Las Vegas Sun

July 25, 2021

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Where I Stand:

Bluelining and its consequences: Nevada edition

Editor’s note: As he does every August, Brian Greenspun is turning over his Where I Stand column to others. This year, thanks to robust response to the Sun’s invitations to guest writers, we’re continuing to publish their columns this month. Today’s guests are Robert E. Lang, David F. Damore and Karen A. Danielsen. Lang is the Lincy endowed chair in urban affairs at UNLV’s Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. He is also the executive director of Brookings Mountain West and The Lincy Institute. Damore is a professor and chair in political science at UNLV. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Danielsen is an associate professor in public policy and leadership at UNLV. Their book, “Blue Metros, Red States,” will be released Oct. 6 by the Brookings Institution Press.

Redlining was a government-sanctioned discriminatory policy that designated most urban minority-majority neighborhoods as places banks should not offer home mortgages. The term originates in color maps developed in the late 1930s by Homer Hoyt, an economist with the Federal Housing Administration, to direct mortgage loans made by the Home Owner’s Loan Corp. Redlining refers to the map’s color-coded neighborhood types: red zones indicated high-risk investments; yellow zones medium risk; and green zones low risk.

To be “redlined” made houses within designated neighborhoods much harder to finance. Later reforms, such as the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, ended most forms of redlining, but for generations the practice systematically blocked many Americans from securing home loans.

Today, a new type of discriminatory line is forming, this time at the state rather than neighborhood level. We label these “bluelines” to delineate the demographic, economic, geographic and political divisions between blue, Democratic-leaning, metropolitan areas with populations of a million-plus from the rest of their more Republican-dominated red states.

In our forthcoming book, “Blue Metros, Red States: The Shifting Urban-Rural Divide in America’s Swing States,” we analyze bluelining in 13 states that contain 27 million-plus metro regions. While our book focuses on how voting in these states and their major metros affect the outcome of presidential elections and which party controls the U.S. Congress, we also examine how these differences incite intrastate policy and political conflict. The state of Nevada and the Las Vegas metro are included in the book. Nevada represents one of the sharpest intrastate political and socio-cultural splits between a million-plus metro and smaller cities and rural areas.

Click to enlarge photo

Nevada’s blueline is so well established that it provides the basis for this T-shirt marketed to UNR students portraying how to “Make Nevada Great Again” by building a wall at the Clark County boundary.

Indeed, Nevada’s blueline is so well established that it provides the basis for a shirt marketed to UNR students portraying how to “Make Nevada Great Again” by “Build(ing) the Wall” at the Clark County boundary. The shirt’s graphic, which illustrates the “wall” in UNR blue, even includes a star marking Reno as the apparent state capital.

Consider how Nevada’s demography varies north and south of its blueline: 94% of the state’s African American population lives in metro Las Vegas, as does 88% of its Asian, 86% of its foreign-born and 80% of its Latino populations, as well as most domestic migrants. Also living below the blueline are more than 60% of registered Republicans. Metro Las Vegas is home to nearly three quarters of all Nevadans and generates an even larger share of state tax revenue. By contrast, those living above Nevada’s blueline are mostly white, more often native-born to the state, and many benefit from the state’s wealth stripping of Clark County.

Because of the physical separation of “the other” — minorities, immigrants, ex-Californians and domestic transplants — from state government, Nevada’s blueline sustains a geo-demographic gulf between Carson City’s administrative machinery and the majority of the population it is supposed to serve. The distribution of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 funding from Carson City to Nevada’s local governments is a telling indicator of how the state’s bureaucracy sees Las Vegas.

All census-defined “principal cities” in the north’s two Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) — Carson City and Reno-Sparks — and the principal cities in the two northern Micropolitan Statistical Areas — Elko and Fallon — received direct CARES Act disbursements.

Below the blueline the only local jurisdictions directly receiving aid are Clark County and the city of Las Vegas. Excluded from these distributions are Henderson, a principal city in the Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise MSA and North Las Vegas (with a population equivalent to Reno). Henderson and North Las Vegas are home to nearly one in five Nevadans and their combined populations exceed Washoe County’s by more than 100,000.

Consider also that one in three Nevadans lives in Clark County, outside its three largest cities — most in unincorporated Census Designated Places (CDPs). The largest CDP is Paradise. Not only is Paradise America’s most populous CDP (with over 230,000 residents), it remains the only CDP recognized as a principal component of an MSA. Within its boundaries are the Strip, McCarran International Airport and UNLV.

Omitting CARES Act direct funding from Southern Nevada’s largest jurisdictions suggests that the state’s understanding of its urban geography has not evolved in the 80-plus years since the publication of “The WPA Guide to Nevada” in the 1930s. But then again, Nevada is a rare case where the state’s demographer is not located in the capital or the largest city. Rather, the position is embedded on the UNR campus.

Living below the blueline also affects how the state deploys its economic development assets.

Under former Gov. Brian Sandoval, Nevada abated millions in tax revenue to lure investment, including the Tesla battery plant in Storey County. During Sandoval’s tenure, Storey, which has just 4,200 residents and is nearly all white, received about two thirds of all state tax incentives authorized by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED). Clark County, home to 2.3 million majority-minority people, received less than a quarter of GOED’s incentives. Gov. Steve Sisolak, after temporarily suspending the abatement program, reduced and better targeted the incentives as part of his administration’s reforms to economic development policy.

Of course, without a giant tax-generating engine in Las Vegas, Nevada could never offer an incentive package big enough to attract Tesla. Nevada north of the blueline is akin to a Dakota and therefore lacks the tax capacity to even bid on a large-scale project such as the battery plant. Also note that to fund Tesla’s abatements Nevada’s film tax credit, which primarily benefited Las Vegas and was championed by now Attorney General Aaron Ford, was sacrificed thus making the deal a zero-sum game in Reno’s favor.

Being bluelined in Nevada means not being able to spend your local tax revenues. For instance, because cooperative extension services below the blueline are controlled by UNR hundreds of miles away, the Clark County branch failed to develop robust partnerships with community groups and UNLV faculty members. Consequently, co-op extension maintains a rolling $12 million surplus in property tax collections that sit unspent in a Clark County budget account. Co-op extension represents just one small example of higher education’s extensive bluelining of Southern Nevada.

The structural features of a distant state government, coupled with minimal home rule, reinforce the blue metros-red states divide and put Nevada’s population and economic driver at a significant disadvantage relative to other Mountain West major metros. For instance, our book finds despite constituting much smaller shares of their states’ populations, Denver and Phoenix remain much better positioned to chart their own courses because of greater local autonomy and the fact that each metro houses its state capital.

Our book also finds million-plus metros that are, like Las Vegas, bluelined by their state governments including Charlotte, N.C., Detroit and Houston. Yet, similar to Las Vegas, most major metros continue to succeed in the face of bluelining. Imagine how much more could be achieved if these metros did not have to constantly fight red state roadblocks.