Dec 16 2021 . 16 min read

Elevating the Conversation: December 2021

Elevating the Conversation: December 2021

with Nevada Assemblyman Steve Yeager

with Nevada Assemblyman Steve Yeager

Representing Assembly District 9, Assemblyman Yeager has served three terms in the Nevada Legislature since 2016. During the 2017 legislative session, he supported legislation that focused on voter rights, protecting public lands, greater protections for victims of domestic and sexual violence, rooftop solar and other forms of renewable energy, greater access to healthcare, and bringing more fairness and efficiency to the criminal justice system. In the 2019 legislative session, Yeager spearheaded criminal justice reform and focusing on rehabilitation to prevent crime. He is currently a partner at Battle Born Injury Lawyers (BBIL), and was recently appointed to serve on the Cannabis Advisory Commission (CAC). Prior to BBIL, Yeager was a Chief Deputy Public Defender at the Clark County Public Defender’s Office.

Why did you decide to run for political office in 2016? I lobbied at the legislative sessions in 2013 and 2015. I was at the Clark County Public Defender's Office at the time, so I lobbied on a lot of criminal justice issues in terms of what is making smart criminal justice reform. After lobbying, I figured out that I could do more good in the Legislature where I could draft bills and help determine the policy and the agenda. So ultimately, I decided to run because I wanted to have the ability to come up with bills on my own and try to get them passed, whether it be in the criminal justice space or otherwise.

Although I must say most of the time it goes the other direction. Most people are in the legislature and then decide to lobby. It's unusual to be a lobbyist and then a legislator. I saw what it was like in the building as a lobbyist and decided I wanted to be in the Legislature. When you talk to most lobbyists, they'll tell you the last thing they want to do is to be a legislator. But there's obviously a lot more that goes on than what you see from the lobbyist’s perspective. So, I don't know that I was ready for how much work it would be to be able to manage all these different bills. As a lobbyist, you just focus on the bills that matter to you or your client, but when you're in the legislature you have to care about all the bills from all the committees.

During your tenure as an Assemblyman, what issues have you been most enthusiastic about? Criminal justice reform has been the number one issue that I've worked on. Our criminal laws were just very outdated and so they really needed to be entirely revamped. So, I would say that's probably been the number one piece of policy that I've worked on.

One other thing I’m really into is recreational opportunities outdoors and getting people outside, especially our young kids. So, I've done some legislation about our state parks and giving free park passes to fifth graders and then coming up with the grant program to try to help get some of those kids outside who might not have that opportunity. COVID derailed the grant program a little bit, but we're getting some money there. So many students from Clark County have never been to any of our state parks or really haven't even been out to Red Rock. So that's another issue that is just a personal one to me that I think matters quite a bit. 

You understand and largely support cannabis legislation. Why?

I wasn't there as an elected official I 2013 but I really tried to help on the lobbyist side to get the dispensary system set up, at least on the medical side, which we were supposed to do for a decade in our Constitution. But I had a bit of an insight into getting that program launched. And I think it's really helped me with cannabis legislation over the last few sessions to have that history and know where we started back in ‘13.

During the 2021 session, what issues were high on your priority list?

Just globally as a legislature, getting people back to work and getting beyond COVID, obviously, was an important goal for all of us. But more on the individual level, for me, there were a couple of pieces of legislation that I really wanted to work on, and one was cannabis consumption lounges, which we've been trying to do for a while. The other one was trying to help protect people from being evicted when we had all this federal rental assistance money coming in. Those two bills probably took most of my time this session. Then my other goal is always to run a very good Assembly Judiciary Committee because we have a lot of bills that come through there, just making sure the trains are on time and we're getting our work done.

What did lawmakers finally pass a consumption lounge bill this session?

I think there's probably a few things that happened. In the 2019 session we created the Cannabis Compliance Board and I think getting that board up and running helped. Having that regulatory agency that is specifically tasked with regulating and overseeing cannabis made consumption lounges more palatable for legislators because before it was the Department of Taxation, which really isn't the logical place. So that would be number one, just the creation of that agency. Then the executive director, Tyler Klimas, I think he is someone who at least wasn't opposed to consumption lounges, if not in favor them. So, they were able to look at this issue between sessions and provide a brief report about what it might look like, which got the conversation started in a way that we didn't have before.

