Ahead of the 2019 legislative session, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada wrote a bill it says would have kept the mining industry accountable if they poisoned groundwater.
The idea was prompted by organizing PLAN did within tribal communities such as the Yerington Paiute Tribe, which contends that toxins from the nearby Anaconda Mine have contaminated the tribe’s groundwater source.
“We wanted to build up a community fund that the mining industry had to pay into,” said Laura Martin, the executive director of PLAN. “The community would have this money so they could then build a water treatment plant or do whatever they needed to do so they are not drinking out of water bottles like Flint, Michigan.”
The bill couldn’t even find a sponsor, Martin said, because some lawmakers didn’t want to cross the mining industry.
“I always have a little twinge when I see people celebrate Native American Heritage Month or Public Lands Day and say, ‘thank you for the tribes for being here,’ ” she added. “The tribes are more than just standing next to you in their regalia. It’s about respecting their whole lives and making sure they can actually raise their kids in a safe and healthy environment.”
But Martin said it just comes back to organizing and the work that needs to be done.
Since the group was created 25 years ago, PLAN has been building a movement. Martin said the organization’s mission is to mobilize the people most affected by the injustices they face and let them lead the way.
“We have this idea, this crazy idea, that we can actually transform our communities by supporting leaders to really develop and hone their power,” she said. “We have this crazy belief in the people and that they know what’s best for the community. The people should have ownership over community.”
In its first few years, Bob Fulkerson, who founded PLAN, noted the group fought for a range of issues from protecting reproductive freedom by organizing support for pro-choice ballot initiatives to rallying the Legislature to pass protections for the LGBTQ community.
Over 25 years, PLAN’s members have helped lead the charge to overhaul the state’s bail system, pushed for expanded access to the ballot box, stood by raising the minimum wage to $15 and fought for Native communities.
“It’s truly an organization for the people,” said Raquel Cruz Juarez, a former intern who now works for Planned Parenthood.
It’s not just community driven, Juarez added, but women of color specifically who are creating change. “It’s not just about a women-run Legislature, but the women-led community activism on the ground that is helping a women-run Legislature thrive,” she said.
PLAN, she continued, has also opened up the door for recent organizations to be created.
It has also been a springboard for community organizers like herself to get the experience they need — lawmakers like Assemblyman Howard Watts and Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson worked with the group.
Not beholden to a party
While championing policy changes, Martin said PLAN is trying to push back against Nevada’s love for “Reaganomics” and the theory that helping people at the top will trickle down to the rest of the community.
“We see that in the Las Vegas strip. We see that in the Raiders stadium. We see that in Tesla,” she said. “But what we don’t see is that actually happening. We see the rising tide of the economy help the ships that are already there and drown the rest of us out. It shows because of our income inequality, which is one of the worst in the country. Child poverty is one statistic that goes up every year for us. It’s because we are so committed to build out, build more and help the developers. If Sheldon is doing good, we’re all doing good. It just hasn’t been borne out by facts.”
Though progressive is in their name, Martin said the groups isn’t beholden to one particular party and tries to keep Democrats accountable as much as it does Republicans.
In recent years, PLAN has expanded to focus on criminal justice reform and ending mass incarceration.
While its mass liberation campaign has hosted brake light clinics to replace broken tail lights and raised money to post bail for people sitting in local detention who couldn’t afford the amount, it also fought, unsuccessfully, to replace democratic Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson.
Martin points to successes to show how the group’s work has borne fruit. For several sessions, PLAN supported efforts that would expand voting rights, especially for formerly incarcerated individuals.
The bills that were introduced were watered-down and resulted in a restoration process too complicated for people to navigate. “Every session (the legislation) got less shitty,” Martin said.
Finally in 2019 Gov. Steve Sisolak signed Assembly Bill 431, which automatically restores the right to vote once a person leaves prison
Some fights are ongoing. PLAN has been working with Native communities throughout Nevada to draw attention to the injustices they face.
While some environmental and clean energy groups boast victories around electric vehicles, something Martin said is a good thing, organizers with PLAN have been trying to direct the conversation around environmentalism through the lens of communities who often bear the brunt.
“What happens is, a lot of of green groups are championing electric cars and solar panels, which is fine,” she said. “But you need copper and lithium. Hard rock mining is already the most destructive and dirty industry in the world. Copper is worse because it’s hard to leach out of a rock, there are more chemicals involved and there is more potential for it to spill into our waterways. Anaconda was a copper mine.”
Martin said there have also been disappointments along the way.
“In 2014, we worked hard to get on the ballot an initiative to remove the mining industry’s tax privileges,” Martin said.
The Nevada Constitution caps the state mining tax at 5 percent of net proceeds, and the industry has cited the term “net proceeds” to take several lucrative deductions. Each year, there are at least a few Nevada mines that produce millions of dollars worth of gold, but take so many deductions they end up paying nothing at all to the state general fund in mining taxes.
“The mining industry pays less in taxes than the car rental companies,” she added.
Eliminating mining’s tax rate from the state constitution, Martin argued, could help fill budget gaps, and the money allotted could be used to address the teacher shortage or the lack of public transportation.
The ballot question lost by less than a percent — 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent.
“2014 was just a terrible year where everyone lost include (U.S. Rep.) Steven Horsford and (Assemblyman) Jason Frierson,” she said. “If the Democratic Party had actually tried, I feel like it could have carried it to the top.”
Looking to the future and into 2020, Martin knows there are more fights to be had and even more organizing to do.
In the next year, PLAN is going to build out its justice campaigns with the focus on ending cash bail. Martin envisions bringing more attention to transportation issues people face calling it a form of economic justice.
“We are looking at exciting opportunities to organize with the tribes around mining and water,” Martin said. “We’re going to continue to push and, if we have to, name names for people who won’t stand with the tribes and protect our water, which is essentially our future.”
Correction: The original version of this story stated the Yerington Paiute Tribe’s groundwater had been contaminated by the Anaconda mine. The source of the contamination remains in dispute.