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July 25, 2014

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The North just doesn’t get it

Regional fight isn’t about ‘stealing’ but about helping the entire state

For several years, Southern Nevada lawmakers have complained about how our region has been slighted by state government and the Legislature, pointing to how taxpayer money and state resources have habitually been diverted north. Those complaints have solicited little more than shrugs or blanket denials from lawmakers from the rest of the state.

But Northern Nevada officials now appear to be changing their tune, at least slightly. In a recent series of reports by KSNV Channel 3 that examined the disparity in higher education funding between North and South, officials from Northern Nevada, without exactly admitting the problem, said things had changed to make funding more fair. They blame the late state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, for any disparity.

Their message was as clear as it was stunning: If there was a problem, it has been fixed, and don’t blame us, blame Bill Raggio.

Seriously? Blame Raggio? Everything is fixed?

They still don’t get it.

For decades, Northern Nevadans have praised Raggio, who was the master of the state budget and all things regarding the Legislature. In his 38 years in the Senate, he made sure his region was well taken care of by state government, diverting millions of dollars to Northern Nevada. That’s why there’s a bust of Raggio at the Reno airport to greet visitors, and that’s why his name adorns a building on UNR’s campus.

We don’t say that in criticism of Raggio. He did what the voters sent him to do, and he was without equal in state politics. Southern Nevada lawmakers were never able to balance the ledger despite controlling the majority of votes. They tended to split along partisan lines, rather than regional interests. As a result, Northern Nevada has received more than its share of state spending and continues to dominate state government.

But don’t think that Raggio’s absence in the Legislature or a few changes in state law have fixed a government rooted in the North.

A new report by Brookings Mountain West at UNLV by David Damore, a political science professor, examines the 2013 Legislature based on priorities for Southern Nevada. Although lawmakers from Clark County have come together to form a caucus and rally to push regional issues, they haven’t been able to make major inroads to fix the underlying inequities.

Nearly two-thirds of the state’s population lives in Clark County, yet outside of the Legislature, the way much of state government is set up limits the voice of most Nevadans.

Take, for example, the state board that oversees the Transportation Department and the way it spends its $1.2 billion budget. Only two of its seven seats are designated for representatives from Southern Nevada, meaning Southern Nevada’s 2 million residents are grossly underrepresented.

If that isn’t sobering enough, consider another example: The state Tax Commission, which oversees tax policy in Nevada, is required to have representatives from several industries, including mining and agriculture, but not the state’s biggest industry, gaming. And there’s no requirement for representation from Clark County, which is the state’s economic engine and provides the bulk of the taxes.

We’ve heard officials in rural and Northern Nevada complain about the South and any push to change the status quo as attempts to “steal” from other parts of the state, so let’s be clear: This isn’t about stealing, nor is it about slighting other regions to make up for the past; it’s about fairness and doing the right thing.

As it currently stands, the majority of the state’s population is underrepresented on important boards and commissions and routinely sees a proportionally smaller share of funding and resources than other parts of the state.

That’s a shame not just for Southern Nevada but for the state as well. In the North-South political fights, what’s missed is this: What’s good for Clark County is good for Nevada.

It’s time for state officials, from across Nevada, to understand that. It’s time, too, for our region’s lawmakers, of both parties, to come together to represent our region’s best interests.

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