Southern Nevada leaders meet and greet, but will they act?

They came. They talked. They promised.

And, like whispers through the mists of history, Jim Bilbray and Dina Titus could be heard haunting the UNLV ballroom, admonishing the dozens of guests to hold firm, to secure the South's fair share.

For those of us who have watched this for decades, like a talky play with a tiresome script and disappointing ending, the spectacle of hundreds of valley leaders meeting to talk about “priorities” for Session ’15 seemed all too familiar. Then-Regent Bilbray, later to become a congressman, first talked about the South getting its fair share of state revenue more than three decades ago. Then-state Sen. Titus, who now holds the congressional seat Bilbray once held, picked up the banner and fought against the northern sentinel, Bill Raggio of Reno, for nearly 20 years.

The late, great Sir Bill of Reno became a convenient bogeyman for southerners whining about the South getting the shaft. But it was never Raggio’s fault, and his ghost cannot be blamed for the current state of affairs.

This has never been about Raggio, or a northern-rural alliance against the South. This has been about a failure to coalesce by first a majority and now a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature from Southern Nevada.

The fault, my dear southerners, has never been in the northern stars such as Raggio but in yourselves that you are underlings. Raggio was a legislative colossus, but he was no Caesar. And, as I write this on the Ides of March, no knives needed to be unsheathed to defeat him, only southern solidarity. And too often in the past, when proposals percolated to give the South its fair share, generational and especially partisan alliances trumped sectionalism.

So when I see all the enthusiasm at UNLV on Friday, and the southern partisanship from lawmakers, I want to be optimistic. And they did gush, especially on Twitter, as the meeting to discuss southern priorities went on:



Can you feel it? Can you hear it? Can you see it?

Alas, no. Never has the cliché “talk is cheap” been more appropriate as I see these lawmakers, some of them well-intentioned, agree that this time will be different, that this time something will get done.

Attached here are five pieces of paper, which either will be important historical documents showing the birth of a southern resurgence or yet another disappointing footnote in a depressing history. They lay out the priorities agreed on Friday by lawmakers and others, including representatives of the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, which for the first time seems determined to be the glue that holds the southerners together. Good luck.

The ideas are excellent: A medical school in the South, which is long overdue. Better representation on state boards and commissions, which too often is skewed northward. A more thoughtful, regional approach to mental health, which has been disastrous for years (see Rawson-Neal). And, of course, revising the K-12 funding formula, which is nearly a half-century old and an anachronism from a time when the South was small.

None of this is as simple as it seems, either. For instance, the South should have a medical school, but the North will not willingly give up its dominion over this area. “Sure, you can have yours, but we get to expand ours,” seems to be the beginning negotiating position of the northern folks on this topic. It seems patronizing because….it is.

On the paramount issue of education funding, the South has a case that the arcane Nevada Plan needs to be adjusted for the burgeoning Clark County School District and its acute problems, especially with an English Language Learner population that is not being adequately addressed and is crippling the ability of hundreds, if not thousands of kids to fulfill their potential. But it’s not just about redirecting money from rural Nevada or even Washoe County, although the urban north has a slight advantage in school funding, according to this definitive Legislative Counsel Bureau document.

On pages 86-87 of the report, you can see the statistic southern partsians often cite, that tiny Esmeralda County gets $38,000 per student. But there are so few students there, the total is about $2 million, and the large number is needed because of how difficult it is to deliver education in the rurals.

By contrast, Clark County is funded at about $8,400 a pupil and Washoe at $8,600 a pupil. That doesn't seem like much of a differential, but multiply that $200 margin by 300,000 students and pretty soon you're talking about real money ($60 million). And if you argue because of the acute ELL problem in Clark, that area deserves even more....

This discussion, though, should be about expanding the education funding pie, whether the margin tax is the answer or another vehicle makes sense. On that subject, I fear the chamber and other business groups want to talk about fixing the Nevada Plan so they don’t have to talk about new taxes to pay for education. It is a sleight of hand that, like the fair share debate, has historical precedent and has played out over many sessions.

"We believe in more money for education,” the refrain has come from Team Business, “but we want accountability.” And then when the negotiating table is set up, the seat reserved for the business community suddenly is vacant or filled with someone shouting “No” at every plan.

This also should not be a vengeful South rising up to correct past northern misdeeds. This is about fairness, not retribution.

Many northerners know that the underlying point – that Southern Nevada exports millions in tax revenue to support the rest of the state – is inarguable. The only subject for real debate is what truly is fair, which is always in the eye of the beholder and depends in what city those eyes see.

Southerners should not be governed by greed but by reasonableness; and northerners should not be pulling up the drawbridge but opening the castle Sir Bill once ruled. The issue of fair share has always been and remains real. But cooler heads, not regional jingoists, need to prevail on both sides.

I want to believe that all of the talk Friday will result in action, that the social media exuberance will translate into legislative achievements. Starting this far out from the drop of the Carson City gavel is a good start. But there is a campaign to occur, possible leadership changes afoot and much uncertainty to come.

They can talk and promise all they want from now until Session ’15 begins in just under a year. But until I see that first critical issue where every southerner votes together in both houses, either with or without northern and rural support, I’ll remember just how frustrated Bilbray and Titus were all those years ago.