Legislatures and Legitimacy

One of the ironies of Nevada’s “citizen Legislature”—in which “citizens” meet every two years to “legislate” and then go home to make a living—is that such a Legislature is incapable of properly carrying out the business of the state’s citizens. For one thing, pressing issues come up more than every other year. For another, just about everything the citizen-legislators do when they are back home in simple citizen mode is a potential conflict of interest.

After the right-wing Nevada Policy Research Institute sued state Sen. Mo Denis in the hopes of getting the Nevada Supreme Court to forbid state employees from serving in the Legislature (apparently some citizens are less citizens than others), Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston wrote that Nevada should simply eliminate the citizen legislature and replace it with a full-time professional Legislature.

It’s not likely to happen in our lifetimes. Nevada tried once, in 1960, to hold annual legislative meetings, but it didn’t work: That Legislature was to limit itself to budget issues but simply claimed that every issue was budgetary, annoying every non-legislator.

Was Nevada that different in 1960? The state’s largely undiversified economy depended on tourism, federal largesse, mining and ranching—and residents professed to hate one or more of them for various reasons involving their power. The Legislature tended to ignore or minimize the needs of urban areas and leaned conservative and libertarian. Sound familiar?

But Clark County’s population then was about 127,000—1/16 of the present figure. And therein lies the problem. We are stuck in a rut today because it’s nearly impossible to gather a critical mass of society to criticize the status quo and push for a new approach. The 1960 effort might have failed, but at least the effort was made, and that is in part a tribute to a populace that was able to engage, communicate and get some things done.

Today, most Southern Nevadans are newer arrivals. They have come here, it appears, in hopes of doing well financially—meaning they usually concentrate on their jobs and necessities—or to retire and simply enjoy themselves. They live scattered across a sprawling Valley. In such circumstances, it’s difficult to build a sense of community. Community requires not only awareness of our common goals and problems, but commitment and consistency. If our politicians fail us in Carson City, the traditional American response would be for a community to pull together and demand change. But Las Vegas is too much like another dysfunctional civic democracy, Los Angeles, with its sprawling polyglot of people and communities, all with their own politics and powers and sometimes divergent histories.

Nevertheless, the clear and present inadequacy of our current legislative system is a perfect occasion for citizen outcry. If you believe in a full-time Legislature, why not talk about it? There are book clubs, civic groups and other venues to discuss these matters. And—a plug for my day job here—college history and political science classes teach about this kind of stuff!

If you’re unhappy or think it’s useless to resist, just remember: America gives you not only a vote, but a voice.