May 20, 2023 - 9:01 pm
They don’t make social panics like they used to. It seems like just yesterday that Nevada and the rest of the world were fighting a global pandemic. Today, it’s corn on the cob.
That is the bizarre paradox Nevadans find ourselves in amid an ongoing debate in the Legislature about legalizing street food vendors. If you’re like most Nevadans, you probably assumed local leaders would celebrate street-sold tacos, elotes, tamales and the rest as one of our diverse state’s myriad local attractions. And you probably assumed the law protected the right of street vendors to safely share their talents and earn a living.
But no. Today, street food is mostly illegal across the state. Vendors cannot get permits and licenses — and so are vulnerable to selective government prosecution of the “Arepa Menace” and to opportunistic criminals eager to prey on unlicensed victims reluctant to call the police.
So it was encouraging to see the state Senate recently pass legislation that would finally decriminalize, license and regulate street vendors across Nevada. Senate Bill 92, authored by Sen. Fabian Doñate, D-Las Vegas, passed the chamber by a vote of 20-1.
As the overwhelming vote suggests, the bill is a win-win. It creates a legal path for street food vendors while ensuring that path involves sensible safety regulations and transparent enforcement authority.
Street vendors are a public asset, and the law should treat them as such. The law should also recognize that they are first and foremost human beings. There is no reason government should restrict anyone’s right to make a living, least of all by preparing unique, delicious food for everyone else to enjoy. Such restrictions can be found across America, unfortunately, and with deeply unjust consequences.
The harder it is for entrepreneurs to start businesses, to get permits and licenses, or to offer their goods and services where they are best positioned to compete for customers, the more the wealthy and well-connected benefit and the more lower-income workers and minority groups suffer. Economists call rules like these “barriers to entry.” And whatever justification politicians offer for them, more often than not incumbent businesses are behind the scenes pushing these restrictions, like moats dug around their castles to keep away the peasants.
Mr. Doñate deserves credit for his leadership and flexibility on this issue. As soon as his bill was introduced, questions were raised about street food safety. So Doñate worked with colleagues to allow local health boards to adopt suitable safety regulations for street food. The bill also creates a separate Task Force on Safe Sidewalk Vending to review city and state laws and make recommendations about how best to fold street vendors under them.
Other concerns focused on street food’s impact on restaurants. In truth, the impact of street food vendors on restaurants will be … to make them better. It’s not a coincidence that American cities with beloved street vending cultures such as San Francisco, New Orleans and New York also boast some of the best sit-down dining in the world.
No one — least of all splurging Las Vegas vacationers — is going to equate street hot dogs with a steak dinner or all-you-can-eat buffet on the Strip.
Nevertheless, SB92 ensures street food entrepreneurs stay clear of malls, convention centers and designated entertainment districts.
These accommodations only further emphasize the bill’s necessity. Street food vendors are hardworking, talented entrepreneurs, trying to win their piece of the American Dream. They are not asking for a handout. They are not even asking for special privileges to leverage any advantages over existing business models. They just want a chance — the same chance everyone else enjoys, and all people have by right — to make their livelihoods by serving the needs of their neighbors.
Long term, SB92 should be a model of future modernizing reforms that open up other Nevada industries to entrepreneurship of every kind — so that underprivileged communities can work their way into the middle class, and so all Nevadans can enjoy the fruits of a more dynamic economy.
In the short term, though, safe and legal street food is its own reward, both for those who make it and the rest of us who eat it. The Assembly should follow the Senate’s lead and brings Nevada’s world-class street cuisine out of the shadows and onto our sidewalks.
Ronnie Najarro is state director at Americans for Prosperity-Nevada.