This year the real Nevada Day was June 15

October 26, 2023 6:37 am

Happy Nevada Day. Whenever it is. (Photo: Trevor Bexon/Nevada Current)

“Old Californians” as they were called – mining company officials, their lawyers, and the merchants who sold to them – accounted for most of the delegates to Nevada’s conventions to draft a state constitution.

Both times.

Yes, there were two constitutional conventions. Nevada voters rejected the first draft constitution. 

With malice.

Lincoln, the 13th Amendment, and…mining

“Battle Born” is the state’s unofficial motto, because Nevada became a state during the Civil War.

But the battle raging in Nevada in the early 1860s was not over slavery. It was over control of the Comstock Lode. And it wasn’t fought on battlefields, but in territorial courtrooms, pitting individual miners and small partnerships, who claimed bits of the Comstock, against deep-pocketed California interests who claimed all of it.

The most wealthy of those California mining interests, some of which were financed by money from both coasts, were represented in court by William Stewart. He had risen to prominence as an attorney in San Francisco before relocating to Nevada to make the territory safe for, well, wealthy California mining interests financed by both coasts.

Those mining companies objected to how the first draft of a Nevada constitution taxed mining.

But they didn’t outright oppose the constitution or campaign against its ratification. Instead, in a misread of the room, Stewart paraded around saying that no matter what the constitution said, he and California companies would control whoever got elected to the state legislature, and those legislators would protect mining from taxes.

Oh and by the way, Stewart added, once a state legislature was seated, judges who had been ruling against Stewart’s clients in the Comstock Lode fight would be tossed from the bench.

To which Nevada voters said, hmm, if a new state is going to be controlled by San Francisco mining fat cats, maybe, meh, not so much.

In January 1864, the first draft of a Nevada constitution – and statehood – was rejected by 80% of Nevada voters.

Technically, statehood shouldn’t have even been on the table. Territories were supposed to have 60,000 residents to be eligible for statehood. In 1864, Nevada had maybe 40,000. 

But Abraham Lincoln, fearing the worst in his 1864 reelection bid, wanted three more electoral college votes. Lincoln and congressional Republicans were also prompting Nevada statehood because they wanted two more senators to help pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.

In February 1864, a month after territorial voters had rejected statehood, Lincoln and Congress passed an act effectively telling the Nevada territory to get its act together and start over.

So ordered, the territory scheduled an election for June to select delegates to a second constitutional convention.

And then, between February and June, in an iteration of the boom-bust pattern that characterizes communities and regions where the economy is built on extracting minerals from the ground, the Nevada economy busted.

Surface mineral deposits – easy to access and cheap to mine – had played out. Mineral production plummeted. Small miners were wiped out. Unemployment skyrocketed. The economy more or less came to a halt.

Nevadans concluded small miners – the rugged individualists and hearty entrepreneurs with which the Western U.S. has always been enamored – would not, could not save or build the state. 

Rescuing Nevada’s economy would mean literally moving the earth, to get to mineral deposits deeper underground. The only ones who could raise the sort of money needed to do that were the big mining and banking interests from California and elsewhere.

Those interests would have secured the resources they needed, and would have proceeded to make huge investments in extracting Nevada’s raw materials, with little if any regard for whatever Nevada voters did or said.

But Nevada decided to help the special interests anyway.

When the delegates elected in June 1864 drafted a second, revised constitution, the tax burden on mining was minimized to “net proceeds” – the amount left over after multiple deductions – as preferred by big mining interests.

Nevada voters overwhelmingly ratified the state constitution on Sept. 1, and Lincoln proclaimed Nevada’s admission into the union as a state on Oct. 31, 1864.

And to this day, each year there are at least a few Nevada mines that pay zero taxes on millions of dollars worth of minerals. 

‘Precise economic interest’

Much of the information above is gleaned from historian David Alan Johnson’s “Founding the Far West,” a 1992 volume that compared constitution making in California, Oregon and Nevada, and (to my knowledge) still the sharpest interpretation of Nevada’s origin story.

The intensely specific regard for the well-being of well-funded mining operations, Johnson wrote, rendered Nevada’s constitution unique, a document of “precise economic interest.” 

That phrase nails Nevada’s public policy priorities, not only in 1864, but ever since.

Nevada policymakers and voters embraced, trusted, and depended on large moneyed interests and corporations. Nevada put its faith in the benevolence and positive effects of big business. It’s not that Nevada viewed big business as part of the state’s economy. It mistook it for the point of the state’s economy – attract that corporation, that industry, that wealthy interest, and problem solved.

It turned out to be a hard habit to break.

From surrendering the state to California miners and bankers when the constitution was written, to subsidizing a battery factory (owned by a Californian) or a football field (for a Californian), to countless government giveaways and acts of favoritism in between, economic policy in Nevada has always been driven by faith that if enough public cash and prizes are bestowed on big business everything will be fine.

And yet 159 years into statehood, everything is … not fine. After all the government favors and assistance and subsidies to private sector interests that don’t need subsidies and favors, Nevada’s policymakers can boast an economy characterized by unaffordable housing, poverty-level wages, erratic working conditions, skimpy or non-existent health, sick leave, vacation and retirement benefits, unaffordable child care, 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, exploited and despoiled natural resources, and a tax structure that places a larger burden on the poor than the rich. For starters.

All those policy failures – which is what they are – erode the purchasing power of working Nevadans, dragging down the economy and destabilizing households.

But no “precise economic interest” in Nevada – not gaming, not mining, not banking, not development, not any leading industry in the state – has demonstrated a sincere effort to confront those policy failures. 

And no, “Ooh look, media and public! We gave a nickel-ninety-eight to a popular charity!” doesn’t count. Public relations department initiatives, no matter how cleverly executed, in no way financially or morally atone for the havoc wreaked on households every day by collective profiteering of gaming, mining, banking, utilities, developers, et al.

Meanwhile, policymakers of course, especially elected ones, would prefer that everyone not think about any of that. They enthusiastically urge everyone to instead behold the glimmer of some exciting shiny object. And as it happens, those shiny objects almost always involve giving a public handout to some “precise economic interest.”

So the one day of 2023 that captures the genuine spirit of Nevada statehood is not Oct. 27, the observed Nevada Day, nor the historically accurate Nevada Day on Oct. 31.

The day this year that deserves more than any other to be called “Nevada Day,” the day when the state’s utmost priority was faithfully executed, was June 15 – the day legislators passed and the governor signed a government giveaway to build a baseball stadium for a California billionaire.

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