Local autonomy and property taxes

Nevada is not a “home rule” state. On many issues, the Legislature sets the parameters within which local governments may act.

Take the property tax.

State law — passed by lawmakers in 2005 — caps annual property tax increases at 3 percent for owner-occupied homes and 8 percent for all other properties. This despite the fact that the state has virtually nothing to do with property taxes — collections are handled by Nevada’s 17 counties, which keep almost all the money raised.

This legislative hegemony creates instances in which lawmakers from rural and Northern Nevada enjoy authority over the Clark County Commission — and, vice versa, in which powerful legislators from the south may dictate policy to rural and northern elected officials.

This one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t always make sense. But given the politics involved, a move toward home rule isn’t feasible. Instead, you often find officials from individual counties forced to trot up to Carson City and beg for special legislation to let them address a specific issue in a manner they deem appropriate.

Clark County, for instance, had to seek legislative approval in order for the commission to pass a slight bump in the sales tax to pay for more police officers in Southern Nevada.

And now come a handful of rural counties with a bill draft request that would give county commissions — by a two-thirds vote — the authority to raise property taxes beyond current state limits in order to offset anticipated budget cuts in various areas.

Many anti-tax activists oppose the proposal. And make no mistake: Higher property taxes in many of these economically distraught rural areas will be counterproductive and outright destructive.

But lawmakers should give great deference to requests for more autonomy from local officials. Many decisions are better made at the local level by those accountable to local residents.

Will giving the counties more power over their own property tax rates lead to a tax-raising frenzy? Maybe, maybe not. But we suspect that local voters will have the last word, one way or the other.

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