Sunday, April 25, 2010 | 2 a.m.
As Nevada tries to climb its way back from the economic abyss, the state’s legendary libertarian streak is running smack into another defining, but often unacknowledged, regional characteristic: Nevada’s addiction to federal largesse.
This political contradiction started showing itself during last year’s debate over the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus, as Republicans opposed the federal rescue plan but complained their state did not get enough money.
At the time, it prompted Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley to compare stimulus critics to disgruntled diners who emerge from a restaurant saying: The food was lousy and the portions were too small.
But the same intellectual conundrum has resurfaced on the campaign trail, especially in the U.S. Senate race, as Republican candidates routinely criticize Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for what they see as excessive spending coming from Washington, and then ask for more.
Guy Rocha, a Nevada historian, said this tension has long been etched in the Nevada psyche, a mismatch between the state’s libertarian leanings and its dependence on federal dollars.
A romp through modern history tells the story of the state’s unabashed addiction to Washington money.
After the mining bust at the turn of the 20th century, the state sought federal intervention to begin diverting river waters to create the agricultural-boom communities that have sustained generations of farmers and ranchers in Northern Nevada to this day.
Then-Rep. Francis Newlands was instrumental in securing federal funding for the 1902 Truckee-Carson reclamation project, one of the first in the West. From there, federal investments often substituted for state taxes as a way to finance growth.
“That started our addiction,” Rocha said.
Republican Sen. Tasker Oddie continued federal spending on road projects until Democrat Pat McCarran knocked him out of office in 1932, becoming one of the state’s most prolific pork barrelers.
McCarran put federal money into building up the state’s aviation capacity — hence the airport bearing his name in Las Vegas. Another Democrat, Sen. Howard Cannon, followed suit, getting his own airport named after him in Northern Nevada, until it was renamed the Reno-Tahoe airport.
The Hoover Dam and Nevada Test Site, which employed thousands, were nothing if not federal jobs projects.
Funding flowing to Nevada has diverted rivers, built highways and enabled tourists to fly in from around the world to gamble.
While other states may embrace this federal involvement, in Nevada it fostered the state’s pioneering libertarian leanings.
Republicans argue the federal money coming to Nevada is nothing more than Nevada money that was sent to Washington in the first place.
All they want is their fair share returned — especially now, as the state is hurting. If Washington is going to tax Nevadans, just be sure Nevadans get their cut in return, they argue. Their preference would be lower taxes in the first place.
The pull of the federal government is strong again, as state leaders see Nevada trailing the nation in emerging from the recession. What can the federal government do to help?
Republican candidates running against Reid routinely ask why he isn’t bringing more pork home for the state. Reid, in fact, brings in more money to Nevada than every other Nevada lawmaker combined.
“Expectations among Nevadans continue to grow,” Rocha said.
“There’s a lot of bluster, a lot of rhetoric. But when it comes to the reality of how we run our state, this state couldn’t have developed as it did without federal dollars,” he said. “We like the handout. We don’t like the regulations that come with it.”