Nevada 2004 —Modern Banana Republic

Expanded from the Sunday, 1-4-2004, Daily Sparks, Nev., Tribune
1-8-2004 Comstock Chronicle

Back in college, my favorite history professor told a story about Bolivia which applies to the Nevada of today.

"Toward the late afternoon in La Paz, when people have had a little too much to drink at that altitude, sometimes the truth slips out," Prof. Jose Canales said.

"On just such a day, a lawyer looked down into his drink and noted that when you get right down to it, Bolivia makes absolutely no sense as a country."

Dr. Canales went on to explain how some of the original boundaries drawn after separation from Spain had made sense, but intervening wars and politics had made a mess of things. (Kind of like what the Brits did to the Arabian peninsula after T.E. Lawrence got through with World War I. U.S. soldiers are dying today because of those nonsensical divisions.)

Canales pointed out that Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay make sense as one country. Indeed, the South American George Washington, Simon Bolivar, had originally wanted Peru and "Upper Peru" (the Altiplano) formed as a nation and only grudgingly gave his blessing after the spinoff was named after him.

"America," Bolivar said near his death, "America is ungovernable. Those who have served the revolution have plowed the sea." (A)

Nevada has likewise been an illogical patchwork since the 1864 shotgun wedding known as statehood. The state's tourism marketing mavens recognized this a few years back when they broke up the state into four "territories," giving each some bloodless name on a visitor map. I'll leave it up to you to figure out where Pioneer Territory is. I can't remember.

As we approach mid-decade, Nevada remains the fastest-growing state in the nation. In the interest of helping newcomers and oldtimers come to terms with this place, here is a brief primer which attempts to explain some of the illogic of our existence.

     1. WE HAD A CHANCE TO BLOW LAS VEGAS OUT OF THE UNION AND BLEW IT. By the 1970's, Nevada's north/south boundaries had never been ratified by the state for more than a century and nobody much cared. Arizona's legislature had long ago disavowed any historical claim to the southern tip of Nevada which now includes parts of Lincoln, Esmeralda and all of Clark County. (The northern boundary runs right through Yucca Mountain.) California and Utah had likewise given up any dibs.

Then, along came Las Vegas criminal defense attorney Rick Ahlswede. (Locals may remember him as the candidate defeated by Bob Rose in the 1970 race to succeed Bill Raggio as Washoe County district attorney.)

In appealing a Gomorrah South murder conviction, Ahlswede in 1980 challenged the state statutes under which his client had been found guilty and sentenced. That law applied in the State of Nevada, Ahlswede argued, and Las Vegas was legally no part of same.

Although the Nevada Supreme Court dismissed his appeal as without merit, he was apparently right. The Nevada Legislature promptly passed a constitutional amendment and placed it on the 1982 general election ballot for the required public ratification.

A Las Vegan named Carl Hunt mounted a last-minute campaign, which I supported, to defeat the ballot question. He advocated making Las Vegas a U.S. territory and saw its potential as an international banking center. (Not that it hadn't already been so for decades, only some of the transactions have always been of questionable legality.)

Hunt ran out of time to get the word out and the amendment passed. (B) But had there been a Bolivar to lead the charge, Nevada today could have been a far different place.

     2. THE TEXAS OPTION. Perhaps we could have brokered a deal like Texas did. When the Lone Star State entered the union, it got the option of breaking into five states any time it wants. Nevada breaking into two or more would have at least doubled our number of senators. The nuke dump at Yucca Mountain would perhaps have never happened. (C, D)

     3. NORTH VS. SOUTH. Splitting north from south would have made the Washoe-Carson-Douglas strip predominant, albeit at the risk of losing a lot of Las Vegas tax revenue which basically funds the state. Perhaps it would have made us go after our corporate welfare queens — mining and gambling — which still dominate state politics, and forced them to pay a fair share of taxes for the impacts they cause and the benefits they derive.

Alas, it didn't happen, but hope springs eternal and that hope is today called economic diversification. Las Vegas has never cared much for same. The closest the south ever got was to maximize military and nuclear test spending during the Cold War. After the Soviet Union fell apart, Clark County became a company town, much more so than northwestern Nevada.

Gambling industry jobs only comprise about 17 percent of the local economy. We fell so far behind Las Vegas that we are now ahead of them. If they ever stop building bigger Strip hotels, they're dead meat.

Up here, because of cheap land, low taxes, pretty good schools, a clean environment and fairly incorrupt politics, we have become damned attractive to individuals and businesses looking to escape from foreign lands like Collyfornia.

But every so often I wax wistfully about what might have been if the voters had blown Las Vegas out of Nevada 22 years ago.

Be well. Raise hell.


A. Herring, Hubert, "A History of Latin America"
Alfred A. Knopf, 1955, 1961, at 285-286

B. Political History of Nevada, Nevada Secretary of State, 1996, at 316.
The constitutional amendment entitled Question 5 passed on Nov. 2, 1982, by a margin of 71,022 votes (
147,536 yes vs. 76,514 no).

C. Barbano, Andrew: "North vs. South — The War Between the State"
Reno, LV and Sunworld Airlines magazines, Feb. 1988, at 26 et seq.

D. Barbano, Andrew: Barbwire, "Nevada — Two States?"
Reno, LV and Sunworld Airlines magazines, Feb. 1988, at 15 | U-News
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Copyright © 1982, 1987, 2004, 2005 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 35-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.


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