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July 22, 2014

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Sandoval snubs NV Energy lobbyists with transmission line veto

Brian Sandoval

Brian Sandoval

CARSON CITY — Gov. Brian Sandoval entered office with an impressive resume and sterling reputation, a moderate-to-conservative governor for a moderate-to-conservative state.

If there was a criticism, it was that he, like many Nevada politicians who climb the ranks, was too close to the traditional interests that pull the levers of power in the state.

Some are rethinking those assumptions, however, after Sandoval vetoed a bill rammed through the Legislature at the last minute.

The legislation was Assembly Bill 416, which was pushed by NV Energy, the state’s powerful electric monopoly that once employed Sandoval, and its hired lobbyists, Pete Ernaut and Greg Ferraro, the friends Sandoval credits with first suggesting he leave the federal bench to run for governor.

They both later served as volunteer campaign managers.

The veto “demonstrated he’s not owned by anybody. He’s his own man,” said Susan Fisher, a Nevada lobbyist who represented Valley Electric Association, a rural utility co-op, which opposed the bill. “It put to rest a lot of questions and rumors swirling around even before (Sandoval’s) election. These buddies, are they going to tell him how to vote? Clearly, no.”

Timothy Hay, a former state consumer advocate forced out when Sandoval was attorney general, said, “I think it showed the governor has enough independence to look beyond the short-term politics of legislation, to the long-term impacts of energy policy. It’s a refreshingly good sign to me.”

The transmission bill was NV Energy’s top legislative priority. It would have allowed the utility to build transmission lines to export power using Nevada ratepayer money to fund it, a policy that critics said risked as much as $1 billion in consumer financing.

Not only the legislation was questioned. It was the way it passed.

NV Energy lobbyists, including Ferraro and Ernaut, pushed to get the language passed in the final hour of the session, after traditional avenues to pass legislation failed. The Sun detailed the last-minute maneuvering and the fact that some lawmakers didn’t know what they had voted for.

“Media coverage played a huge role,” Fisher said, specifically pointing to the telling of the final hour.

“There are concerns about the process, the appearance of how it passed,” said former Gov. Bob List, who lobbied against the bill on behalf of a company interested in developing transmission lines. “There were political consequences for the governor if he signed it. It was a very unpopular bill.”

The bill, after it was amended, would have:

• Authorized NV Energy to fund, using Nevada ratepayer money, transmission lines to export renewable energy to other states.

• Kept agreements between large solar projects and the utility confidential.

• Allowed geothermal projects to qualify for tax breaks without county approval.

• Created incentives for renewable energy projects.

All provisions had opponents and supporters. But except for the performance-based incentives, none had gone through the normal legislative vetting process.

Critics, including the state Consumer Protection Bureau, said the transmission lines could cost $1 billion, which would have been funded by Nevadans’ electricity rates.

NV Energy called that cost estimate a “red herring.”

The bill was necessary to move Nevada forward as an energy exporter, according to the utility. It’s the only way for Nevadans to benefit from the export of energy to other states, such as California and Arizona.

The governor’s approval seemed, if not certain, at least likely.

It was, after all, the No. 1 priority of NV Energy, which spread around $300,000 to Democratic and Republican leadership during the 2010 cycle, according to followthemoney.org.

The utility hires the best lobbyists in Nevada, including the firm R&R Partners.

Sandoval’s chief of staff, Heidi Gansert, was on the Senate floor in the final hour providing information to Republicans who had concerns about the bill.

On top of that, Sandoval had worked on behalf of NV Energy shareholders in private practice in the 1990s. While running for office, he took a job with the private law firm Jones Vargas that does regulatory work for the utility.

And he did not seem sensitive to the concerns his associations had raised.

When a vacancy opened on the state Public Utilities Commission, his choice, Luis Valera, was a lobbyist unknown in energy circles but known to be a friend of NV Energy executives.

In a message accompanying his veto, Sandoval expressed concern about the policy and the potential effect of an electricity rate increase.

Sandoval and his senior staff declined to comment for this story, or provide any more background on his thought process for the veto.

NV Energy issued a statement, expressing respect for the governor.

Ernaut said: “The governor has always been his own man, but that isn’t the point here. He vetoed this bill because he disagreed with the policy.”

“There is an upside and downside with being close to the governor. The upside is our friendship, the downside is when he vetoes a bill I worked hard on, you write a story about it.”

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  1. The NVEnergy transmission line was designed to bring Northern Geothermal and Wind Energy south to Clark County and at that point, enter the existing energy grid. This is the plan they presented at past Renewable Energy symposiums at UNLV.

    The solar energy that Southern Nevada has been ignored. NVEnergy wants to sell Clark County Northern Nevada Renewable energy and have Clark County pay the bill to bring it here.

    Paying for an 800 mile transmission line, when solar cells could be built in the Southern deserts is totally RIDICULOUS and WASTEFUL. We have abundant solar energy within 30 miles !!! We don't need an 800 mile transmission line from the North. This transmission line is designed by lawyers to create big houses, not competitively priced energy.

  2. IF the government is going to do any "GREEN STIMULUS," please, let is start with giving folks an option to have government sponsored solar panels, wind generators, geothermal units on their properties! Especially here in Nevada, the West, SouthWest USA!

    With that, compell schools to incorporate career paths towards supporting those industries. Also, give our returning troops first shot at the jobs, school scholarships.

    This would be a WIN-WIN plan given long term development. And our state and planet would be greener and more secure for it.

  3. I have been out there..I know for a fact that private companies want to build this same transmission line. It has been on the table for years and all we have to do is approve it, get out of the way and it will be built...NOT with a risk of NVenergy over runs. Run the line from Idaho right down to the back side of the Dam. Problems is, alternative energies are still not viable with the costs. So, we could open the coal powered plant that is completed northeast of town, or how about a Natural Gas plant or two...

  4. thank god for sandoval

  5. I'm not so quick to give the Governor that much credit. He did the right thing by vetoing a bill that highlights everything that is wrong with Nevada politics and our part-time "citizen" legislature. However, given the vagueness of the bill's language, the media coverage of both the bill's language along with the way it was passed in the session's closing hours (Sen. Schneider telling the NV Energy lobbyist that he's now owed a bottle of wine FROM THE SENATE FLOOR is particularly horrific), the outcry from Consumer Groups, the PUC, the Attorney General along with grassroots organizations led the Governor to the only possible solution - veto.

  6. Good job Sandovol. keep up the good work of smaller more efficent government.

    I wish the legislators would write a bill to get rid of this monopoly. Increased competition would bring down rates.

  7. The simple solution is to let HOA have have an ability to have solar panels being placed on all rooftops in their community. Use their pools of money to finance it. The the HOA can sell what the Homeowners don't use to NV Energy. But that would mean you would have to trust your local HOA.

  8. A good logical step by the governor, hopefully, because of the lack of merit of this bill as far as the expense for the transmission line for the residents of Nevada; and not otherwise. The governor should have added that he did not agree with the timing and methodology of passing this bill, that is without even the representatives in the state legislature even reading the said bill.
    The more transparent the government the more efficient it will be for the people that it represents.