The Blockchains blunder: Squirrelly, and yet more of the same

Blockchainsville
If we can just land another whale everything will be fine. (Rendition: EYRC Architects + Tom Wiscombe Architecture)

Normally when a governor and the crème de la crème of the state’s consultant and lobbying class join forces to promise some “bold” proposal will be a “game changer,” the rest of the movers, shakers, lawmakers, and holy sacred “stakeholders” amen race to get on board. 

And then the next thing you know the public has frittered away three-quarters of a billion dollars on a football field. As one example.

This time, the “bold” proposal would have let some rando libertarian named Jeffrey Berns of some nebulous enterprise called Blockchains LLC have a vanity town of his very own, to do things nobody could understand, just because he made a killing in cryptocurrency that one time.

But this time the rest of the movers, shakers, lawmakers, and holy sacred “stakeholders” amen couldn’t grasp what the hell the latest “game changer” was about. That in turn meant they didn’t understand what was in it for them, ergo, deal breaker.

The Blockchains “smart city” was mocked from coast to coast. Blockchains LLC spokesman Steve Sisolak, who also serves as governor, even achieved that most elusive of goals sought by politicians running for statewide office by uniting northern and southern Nevada: From border to border, people thought the Blockchains thing was daft. 

Lance Gilman, the brothel owner who owns most of — and so is the boss of — Storey County and a figure who never met a government goodie for Storey County’s private sector that he didn’t like, bristled at Berns swinging his make-believe town around on Gilman’s lawn.  Assorted rural counties chimed in. Lyon County, for instance, opposed the proposal lest it happen to them, citing “potential for uncontrolled growth…with no additional industrial or commercial tax base added to the county.”

Although Blockchainsville was touted as needing no public money (so not a football field), concerns like Lyon County’s about who would pay for services were among many, many troubling but never answered questions about the would-be sovereign city.

In fact, other than Berns, about the only people who publicly supported the Blockchains scheme were those getting paid to: Michael Brown, the former gold mining corporate executive now running the state’s economic development office; ubiquitous public-private project consultant and renowned Nevada cheerleader-for-hire Jeremy Ageuro; and a flotilla of lobbyists, with R&R Partners, the powerhouse ad, PR, and political “juice” vending firm, serving as flagship.

Legislators from the Democratic governor’s own party were publicly dissing what the governor called an “innovation zone” (because of course he did) for Blockchains LLC.

Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chair Maggie Carlton, in one of several good stories on Blockchains from the Reno Gazette Journal, told the RGJ “If you can’t explain it to me, I can’t be with you.”

“I’m not interested in giving government powers to a corporation,” added state Sen. Dina Neal in the same story. “And there’s no way to say it’s not that.”

In a separate RGJ story — the one reporting Sisolak stepping away from the shambles — Nicole Canizzaro and Jason Frierson, Democratic leaders of the Senate and Assembly respectively, declined to have an opinion on the never officially introduced proposal, and indicated Sisolak hadn’t really talked to them about it anyway.

Maybe Sisolak would have shown a little more gumption with legislators if Blockchains LLC had contributed more than a lousy $50,000 to Home Means Nevada (the PAC, not the song). After all, Berns & Blockchains combined to give more than eight times that much to the Nevada Independent. Jeesh, what’s a governor these days, chopped liver?

Sisolak has declined to just fess up and say “oops, my bad, never mind.” Instead, throwing a bone to Berns and hoping to save face after subjecting people to this squirrelly idea for three months and then walking away from it, Sisolak has proposed a study committee. And not just any study committee, but a special joint committee (bold italics in the Sisolakian original, for reals). If the Legislature buys the idea, a few lawmakers from both houses and both parties would undertake “effective and efficient study” of giving Berns his own town even though Berns himself can’t clearly explain what he’s going to do with it.

Hmm. Perhaps Sisolak and his brain trust should consider going in a different direction.

From giving the state to California bankers and miners when the constitution was written to marketing itself as a divorce capital to legalizing gambling to subsidizing a battery factory or a football field, economic policy in Nevada has always been driven by gimmicks and faith in the big bet and the big score. If we can just land the whale — this “innovative concept,” that “bold idea,” or the other “game changer” — everything will be fine. So it’s no surprise that’s where Sisolak’s head is. 

And he’s not entirely wrong. It is time – past time – for something truly bold, new, and innovative.

One possibility: Stop wishing trickery will deliver some visionary economy of the future and start fixing structural failures undermining the real economy we have now.

Unaffordable child care, unaffordable housing, poverty-level wages, erratic working conditions, skimpy or non-existent health, sick leave, vacation and retirement benefits, ruthless banking options, loads of student debt, a dearth of public transit, a profit-driven court system, one of the nation’s most thread-bare safety nets, miserably underfunded schools, a tax structure that places a larger burden on the poor than the rich — all those failures and more erode the purchasing power of working Nevadans, dragging down the economy and destabilizing households.

None of those failures are being addressed during the current session of the Legislature in a way that could be described as substantial, let alone transformational.

The majority of them aren’t being addressed in any way at all.

Sisolak wants us to believe he’s not afraid to be “bold.” 

Don’t stand on ceremony, governor. Any time now would be fine.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.