Nevada Legislature Post-Game Wrap

By Sheila Freed

The 2019 Session of the Nevada Legislature is history.   They say politics is a blood sport, so as in any sport, it’s time for the post-game wrap-up.

Lutheran Engagement & Advocacy in Nevada (LEAN) stayed in the game ‘til the end.  We scored some wins and some losses.

One example of this is payday lending reform.  Previous articles have talked about the outrageously high interest these loans carry, and how people foolishly borrow more to pay old loans, starting a cycle of ever increasing debt.

Some bills were introduced to cap the interest rates, but went nowhere.  The only bill that made it through is SB 201, which mandates a state database that will record all the payday loans. This will enable lenders and regulators to know when a person is already “loaned up” and more debt would lead to default or worse.

Another example is the minimum wage bill, AB 456.  The effort to raise the minimum wage was finally successful, after a multi-session effort.  However it’s an incremental process over four years, and it maxes out at $12 per hour.  Twelve dollars per hour is poverty wages in today’s market, so by 2024 the wage increase will not represent much of an improvement, but it’s a small step forward.

A measure to allow workers to use their sick leave to care for immediate family failed.  One wonders what can be controversial about proposals like this.

There are many different agendas, some hidden. Those with the loudest voices and the most economic clout have the most influence.  So Advocacy is a slow process that calls for persistence as well as diplomacy.  If we were a football team we’d be offensive linemen.

The same kind of mixed results  happened in the criminal justice area.

A new Office of indigent Defense will be created to ensure that poor defendants get better legal representation.  A bill was passed to ensure that courts don’t hold a defendant’s bail money any longer than necessary.

However, proposals for Veterans’ Court and drug treatment while in prison both failed. No money was provided for prisoner re-entry programs, and a plan to release more low-level offenders on their own recognizance went down. All proved cost effective, but our legislators did not see fit to support them.

Generally penalties for child sex offenders were made more severe, and services to victims were broadened.  The definition of domestic abuse was broadened, and new protection put in place for transgender persons.

Two bills relating to food both passed.

AB 326 as initially introduced would have created a lending program to help businesses that sell fresh food in so-called “food deserts.”  Before  it got through, the bill was completely revised to provide tax credits to “entities that invest in certain fresh food retailers.”  SB 178 creates the Office of Food Security which will oversee food policy in Nevada, work to enhance food production and economic development, and ensure all Nevadans have enough food and improved health.  As part of this effort, Nevada will work with a group called Food for People, Not Landfills to reduce food waste and better allocate food resources to those who need them.

Numerous bills were introduced to deal with the statewide lack of affordable housing.

One  that made it through was SB 448.  This bill creates a tax credit, virtually identical to the federal tax credit that has existed for many years, to help developers build affordable housing.  Also passed were measures to help local jurisdictions waive impact fees for affordable housing projects, and to extend for a few days the time frames associated with tenant evictions.

Governor Sisolak requested SB 538, and it passed.  It creates the Office of New Americans, which will advise the Governor regarding policy pertaining to immigrants.  The bill mandates that every state agency include on its website information to enable new citizens to interact effectively with those agencies.

LEAN will not be idle during the “off season.”  We will be monitoring activities of the Interim Committees and sharpening our skills on the issues.  We hope to do some training for parishioners as well, so we’ll all “hit the ground running” come next legislative season, February, 2021.

The Advocacy Beat Goes On

 

The 2019 Nevada Legislature is slated to adjourn on Monday, June 3, barring a last-minute extension.

When it ends, the presiding officer in each chamber adjourns the meeting “sine die.”  This is a Latin phrase, universally mispronounced, that translates literally as “without a day.”  It makes it sound terribly final, as if no one is ever coming back again.  We all know that two years from now many of the same people will be back, often confronting the same issues. 

The work of government goes on, even when the Legislature is not in session.

