Water fight

Photo By DENNIS MYERS For half a century, planning and growth at Lake Tahoe have been regulated by a bi-state agency that now faces shutdown at the hands of Nevada lawmakers.

The Nevada Legislature’s vote last year to pull Nevada out of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) shocked many Nevadans and is a campaign issue now.

Last week, the Toiyabe chapter of the Sierra Club cited the vote as key to its endorsement of several candidates in legislative races this year (“Club vote,” RN&R, Aug. 16).

Senate Bill 271 was approved by the lawmakers in the a.m. hours of June 7 during the final moments of the 2011 legislature and signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval on June 17. It would withdraw Nevada from TRPA in 2015 unless California and the federal government meet Nevada demands to make development at the lake easier, in part by changing voting procedures on the TRPA board.

The vote was seen by some legislators as a “free” vote, one they could cast that would please big campaign contributors but without doing any immediate policy damage, since the final decision on pulling out of TRPA will fall to a later legislature.

In fact, several legislators who voted for the bill said at the time that Nevada will never pull out of TRPA and that if there had been a straight vote on that issue, the measure would have failed. “The two-step plan was genius,” one Las Vegas lawmaker said.

At the start

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency was created in 1969 during the governorships of Paul Laxalt of Nevada and Ronald Reagan of California. It was prompted by growing degradation of the Tahoe Basin, a setting about which Mark Twain had waxed lyrical, known around the world for its beauty. The bi-state compact was negotiated for Nevada by Washoe County Sen. Coe Swobe. It was a recognition that when a state degraded water or air on one side of the lake, it affected both shores, though in 2012 some candidates assert that “our” jurisdiction is our business.

After it was approved by Congress and signed by President Nixon, Swobe said, “The problem for people who want to protect the lake will be to slow down development until a master plan is developed and help the agency adopt beneficial guidelines. The developers and other special interest groups are going to attempt to water the guidelines down and push like hell for development before they are adopted.”

The problem was that, in the end, the agency just didn’t work. The TRPA board, made up of members from both states, was essentially stymied on substantial issues by the voting arrangements. It was not enough for a motion to be supported by a majority of the board. A dual majority was required—a majority within each state’s delegation. And the Nevada side was far less oriented to protecting the lake.

In less than a decade the agency’s failure was apparent. Degradation of the lake continued. Development did, too. The Nevada Legislature in 1977 and 1979 proposed changes to the bi-state compact that California lawmakers rejected as too soft on development. California Gov. Jerry Brown began talking about a federal solution.

Nevada state legislators Thomas “Spike” Wilson and Joe Dini started negotiating with California legislators for reforms in the bi-state compact in 1979. The two sides reached an agreement that included elimination of the dual majority requirement and the changes were approved by both states—Nevada in a special one-day session of the legislature on Sept. 13, 1980—and passed by Congress. President Carter signed it on Dec. 19.

The agency’s new configuration did exactly what it was supposed to do—slow development—and developers and business interests were not one bit happy. The wanted to undercut the Wilson/Dini changes. Some of those who supported the original compact, including Swobe and Laxalt, did not support the amended one. “But I will also say that TRPA has gotten a bit of control bureaucracy-wise, and we’ve got to reel it in,” Swobe said in July 2007.

But times had changed in Nevada. As the state grew, pro-environment sentiment became stronger and the Nevada Legislature over the years rejected six attempts to pull the state out of TRPA. Between Democratic and Washoe votes, such measures always failed. But that was before the casinos got serious about throwing their weight around.

In 2011, the attack was made through a new avenue—Clark County. With 400 miles between Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, the casinos and other pro-development interests decided southerners had no stake in the lake and could be used to break TRPA.

Dems take a dive

It worked like a dream. The bill was sponsored by conservative Democrat John Lee, but he had plenty of help from non-conservative Democrats. A very powerful casino lobbyist, William “Billy” Vassiliadis, who orchestrates substantial campaign contributions, was in the middle of the battle. More than a dozen supposedly pro-environment legislators voted to pull out of the bi-state agency unless “Nevada” got its way on issues affecting development at the lake—though it is dubious that the bill represents real Nevada popular sentiment.

“If the agency does not adopt an updated regional plan and the proposed amendments [Nevada’s demands] are not approved by October 1, 2015, Nevada’s withdrawal from the Compact will become effective on that date unless the Governor issues a proclamation extending the deadline for withdrawal until October 1, 2017,” the new law reads.

