Las Vegas continues to walk in the shadow of Los Angeles
I recently finished reading Rick Perlman’s Before the Storm and Mike Davis’ City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, which both touch on one of the greater ironies of the latter half of the 20th century.
Life in the Southwest, and Los Angeles in particular, would be unrecognizable without the massive industrial-scale subsidies and public works projects completed by federal, state and local governments during the past century. The adjoining ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — the two largest container ports in the United States — wouldn’t exist if the federal government didn’t choose to dredge and improve the otherwise sandy and shallow Los Angeles River delta.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct, Colorado River Aqueduct and California State Water Project — each one a publicly funded and constructed project — provide more than half of the drinking water used by Southern California residents. The federal government, thanks to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s interstate highway program, paid 90 percent of the initial construction costs for much of the expansive freeway system used by Southern California’s commuters.
All of the above, of course, is every bit as true of the Las Vegas Valley. Hoover Dam provides the majority of the valley’s water and power — though more of Hoover Dam’s hydroelectricity goes to Southern California. Before Eisenhower went on his freeway-building crusade, Las Vegas’ automotive connections to the outside world consisted of reluctantly paved two-lane desert highways — which, as often as not, were also paved using neighboring state or federal dollars.
And yet, Southern California is the same region that produced Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, the Claremont Institute, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Proposition 13 — the inspiration for Nevada’s property tax cap regime. Larry Elder — the answer to political trivia questions such as, “Who lost in a landslide against Gov. Gavin Newsom in California’s 2021 gubernatorial recall?” and “Who announced they’re running in the 2024 GOP presidential primary?” — was a conservative radio talk show host broadcasting out of Southern California for decades.
Similarly, Clark County gave us FreedomFest, the Bundy family, Michele Fiore and Jim Marchant — he’s running for Senate by the way. The disembodied ghost of Harry Reid, to say nothing of the wholly corporeal Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), couldn’t be more thrilled, I’m sure.
Without government investment and intervention, it’s unfair to claim that Los Angeles and Las Vegas wouldn’t exist. Los Angeles, after all, has an enviable climate, more level space near the Pacific Ocean than anywhere else on the California coast, an ocean of oil underneath it and enough local water sources for roughly a third of its region’s roughly 10 million residents — or, if you prefer, roughly one Clark County’s worth.
Las Vegas, meanwhile, was always a convenient watering hole and rest stop for those traveling between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. Without the water of Lake Mead and the cheap hydropower of Hoover Dam, however, it would probably more closely resemble Barstow or Mesquite than Phoenix.
Industrial-scale government investment did, however, elevate a pair of regional outposts into global metropolises — or, at least, into a pair of cities with industrially outsized cultural cachet.
That cachet, however, has always come at a cost.
Before the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers asked for and received some free public land from Los Angeles’ city leaders, Chavez Ravine was originally cleared of its preexisting Mexican American population to make way for what was instead supposed to become a major public housing project. In a city with some of the most deeply restrictive racial covenants in the country — a city which would, in 1964 by a two-to-one margin, vote in favor of a constitutional prohibition against any abolition of the same sort of racial covenants Nevada lawmakers are fighting to remove less than five decades later — the loss of Chavez Ravine meant a permanent loss of access to housing and community for the Mexican Americans who previously lived there.
As for Hollywood, meanwhile, its start in Southern California shares more than a few resemblances to gaming’s start in Southern Nevada.
Back east, Thomas Edison’s various corporate concerns used their patents from the invention of motion pictures to strictly control who had access to filmmaking technology with an eye toward monopolizing the entirety of the film industry. Those patents, however, weren’t highly regarded in the Ninth Circuit Court — and were rather challenging for a New York-based company to enforce thousands of miles away at a time when transcontinental travel took days to complete. So, to escape Edison’s patent enforcers, aspiring movie makers moved to California — where they not only found a lax and forgiving state government, they also found perfect year-round weather for filming and a rich array of nearby environments to film from.
By the time Edison’s film trust was broken up in court in 1915, the center of gravity for filmmaking was already shifting from Fort Lee, New Jersey — in much the same way the center of gravity for resort entertainment later moved from Atlantic City to Las Vegas.
Just like Nevada’s entertainment industry, however, California’s film industry likes to remind state legislators that, even though it moved to their home state without the need for any meaningful tax breaks or abatements and network effects are absolutely real (good luck finding armies of experienced screenwriters, directors and so on in, say, Omaha), that doesn’t mean they can’t change their mind if some enterprising lawmakers throw enough money at their shareholders.
California, to its “credit,” has taken the hint and responded with a rich array of tax credits — not quite as rich as Georgia’s uncapped tax credits, but rich enough to presumably keep its film industry from leaving in droves.
If you’re one of California’s less favored industries, however, well, sorry — you’re likely out of luck. The California Competes tax credit, which any business can apply for, is capped at slightly more than half of the cap available for filmmakers alone.
Bringing things back closer to home, it’s understandable that leaders in Las Vegas — especially when they look at the comparative success and lower unemployment rates in similarly sized cities such as Phoenix and Salt Lake City — might feel the urge to play catch-up. Many Las Vegans, after all, are just repatriated Southern Californians, and if there’s one thing many expats revel in, it’s the opportunity to get things right this time.
There are reasons to leave Los Angeles, but sharing space with the Dodgers and Angels, or the occasional Hollywood celebrity, are seldom on that list — so why not throw some tax money at attracting a professional baseball team or a major film studio?
Oh, right — because tax money isn’t unlimited and is supposed to be used to pay for basic services. How are basic services in Los Angeles or Las Vegas these days? How are the schools? Anybody know?
All of this should leave one to wonder how much further Las Vegas should continue to follow in Los Angeles’ footsteps. Sure, federally and state-funded water projects are nice, as are miles after miles of taxpayer-supported freeways, boulevards and suburban sprawl, but Los Angeles hasn’t historically been known — to put things mildly — as a pinnacle of good, clean governance. Buying California’s culture off the clearance rack at retail prices using taxpayer dollars isn’t going to give Las Vegas better results than the larger, richer city it’s been copying off of for decades.
Besides, does anyone actually expect the Raiders or the soon-to-be
Las Vegas Paradise A’s to stick around of their own accord without continual public subsidies? Does anyone seriously expect the “Summerlin Production Studios Project,” which expects two decades of continuous tax credits, to continue to pencil out once the tax credits expire? What will happen when the next up-and-coming city shows up to their boardrooms with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars?
I bet Atlanta or some city in Texas could support another baseball team or two — for the right price.
On the other hand, bringing the Bay Area's cheapest baseball team and a migratory film studio to Las Vegas might help relocated Angelenos feel more at home, in much the same way the Paris Las Vegas' Eiffel Tower replica helps French visitors overcome any homesickness during their vacations. If you really think about it, what is more uniquely Southern Nevada than that?
David Colborne ran for office twice. He is now an IT manager, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Mastodon @[email protected], on Twitter @DavidColborne, or email him at [email protected].