How Not to Fix Nevada’s Problems

Guy Louis Rocha, the former state archivist who knows Nevada history as well as it’s possible to know it, considers the current economic downturn the state’s worst ever. That’s high praise, you might say. Nevada went through a depression from 1880 to 1900 that drove out one-third of its population. The Great Depression was no picnic, either.

But recent reports suggest Rocha is right.

Poverty rates are rising nationally, and only Florida’s are rising faster than Nevada’s. Not only are nearly 400,000 Nevadans defined as below the poverty line, but most of them are children.

It gets worse. From 2007 to 2010, Nevada found a way to lead the nation in another category in which it should take no pride: average income fell by 11.9 percent, the steepest decline in the U.S. If you want to argue that isn’t so bad because home prices were falling at the same time, the bursting of that bubble still left many with the same oversize mortgage payment, which they walked away from.

UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research reported a continued lack of confidence among local businesses. The good news is that because the housing market stinks, more retirees might move here.

Meanwhile, unemployment rates have been rising in the Sunbelt. Nevada’s jobless rate climbed from 5 percent in December 2007 to 13.4 percent just over a month ago.

None of this qualifies as major news. If you live in Las Vegas—meaning you are neither a tourist or a parachuting journalist looking for a quick and easy story—you know the litany of woe.

What does qualify as major news is the reaction to these reports. Listen carefully. You can hear the crickets and cicadas.

When Nevada’s economy went down the tubes in the late 19th century, its leaders blamed the federal government for eliminating silver as currency. So they screamed and kicked and cried, and they got the government at least to buy some of the precious metal. They even formed a new political organization called the Silver Party.

Meanwhile, state legislators, not being sure what to do, made boxing legal at a time when boxing wasn’t the wholesome family entertainment it is today (or is that Ultimate Fighting?). Granting that gambling had been legal, prostitution had gone on openly and opium dens were a prominent business on the Comstock, Nevada was trying something new: openly touting its sinfulness.

During the Depression, lawmakers legalized gambling and reduced the residency requirement for divorce as part of an effort to attract visitors who then might invest in Nevada real estate. They also welcomed federal aid, especially New Deal projects.

But the recent Nevada Legislature reacted to the state’s problems by doing virtually nothing. It failed to find new revenue streams or even complete redistricting. Our legislators sniped and snarled about how much they were willing to cut and gut until a court ruling forced lawmakers and the governor to work together. Then they wondered why voters are anti-incumbent and don’t closely follow the redistricting debate, which will greatly affect their lives for the next decade.