I think the other thing is cannabis use was up pretty high during the pandemic. And we know that was not tourists because tourists weren't coming here at that time. I think as time has moved on in the state the public has certainly become more comfortable with cannabis, at least in Clark County. And I think more people have tried it and consumed it and realize this isn't so bad. So that was a piece that made lawmakers feel better about it.

I think the final point was just this idea that as we come out of the pandemic, and we're seeing it now, we're having a real resurgence in Las Vegas of visitors and touristsall that sort of pent-up demand for people that couldn't come here during the pandemic. And, of course, I think we failed them over the last few years by not having a place where they could consume cannabis. A lot of people that come here either have tried cannabis before and they want to do it here or they don't have it legal in their home state and they want to try it here. And it's not a good look for us to say, ‘Hey, please come to our state and please purchase cannabis but there's nowhere for you to consume it.’

I think my legislative colleagues knew that was an issue that we needed to solve this session and we couldn't wait another session to do it. So, I think those things all coalesced into momentum. And from my perspective one thing I always worried about was how do you set up a system that's fair and equitable, but that someone will want to start a sustainable business to make money in this sort of marketplace. So, in contrast to prior sessions, I asked some smart people if they could come up with some ideas and start working on language so that when we got to the session, we weren't just trying to create something out of thin air. And a few people really did buckle down and help get this legislation shaped so when we got to session, we were in a much better place than we ever were before. We had a workable draft to start talking about and working from.

How did Assembly Bill 341 become such a Nevada-centric piece of legislation?

Everybody who worked on Assembly Bill 341, the cannabis consumption lounge bill, was a Nevada person. They are here in the community. They have an interest in getting it right. With a lot of legislation, you see outside groups or national groups come in, but this was entirely a homegrown Nevada effort. I think we have the best bill in the country when it comes to cannabis consumption lounges. In terms of actual legislation, how it’s worded, how it’s structuredI think this is a good piece of legislation and it's to the credit of about a dozen people here in the state who care a lot about this issue. They weren't getting paid. They're not in the legislature. They just said, ‘Hey, I want to get this right. Let me help.’ That's a really cool thing to have at your disposal.

DUI reform (AB 400) passed during the 2021 session. This has always been a tricky issue because of the nanogram testing.

The DUI issue is something we've been looking at for a long time. Here's the truth, if push comes to shove everyone will agree that we don't have a good standard of impairment for cannabis. It doesn't work like alcohol; people will generally admit that. But the question was since we don't have good information, how do we want to approach it in the law? Do we want to be overly strict or not overly strict on it? I think they realize these laws are really outdated. And there has been some good research that has come out recently on cannabis and impairment, so we really benefited from having a lot more knowledge in this area than we did four or six years ago.

On that bill I worked with an organization called Norml on the national level. One of their guys, Paul Armentano, is an expert on cannabis impairment and driving. He knows all the studies; he's testified on it a million times so bringing him in was helpful because he was like a cheat sheet for everything that's out there. I think he really helped pass the DUI bill through his knowledge. We didn't get everything we wanted in that DUI bill. It was a little stronger to start with but that's the legislative process, the give and take you get when you can make small steps.

Is there any legislation that didn't pass that you'll revisit in 2023?

I brought a bill to get rid of the death penalty in the state of Nevada. We passed that out of the Assembly but, unfortunately, it didn't go any further than that. So that may be something I'll revisit next session and continue to talk to folks to figure out whether there's a way forward with that piece of legislation. But perhaps there isn't. Personally, I think that's something we really ought to do in our state is get rid of the death penalty because the truth is we're not putting anyone to death anyway. And it's just really, really expensive to prosecute those cases and then never have the person actually executed. To me it's an example of a really inefficient, expensive government program.

Do you feel cannabis is as divisive an issue as when you first were elected?

I don't think it is, certainly not in our urban communities. I think in rural communities the feelings tend to be anti-cannabis, but the legislators representing rural areas have come to the realization that this isn't going away. And it's a big industry in our state that pays a lot of tax money, a lot of which goes to K-12 education. So, I think most legislators, even if they don't like cannabis, have gotten to the point where they know we have to be responsible about this and we have to regulate it in the right way. And if there are going to be business opportunities, we need to make sure we open those up to small businesses.

