Four Democrats have ties to the nonprofits. Republicans accused them of corruption, as the GOP hopes to fend off a Democratic legislative supermajority.
By Tabitha Mueller & Eric Neugeboren, The Nevada Independent, October 15th, 2023
Several Nevada Democrats have found themselves in the political crosshairs for helping pass two bills in the final days of the legislative session that awarded $110 million in state funds to their nonprofit employers and dozens of other community groups.
A PAC supporting Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo, who signed the legislation, said there is a “culture of corruption” within the state Democratic caucus. Fox News said the party was “embroiled in scandal.” At least one lawmaker involved announced plans to not run for re-election.
Conflict of interest accusations are nothing new in Nevada’s citizen Legislature, where part-time lawmakers are paid only for up to 60 days of the 120-day session. During the rest of the year and a half between legislative sessions, most lawmakers of both political parties are employed by entities ranging from public school districts to law firms to private corporations — which invariably have stakes in what comes out of the Legislature.
Lawmakers with connections to the organizations they voted to fund have referenced guidance they received from the Legislature’s legal division, which maintained the votes are not a conflict of interest because the wide-ranging legislation affects the average Nevadan just as much as legislators.
The legislation in question — commonly known as “Christmas tree” bills — appropriated a record $110 million to more than 70 nonprofits and government organizations, including Boys and Girls Clubs ($250,000 for the Northern Nevada club and $500,000 for the Southern Nevada club), food security nonprofit Three Square ($4 million) and Special Olympics Nevada ($500,000). Among the biggest recipients of the funding are the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas ($25 million), the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada ($5 million) and $5 million for the development of a Las Vegas art museum.
The legislation also funded niche projects including a movie theater in Pioche, Nevada, ($1 million) and $10,000 for the Foundation Christian Center in Southern Nevada, which aims “to restore, rebuild and reunite, prodigal sons and daughters through our father Jesus Christ.”
An analysis of the legislation and connections between the legislators and organizations funded by it revealed four Democrats and only one Republican with a direct tie: Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas), who voted against the allocations.
A steady drumbeat of criticism over those appropriations has emerged from the pro-Lombardo Better Nevada PAC, which has relentlessly promoted media coverage of connections between the appropriations and legislators. Heading into 2024, Republicans are hoping to keep Democrats from gaining supermajorities in both houses so Lombardo can retain veto power.
“I regret how the story has been portrayed … But this legislation is going to help so many people.
Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas)
Democrats already hold a 28-seat supermajority in the 42-member Assembly, and Republicans hope to benefit off the nonprofit ties by reducing the number of Democratic assemblymembers, which would remove the party’s supermajority.
In response to the backlash, Democratic lawmakers said in interviews that the votes are a byproduct of working in a part-time, citizen Legislature and stressed that the funds will not benefit them personally.
Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas), one of the Nevada Democrats who had ties to organizations that received funding, said she did not regret voting for the legislation.
“I regret how the story has been portrayed,” Gorelow said in an interview. “But this legislation is going to help so many people.”
Democratic legislators may view these pieces of legislation as business-as-usual, but even with a political undertone to the attacks, some ethics experts question the state’s relatively lax conflict of interest laws and how little is known about how legislators decide which nonprofits will receive funding.
“It’s really incumbent on legislators to always be aware of how their actions, their votes will be perceived by the public,” said John Pelissero, a government ethics expert from Santa Clara University in California. “Despite the fact that they have a legal ruling … it’s easy to understand why members of the public might think that they have a conflict here.”
What is a Christmas tree bill?
Funding for the Christmas tree bills is a product of Nevada’s unique budgeting process. The governor develops a proposed two-year budget based on tax revenue projections that are updated five months later. If newer projections are higher than the older ones, lawmakers have potentially millions of dollars in previously unanticipated revenue to allocate.
Oftentimes, that extra money turns into so-called Christmas tree bills — sometimes called “pork” bills. Research from the Legislative Counsel Bureau indicates that since at least 1995, the Legislature has proposed and passed billsthat allocate extra money in the state budget to projects, nonprofit organizations or government entities.
Christmas tree bill development largely plays out behind closed doors.
Typically, politically connected or well-known organizations benefit from the bills, meaning it’s vital to lobby throughout the session for funding, according to sources familiar with the funding allocations. Among the more than 70 organizations that received funding through the Christmas tree bills this year, at least 31 (44 percent) were represented by registered lobbyists.
After setting the state budget and ensuring that all essential services are paid for, the Assembly and Senate budget committee chairs come together at the end of the session to decide which organizations to fund. The chairs of the budget committees this year — Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas) and Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas) — declined repeated interview requests.