LEAN’s work continues as well.  Lutheran Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada exists for two related reasons:  To speak out on behalf of the least among us to elected officials, and to Lutherans and others across the state.  Both groups have power to change things.

LEAN has a paid Advocate at the Legislature during the Session. Bill Ledford has done well in his first session, testifying about proposals that the LEAN Board has chosen to take a position on. Some of these bills have passed, some have not. Next month we will sort some of this out.  Right now, a lot isn’t known, because so much legislation is decided in the last few days of a session. “Backroom Deals” are unfortunately common.

A previous post here was about several reforms that had been postponed because they carry spending requirements. Such postponements help set up conditions ripe for backroom deals, because pressure to “just get finished” is huge.

The deadline also enhances the power of lobbyists.  In the final days, there isn’t time for careful analysis of bills, and there is a tendency for legislators to rely on lobbyists for information, biased as it might be.

This is why it is so important for LEAN to have an Advocate at the Legislature.  Bill Ledford has been working all session to establish personal relationships with Senators and Assembly Members.  He has worked to explain why particular measures are good or bad policy in a just society.  He has worked to articulate our Lutheran Christian values as outlined in the ELCA Social Statements.

Bill’s advocacy and that of LEAN generally does not end at “sine die” any more than legislators become just private citizens when they go back home.  Bill will continue to connect with them, sometimes to discuss plans to try again in the next session to pass measures that failed, sometimes to discuss interim studies that take place between sessions.

The “interim,” or time between sessions, also is a time for LEAN to focus more on parishioners, helping them to understand the issues and the various ways those issues might be addressed. 

Financial support is needed to keep all this work going.  LEAN receives funds from ELCA Churchwide, and from the Sierra Pacific and Grand Canyon Synods.  We also receive support from congregations throughout the two synods.  LEAN is grateful for all support, and we operate frugally.

We hope to emphasize the “engagement” part of our name more in the next eighteen months.  Many know about the Legislative website, and about the resources it offers for keeping informed and for expressing views on legislation.  This does not disappear when the session ends.  We hope to do some training so more people can learn the tools at their disposal.  We are blessed to live in a state where direct access to elected officials is easy.  Martin Luther viewed committed, informed citizenship part of our Christian calling, and this is echoed in the first ELCA Social Statement, “The Church in Society.”  A lot has been written lately about how individuals need to work to reclaim democracy from special interests.  LEAN hopes to work with Lutherans and legislators across the state toward that goal.

Drama At The Nevada Legislature

By Sheila Freed

“I will never forget an older man coming up to me after, in tears, thanking me for bringing a voice of faith in support of this cause.”                                 

That was LEAN advocate Bill Ledford, reporting back to the LEAN board about a hearing at which he testified. The hearing was about Senate Bill 97, which deals with criminal defendants who attack LGBTQ people because of their sexual orientation.

Bill reported that the hearing was long and very emotional, including a story about a father who murdered his own son when the father learned he was gay. Bill’s testimony was brief. He commented that we Lutherans are called to love our neighbor, and that includes persons whose sexuality we may not understand or agree with. Bill referred to the ELCA Social Statement on sexuality, which calls us to “promote, value, and respect the human dignity of each individual, and to protect all from physical, emotional, and spiritual harm,” among other things.

Lutheran Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada exists to speak out on difficult social issues, always in light of the ELCA social statements. By speaking on behalf of Lutherans in Nevada, Bill brings a moral perspective to debates that can otherwise be controlled by financial or other special interests. LEAN can provide political “cover” for legislators to do the right thing.

LEAN is working on seveal criminal justice bills bills. AB 125 is about releasing more people without bail while they wait for a court date. Drug dealers have no problem posting bail, but someone who bounces a check and can’t raise bail can lose their job and their children. SB 110 allocates more money to rehabilitate state prison inmates and prevent recividism. Prisoner re-entry has been a LEAN objective for several years.

