What’s love got to do with it?

Domestic, sexual violence funding tethered to marriage licenses

Elvis Presley being fed a mouthful of wedding cake by his bride Priscilla Beaulieu at the Aladdin Hotel, Las Vegas, May 1, 1967. The Las Vegas wedding tourism industry has been declining for decades. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Nevada, a state known for quickie weddings and equally rapid divorces, is consistently among the deadliest in the nation in terms of domestic violence. But it’s one of only 17 that do not allocate state operating funds to prevention and treatment.

Almost half of women in Nevada — 44 percent — and a third of men, will be subjected to violence or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to state experts.

For years, Nevada led the nation in deadly instances of domestic homicide. In 2017, the state slipped to fourth in the nation. More than half of female victims — 56 percent — were killed by their intimate partner.

In lieu of permanent funding, non-profit providers of domestic and sexual violence services rely on federal grants and a surcharge on the sale of marriage licenses, which have plummeted in number by more than 40 percent in the last 20 years, according to Clark County Clerk Lynn Goya.

Wedding bell blues 

Wedding tourism generates approximately $2 billion in economic activity in Southern Nevada each year, supporting over 18,000 jobs and hundreds of small businesses, says Goya. 

“We have been working diligently to reverse this 20-year decline in wedding tourism; increasing the fee would certainly suppress demand and kill this golden goose that so many lives depend upon,” Goya testified last week before lawmakers. 

In 2019, the proceeds from a $25 surcharge on marriage licenses, designated by law for domestic violence treatment and prevention, amounted to about $3 million — $2.6 million of it generated in Clark County, according to Goya.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Julia Ratti would double the surcharge to pay for domestic violence treatment and prevention and fund sexual violence programs in counties other than Clark for the first time.

Ratti says 80 percent of the marriage licenses issued in Clark County are sold to tourists.

“So, I’d like to be clear that while much of the revenue is generated in Clark County, the bulk of it is not paid by Clark County residents,” she wrote in an email to the Current

A formula in state law divides that money and federal grants among Nevada’s 17 counties served by 14 domestic violence programs, some that serve several counties, and one sexual violence service provider located in Las Vegas but available to all residents.

“If this bill makes it across the finish line, there will be a significant increase in services available for survivors in Clark County, as well as across the rest of the state,” Ratti wrote.

The measure, which requires approval by two-thirds of the Legislature, is opposed by the wedding industry and a smattering of Republican lawmakers who say they favor a state appropriation over the increase, which they fear could harm business.

“In a Legislature where we have found money before for a Raiders stadium, I’m even for an appropriation,” Assemblywoman Alexis Hansen, a Republican, told her colleagues Tuesday during a hearing on SB 177 before the Assembly Judiciary Committee. “It’s not about giving money to these organizations that do great work. It’s about how we do it.” 

“I love the intent of the bill. I like what it does,” said Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, also a Republican. “The money goes somewhere that’s really needed,” he said, adding it “should be coming out of the general fund, not out of fees.”

Wheeler and Hansen did not respond to questions from the Current about any prior efforts to secure state funding.

Similar mechanisms have been challenged in other states. 

An Illinois woman filed a class-action suit when the marriage license she purchased included $5 for domestic violence programs.  A state appellate court found the legislatively approved fee was “reasonably related to the Fund’s narrow purpose of helping married victims of domestic violence leave violent marriages.”

It’s unknown if Illinois’ programs turn away unmarried individuals.  

Some experts object to funding sexual violence programs with marriage license revenue because it draws a nexus between love and sexual violence, an act not of desire but of power, they say. 

“The funding has always come from marriage licenses. Getting an appropriation is not an easy thing to do,” says Sue Meuschke of the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. “There has not been an appetite to do a general fund appropriation or a tax on anything else.” 

“But we’re certainly interested in having conversations with anyone. We engaged in conversations on the Senate side looking at funding sources, none of which were available,” she said.

“There have literally been 40 years of efforts to find a different funding source including lots of conversation this session on other options,” Ratti said. “There is no perfect funding source and I have encouraged my colleagues to help me find something better – particularly something that can gain the necessary support of 2/3rds of the Legislature. Until that happens, I 100% stand by what has been a reliable source of revenue to address the needs of survivors of domestic and sexual violence. These services are critical.”

The perfect storm 

Nevada’s wedding industry was an early victim of COVID-19 shutdowns, resulting in plummeting revenue from marriage licenses and subsequently, in allocations to domestic and sexual violence programs.  

The Domestic Violence Resource Center in Northern Nevada watched its share of license revenue drop from $319,348 in fiscal year 2020 to $89,938 for 2021, according to Board of Trustees member Lesley Pittman.

The shutdown also provided opportunity to abusers.  

During a six month period in 2020, calls to the Resource Center hotline skyrocketed by 50 percent.  Requests for protective orders increased by 80 percent, and requests for shelter were up by 100 percent, according to Pittman.

Meuschke testified that community-based programs in Nevada saw a six percent increase in clients statewide, a 33 percent increase in hotline calls, and a 14 percent increase in shelter occupancy in 2020.

This week the state’s economic experts revealed Nevada’s economy is healthier than projected — to the tune of $586.2 million.  

Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a statement he’s “committed to changing our systemic issues that make Nevada the hardest hit State in the nation when there’s an economic downturn.” 

The governor did not respond to inquiries about whether the lack of state budgeting to combat domestic and sexual violence is a systemic frailty.

Dana Gentry
Senior Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, a grandson, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.