Under the law, funding recipients must submit expenditure reports and any other requested records to lawmakers in 2024 and 2025.
“Nonprofits fill the gaps that don’t really fit for the state, the county and the city. There is a role for nonprofits to provide certain services and there’s a role for the state and federal government.”
Longtime Democratic Assembly budget committee chair Maggie Carlton
Maggie Carlton — a longtime Democratic Assembly budget committee chair who termed out of office after the 2021 session — said the amount of funding for this year’s Christmas tree bills was unheard of because of record surpluses that followed cuts in previous sessions.
“[In 2023] we were finally at a place where we could actually take a look at the people who were doing the work on the ground and supporting Nevada families and helping them be successful,” Carlton said. “We could actually put some money into those programs, especially the ones we saw that stepped up during COVID.”
She said that after serving 20 years in the Legislature, she realized that the state government can only do so much.
“Nonprofits fill the gaps that don’t really fit for the state, the county and the city,” Carlton said. “There is a role for nonprofits to provide certain services and there’s a role for the state and federal government.”
As the executive director of the nonprofit United Labor Agency of Nevada, Carlton disclosed that her organization received funding through the 2023 Christmas tree bills.
It is difficult for the public to know exactly how these bills are crafted and why certain nonprofits are selected for state funding. The Legislature is exempt from the state’s open meeting law and public records law.
Publicly, the bills are typically introduced late in session, garner short hearings and then are sent over to the governor’s desk within around a week.
The Christmas tree bills aren’t the only way for organizations in the state to receive funding through the government. Organizations can tap into grant opportunities, each with a specific set of guidelines, through various government agencies. Grants are not necessarily free money, and often require the recipient to match funds or combine the funding with other forms of financing such as a loan.
In an interview with Nevada Independent CEO Jon Ralston last month, Lombardo said the process surrounding the Christmas tree bills “didn’t sit well with me,” and that he wishes he had a line-item veto to reject specific funding allocations.
The governor also said he signed the bill because of “programs in there that would suffer as a result of not signing it.”
He added that there should be more transparency at the Legislature and he would be seeking to remove the body’s exemption from the public records process.
“We don’t discuss strategy, but it is safe to assume that voters will know about legislators that cast votes that they or their employers profited from.”
Better Nevada PAC spokesman John Burke
Lombardo’s comments came as the pro-Lombardo Better Nevada PAC has urged citizens to “vote them out,” and posted on social media 20 times during one week in September with the #cultureofcorruption hashtag.
In an email, Better Nevada PAC spokesman John Burke criticized Democratic legislators for “hiding behind legal advice” and called the lack of public disclosures while voting for the bill “a systemic issue that needs to be addressed.”
“We don’t discuss strategy, but it is safe to assume that voters will know about legislators that cast votes that they or their employers profited from,” Burke wrote.
Dan Lee, a political science professor at UNLV, said that while the ties between lawmakers and recipients of the funds could be viewed as “seedy,” the GOP backlash is reflective of increasing polarization, when parties do whatever is necessary to paint the opposition in a negative light.
“Hyper partisanship has been increasing and is spreading to all levels of government,” Lee said. “It makes sense just to tarnish the Democratic Party’s image in general.”
Conflict of interest?
Under Nevada law, a conflict of interest is defined as when “a reasonable person in the public officer’s situation would lack independence of judgment regarding a matter” because of factors such as receiving a gift or a significant financial interest in legislation. In those circumstances, a lawmaker should not vote on the legislation, the law says.
However, the Legislature’s legal division advises that certain bills are a “matter of immense statewide importance” where conflicts of interest do not arise, including the Christmas tree legislation. The legal opinion obtained by The Nevada Independent argues that members of the Legislature do not have a bigger stake than ordinary citizens and therefore, “the independence of judgment of members is not impeded by those interests and they are not required to abstain.”
Abstentions in the Legislature are an extremely rare occurrence. There were 12 abstentions this year out of more than 40,000 votes cast, according to roll call vote tabulations.
Mark Davies, who previously served as executive director of New York City’s Conflicts of Interest Board, opposes state legislators abstaining from votes because it “disenfranchises voters,” he said in an interview. However, he said any legislator with a potential conflict of interest should disclose the conflict and not be involved with sponsoring or lobbying for or against the bill.
In Nevada, the primary body in charge of overseeing ethical conduct of the 63 members of the Legislature are two low-profile committees on ethics made up of fellow legislators and public members appointed by legislative leaders. Makeup of the committees is slightly different in each chamber — seven in the Senate, six in the Assembly.