Payday lending is a concern of LEAN. Senate Bill 201 was recently heard in committee, and Assembly Bill 118 is waiting for a hearing. Although Bill Ledford did not testify for SB 201, there was no shortage of emotional testimony. Both bills are aimed at controlling predatory lenders who make small loans to individuals with poor credit. When the borrower can’t repay, the lender simply makes a new loan, often trapping the borrower into years of increasing debt. Payday lenders are fighting the bills’ plans to cap interest rates at 36%. Right now, 200% or more is common.

Bishop Hutterer of Grand Canyon Synod supported these bills when she spoke to legislators in Carson City in February. A pastor from a Methodist church commented in testimony, “Theologically, payday lending is immoral and unethical.” She cited a passage from Ezekiel, saying, “profiting off someone’s hardship is abominable.”

Advocate Ledford attended hearings on Senate Bills 7, 8, and 9, and described the experience as “pretty intense.” All three bills are related to sex trafficking, and are in many ways “technical corrections” bills.

A few years ago the Legislature did a major reform of the law around trafficking, but some gaps have been discovered. So one would think hearings on these would be pretty dull. Not so. Existing law makes soliciting a prostitute (not in a legal brothel) a crime, but it doesn’t address children, creating a defense of the “john” believing the sex worker to be an adult.

SB 7 closes this loophole. In support, a woman who works in victim advocacy wrote, “There is no such thing as a child prostitute,” meaning no child voluntarily becomes a sex worker. She urged passage to “hold those who pay to rape someone else’s child to the same high standard of justice as those who rape their own.”

LEAN is at the legislature to join others’ sometimes emotional calls for justice. Jesus calls us to nothing less.

A Bishop’s Message To Legislators

On Feb. 7, three days after the 2019 Nevada Legislative Session convened in Carson City, LEAN hosted an informal open house luncheon for legislators, staff and church clergy and representatives from around the state.

The event, which was held in the Capitol Building, offered an opportunity for Grand Canyon and Sierra Pacific Synod members and clergy to meet with state assembly and senate members, offer their hopes for the new biennial session and express how their faith informs their interactions with government.

Rev. Deborah Hutterer, Bishop for the Grand Canyon Synod, gave an impassioned keynote address centered on why the ELCA’s published and nationally recognized Social Statements are at the center of LEAN’s efforts, represented personally in this year’s session by Advocate Bill Ledford.

Following is the text of Rev. Hutterer’s address.

Rev. Deborah Hutterer

A caveat to this talk today. I have been in my position for six months and the learning curve has been high. And I also come at this from a position of humility. There are some of you who know far more than I do and so if you hear something that is not right, please let me know.

It was late in the afternoon of December 23, 2010. My husband, 55 years old, had been diagnosed with ALS at the end of September, just three months earlier; he went to reach for the cribbage board, lost his balance and hit the hardwood floor.

He passed out, his head was bleeding. I called 911 and he was taken to the hospital. It was the first time either of us had ever spent Christmas Eve in a hospital. He was hospitalized for two weeks. The only way he could be discharged to come home was if I could find a hospital bed an electric wheelchair and 24-hour care. None of this was covered by insurance.

We weren’t sure what we were going to do as this disease had been progressing faster than either of us could possibly imagine. I am grateful to the ALS association who helped us with equipment we could have never been able to afford and yet was necessary. I am grateful for family and friends who helped fill in the round the clock support, so I could go to work and keep the health insurance.

While we were very fortunate to have health insurance, we knew that if he was unable to stay at home and had to go to a skilled care facility, depending on how long he needed to stay, we could lose everything that we had spent our lives working for. There were days we wondered what the future held and if our resources ran out.

We were one of many who worry about health care costs.

A pastor who serves in Las Vegas as a hospice chaplain shared some insights with me around this topic of end of life. He is daily mortified by the limitations placed on patients and families with low incomes to have to rely on Medicaid — or not being able to find beds in skilled care facilities because of the low allocation of resources to this program both federally and on the state-wide level.

