Declaration of independence

PHOTO/ROBIN HEBROCK, PAHRUMP VALLEY TIMES A group of secessionists declare independence in Pahrump.

On Jan 21, following a planning meeting on Jan. 16, a group of 13 state residents read a declaration of independence from Nevada in front of the Nye County Courthouse while wearing school crossing guard or highway construction flagger outfits.

The declaration event was reported in one print newspaper—the Pahrump Valley Times—and on one website, the Epoch Times, an arm of the Falun Gong movement. Otherwise—and foolishly—no Nevada media entity that we have been able to find reported the event.

A video report was attached to the Epoch Times textual report, but it included reportage of uncertain accuracy and contained no attribution or reporter sign-off.

“Our action is based upon the God-given rights of every person,” said Robert Thomas III at the Pahrump event, according to footage taken. “In this declaration of independence from the State of Nevada, we repeat what our founding fathers said in our nation’s Declaration of Independence, that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among that—those—are life, liberty, possession of property and the pursuit of happiness. However, when any government becomes destructive of these legitimate ends, it is the right and duty of the people to alter or abolish this destructive government and to institute a new government.”

It’s uncertain how the entire declaration reads. In addition to the speech by Thomas, there’s some verbiage posted on a website, but neither are clearly identified as the declaration itself.

If Mr. Thomas’s reading during his speech was the full Nevada declaration, he did not actually “repeat” the 1776 declaration, as he said, since he inserted additional wording here and there. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to put one’s own words in Thomas Jefferson’s mouth.

There are—or have been recently—secession movements in south Florida, Maryland’s eastern shore, northeast Colorado, northern California, the upper peninsula of Michigan, southwest Kansas, southern Arizona, and—until proportional election districts were created—Chicago. Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin once ran for mayor and city council president on a ticket together with a platform of making New York City the 51st state.

University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds has written, “In fact, intrastate secession is the true secession fever: not the perennial postelection calls of losing parties to secede from a nation controlled by the opposition, but a growing movement for secession from states, with the rural parts of states—sometimes geographically very large parts of states—wanting to separate from the population-dense urban areas that essentially control state decision-making. Feeling ignored, put-upon and mistreated, secessionists want to take their fate into their own hands. These movements are common, but not likely to succeed on their own, as intrastate secession is, though not entirely unknown (see, e.g., West Virginia), very difficult to achieve.

“But these movements do indicate a widespread sense of dissatisfaction among—mostly rural—populations who feel that they are governed by people in distant urban centers who know little, and care less, about their way of life. Such sentiments, which in a way resemble those regarding Britain in the lead-up to the American Revolution, have probably worsened since the Supreme Court’s line of cases, beginning with Baker v. Carr, weakened rural areas’ political position in favor of urban areas.”

That’s one way to describe it. Another is as basically a new way of gerrymandering. By breaking part of the state off into a shape that serves their purposes, excluding those Nevadans with whom they disagree, they have created a new voting district.

New Nevada

We made an effort through the Nevada movement’s website email to obtain the full text of the declaration as well as to contact a spokesperson for the effort and were unsuccessful. However, the website and the Pahrump newspaper’s account have been helpful in learning of the effort’s grievances.

“The court decision Reynolds v. Sims mandated that state senators be elected by population,” the Valley Times quoted a news release issued by the group. “This decision created what our Founding Fathers feared; a tyranny of the majority (’mob rule’). Now, large population centers out-vote all the rest of rural Nevada with distressing regularity. That injustice can be corrected by the formation of a New Nevada State.”

This is a longstanding grievance in the small counties. In the Pahrump newspaper on April 20 last year, local resident Tim Burke wrote that Nevada’s small counties suffer a “lack of representation” in the Nevada Legislature. But they don’t. They get the exact same representation as residents of large counties—one person, one vote, one assemblymember per district, one senator per district, with the districts all of the same population size. When redistricting happened after the 2010 census, urban and rural Assembly districts were both created to contain 64,299 residents each, and Senate districts in both areas contained 128,598 residents each. Small counties and large counties get exactly the same representation.

Neither Baker v. Carr or Reynolds v. Sims took anything away from the small counties, but merely restored proportional representation to both urban and rural areas.

Mr. Burke also wrote, “In Nevada we followed a system modeled after the U.S. Congress until 1965. Each county had one senator and the rural counties controlled the senate.”

This is misleading. Nevada’s founders carefully avoided creating a Nevada Legislature modeled on the U.S. Congress and wrote a constitution requiring proportional representation in both Assembly and Senate. Nevada did not have a “little federal plan.”

