Special Legislative Session Ends After Heated Clashes Over COVID Business Liability Bill

Nevada lawmakers wrapped up the state’s latest special legislative with a deeply divisive amendment that cut schools and hospitals out of a bill to protect business owners from coronavirus-related employee lawsuits.

The Democrat-dominated Legislature adjourned early Thursday morning after adopting a series of major, last-minute changes to Senate Bill 4.

The bill originally granted immunity from civil suits to almost all businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and school districts that have “substantially complied” with COVID-containment measures.

Superintendents warned lawmakers they would be wary of reopening classrooms without a similar shield against COVID-related legal filings. Meanwhile, teachers’ unions lobbied hard to ensure school districts could be held liable if staffers or students contract the virus.

Democratic lawmakers ultimately sided with the teachers, winning praise from unions for an amendment that carved school districts out of the bill.

Hospitals — fearful of becoming trial lawyers’ top target in the potentially lucrative hunt for virus-related court claims — also briefly praised the changes, which appeared to grant immunity to not-for-profit health care providers such as Renown Health in Reno.

But within hours, Democrats had changed their minds, tacking on yet another amendment that explicitly excluded all hospitals from beefed-up liability protections. The Nevada Hospital Association said it was not consulted on the move.

SB 4 later took a bipartisan bruising in the Assembly, where staffers from Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office struggled to explain exactly how and why hospitals were left out of the proposal.

Assemblyman Richard Carrillo, D-Las Vegas, repeatedly asked who requested the move, finally forcing Francisco Morales, Sisolak’s director of public affairs, to admit it was a “policy decision” that originated in the governor’s office.

Republicans raised similar objections over the decision to exclude school districts from the bill, dismissing that move as a “backroom deal” that would delay in-person instruction and drown cash-strapped districts in a flood of court-ordered settlements.

They wanted SB 4’s liability protections to apply to all Silver State businesses and public agencies, not just those that can afford to lobby the Legislature.

“We just kept a half-million kids from going back to public school,” said state Sen. Ira Hansen, R-Sparks. “The superintendents all said that in order to open schools, we have to have some level of liability protection.

“While I am sympathetic to some school teachers that are worried, there’s a whole lot that aren’t.”

Amendment sponsor and state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, D-Las Vegas, quickly fired back.

“It’s concerning to me that some people may leave this building today believing this bill is the reason why kids won’t be in school,” Cancela said. “Let’s be very, very clear: COVID-19 is the reason … and our school districts are responding to that.”

Hansen joined GOP colleagues Joe Hardy, James Settelmeyer and Pete Goicoechea in voting against the changes. Las Vegas state Sen. Marcia Washington was the only Democrat to oppose the measure.

Four Southern Nevada Democrats broke ranks with their caucus to oppose the bill in the Assembly. Six of the lower chamber’s 13 Republicans also rejected the proposal.

Here’s a look at the rest of the major bills passed in Carson City:

* Assembly Bill 3 will allow drug and alcohol testing of police officers involved in shootings and require police to intervene when they see another officer misusing force on a suspect. AB 3 goes on to ban police choke holds and states that officers can only use “reasonable force,” as opposed to “all necessary means,” to carry out an arrest. The bill also explicitly permits the recording of law enforcement activity, bolsters state collection of traffic stop data and prohibits police from seizing recording instruments or destroying recorded images. It passed with broad bipartisan support in both chambers.

* Assembly Bill 4 will see Nevada stick to a mostly vote-by-mail format in November’s general election and any future political contest carried out under a statewide disaster or emergency declaration. The bill was adopted on a mostly party-line vote and is meant to limit long lines at polling places by expanding access to absentee ballots while allowing some voters, namely the elderly and those with physical disabilities, to request that someone else fill out and hand in their ballot. Republican legislators, along with President Donald Trump, have repeatedly decried that practice as illegal “ballot harvesting.” Trump’s re-election campaign filed suit over the measure on Tuesday.

* A trio of mining tax measures passed on Sunday could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new state revenue by eliminating mining industry tax breaks embedded in the state constitution. Two of the proposed constitutional amendments would levy a new 7.75 percent tax on the industry’s gross income. The other would raise the industry’s net tax rate to 12 percent from 5 percent. All three proposals advanced along roughly partisan lines. To take effect, each will need to survive another round of legislative approvals in 2021 before going up for a statewide referendum in November 2022. Democratic lawmakers plan to decide which measure to put in front of voters during a regularly scheduled legislative session in February.

* Senate Bill 1 gives judges more ways to resolve eviction proceedings filed during the coronavirus pandemic. Courts are expecting a flood of new housing disputes now that state officials have started phasing out a six-month eviction moratorium first ordered by Sisolak in March. SB 1 would allow a judge to delay such hearings for a month while courts stand up a new, mediation-based system meant to limit the number of rent disputes destined for a courtroom. The measure sprinted through both chambers with only a handful of Republicans opposed.

* Senate Bill 2 — a modest rewrite of a divisive 2019 measure that boosted the state’s existing “Peace Officers Bill of Rights” — passed Tuesday over objections from all 13 Assembly Republicans, as well as four Democrats who felt the measure didn’t go far enough to keep bad cops off the street. Progressives and police reformers said the bill fell well short of completely repealing Senate Bill 242, Democrat-backed legislation that halted most police misconduct investigations if complaints against the officer were more than a year old. SB 2 abandons some of that bill’s least popular provisions, though it still requires misconduct investigations to be opened in a “reasonable period of time” and not in cases that are more than five years old.

* Senate Bill 3 is meant to clear a monthslong backlog of unemployment insurance claims received amid a record-shattering spike in layoffs seen since the start of the COVID crisis. The bill will, among other things, give officials more flexibility to reject or approve claims that might otherwise be subject to the lengthy arbitration process blamed for clogging up Nevada’s pipeline of unpaid applicants.  Assemblyman Chris Edwards, R-Henderson, cast the statehouse’s lone vote against the bill, which otherwise would’ve passed unanimously in both chambers.

Legislators also near-unanimously passed a symbolic resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. Hundreds of city, state and federal leaders have made similar proclamations in the months since George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died while in the custody of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

They appropriated $410,000 from the general fund to pay for the six-day session.


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