The Year the South Rose

In 2013, Clark County legislators from both sides of the aisle finally fought together for Southern Nevada


Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Michael Roberson

The most important development for Nevada politics in 2013 may have been that Southern Nevada politicians of both parties discovered that they represent Clark County—and did something about it.

Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick and State Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis pushed harder than at any time in memory for Clark County’s legislative delegation to work together. After the session, Kirkpatrick worked with various political and business groups to hold a series of meetings where Southern Nevadans would get together and discuss issues affecting them.

Kirkpatrick knows she can’t do it all. But she’s well aware of two salient facts: Most of the state’s revenue comes from Southern Nevada, and more than 70 percent of the Legislature serves Clark County—and if you don’t take care of your constituents, you aren’t doing your job.

Nor would she expect Northern Nevada to go gentle into that good night; you wouldn’t give up your money or power, so why expect it of anyone else? Some critics have branded Brian Sandoval the governor of Reno, and statewide leaders long have had a northern tilt. Projects such as the Reno-Carson City highway helped inspire efforts to change how the state highway department operates. Meanwhile, the Nevada System of Higher Education, for which I work, has long favored northern schools over southern ones, and recent changes that will bring more money to Southern Nevada have caused predictable screaming.

Making her push more significant, Kirkpatrick has support from leading local stakeholders. For example, the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce is unlikely to demand major tax hikes, but its leadership is taking the “Las Vegas Metro” part of the organization’s name more seriously and grasping that business benefits from at least some government action.

At the nadir of the Great Recession, some thoughtful folks said that the time was ripe to look more seriously at our problems as Nevadans—and as Southern Nevadans. Dealing with rapid growth makes it difficult to stop and think; it’s hard to decide what to do about a hurricane when you’re in the middle of it. The slowdown was an opportunity to re-examine both our needs and our approaches to fulfilling them.

Kirkpatrick and other Democratic leaders weren’t alone in this. Republicans have been involved, and state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson struck a blow for Southern Nevada.

The Henderson Republican led several members of his party—two Reno GOP state senators, Greg Brower and Ben Kieckhefer, and Scott Hammond, Joe Hardy and Mark Hutchison from down south—to support the 2014 ballot initiative to increase taxes on mining.

The initiative was the baby of Sheila Leslie, the former Washoe County lawmaker and a liberal Democrat. Why did Republicans support it? Well, there’s some debate. Roberson proposed to raise $600 million for education programs, and his plan clearly was designed to head off the education initiative that the teachers union has gotten on the same ballot to raise taxes on business. So the GOP might—might?—be up to something.

But that’s ultimately less important than Republicans agreeing on the need for taxes on an industry that has too long benefited from a sweetheart deal in the Nevada Constitution. And while mining is undeniably important to the state, these actions show that urban areas have grown weary of a major rural industry continually having its way.

All of this, of course, could come unglued. But if Clark County Democrats and Republicans continue to recognize that where they live matters more than their party affiliation, this could be a turning point in Nevada history.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.