Over many decades, Nevada’s state lawmakers sometimes broke the law to have such a system, but it was illegal because they did not reapportion the legislature periodically, as required. To put it another way, they illegally denied the urban counties the representation to which they were legally entitled. At one point, state legislators even exceeded the allowable number of legislators and state courts had to order them to reduce the size of the legislature to comply with the law. In 1950, the legislators belatedly put their illegal scheme on the ballot and succeeded in getting voters to amend the state constitution to finally allow a little federal plan—one senator per county—and it lasted until 1965, when it was overturned as unconstitutional under the federal constitution. Today, some of those in the small counties want that arrangement reinstated.

In seeking a remedy to the small counties now having little influence, Mr. Burke argues for a couple of non-starters. He suggests the small counties could join the imaginary “State of Jefferson” or join one of the three proposed components of California when that state splits in three. It’s hard to know where to start, but these are probably the best place: There will never be a State of Jefferson, and California will never split in three. Reality intrudes on those proposals. (Millionaire Tim Draper’s plan to split California into six pieces in 2014 and three pieces in 2016 failed to make the ballot either year.) Even if the small counties could somehow make one of those things happen, it would not increase their population or exempt them from proportional representation, a national requirement.

When Mr. Burke says the small counties have “only” three senate seats, he should know that is the number of seats given to 385,794 residents in both the urban and rural districts. Neither region has an advantage. As the U.S. Supreme Court has found, “legislators represent people, not trees or acres, [and] legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.”

Last year in Range magazine, published in Washoe Valley, Hank Vogler wrote, “With 85 percent of the voting population in Clark County … and 10 percent in Washoe County … that leaves very little voting power for the rurals.” That’s entirely true, but hardly improper or illegal. It reflects the way Nevada’s population evolved. In 1981, the legislature was enlarged to give the small counties a better chance of electing their own legislators. The legislative halls were altered to fit more desks, adding members so the small counties could have their own lawmakers. But that was a temporary fix that was then overtaken by growth. Nothing stopped the way the population of the small counties dwindled as a percentage of the state. It was not a fix that can be repeated every time the small counties fall in their share of voters.

For much of Nevada history, the most populous county—in the days of the illegal legislature, it was Washoe—seldom complained that it was being illegally deprived of its legitimate representation in the legislature. Its officials just coped. Today, with the small counties legally being given their equal representation in the legislature, they are handling the situation with far less grace. That is likely because, unlike the early and mid-20th century, there are figures in Nevada who thrive on polarization, and enjoy stirring up a sense of grievance, of us-against-them.

Clean power

Some of the recalcitrants are also unhappy because environmental considerations have repeatedly kept counties from luring jobs to projects in their areas—Yucca Mountain in Nye County, two coal fired power plants in White Pine County, a huge waste incinerator in Lincoln County.

But when businesspeople try to lure new businesses to the state, they often either do not understand all the implications or assume that government will take care of those downsides.

Let’s look, for example, at the case of the White Pine power plants. Local officials and businesspeople wanted the plants for the jobs they would provide and the spending they would generate.

But that did not mean they would indemnify homeowners against the decline in property values that would accompany new coal plants, nor were they offering to take on the cost of environmental tracking, increased air and water pollutants and other impacts, instead leaving them to taxpayers. Nor were they willing to pay the costs of illnesses and deaths from the effects of the power plants (when Nevada’s Reid-Gardner coal fired power plant in Moapa was shut down, a $4.3 million settlement of health claims was paid to the nearby Moapa Paiutes). Nor were they willing to assume the cost of any cleanup if the plants closed, the cost of acid rain generated or the tab for coal industry subsidies paid by government—that is, by taxpayers.

What the late U.S. Sen. Clair Engle once said in another context applied to the projects in White Pine County—“They wanted us to build the store, and all they want is the cash register.” In other words, the businesspeople wanted the kind of deal Tesla and the Oakland Raiders later got from Nevada, which was reasonable. Why should corporate welfare stop in the urban areas?

But the damage to quality of life was not the only drawback to the coal-fired plants. Most of all, White Pine business people were incredibly ill-informed about what was happening to the price of coal. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and many others knew that as renewables came on line, they were becoming cheaper than coal. As the years passed, the cost of solar-generated power in particular dropped like a rock while the cost of coal-generated power moved steadily higher. If White Pine had succeeded in getting the two plants built, there was an excellent chance they would never have opened because, by then, their operating costs would have been so high. And if they had opened, bankruptcy soon thereafter would have been a very real possibility. Anyone who doubts it need only type coal-fired power plants bankrupt into the Google search field.

