Nevada lawmakers have returned to Carson City, but COVID-19 safety restrictions are making some Nevadans worried they won’t have access to their elected representatives.
The 81st session of the Nevada state Legislature began Monday, Feb. 1. Normally, the public has access to the Legislative Building. Community members, activists and lobbyists have the opportunity to attend hearings, observe how elected representatives vote on the issues and speak with legislators face-to-face.
But January was the deadliest month on record since the pandemic arrived in Nevada and the state has received the second lowest number of vaccine doses per capita in the U.S. according to a letter by Gov. Steve Sisolak to the Biden administration.
In order to limit exposure, officials adopted strict limits on who could enter the building: only lawmakers, essential staff and a small pool of journalists are being given physical access. Everyone else has to watch the legislative livestream online. If they want to weigh in on a bill, they have to call in or connect virtually.
Now, open government advocates, lobbyists and everyday Nevadans say the virtual legislature is raising questions about transparency and access to elected representatives.
Even though the Legislative Building is closed to the public, Faith Qualtieri drove to Carson City from Fallon with her husband John for the first day of the session. There, they joined a protest on the Capitol grounds calling for access to be restored.
“I feel like red, rural Nevada is being locked out,” she said.
Qualtieri, like many rural conservative voters in the state, feels the urban centers in Clark and Washoe counties — home Las Vegas and Reno respectively — dominate state politics.
“Our vote doesn’t seem to count in anything,” she said. “Nor does the governor care.”
That sense of political division is part of why Patrick File, president of the Nevada Open Government Coalition, says lawmakers need to work hard to give voters a chance to weigh in.
“Their job relies on public trust,” he told CapRadio.
File says COVID-19 safety measures are necessary to keep lawmakers and the public safe, but also make it easier for people to feel excluded from policymaking decisions.
“It’s not hard for the public to become skeptical about whether legislators are trying to hide things from them,” he said. “If they’re not doing everything they can to make it a public process.”
For Leo Murrieta, physical access to the state Legislature is a crucial part of his work as director of Make the Road Nevada, a nonprofit organization that advocates for Latinx and immigrant communities.
As a relatively new organization, Make the Road came to Carson City for the first time during the 2019 legislative session. Murrieta says they went into it headfirst, though, and got more than a thousand community members to engage with the process.
“Our first legislative session was, to a certain degree, a success, because we were able to have that contact,” he said.
But he says many of the people who would normally give public comment in person could be excluded by the largely virtual session, where committee meetings are held over Zoom and daily agendas are only available on the state’s NELIS website. That’s because Make the Road often organizes in working-class communities, where access to videoconferencing software can be limited.
“The digital divide is real,” Murrieta said.
Ultimately, he’s concerned that the lack of in-person interactions means organizations like his won’t be able to compete with lobbyists representing wealthy interests.
“It opens up opportunities for the corporate lobbyists to sink their teeth into legislators even more than they already do,” he said. “The public is at a disadvantage.”
But not all lobbyists are on a corporate payroll. They also come to the state capital on behalf of local governments, labor unions and nonprofit organizations like the Great Basin Water Network, which promotes water conservation efforts in Nevada and Utah.
“Lobbyist, in many parts of the country, is a four-letter word,” said Kyle Roerink, GBWN’s executive director. “It’s not unjust or unwarranted. But at the same time, there are so many good-hearted, good-intentioned lobbyists out there.”
Roerink says the role he and other lobbyists play in educating legislators is important for complicated subjects like groundwater supply, because they don’t have time to become experts on all the issues.
“This is a citizens’ Legislature,” he said. “I think citizen lawmakers rely on, essentially, citizen lobbyists.”
While Roerink would normally register as a lobbyist, Nevada law strictly defines a lobbyist as someone who petitions lawmakers in person, and there hasn’t been an opportunity to do so. It also means the state’s publicly-available registry of lobbyists — and the interests they represent — hasn’t been compiled yet.
Change may be coming, though. In its press release explaining the COVID-19 restrictions, the Legislative Counsel Bureau anticipated a bill that’s expected to remove the legal language defining lobbyists by their physical presence in the Legislature.
The LCB statement also explained that once legislators and their staff had been given both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, the building would be reopened to members of the public and lobbyists through a reservation system. Access will depend on proof of vaccination or a negative result from a rapid COVID test administered onsite.
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.