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ACLU of Nevada ‘score card’ assigns grades to turbulent 2021 legislative session


Assemblywoman Annie Black (R-Clark County) “shockingly earned zero points on open government and transparency”

The months leading up to the 81st session of the Nevada Legislature were some of the most tumultuous in living memory.

When the session started, the COVID-19 pandemic was nearing the one-year mark and still raging. The riot at the U.S. Capitol had happened only the month before. The spring, summer and fall months leading up to the 2020 election had brought weekly protests and demonstrations to Carson City and other places throughout the region.

Social unrest dominated daily life and discourse, especially in the capital. Black Lives Matter demonstrations demanding racial justice following the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were often met with counterprotests by supporters of Donald Trump and those opposing mask mandates and business lockdowns.

Law enforcement agencies spent sometimes tens of thousands of dollars on additional patrols during the demonstrations and, on more than one occasion, officers had to intervene in altercations between demonstrators on opposite sides of issues. People carrying guns became increasingly common—and, during one protest in Carson City, there was a negligent discharge of a firearm that led to a citation.

Large demonstrations rumored to have been planned by Trump supporters nearer to Inauguration Day never manifested, though protests continued and picked up again when it was announced that only legislators, their staff and a handful of reporters would be allowed inside the legislative building at the start of the session.

A member of the public peers into the front doors of the Nevada Legislature, which was closed to the public due to the pandemic, on Feb. 1, 2021. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

The decision to keep the building closed to most people was made in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19. It resulted in some headaches. 

Lobbyists and members of the public had to figure out new call-in systems to provide their testimony and comments on legislation. Public testimony was cut to a short period of time. And though lobbyists were not allowed in the building, people worried about what kinds of backdoor lobbying might be taking place when legislators stepped away from the livestreams of their committee and floor meetings.

These issues, and more, are highlighted in the ACLU’s newly published legislative report and scorecard. 

While this session’s report card noted that “many negotiations took place under heightened secrecy, and by the time the building was open, most deeds were done and several decisions made,” the organization was still pleased with the overall performance of state legislators.

The ACLU graded both chambers of the Nevada Legislature the equivalent of a “B”—86% for the Assembly and 84% for the Senate.

“Assembly and Senate leadership deserve credit for declining to pass policies with egregious civil liberties implications, and members of both parties have improved on many issues important to civil libertarians,” the report card reads.

The ACLU lauded legislators for “decriminalizing traffic offenses; providing birth control without a prescription; scaling back the use of projectiles and tear gas at protests; funding immigration defense; and passing expansive voting rights legislation while other states voted to inhibit the fundamental right to vote.”

Though the measure didn’t pass, the ACLU also celebrated that, for the first time in the state’s history, a chamber of the Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty—a measure that died after being passed by the Assembly.

Assembly Bill 395 died after not meeting a Senate deadline.

“Without warning to stakeholders, the governor’s office and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro issued statements saying that ‘there [was] no path forward’ for the bill. It was a devastating blow that put a cloud over an already frustrating legislative session,” the ACLU wrote.

The Nevada ACLU tracked more than 300 bills during the session, with a focus on advocating for First Amendment rights, criminal justice reform, equity and racial justice, immigrants’ rights, voting rights, women’s and reproductive rights and housing and economic justice.

In its report, the ACLU also gave recognition to particular legislators—both positive and negative.

Assemblyman Howard Watts on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Assembly member Howard Watts (D-Clark County) received the distinction of “Most Civil Libertarian Legislator” after voting in alignment with the ACLU on 100% of issues. He was the lone Democrat in both chambers to vote against Senate Bill 77, which passed and now exempts certain meetings on matters related to the National Environmental Policy Act from Nevada Open Meeting Law.

Senator Dina Neal (D-Clark County) was recognized as the “Most Civil Libertarian Senator” after she was the only Senate Democrat to vote against Senate Bill 452, which was dubbed “casino stop-and-frisk.” 

The bill, which the ACLU said would create “dangerous and unnecessary encounters between law enforcement and casino patrons suspected of carrying a firearm” did not pass.

Senator Ben Kieckhefer (R-Carson City, Washoe County) received the distinction of being the ACLU’s “Most Civil Libertarian Republican” after voting in alignment with the ACLU 81% of the time.

“Kieckhefer voted 100% in favor of LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and reproductive justice. He also improved his score in the area of criminal justice reform, moving from 75% in 2019 to 91% this session,” the ACLU noted.

Kieckhefer is one of several legislators who will not be returning next session. He is termed out. Other legislators who will not be returning include Democrats Sen. Mo Denis and Assembly members Teresa Benitez-Thompson and Maggie Carlton. Other Republicans who won’t be back include Senators James Settelmeyer and Joseph Hardy and Assembly member John Ellison.

Assemblywoman Annie Black inside the Legislature on Monday, March 15, 2021 in Carson City, Nev. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Assembly member Annie Black “shockingly earned zero points on open government and transparency, which was part of her campaign platform” after voting in alignment with the ACLU a little less than one-third of the time. The organization labeled her the “Least Civil Libertarian Legislator.” 

“Not only was she the legislator most likely to vote ‘No’ on any bill, regardless of its merits, but she only voted in alignment on ACLUNV issues 32% of the time,” the ACLU wrote. “She was the only legislator to vote against all bills protecting LGBTQ+ Nevadans.”

The full report card can be found here

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.