Counties welcome home rule legislation

A bill that would grant Nevada counties functional home rule was signed into law by Gov. Brian Sandoval on Monday.

Senate Bill 29 was proposed by the Nevada Association of Counties to allow counties to do some things without express approval of the Legislature.

Under Nevada law, the counties operate under Dillon’s Rule, which limits their powers to those expressly granted by the Legislature, those necessarily implied in the incident to powers granted or essential to the accomplishment of declared purposes of local government. Named after Iowa Supreme Court Judge John Dillon, it established a common-law rule of statutory interpretation in 1868, that has been followed across the country ever since.

According to the Legislative Counsel Bureau, Senate Bill 29 would allow county commissioners, with some exceptions to exercise all powers for the effective operation of county government, even if that power is neither expressed nor implied, so long as that power is not expressly prohibited by the Constitution or state law.

This bill expressly denies commissioners the ability to impose a tax or fee not already allowed by the Legislature or regulate businesses already subject to substantial federal or state regulation.

Association Executive Director Jeff Fontaine said the new law only deals with the day-to-day activities of county government.

“It doesn’t deal with organization of the county,” he said. “The county can’t change its officers. It doesn’t deal with remuneration or how the county deals with personnel matters.”

Fontaine said the Legislature still has authority over the counties, and the counties are still bound by state law.

Among examples of things counties could do under the statute are extending the time tentative maps are approved or dealing with nuisance issues, like abandoned cars without going to the Legislature.

“For example, Clark County had a problem with people abandoning their cars at the county complex,” Fontaine said. “Their district attorney opined that they didn’t have the authority to tow those vehicles.”

Fontaine said the new law would require due process to make sure the cars truly were abandoned.

“Local government really needed the flexibility to work with developers to keep those projects alive,” said Fontaine.

Fontaine said the new law “is a tool to make counties more effective and efficient.”

“They are the government closest to the people,” said Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka. “Let them do their job.”

Goicoechea pushed the legislation because, as a former Eureka County Commissioner, he was well aware of the problems caused by Dillon’s Rule restrictions.

He said the legislation might also help counties handle federal issues better since so much of rural Nevada land is controlled by the federal government.

Douglas County Commission Chairman Doug Johnson, who also serves as president of the association, said the counties have tried to get a functional home rule bill through for the last decade, but Democrats blocked it.

With Republicans in majorities in the senate and the assembly, it made the new law possible.

An amendment to the law requires the counties make a report to the Legislature in two years about how the law was implemented.

Johnson said last week that it’s possible the law won’t actually come into play during that time.

The bill passed the senate April 8 and the assembly on May 21 in the final weeks of the Legislature.

Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, R-Gardnerville, who expressed reservations about the bill aided in its passage, Johnson said.

The new law takes effect on July 1.

Geoff Dornan contributed to this report.


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