Lee said Nevada “resorts” had difficulty getting improvements through the TRPA board. He portrayed those kinds of requests as representing the state: “Every time we’d go before the [TRPA board], the votes were always there to destroy what Nevada was doing.” His use of the term “we” suggested he identified closely with interests remote from his legislative district, which is smack in the middle of Las Vegas.

In the votes that followed some raucous public hearings, not one Republican in either house of the legislature opposed 271. But nine Democrats in the 42-member Assembly voted for the bill, giving it an overwhelming majority. They were Elliot Anderson, Kelvin Atkinson, Irene Bustamante, Marcus Conklin, Marilyn Dondero Loop, Jason Frierson, William Horne, Marilyn Kirkpatrick, Harvey Munford, Dina Neal and John Oceguera. All are from Southern Nevada and Oceguera is speaker of the Assembly.

In the 21-member Senate, another nine Democrats joined with Republicans. They were Shirley Breeden, Allison Copening, Steven Horsford, Ruben Kihuen, John Lee, Mark Manendo, David Parks, Michael Schneider and Valerie Weiner. Again, all are from Southern Nevada. Horsford was the Democratic floor leader in the Senate. The only Senate Democrats to oppose the bill were Sheila Leslie and Mo Denis.

Most of the Democrats who supported 271 normally portrayed themselves as pro-environment. Some Nevada bloggers had a name for Lee’s legislation: Screw Lake Tahoe.

Another legislature heard from

It was not received well in California. Senate president pro tempore Darrell Steinberg agreed to appoint negotiators, but he also gave Lee a piece of his mind in a letter made public:

“I want to share with you and your colleagues the displeasure many in California … have with the recent unfortunate and rather provocative actions taken by the state of Nevada following decades of cooperation over matters relating to our mutual interests in the environmental and economic well being of the Tahoe basin. [Nevada’s S.B. 271] is both unnecessarily inflammatory and deeply counterproductive to the collegial relationship our two states have had on these matters. One can only imagine how leaders in Nevada would react if California were to take similar action. It is both surprising and disappointing to see a national treasure as important as Lake Tahoe become a political hostage to the agenda of special interest groups who have little interest in the many values the region provides.”

The kind of rancor, dogmatism and inflexibility that characterize Congress and some legislatures threatened to invade the bi-state relationship.

Since then TRPA has made substantial progress on a master plan, which one northern legislator said will give the lawmakers political cover to stop the withdrawal effort.

Meanwhile, Clark County progressives this year organized to send a message to Democratic Party leaders that they would not be taken for granted. Their target: John Lee. He was swept out of office in the Democratic primary election.

Within the three eastshore county governments, which are more directly affected than the legislature, 271 is also a subject of concern. In the contested race for Washoe county commissioner in district 1, Democrat Andrew Diss and Republican Marsha Berkbigler agree that the new law was a mistake.

Berkbigler: “I generally work on the theory that being members of bi-partisan, or in this case bi-state, teams is the best solution. I think it’s always best to be on the inside knowing what your opponent is planning than on the outside wondering! That being said, if SB 271 was intended to get the California members of TRPA to move forward on an updated plan with improved economic efforts while retaining the environmental protections then it was successful. … Lake Tahoe is a very valuable resource to Nevada, most particularly to the continued growth of northern Nevada and I believe we should be active in the caretaker role.”

Diss: “Yes, there are a lot of changes that I would like to see made including changing the super majority vote requirement, speeding up the permit review process, and of course updating the regional plan, but threatening a complete pullout of the bi-state compact is not the solution. … I believe pulling out of the compact will open the door to over-development of the Tahoe basin which could in turn reduce the clarity of the lake and create other harmful environmental impacts.”

What follows is a list of legislative offices and their districts and whether the candidate is for or against S.B. 271, according either to the 2011 vote or subsequent statements.

Senator 13

Kathy Martin (R) undeclared

Debbie Smith (D) against

Senator 15

Greg Brower (R) for

Sheila Leslie (D) against

Assembly 24

David Bobzien (D) against

Heidi Waterman (R) undeclared

Assembly 26

Randy Kirner (R) for

Rodney Petzak (D) undeclared

Assembly 27

Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D) against

Tom Taber (R) undeclared

Assembly 30

Ken Lightfoot (R) see below

Michael Sprinkle (D) against

Assembly 31

Richard “Skip” Daly (D) against

David Espinosa (R) for

Assembly 40

Rich Dunn (D) against

Pete Livermore (R) for

In his comments, Assembly candidate Ken Lightfoot declined to take a position on the specific provisions of S.B. 271 without studying them more, but did say, “Nevada needs to be part of a bi-state cooperative organization at Lake Tahoe. I just have issues with the current structure of TRPA.”

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.