The Nevada legislature only has 120 days every two years to transact its business. When it comes to the budget — like when UNLV is seeking state funds — the legislature and the governor work off of tax projections in a state that is nearly 85 percent federal land, boasts an constitutional ban on income tax, a limit on mining taxes, and an overall reliance on sales tax and revenue from tourism.
When UNLV was trying to secure money for School of Medicine buildings, leaders had to go before the Clark County Commission. The bright lights of the Strip aren’t actually in Las Vegas proper, but rather in unincorporated Clark County and therefore under the aegis of the commission. It’s a body so powerful that two current members gave up seats in the state legislature to serve on the board.
If you knew this, chances are it’s because you have read a previous edition of Michael Bowers’s The Sagebrush State: Nevada’s History, Government, and Politics. For the uninitiated, The Sagebrush State has just come out in its fifth edition, and remains the ideal place to start learning about the mysteries of Nevada governance—and they are numerous enough that not even Bowers can solve all of them.
Most of the book focuses on exactly what it purports to cover: governance. Bowers breaks down the three branches of Nevada government, limning their overlaps and distinctions. He also delves into city and county government, and finance — issues that many such state studies tend to gloss over. Other chapters examine civil rights and liberties, political parties and elections, and interest groups and lobbying.
Since the first edition of Bowers’s volume appeared a quarter of a century ago, Nevada has both changed and stayed the same. Not only has Bowers captured that dichotomy and tension, but the same also could be said of his book. He has updated rather than completely revised it, which is appropriate: it has needed little revision.
Throughout this book’s history, Bowers has been updating each section as needed. In the chapter on civil rights and liberties, which discusses the state’s growing diversity Bowers notes the mayors of the state’s three largest cities are women: Carolyn Goodman in Las Vegas, Hillary Schieve in Reno, and Debra March in Henderson. This development pointed toward a milestone that occurred after the book went to press: Nevada becoming the first state with a female majority legislature. He also examines the growing Hispanic population and its accompanying influence, pointing out, “Although, to date, Nevada’s Hispanics have historically been less successful in the political arena than other groups, they have made gains economically.” The book also mentions a hopeful sign for the Latino community in politics: Yvanna Cancela, the first Latina state senator.
The great change since the 2013 edition is that Nevada appears to have recovered, for the most part, from the Great Recession. At the same time, Bowers is properly cautious about that recovery and its meaning, both economically and politically. As he concludes, “Hard decisions—uncomfortable decisions—will have to be made on taxation, spending, government services, land and water use, and openness in politics.”
What makes this conclusion all the more striking is that it has appeared in several editions of the book. This reminds us as well that Nevada does change, but it also stays the same, and still has problems to reckon with. Michael Bowers’s latest edition shows us some of the problems and the ways to address them. It is well worth reading to learn more about the who, the why, and the how.