On pollution grounds, Reid engineered the cancellation of the plants in 2009, enraging the White Pine business community. “He killed the coal project, and that is personal,” said retired engineer and sometime Ely resident Phil Leibold to the Los Angeles Times. There was little gratitude for the things Reid and Nevada state government had done for White Pine.

Reid, as a U.S. House member, had won creation of Nevada’s only national park, Great Basin, headquartered in White Pine, which drew a steady stream of tourists. (The power plants would have reduced the quality of the air in the park.) The state had built a prison in Ely, creating jobs and bringing family visitors regularly. When Kennecott Copper shut down its mine in White Pine in 1978, it donated its Nevada Northern Railway to the locals and the Nevada Legislature provided money to plan for making it a tourist railroad and museum. Many tried to support the small counties.

Buying trouble

There’s one part of seceding from Nevada that, from the website and public statements, it appears leaders of the effort have not told their followers about, if they know of it. It is this: Seceding would cost the residents of the new state money—lots and lots of it.

The traditional function of urban counties is to subsidize counties whose small tax base and few residents keep them from generating enough funds to function on their own. The small counties do not pay their own way.

We asked our writer Sheila Leslie, a former state legislator, if it was true that the urban counties subsidize the small counties. Leslie served on the budget committees in both houses of the Nevada Legislature.

“Oh, most definitely,” she said. “And actually, Clark County subsidizes all of us if you look at it from a state level. That’s why after September 11, things were so bad, when the tourists stopped coming to Vegas. If the strip fails, the entire state fails.”

For example, would the 850 residents of Esmeralda County—some of them children—be ready to pay the $20,750 per pupil spending in that county during the next biennium? In Lincoln County, it’s $12,131 with 5,223 residents. In Pershing, $9,691 with 6,508 residents.

This is a factor that fluctuates, usually with the price of minerals. At the moment, two counties—Eureka and Lander—are funding themselves. So is Storey, for as long as Tesla is in business. Otherwise, small county residents may want to think long and hard about how attached they are to county health, police, fire, street paving and other infrastructure, courts and so on, before deciding to secede.

The Epoch Times reports that the secessionists also have two other complaints.

One is that the “state’s one-party-controlled state Legislature wants to enact sanctuary state policy, restrictions against the Second Amendment, and more and higher taxes.” In other words, they oppose some public policies.

The second is that “the current state Legislature has failed to provide a republican form of government, as guaranteed by Article IV, Section 4, of the U.S. Constitution.”

That section of the Constitution reads, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.”

Nevada has representative government, so that satisfies the requirement for a republican form. Some right-wing commentators have argued that the number of migrants entering the country constitutes an “invasion,” though if that is what concerns the Nevada secession movement, their complaint is with the federal government. Why break up Nevada over federal action or inaction?

In common cause

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the federal government tried to install a basing mode for the MX nuclear missile system in Nevada and Utah. It was a giant railroad that would shuttle the missiles from shelter to shelter to prevent the Soviet Union from effectively targeting the missiles. It would have been the largest construction project in human history and would have locked off large swathes of land and vacuumed up resources. It was fiercely opposed by urban environmentalists and rural ranchers, who made common cause.

Abby Johnson, now of Carson City, arrived in Nevada in those years and quickly became involved in the anti-MX campaign. She later wrote about her first meeting of the campaign, “where I learned how to work with and build coalitions, and began to understand the power of coalitions. The Great Basin MX Alliance was Nevada and Utah ranchers, miners, Indians, environmentalists and citizen groups who parked their disagreements at the door to forge common agreement that the MX project should be stopped.”

When the MX was defeated, the two sides went back to their normal causes, sometimes opposing each other.

Then the Las Vegas water grab in eastern Nevada came along, and the two sides reunited to try to stop it. Once again, Abby Johnson is one of them. Rural and urban residents fight alongside one another. She worked with Snake Valley rancher Dean Baker in the MX fight, and he also later opposed the water transfers, passing away before the water fight was resolved. She knew Cecil Garland during the MX fight and his widow Annette is now fighting in the water battle.

Those kinds of coalitions are possible because of respect among the participants, a willingness to abide different points of view on other issues even while fighting together on an overlapping issue.

Alliances become impossible when viewpoints are intransigent, when respect for others is absent, when the outcome of battles are not accepted, when differences of opinion are criminalized.

When Washoe and Clark county legislators enlarged the legislature to keep some rural seats, when Reid generated tourism for the small counties, when urban legislators allocated money to build a prison in Ely and develop a tourist railroad there, they were acts of people with common goals whose politics sometimes overlapped and sometimes faced off. Amity sometimes generates remedies.

Everyday citizens had—and have—a choice in how to react. They can respond to those who want respect and cooperation, or they can respond to those who want division and secession.

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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.