Can the South Rise Again?

Southern Nevada lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have a chance to send the governor a clear message—if they can stop playing partisan politics

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Recently, Republican state Senator Michael Roberson was addressing his party’s right-wing base—the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial board—and took some calculated risks. The senate minority leader touted a variety of educational reforms, including reduced class sizes and more professional development for teachers—the kinds of things Republicans often pooh-pooh. He also backed Question 2, which if passed would be a major step toward ending the mining industry’s 150-year-old tax dodge. He even said he’s been talking with Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, lauding the Democrat for her ideas and leadership.

But since such audiences tend to like their red meat, Roberson also offered this: “The Senate Democratic caucus and its leadership are incompetent, and they’re failing the people of Nevada.” Naturally, his counterpart, Majority Leader Mo Denis, took exception, claiming Roberson was the failure. (I’ll play judge and jury: They’re both right.)

More from Roberson’s chat with the R-J: “You’d be much better off with a Republican majority. The governor needs at least one house with his party to push forward his agenda.”

Democrats might disagree. But that isn’t the issue. The issue, which Kirkpatrick and Roberson have identified—and Roberson has done it better than some of the state Senate Democrats—is the need to work together on behalf of Southern Nevada. The problem is, Roberson seems to have let partisanship get in the way.

For instance, suppose that, during the next legislative session, Governor Brian Sandoval’s agenda doesn’t include enough money for something Southern Nevadans want. Republicans out “to push forward his agenda” will go along with the governor, and Democrats will fight him—as partisanship requires.

Except that it isn’t required. Instead, let’s consider the Legislature’s composition. Of the 42 seats in the Assembly, 31 are from Clark County. Of the 21 state senators, 15 are from Clark County.

The next key number to know is a fraction: two-thirds, or 67 percent—the portion of the Legislature required to approve a tax hike. It’s also the percentage needed to override a governor’s veto.

The solution is simple: Southern legislators need to fire a shot across the governor’s bow by passing a law that turns the tables of history on the north. Something like, say, a land-grant university tax. Never heard of it? That’s because I just made it up. Under this law, anyone residing within 400 miles of the UNR campus would have to pay a 50 percent sales tax, with the revenues going to fund the school. Anyone living more than 400 miles from the UNR campus would receive a tax rebate of $10,000.

Ridiculous? No, it’s compensation. You probably don’t recall, but in 1955, when each county had one state senator and northerners predominated, the Legislature made Las Vegans raise part of the money for what would become UNLV’s campus. That’s right: A supposedly state-funded institution of higher learning wasn’t funded by the entire state. Into the 1980s, the funding system was such that far more money went from Clark County to Carson City than was returned, and the numbers remained fuzzy long after that. To this day, UNR gets more cash per student than UNLV, and the College of Southern Nevada continues to receive less per student than its community-college counterparts to the north.

Do the math: Clark County comprises 71.4 percent of the state Senate and 73.8 percent of the Assembly. If lawmakers vote by the county they are elected to represent, a law passes.

As the governor of all Nevadans, Sandoval would veto it as bad for the state. Ah, but the same numbers apply. If lawmakers vote by the county they supposedly represent, they override said veto.

Under the circumstances, Sandoval might want to negotiate and push forward an agenda that better serves the more than 2 million Southern Nevadans. Then, Roberson and his fellow Southern Nevada colleagues wouldn’t be failing the people they directly represent.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.

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