Lawmakers split on funding new execution chamber in Ely

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CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada lawmakers are torn on whether to spend $860,000 to build a new execution chamber at the remote Ely State Prison to replace one in Carson City that state officials have said is unusable.

A joint Assembly and Senate budget subcommittee split a vote 5-5 on Monday on whether to recommend the construction project. Opponents said the renovation would be expensive and pointed out that there are no executions scheduled in the next two years.

"For the moment, we don't have 860,000 extra dollars lying around ready to go," Republican Assemblyman Randy Kirner said.

But Republican Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson said he couldn't disagree more on the matter, which is recommended in Gov. Brian Sandoval's budget.

"When we do have someone up for execution, we will not be able to effectuate that without this new chamber," said Roberson, who supported the idea along with Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer and Republican Assemblymen Paul Anderson, Derek Armstrong and James Oscarson. "I do think this is important, and we do need to fund it."

The state's existing death chamber at the shuttered Nevada State Prison is not in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Corrections officials said they would need to install an elevator for members of the public who watch an execution, and they would need to rework the stairs and handrails to meet the code.

Lawmakers are expected to resolve the death-chamber issue on Wednesday, when they hold another budget meeting.

Executions remain rare in Nevada, which has only carried out the death penalty 12 times since 1977. There are about 80 inmates on Nevada's death row, but the state hasn't executed anyone since 2006, Department of Corrections officials said.

Discussion on the execution chamber comes a day after the Senate passed a bill, AB377, laying the groundwork for turning Nevada State Prison into a tourist attraction. The measure directs state officials to determine which parts of the prison complex would be suitable as a museum or for scientific study, and it creates a fund that could be used to launch a future museum there.

While the prison was closed in 2012 after operating for 150 years, it still houses an operational license plate factory and is the state's only outlet for executions.

Democratic Sen. Debbie Smith raised concerns Sunday about the Carson City facility simultaneously operating as a tourist attraction and an active execution site, but Republican Assemblyman P.K. O'Neill, who sponsored AB377, said the concern will be addressed either by a replacement chamber in Ely or another means.

"The museum really won't get opened up and be fully public until such things as the execution chamber are taken care of," O'Neill said. "Even if we did have tourists, we'd shut them down several weeks prior, because it is still an active execution chamber. We want to be, and we will be, respectful of that."

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