Nevada lawmakers OK mail ballots, virus liability protection

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CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) – After Wednesday night hearings continued into Thursday morning, Nevada’s part-time Legislature concluded an emergency special session called to address problems that have arisen amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the national reckoning over police abuses of Black people.

Leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature carried eight bills and 14 resolutions past the finish line in the marathon five-day session, successfully avoiding delays that plagued July’s 12-day session convened to plug Nevada’s projected $1.2 billion budget shortfall.

“Figuring out how to deal with a $1.2 billion shortfall is no walk in the park. There’s no fun choices there. At least in this special session, we were able to make some real policy decisions that we can feel good about. A lot of it doesn’t go as far as some people want it, but of course, some people think it went too far,” Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said.

Bills passed won praise from labor unions and the hospitality industry and mixed reception from progressives who had hoped for more decisive action on police reform.

Republicans complained about being shut out of bill drafting and took issue with legislation that expanded who can collect absentee ballots. They also criticized legislation that denies certain industries supplemental protections from virus-related legal liability.

Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer alleged the decision to exempt hospitals and schools from coronavirus liability protections was the product of behind-the-scenes negotiations and referenced “The Room Where It Happens,” a song from the musical “Hamilton” to describe the process.

“You have to be in the room where it happens and, unfortunately, during testimony, we learned we weren’t in the backroom where it happened,” the Minden Republican said.

Here’s a look at some of the bills passed:

MAIL BALLOTS: A proposal to send mail ballots to all active voters catapulted Nevada into national spotlight and prompted a lawsuit from the Trump campaign. The bill, which Gov. Steve Sisolak signed Monday, will also require county clerks open additional in-person polling places for early voting and on Election Day to prevent the long lines of voters who showed up to cast ballots in person during the June primary.

POLICE REFORMS: When George Floyd died after a Minneapolis Police Officer pressed a knee to his neck, legislative leaders vowed to address concerns raised by protestors regarding policing and systemic racism. Lawmakers passed a bill to ban the use of chokeholds and enshrine into law a “duty to intervene” for officers who observe unjustified uses of force.

They also partially repealed a 2019 law that added protections to the Nevada’s Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, removing previous restrictions on the use of officer testimony in civil cases and limiting officers’ ability to review evidence against them before testifying in departmental misconduct investigations.

Police departments and unions representing rank-and-file officers opposed some of the measures, while reform advocates said they didn’t go far enough to guarantee transparency and accountability. Legislative leaders vowed to revisit the issues in 2021.

LIABILITY PROTECTIONS: To remove obstacles to restart the economy, lawmakers passed a bill to shield businesses from coronavirus liability. Under the legislation, businesses and nonprofits that adhere to health directives cannot be found liable for personal injury or wrongful death due to coronavirus. Complex negotiations yielded final-hour amendments that exempted hospitals and schools from the liability protections, satisfying teachers’ unions and trial lawyers, but upsetting school district and hospital administrators.

WORKER PROTECTIONS: After a muscular lobbying effort by the powerful Culinary Union Local 226, lawmakers passed first-in-the-nation worker protections for hotel and casino workers in the Las Vegas and Reno areas. The bill requires casinos, resorts and hotels to submit detailed prevention plans to county health officials in the Las Vegas and Reno areas that include testing and time off for employees exposed to coronavirus and set baseline cleaning standards.

UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE ELIGIBILITY: Computer glitches, jammed phone lines and delayed eligibility determinations have delayed payouts to laid-off workers since the onset of the pandemic. Lawmakers passed a bill to give administrators at the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation additional latitude to make eligibility determinations in an effort to unclog the backlog.

The bill also defines COVID-19 as “good cause” to turn down some work opportunities and, by doing so, will allow immunocompromised individuals or parents without day care to continue receiving unemployment benefits without returning to work they consider dangerous.

The bill didn’t address what’s believed to be thousands of fraudulent claims jamming the unemployment insurance system. Lawmakers acknowledged Nevada would likely have to take on debt to keep its unemployment trust fund afloat.

EVICTION PROCEEDINGS: An estimated 118,000 to 142,000 households could face eviction once the statewide moratorium expires Sept. 1. The Legislature passed a bill that allows courts to grant 30-day stays on evictions to facilitate alternative dispute resolution for landlords and tenants, such as third-party mediation and prevent the courts from being overburdened.

Sisolak is expected to sign the final bills in the upcoming days.

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Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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