Why Can’t Local Government in Nevada do More?

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Mayor’s Corner by Al Litman

[Editor note: Al Litman is a declared candidate for Mesquite Mayor in the 2016 general election.]

The Constitution of the United States does not mention local governments. Instead, the Tenth Amendment reserved authority-giving powers to the states. It is not surprising then that there is a great diversity in state-local relations between, as well as within, states.

Political power in a state can be divided into three spheres: the local government, the state government and the functions that the two governments share. Within the local sphere, there are four categories in which the state allows discretionary authority.

Structural which is the power to choose the form of government. Functional, which gives the power to exercise local self-government. Fiscal which gives the authority to determine revenue sources, set tax rates, borrow funds and other miscellaneous-related financial activities. And Personnel, which gives the authority to set employment rules, wages, employment conditions and collective bargaining.

With the state of Nevada, we have virtually no fiscal authority. Let me explain how this came about and the difficulty it is causing us and other local governments in Nevada.

In 1868, Judge John F. Dillon of Iowa issued two court decisions that affirmed the narrow interpretation of a local government’s authority. Later, the rulings were challenged with a new ruling giving some inherent rights of local government.

Since 1923 the following tenets have become part of American municipal powers in most states. A municipal corporation, like Mesquite, can exercise only the powers explicitly granted to them. Dillon’s Rule allows a state legislature to control government structure, methods of financing its activities, it’s procedures and the ability to undertake functions.

I believe you can see that under Dillon’s Rule, even though some restrictions were removed and local governments received some authority not granted before, our hands are still tied in most ways. So far attempts at home rule have not done well in the legislature, even though some relief was given to us in 2015.

The issue of home rule has come up again and again in Carson City. Like clockwork, the proposed bill fails. Legislators are not willing to give up power over cities’ purse strings. Municipal tax experts say the current system is unfair to major Nevada cities and counties which are unable to respond to fiscal emergencies by raising or adjusting taxes when necessary, without waiting for the state to do so on their behalf.

The mayors of Southern Nevada have formed a coalition in an attempt to work on issues that I have talked about in this article. We hope, as a unified group, to have enough swaying power to get the state to move us forward and out of the 19th century, allowing us the home rule we need to be successful as cities. With a legislature that meets every other year this is a daunting task.

You as citizens need to tell your legislators how you feel. It’s time to put the fiscal control into the hands of the local communities.

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