Session after session, local governments have brought their case to the Legislature asking for at least some control over purely local issues and problems.
Their pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears in a state where every power not specifically granted to local government is controlled by the state.
Nevada, like the majority of states, is what is referred to as a “Dillon’s Rule” state. That 100-year-old concept says states, not their political subdivisions, control everything from their budgets to minor decisions.
But this session, Nevada Association of Counties Director Jeff Fontaine says they are optimistic they can change the rule to cede a lot of “administrative” decisions to the counties and cities.
Their reason for optimism has little to do with the Republican takeover of the Senate and Assembly. It has more to do with the fact the chairmen of both the Senate and Assembly Government Affairs committees are rural lawmakers who formerly served on their respective local governing boards.
Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, was a member of the Eureka County Commission for 16 years. John Ellison, R-Elko, was a member of that county’s commission 10 years and the Elko City Council for six before election to the Assembly.
In a nutshell, both have a thorough, first-hand understanding of the problems and frustrations caused by Dillon’s Rule.
Goicoechea’s bill also is backed by Carson City. The Board of Supervisors voted Thursday to support it, 4-1, with Jim Shirk dissenting. He said giving supervisors more liberty would be inappropriate.
Right now, Fontaine said, state control is so complete that in 2013 locals had to ask legislative permission to prohibit jail prisoners from having cellphones.
Goicoechea introduced SB11 this session to give counties more control over those types of issues. Goicoechea emphasized that it doesn’t throw out existing laws mandating counties present their annual budgets to the Department of Taxation and barring them from creating or raising taxes unless specifically authorized by the state.
Goicoechea said it gives counties and cities control over issues not reserved to the state.
“This allows cities and counties to have rule over things not precluded by statute,” Goicoechea said.
He said that power might be useful in dealing with certain federal issues since, especially in the rural counties, so much of the land is federally controlled.
Ellison said Dillon’s Rule becomes a serious problem in dealing with projects.
“You should be able to make those decisions right there locally,” Ellison said. “What we’re trying to do is give counties control over some things they can do internally.”
After numerous attempts in the 1990s and early 2000s, county officials reduced the scope of their proposals to allow local control over just “functional” or “administrative” issues. That legislation passed the Senate in both 2011 and 2013 but died in the Assembly committee without getting a vote.
Fontaine said at present, local officials have to ask legislative permission to fix some ridiculous problems. In addition to cellphones in the jails, he said there were such examples like when people were abandoning their old vehicles in the Clark County complex parking lot. In that example, Clark County needed legislation granting them authority to tow and dispose of those old cars.
Fontaine said Goicoechea’s legislation would give counties and cities authority to deal with issues like those and issues involving health and safety without waiting for the next legislative session.
Under the current statutes originally passed in the 1950s, Fontaine said local officials have to come in asking for help on specific issues every session. In 2013 alone, he said there were five such bills including the prisoner cellphone problem.
Another example, he said, came up during the recession when developers and local officials ran into the state law mandating ta tentative subdivision map be made into a final map in two years.
With finances almost unavailable during the downturn, developers put numerous projects on hold, then ran head-long into the two-year rule.
“Local government really needed the flexibility to work with developers to keep those projects alive,” Fontaine said.
Fontaine said the reason why locals want to free all “functional” decisions from state control is simple: “We can’t always predict what might come up in the future. You just don’t know and that means, in many cases, they have to wait 18 months or longer.”
The rule was first imposed to control what was seen as corruption in local governments across the nation and to provide consistency in how different issues were handled. The consistency argument was made as recently as the late 1990s by then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno.
But Fontaine said those days are long past and giving local officials more freedom, “is a tool to make counties more effective and efficient.”
“They are the government closest to the people. Let them do their job,” said Goicoechea. “The state can still mandate what counties can do.”
Ellison echoed that sentiment saying: “County commissions and city councils are closest to the people.”
SB11 is scheduled for a hearing Monday before Senate Government Affairs.
Nevada Appeal reporter John Barrette contributed to this report.