Having a loved one with a terminal illness and the strain of coping with that loss is hard enough under any circumstances, but the added duress and uncertainty makes the experience worse.

I know far too many people who have felt the strain, confusion, and frustration of navigating our medical system and the resulting anger and guilt has inhibited people from finding the peace they need with the situation.

Lutheran pastors have first-hand experience with the lack of mental health resources for people with lower incomes. So often they must work with clients who have issues beyond the scope of what pastors can do in grief recovery and support.

Individuals who need access to mental health resources often face long wait times and poor service at public mental health centers. These resources need to be improved.

As a pastor in Las Vegas wrote: “All I have is the agony and frustration I’ve heard from many people about trying to get the help they need at difficult times. Working in a community organization that strives to do the right thing can feel incredibly lonely.”

Those who serve the church feel a sense of hopelessness and pain. I’m guessing that you feel asense a helplessness and pain as you see the system and know that reform is needed.

Healthcare is central to our well-being and our vital relationships. Access to healthcare helps us to live out our vocations in our family, work and community. Caring for our own health and the health of others expresses love for our neighbor and it is our responsibility for a just society.

In Nevada, love for neighbor and justice would be all people having access to quality and affordable healthcare in their communities through federally funded health centers, home delivered meals, Medicaid waivers and reimbursement rates.

Health care reform is but one of many issues before the Nevada Legislative body this session.

WHAT IS THE ELCA?

I am Bishop Deborah Hutterer. I was elected by our church body to serve in this role and I’m in my sixth month. For those of you who are new, perhaps you aware like I am about how much there is to learn. And getting to spend time with you is one my learnings.

Today I stand before you as a bishop who, like you, cares about our common good and our neighbors—especially our neighbors who do not have a voice or who can be easily overlooked. I represent Lutherans from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the Grand Canyon Sybnod that includes the Southern half of Nevada, all of Arizona and St. George, Utah. The Grand Canyon Synod represents about 100 worship communities, as well as Lutheran Social Services of Nevada.

There are 65 bishops in the United States. Bishop Mark Holmerud from Sierra Pacific Synod represents Lutheran churches in the northern half of Nevada—and has had the privilege to be with this esteemed body.

There are a few Lutheran brands. I am attached to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “Evangelical” means “good news.” There are 3.5 million ELCA Lutherans in the United States. One thing that separates us from the other major Lutheran group, LCMS, is that the ELCA ordain women.

A MESSAGE FOR LEGISLATORS

From its inception, Lutherans have seen God active in the world. God’s activity includes government laws, good order, and the belief that Christians can serve in government roles. Government service to God, however you construe God, is service to neighbor. For that time in history it was startling because government was seen as something to be held at arms length, corrupt and irredeemable. ELCA sees your service as essential to serving neighbor.

I want to thank you for your tireless work in representing the people of Nevada and working for the common good.

Some of the pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who serve in Nevada are here today. Like me, they have met far too many children, women and men who don’t feel like they have a voice or access to this place of government, especially in the areas of health care reform, judicial reform and pay day lending. Many of our pastors and congregation members are advocates for systemic change; they also see the church as part of the community. In addition to worship, church doors are open to host community meals and provide education. One of our churches in Pahrump just started a Bible study in the detention center. There are some pastors who have been knocking on doors and inviting others to do the same to get out the vote—not telling people who to vote for but to encourage voting. They believe and support the good work you do on behalf of the people and see that participation in the process is essential. Lutherans Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada have been at this work for quite a few years now. Together you did some incredible work last year for anti-sex trafficking. Thank you.

FAITH AND THE SOCIAL CONTRACT

Many of our Nevada churches also partner with Lutheran Social Services of Nevada. This social service agency primarily serves in the Las Vegas area. Their mission is to express the love of Christ by serving and caring for people.

LSS-NV is a trusted grassroots nonprofit. Dedicated volunteers started the agency many years ago by providing food and clothing to our community members. It has since grown to become known for its diverse services. With a limited staff and many volunteers LSS-NV serve low- income, at-risk of homelessness, homeless, families with or without children, youth, veterans, people with disabilities, and senior citizens.

