Home rule prospects appear dim

CARSON CITY -- City council members and county commissioners from throughout Nevada are expected to champion home rule at a summit in Henderson today. But it all could be for naught.

Although Gov. Jim Gibbons said Tuesday that he favors home rule for local governments, legislative leaders from both parties indicated a reluctance to grant them the power to levy taxes without first securing the Legislature's approval.

"I have looked at it carefully and I still don't support home rule," said state Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno. "If you give local governments the power to raise taxes on their own, how will that affect other jurisdictions?"

Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, said the current $3.64 per $100 assessed value property tax rate limit might be increased dramatically in some communities and not in others.

"If we give them everything, they might bankrupt their city or county and then have to come to the state to save them," Lee said.

In an unprecedented summit, city and county officials from across the state gather today in Henderson to discuss issues like whether they should have the power to tax and whether the Legislature should be allowed to take local government tax revenue. The summit, open to the public, begins at 3 p.m. in the Henderson Convention Center, 200 S. Water St.

Under current state law, cities and counties do not have what is called "home rule," or the power to make tax and many other decisions without first going to the Legislature for its consent.

Typically when they want to raise taxes, the Legislature requires them to secure approval from voters.

During the 2009 session, legislators and the governor took $50 million from a fund for counties to pay for the medical costs of indigents hurt in accidents in their jurisdictions. They also grabbed $79 million in property taxes generated in Clark and Washoe counties. Funds were needed to help balance the state's budget.

Gibbons said Tuesday he "absolutely" supports giving local governments home rule.

"I have always believed that government closest to the people is the best government," added Gibbons, who said he would seek another term in the 2010 election. "They should be able to make the decisions for the constituents."

But legislators hardly look at home rule so positively.

"When they came to us during the session all they wanted was higher taxes, higher fees," said Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas. "It is good they have to come to the Legislature for approval (of tax measures)."

Kirkpatrick questioned what would happen to small, poorer counties if the Legislature granted them home rule. Some already cannot generate sufficient tax revenue to run their governments and she wondered whether they would go to the Legislature for a bailout.

Lee and Kirkpatrick serve on an interim legislative committee that is looking at powers delegated to local governments.

They also chair the Senate and Assembly government affairs committees that ultimately would decide whether to grant local governments additional powers at the 2011 session.

Raggio pointed out that major local governments already can generate enough tax revenue to pay their employees far more than state government can afford. That leads to state employees leaving to take local government jobs and pressure on legislators to increase state pay, he added.

Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, said he can see granting local government the power to change "Mickey Mouse laws," even increasing county commission and city council member salaries without legislative consent.

"The Legislature meets every other year," Schneider said. "They shouldn't have to wait two years to change something minor."

But like the others, he isn't convinced yet that cities and counties should be able to increase taxes on their own. "I believe we should take a look at what they have to say," he said.

Kirkpatrick said she will attend the city-county summit and listen to the local government viewpoints.

Lee believes local government officials are more accountable when they have to appear before their Legislature and justify whether taxes should be raised.

"I am willing to listen, but I want to be careful," said Lee about giving local government additional power.

Contact reporter Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.