Under this model, lawmakers are in charge of self-policing and the state’s ethics commission is only allowed to weigh in if the action allegedly violating the conflict of interest law or other supposed ethical breach is not in the scope of their legislative duty. Outside of the high-profile expulsion of an Assembly member in 2013, the legislative ethics committees have not met since at least 2009.
Notably, Nevada’s conflict of interest laws are narrower than in other states. Colorado law, for example, considers times when a legislator has a “personal or private interest in any measure or bill” to be a conflict of interest. Montana lawgoes a step further, adding that the “appearance of impropriety” meets the conflict of interest threshold.
Pelissero, the government ethics expert, said that even if legislators are legally in the clear on any potential conflict of interest, they should still be attuned to public perception.
“I don’t think this is a legal issue. It really is one of the ethics of the way this appears,” Pelissero said.
Carlton said it’s vital to remember that Nevada is a tight-knit state whose legislators are typically community-oriented.
“I think folks just need to be careful, and I believe they have been. I think that the appropriate disclosures have been made,” Carlton said. “Disclose and vote, and if you’re not sure, get a hold of the LCB. And they’ll let you know.”
Assemblywomen Michelle Gorelow and Tracy Brown-May
Assemblywomen Michelle Gorelow and Tracy Brown-May, both Las Vegas Democrats, have ties to The Arc Nevada, a nonprofit that supports people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. It received a $250,000 appropriation from the Christmas tree legislation.
Gorelow was hired as the organization’s executive director in July, a month after the Legislature adjourned and the Christmas tree legislation was signed into law. The Las Vegas Review-Journal highlighted Gorelow’s hiring at the nonprofit and the Legislature’s appropriation in late August, and about a week after the story was published, Gorelow announced she would not be running for re-election.
“If people don’t agree that it’s good policy to fund nonprofits the way that they have been funded historically, then I think that’s a valid conversation that we need to have in the legislative body.
Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas)
In an interview, she said the reporting had not played a part in her decision, but that her new role would take up too much time to stay in the Legislature. She interviewed for the director position on June 30, according to a copy of a calendar obtained by The Nevada Independent. Gorelow said she had not had any discussions with the organization prior to the vote.
In her new role, Gorelow said she would be implementing an early intervention program that provides services to families who have children up to the age of 3 with an intellectual or developmental disability.
Brown-May serves as a volunteer board member for The Arc and works as the chief administrative officer for Opportunity Village, a nonprofit that serves people with intellectual disabilities. She said she received clearance from the Legislature’s legal division to vote on the final version of the Christmas tree bill, after a Senate amendment added in the appropriations for The Arc and Opportunity Village.
“If people don’t agree that it’s good policy to fund nonprofits the way that they have been funded historically, then I think that’s a valid conversation that we need to have in the legislative body,” Brown-May said.
Assemblywoman Venicia Considine
Assemblywoman Venicia Considine (D-Las Vegas) is the director of development and community relations at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, which received $4.25 million from the Legislature’s Christmas tree bill.
In an interview, she said she is not affiliated with the center during legislative sessions, did not request that the center receive any legislative appropriations and has no role in doling out the money. The funds will be used for tenants’ rights programs and for the construction of a building to provide services for crime victims, said Terry Bratton, the organization’s chief financial director.
Assemblyman Cameron “C.H.” Miller
The Christmas tree legislation also appropriated $100,000 to the Urban Chamber Community Development Corporation, the sister organization of the Urban Chamber of Commerce, where Assemblyman Cameron “C.H.” Miller (D-Las Vegas) serves as CEO. Miller abstained from a committee vote on the legislation but later voted for the bill after receiving clearance from legislative attorneys. The funds will be used for the group’s small business development center.
Miller is also a member of the Clark County Economic Opportunity Board, which is a regional agency focused on poverty in Southern Nevada. The agency also received $100,000 in funding. Miller did not disclose that relationship with the LCB, and said his focus “at the time was my employment relationship with the [Urban Chamber] and not so much the board relationship.”
Sen. Carrie Buck
Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Henderson) was listed as a member of the advisory council for Spread the Word Nevada (which received $500,000 via the Christmas tree bills) as of June 2. Advisory council members are not paid employees and typically provide guidance to an organization but do not have any official authority. The council is no longer listed on the website for the organization, which seeks to advance childhood literacy.
Buck did not vote for the funding and has blasted the recipients as “Democrat pet projects and employers.” She did not respond to a request for comment.