Since 1996, over 210,000 individuals have been cared for by the agency. One of their cutting edge services is Digi-Mart. It is an online grocery style food pantry, where individuals shop on line for bread, fresh vegetables, fruit, meats, dairy, and non-perishable food items. LSS offers classes to help them think more creatively about ingredients and eat healthier.

As a bishop I have a pastoral role and I am the leader of this faith community in the state. I am here to build a relationship through this opportunity.

Like me, you have been elected, but you have also called to this work to provide structure and safeguards for those who suffer. We need leaders like you who can focus on our neighbors who suffer from hunger, poverty and other ills.

From time to time people will tell me that I have a thankless job. From my perspective—it is this way for legislators at time where people are cynical and hardened about government. I can only imagine the challenge to represent all people in Nevada when there are many constituencies.

THE PAYDAY LENDING PROBLEM

One of the areas that affects many of your constituents is the payday lending industry. It has a wide reach and great impact on Nevada families, especially those in the poorest neighborhoods. Payday lending traps people in a vicious and downward spiraling debt cycle.

Did you there are more payday lending stores in Nevada than the number of McDonalds and Starbucks stores combined! They make money easy and accessible and individuals find themselves trapped.

If you needed money, where would you go? You might go to your family but I’ve discovered in my line of work that people would rather talk about their sex life than money. Money is so personal—many keep it secretive. Even in their relationships.

Mike B lives in Las Vegas. He is 48 years old and a gambler. He would cash his paycheck and then go to the casino. One day he lost his entire paycheck and knew he could not go home to his wife empty handed. As he considered his options—he had no friends or family that he could ask about this embarrassing situation. But he had driven by many pay day loan places. Rather than face the wrath of his wife, he made his first stop into payday loan store.

Showing his driver’s license, paystub and signing the paperwork he got his first $1,200. It was so easy. He had a great income so getting money was no problem. In fact he discovered that he could go to multiple pay day lending places and no one asked if he had any other paydays loans.

With high interest rates he learned the loans were not easy to pay off. He knew if he got home before his wife, she’d never see the mail. And he could keep his secret. As with most secrets, one day his wife got home before he did and in the mail was a notice for payment.

She thought this had to be wrong, so she called the company to find out what was going on. And it all came tumbling out. Mike says while he was embarrassed—he was a smart guy. Had a great job. Had a nice house, but he was trapped. His wife finding was a huge relief. He was caught in an endless cycle and did not know the way out.

Mike B. says matter of factly, “this won’t stop. The industry is too big.” In some ways we could agree this business does fill a purpose. However, these are also predatory business practices that victimize people.

So I advocate in support of the two Bill Draft Requests.

BRD 568 would enhance and enforce existing regulations on payday lenders that both lenders and people seeking loans seem to skirt around. One common problem is that a person, like Mike, get a payday loan and is unable to pay it back and will seek out a payday loan from another place to pay off the first and compounding their debt. This bill would make that nearly impossible to do.

BRD 621 would enact a 36% interest rate cap. This still may seem high, but 18 other states and DC have enacted as it stems from the Military Lending Act. This is a place where Arizona has passed legislation and set the interest cap at 36%. I advocate that Nevada follow suit.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM

If these two topics for reform weren’t enough on their own, there is also the criminal justice system. I don’t have much to say, but we all know it needs reform. Working together we can change systems for changes in prison re-entry.

I recently read that a panel of Nevada criminal justice leaders is forwarding to the Legislature a package of 25 recommendations that those in the know say could save the state $640 million in prison costs over the next decade if enacted.

The proposals came after the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute spent about six months poring over state data to pinpoint why Nevada’s prison population grew almost 700 percent since 1980, while the general population has grown by about 250 percent over that same period.

