Updated May 21, 2021 - 6:35 pm
Call it the Legislature’s version of a blackout.
As in lawmakers giving Mesquite Republican Assemblywoman Annie Black a timeout, stripping her of her privileges to vote and speak on the floor because she refused to wear a face mask.
And now, Black and majority Democrats are in a standoff that could last until the end of the session on May 31.
It all started Tuesday, when Black took to the Assembly floor, ripped off her mask and said face coverings are no longer necessary, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fact check: The CDC guidance says that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear face masks, because the chances of transmitting the virus to another person is low. Unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks, however.
Legislative leaders have no idea whether Black is vaccinated, and she said in an interview and in her email newsletter that she wouldn’t tell if asked. In fact, Black said the question was a ruse employed by the CDC to coerce people into getting a vaccination.
“What President (Joe) Biden, Gov. (Steve) Sisolak and Speaker (Jason) Frierson, (D-Las Vegas) and the CDC are doing is setting a trap to usher in ‘vaccine passports,’ ” Black claimed in her newsletter. “Either PROVE you’ve been vaccinated or become a second-class citizen. Papers, please.”
After Black’s remarks on the floor, Frierson said members who aren’t vaccinated and don’t wear masks are in violation of Assembly Standing Rule 150, which says “… a member shall cover his or her mouth and nose with a multi-layer cloth face covering and observe social distancing guidelines in accordance with recommendations of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when in … (either) House Chamber of the Legislative Building.”
Penalties for violations include not being able to vote or speak on the floor except to apologize and explain the breach.
Then on Wednesday, Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Brenda Erdoes issued new legislative building protocols, based on the updated CDC guidance, allowing fully vaccinated people to choose whether to wear a mask inside the legislative building. Unvaccinated people must still wear masks.
The problem? Black didn’t want to say if she’d had the vaccine, because she didn’t want to reveal her personal medical information.
The other problem? Black took a victory lap, claiming in her newsletter and on Twitter that it was her efforts that led to the change in policy at the legislative building, rather than the revised CDC guidance.
But in an interview with the Review-Journal on Friday, Black frankly disclosed that she’d had COVID-19 late last year. She fully recovered. (People who have had the disease have coronavirus antibodies, but the CDC still recommends they get the vaccine.)
As the Assembly was gathering on Wednesday, maskless Assemblywoman Jill Dickman, R-Sparks, said on Twitter she was escorted off the floor, apparently because she didn’t have a mask and didn’t want to disclose her vaccination status.
Black made it onto the floor, but her mask did not. She was there when the Assembly was called to order, but Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, immediately raised a point of order, calling her violation to the speaker’s attention. A vote was called, and on party lines, the Assembly stripped Black of her voting and speaking privileges.
Fact check: The Assembly, under Article 4, Section 6 of the state constitution, has the authority not only to set rules for its proceedings but to punish members for “disorderly conduct.”
As you might imagine, Black wasn’t pleased, saying she’d been denied an opportunity to object to the motion or explain her actions. She said she believes legislative leaders are retaliating against her for her vocal anti-mask stands.
“I think that they jumped the gun. They wanted to shut me up,” she said. “It’s not that they want to keep people safe, or they’re worried that I’m making people unsafe. It feels like revenge.”
That’s especially true, she says, because she has seen lawmakers and others outside the legislative building at restaurants and bars without masks, which she says belies the health and safety justification for the mask rule in the first place.
And while Black says she expected lawmakers might boot her from the chambers during her first anti-mask speech, she was surprised that they voted to take away her vote and voice after the new guidance was released.
“I was basically blindsided yesterday,” she said. “I don’t think I did anything wrong.”
Fact check: Black was specifically warned by the speaker about the consequences of violating the standing rule and admits that, even if asked about her vaccination status, she would have declined to say.
And now, absent an apology on the floor, Black will be doing a lot less legislating than she thought when she got elected last year.
“I’m not going to apologize,” she confirmed.
Historical note: Apologies for conduct on the floor are rare; the last one came in 2015 from then-Assemblywoman Michele Fiore. After a vexing to-and-fro with a fellow Republican, an angry Fiore asked the speaker to have her debate partner “sit your ass down!” An outcry from fellow lawmakers ultimately led to Fiore offering an apology.
That person? Former Assemblyman Chris Edwards, R-Las Vegas, the person Black defeated in the 2020 Republican primary to win the seat.
Last full week of session
Because the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn for good on May 31, the week starting Monday is the last full week of the session. It promises to be busy, with lawmakers expected to work right though the weekend. And schedules in the final week are unpredictable at best.
But on Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up Assembly Bill 116, which would make certain traffic offenses civil infractions instead of criminal misdemeanors.
Then on Tuesday, the Assembly Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up Senate Bill 165, Reno Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer’s bill to regulate esports in Nevada. Later that day, the Assembly Revenue Committee is scheduled to hear Senate Concurrent Resolution 11, which would create a committee to study so-called innovation zones and provide a report to the governor by year’s end.
Carson City Journal is a weekly feature that summarizes the major events happening in the capital during the 2021 legislative session and provides a look at what’s coming next.