In 2013 when medical dispensaries were authorized it was very politically divisive, particularly in the Assembly. The Senate had broad bipartisan support. But I remember when it got over to the Assembly they needed 28 votes, and they only had 27 Democrats and they got exactly 28 votes. (Former Assemblywoman) Michele Fiore was the only Republican. It was incredibly divisive.

Even consumption lounges this session got good bipartisan support in both houses of the Legislature. I think over time people have realized this industry is not going anywhere and so let's embrace it. Let's do it right. Let's make sure we're toeing the line between economic opportunity and public safety. So that’s a long-winded way of saying I definitely think we've come a long way and it’s not nearly as divisive in Nevada.

What has inspired your career in public service? It really was lobbying for me. Before I started lobbying, I was not all that politically active. I voted but I didn't get involved in advocating for legislation. But once I got up to Carson City as a lobbyist, and I started to see what was possible through legislation, it really did inspire me. When I was at the public defender's office, I would just see things happen, particularly in the criminal justice system, where I would say to myself wow, that seems backward, and wonder why we do it that way? But you shrugged your shoulders and went on with life and lived with it. But once you see that you might have the ability to make some of these common-sense changes that really inspired me to say I can sit here on the sidelines and complain about it all I want, or I can run and try to do something about it. So, I decided to go that direction. And I'll continue to do that as long as voters would like to send me back to Carson City. If, and when, that day comes where they don't send me back, I'm sure I'll have a lot of other things that'll keep me busy.

What inspires you to continue serving the public, especially in these divisive times?

I think at the end of the day you get to do some good stuffyou do get to make a difference in people's lives, especially as state legislators. We make decisions that really impact people's lives, whether it's when your garbage is coming, what time school starts, what taxes you're going to paythose things really impact people's lives. So, for me the ability to impact people's lives for the better has continued to motivate me.

You have to keep your eye focused on why you're in this business and that's to serve and to give back and to hopefully make life better for people. There's certainly a lot of noise out there. A lot of people with opinions have ways of voicing them that they didn't have in the past. And COVID has been difficult. But I think what I've tried to do throughout COVID and throughout my political career is when you're getting yelled at, which happens a lot, or you're getting complained to there usually is something there where that person is hurting or has something going on.

Of course, I would prefer that they didn't act out in that way. But I think if you cannot take offense to it and say: What is the real issue here? Is it an economic issue? Is it a healthcare issue? Like what's the underlying issue? And how can we solve that. Even COVID exposed a lot of weaknesses of our governmental, social safety nets whether it's health, or lack of providers, or lack of internet access for kids in school. A lot of things that we overlooked were brought to the forefront because of COVID.

For me, it's an opportunity for us to say we've got things we can fix. We're getting a good amount of money from the federal government that I think will allow us to fix some of the things. So, I just try to keep perspective but it's hard. It's hard to recruit good people who want to be in office today. No matter what you do, you're going to get criticized and no one likes that.

Do you aspire for higher office? I am planning to run for reelection for this legislative seat. And I always take it one session at a time, but I still feel like there's some progress that we need to make on the state level. So, at this point, I don't have any plans to run for anything else, but you never say never. I think a lot of politics is about timing. But I really do enjoy going to Carson City and working on things at the state level, it's really satisfying to see the decisions you make have an impact in your communities.

The thing that's really cool about being in the Legislature that gets overlooked is all the different issues that come in front of you and the committees that you're on. It's almost like you continue to get an education without having to be in a formal classroom, whether you're learning about natural resources, or you're learning about how we finance healthcare, you're learning about regulatory boardsthese are just things I would not otherwise know anything about. I think that's a really cool thing to learn about all these things, to meet the people who are either working in state government or are on the lobbying side or experts to come in and talk to you about these issues. I think it's given me a much greater appreciation for the complexity of life as we know it right now. There's just so many things going on that weren't there in the past. So, I really enjoy that part of it. It's a good way to keep your brain sharp.

A really cool thing about Nevada is we're such a small legislature and with the citizen legislature, where we're only part-time, it's so easy to talk to your elected officials in Nevada. This number that we're talking on is my cell phone. It's the phone number that's on all my emails, on my business card. People can just call you and talk to you. And some of the best ideas that we've had over the years come from constituents who said, ‘Hey, why don't we do it this way?’ And you think that's a great idea. Let's do that.