars. Seven counties do not meet the two above criteria, including Clark, Elko, Humboldt, Lander, Lyon, Nye and Washoe. The counties will be re-evaluated on July 24.
Cannizzaro argued that following safety measures isn’t the most convenient, but doing so is absolutely necessary.
“[We do not] want to see our loved ones dying because they cannot access proper medical care because beds are overrun,” Cannizarro said. “The idea that somehow we should have allowed for a public health crisis to wipe out our citizens, our loved ones, our families, our neighbors, or that the governor should have made a different decision to not protect the health and welfare of Nevadans, I just am left at a loss as to what to say to that.
“No one wants to be in this position, but I think it is incumbent upon all of us to do what we have to do, not what we want to do, but what we have to do to keep each other safe.”
Lucia Starbuck is a graduate of University of Nevada, Reynolds School of Journalism. She has reported on issues impacting Northern Nevada, including the affordable housing crisis, a lack of oral healthcare and challenges voters with disabilities face while trying to participate in the election process. She has directed and filmed two documentaries about homelessness.Through reporting, Lucia strives to shine a light on the challenges vulnerable populations face in our community.