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December 6, 2021

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Libertarian streak, ‘God-given right to act like an idiot’ still echo

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Guy Rocha

The essence of Nevada, for some, isn’t in the bright lights of the Strip or the crystal waters of Lake Tahoe. Rather it’s the libertarian heritage that protects their inalienable right to be a complete idiot — to, if you should desire, drive a motorcycle out of the whorehouse on poorly inflated tires with a head full of rotting teeth and crash your unprotected melon against a freeway abutment.

Every two years that libertarian tradition — or penchant for indulging stupidity, depending on your point of view — gets its test at the Legislature as lawmakers attempt to balance public safety with individual freedoms.

Should cops be able to pull you over for not wearing your seat belt? What about texting or talking on your cellphone while driving?

Should Reno be allowed to put teeth-hardening fluoride in its water?

Should the state continue requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets — a law some freedom-lovers have seen as a betrayal of the spirit of Nevada since its passage in 1971?

In sum, what role should government, or gub’ment, as the case may be, play?

“All those types of bills and anything about guns,” groaned one veteran lawmaker, afraid to be identified and thus become known as an enemy of freedom. “We get a ton of letters on those.”

How passionate can we be about our rights against big government? These issues certainly spawn lots of exclamation points. One blogger and letter writer, “TigerLily,” compared the struggle to repeal helmet laws with the fight against slavery. “We are tired of the bondage of forced helmets on our heads in 120 degree weather!” she wrote lawmakers. “Mandated helmets breeds profiling, discrimination, and harassment by law enforcers.”

Nevada has had a frontier libertarianism with a macho streak, according to Guy Rocha, a former state archivist.

Dating from the mining camps, it was drinking, gambling and womanizing — quick marriages, easy divorce, legal prize fighting when that was a thing. (No to same-sex marriage and marijuana.)

Rocha summarized the philosophy: “As long as you’re not bothering anybody, we’ll look the other way.”

As then-Assemblyman David Goldwater, said in 1995: “It’s almost my God-given right as a Nevadan to act like an idiot if I want to.”

This philosophy still echoes in the Legislature.

For example, the helmet law: The argument against it isn’t about protecting riders.

Instead, it’s about what happens when a helmetless motorcyclist in an accident is broke and public hospitals (and by extension taxpayers) have to cover the costs. In other words, we don’t care if you kill yourself, just don’t raise my taxes to pay for it.

But Rocha has noticed a shift over the past 30 years.

More social conservatives, who are less comfortable with the brothels, have moved in. They want lower taxes (that’s why they left California!) but the growth and urbanization has made the old libertarianism harder to hold onto.

Here’s how several bills that go to the heart of that world view are faring:

• Fluoride: We have fluoride in the water in Clark County. Yet despite dentists’ best efforts, fluoride is still a nonstarter in Washoe County and Carson City. Last session a bill to mandate fluoride up north died but not before a lot of people testified about a government/corporate conspiracy to poison their water. In the end, lawmakers voted against it, citing the cost. No legislator introduced a fluoride bill this session.

• Brothels: The legal brothels in Nevada’s rural counties weren’t an issue on lawmakers’ radar until Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid visited the Legislature and called for an end to legalized prostitution. He said they hurt Nevada’s image and efforts to diversify its economy. “Working girls” and a pimp came to the Legislature to offer their opposition, but the idea found no traction.

• Tire pressure: Senate Bill 144 mandates auto-repair businesses properly inflate tires. It passed the Senate last week and heads to the Assembly. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, would require a simple task for garages. It could save money by making tires last longer and prevent accidents caused by blowouts, advocates say. Critics say inflating tires is a personal responsibility and shouldn’t be mandated by the government.

• Primary seat belt law: Senate Bill 235 would allow police to stop drivers who aren’t buckled up and give them a $25 fine. Current law allows police to issue a citation if they first pulled a motorist over for another offense. The bill died in a Senate committee.

• A ban on calling (without a hands-free device) and texting while driving: Senate Bill 140 in the Senate, and Assembly Bill 151 in the Assembly are alive. On Monday, senators debated the issue on the floor.

Sen. Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, introducing the bill, knew where the opposition would come from.

“We’re not trying to take away the rights and privileges of the citizens of our great state,” she said. “We’re trying to make our roads safer.

Click to enlarge photo

Sen. Mark Manendo asks a question during a meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Economic Growth and Employment on the third day of the 2011 legislative session Feb. 9, 2011, in Carson City.

Sen. Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, said in support: “Driving is a privilege. You do not have the right to do anything you want in a vehicle,” citing Nevada laws to prevent people from drinking while driving. Teens, he said, can’t stop text messaging, and need a law to encourage them to stop. “They’re addicted. They’re addicted!”

He said a friend and her husband helping someone on the side of the road were hit by a driver going 70 mph and texting. “I just hope to hell it was worth it,” he said.

But it’s not a done deal.

What about GPS? Would Nevadans be able to operate them while driving without getting a ticket?

It’s unclear. Opponents raised the dreaded “slippery slope” argument. First government is preventing you from text messaging while going down a highway. Who knows what’s next?

Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, said his car has a GPS that can be operated from the same dials as a radio.

“Why can’t I use the GPS, but I can use the radio?” Roberson said. “Or is that soon going to be illegal too?”

Breeden has waved the white flag, for now. She asked that the bill be delayed until she could answer the questions.

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