Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011 | 2 a.m.
The underlying principle of political representation in the United States is geography. Our elected officials represent a space on the map and, in light of our redistricting battle, it is obvious that politicians care a great deal about how physical spaces translate into political boundaries.
As a matter of measurement, geography provides the most efficient means to apportion citizens and, since the 1960s, to ensure equally populated districts. More significantly, geographic representation means that citizens have someone who lives among them that they can hold accountable. Geographic representation also should ensure that interests distinct to specific locales are promoted by officials elected from those spaces.
To assess how well southern members of the Nevada Legislature represent their geography and bring attention to the “85/75/65” role of Southern Nevada in our state’s economy — the region produces about 85 percent of general fund revenues; is home to approximately 75 percent of the state’s population; and yet receives slightly more than 65 percent of appropriations — I compiled the 2011 Southern Nevada Legislative Scorecard. The scorecard examined legislators’ votes on 10 bills where regional interests were at stake during the 2011 session.
The good news for most Southern Nevadans is that their legislators do an excellent job representing their interests in Carson City. Of the 43 southern legislators, all but six earned passing scores (70 and above). Because those with failing scores are all Republicans, critics have assumed a partisan motivation on my part. Inspection of the scorecard reveals such criticisms as misguided. Five of the Legislature’s 11 southern Republicans earned passing scores (Assembly members Scott Hammond, Mark Sherwood, Lynn Stewart and Melissa Woodbury, and Sen. Joseph Hardy).
As for the six legislators with failing scores (Assembly members Cresent Hardy, John Hambrick and Richard McArthur, and Sens. Barbara Cegavske, Elizabeth Halseth and Michael Roberson), what is their vision for representing Southern Nevada? Their collective behavior in 2011 suggests that these legislators voted as though their constituents elected them to protect the mining industry from oversight, to maintain mining’s dubious tax deductions and constitutionally protected tax cap, and to oppose infrastructure and economic redevelopment in Southern Nevada (e.g., the Boulder City bypass, the third intake valve into Lake Mead, and Internet gaming). These legislators refused to support the bipartisan revenue agreement necessitated by the Clean Water Coalition ruling. Instead, they supported a budget that would have transferred Clark County school bond reserves and sales tax revenue to the general fund and forced more state obligations on Clark County taxpayers.
Of these six legislators, the most worrisome is Roberson. A lawyer by trade, the rookie legislator earned a score of 30. Because of his decision to sign an anti-tax petition at the behest of a political activist, Roberson put himself on the sidelines during the session’s crucial endgame negotiations. When recently asked by a reporter about geographic inequities in state funding, instead of vowing to ensure that his constituents got their fair share of Nevada’s small government and that the burden of state government was spread more equitably, Roberson replied that he was “open to discussing” such disparities.
The prospect that Roberson, who is trying to elbow his way into his party’s leadership, could be a key player in the 2013 session is troubling for Southern Nevada. After all, in the prior cycle he raised significantly more campaign cash in the 775 area code than from his Henderson constituents. Given his performance in 2011, it would not be surprising to see northern interests double-down on their favorite southern son.
The sad part for Roberson and his ilk is that they miss the irony of how their small government, anti-tax rhetoric is actually implemented in Nevada. Indeed, the two pillars underpinning the inequities in the state budget are economic redistribution that punishes the successful (Southern Nevada) to subsidize the underperforming (Northern Nevada), and unfunded mandates dumped onto Southern Nevada taxpayers — policies that are supposedly anathema to their brand of conservatism.
Contrast this to the geographic representation that Northern Nevadans receive. Despite representing a region with a fraction of the population and that contributes very little to the general fund, session after session, northern legislators deliver above and beyond for their constituents by perpetuating a tax base that tilts away from their regional interests, all the while grabbing a handful and a half of state appropriations.
Given the south’s second-class status, it would be foolish to expect that our representatives would be able to distort state appropriations as gluttonously as the north has done for decades. Rather, the hope for Southern Nevadans is that in 2013 our representatives will work together and return from Carson City with a share of the pie that is commensurate with the south’s contribution. Then those legislators, like Roberson, who “don’t think it makes sense for any of us to play one part of the state against the other,” can live in a geographic space where in fact “we’re all Nevadans.”
David Damore is an associate professor of political science at UNLV and a senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.