It’s not just a financial matter, it is a justice matter. I would urge any changes for reform be applied drug treatment, post-incarceration reentry services. Anything that could prevent crime and recidivism.

THE CHURCH AS CONSTITUENCY

The ELCA is an active church. We have many social statements that seek justice and care for those who can be overlooked. We invite you to visit with us on these issues. ELCA churches in this state are sources of expertise around hunger, poverty, human need and you can tap us as resources. We want to support you and your work. It has been a part of our history.

Every pastor I know became a pastor because they felt a call, they couldn’t not answer it despite all of the reasons why it makes sense to do something else. And, I’m guessing that is your experience. Despite the cynicism, and public mistrust and putting your lives out for all to judge, you couldn’t ignore the call to serve and to make your county or this state a better place to live. So thank you for letting me be here today. Thank you for your service. For your thoughtfulness. For weighing matters of public good and individual gain.

God does good through you, and we keep you in our prayers.

Looking Forward, LEAN-ing Forward

Bishop Deborah Hutterer of the Grand Canyon Synod.

Advent is a time of looking forward, of waiting, in hope and joyful preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Lutheran Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada (LEAN) is looking forward, too, with two important upcoming events.

Pencils For Pupils

In January, LEAN is sponsoring a fund raising effort called Pencils for Pupils. Former LEAN advocate and current board member, Rev. Mike Patterson, was for many years a public school teacher. Low income students were and are a special concern of his. Every parish in Nevada has members who are teachers, active and retired. They and parents know that schools do not provide all the supplies needed for classroom work, and that parents are expected to fill these needs. For a family struggling to pay the rent or buy necessities, this can be a real barrier to their children’s education. As we go into the spring semester, budgets for supplies, both at home and at school, are often exhausted. The donations that often come in for the fall are not repeated for spring. LEAN has an arrangement with Office Depot that enables us to buy at a significant discount. LEAN is asking for parishioners to make small donations to fund Pencils for Pupils. Please mail your donation direct to LEAN c/o Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, 357 Clay St., Reno NV 89501, before January 15, 2019. Please put “Pencils for Pupils” on the memo line of your check, and note which congregation you are part of. Once the supplies are purchased, each congregation will be able to choose a school to receive them. The ELCA Social Statement on Education calls us to strive with others to ensure that all have access to high-quality education. This is one small way we can do that.

Legislative Forum

As the 2019 Legislative Session gets underway in February, LEAN invites all parishioners to attend a special Legislative Forum on Thursday, February 7  at 10 a.m. in the Legislature building. Discussion will center on issues that will be addressed in upcoming legislation.  Featured speaker Rev. Deborah K. Hutterer, Bishop of the Grand Canyon Synod. Bishop Hutterer was  installed in September 2018 and because Grand Canyon Synod covers Las Vegas, she is the Bishop for most of the Lutherans in Nevada. Bishop Hutterer is a lifelong Lutheran who grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. As a young woman she felt called to ministry, but that was before Lutherans ordained women. After starting two businesses, and working in the insurance industry and in administration for Lutheran colleges, she came back to ministry. She was ordained in 2004, and was pastor to a church in Illinois. Most of Bishop Hutterer’s career has been in faith based social services. Before being elected Bishop, Rev. Hutterer was Chief Development Officer for Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest. In that role she traveled extensively throughout Arizona, preaching, presiding, and presenting at congregations and ministry groups on such topics as refugee resettlement, child abuse prevention, and aging. Her work enabled her to connect and collaborate with colleagues, congregations, ecumenical and interfaith partners.

LEAN is excited to be able to work with Bishop Hutterer, since she clearly shares a passion for social justice. All Nevada Lutherans should be eager to learn what she would like to see the Legislature pass in the coming session.

A luncheon will be served at no charge in connection with the event. There will also be opportunities to meet with Legislators. To RSVP, please email LEAN legislative advocate Bill Ledford. Lutherans from Southern Nevada are encouraged to attend as well.