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OPINION: Economic development: Street vendors need not apply

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus

Apparently, the Clark County Commission is fine with Formula One converting the resort corridor into a private raceway each year — but heaven forbid a taco cart is allowed to operate near a public park. 

Last year Gov. Joe Lombardo signed Senate Bill 92, providing street vendors with the promise that their line of work would soon be legitimized throughout the state. However, local governments were still free to impose their own slew of regulations, restrictions and permitting requirements as part of a “legalized pathway” for vendors — and last week the Clark County Commission did precisely that. 

Under the ordinance, vendors will be required to maintain liability insurance, hold a permit with the health district and pay a $45 application fee as well as an annual fee of $150. 

Even beyond the cost, however, the ordinance severely limits when, how and where vendors will be allowed to operate — requiring food carts to maintain a distance of at least 15 feet from any crosswalk or intersection, 150 feet from any licensed food establishment and a minimum of 500 feet from permitted events, schools and local parks. Commissioners also limited what hours vendors will be allowed to operate — forbidding any sales later than 9 p.m. 

Ignoring even the most arbitrary of these restrictions will be costly for would-be food cart operators — with fines as much as $500 and up to six months in jail for certain violations. 

Sure, the ordinance provides a pathway to legalization in Clark County, but that doesn’t mean the “pathway” is actually going to be navigable in any meaningful way. No wonder the primary sponsor of SB92, State Sen. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas), described last week’s commission meeting as “bittersweet,” adding that the Legislature might have to revisit the issue next year. 

Of course, not everyone believes the regulatory burdens are too excessive. The restaurant and food service industry, for example, was pushing for even harsher restrictions — ostensibly out of concern for consumer “safety” and trespassing concerns rather than a desire to quash potential competition

Even without those harsher restrictions, Clark County’s strict approach to regulating street vendors isn’t going to provide much of a pathway for individuals with limited financial means. Indeed, a quick look to the west provides a glimpse into just how ineffectual and unworkable a heavy handed approach to “legalization” is in practice. 

When California passed a similar law to SB92 in 2018, local licensure and regulatory requirements in Los Angeles rendered the statewide legalization of street vendors effectively useless. As an editorial in the Los Angeles Times reported in 2021, the city’s restrictions on the industry were so onerous it made it virtually impossible for most vendors to comply. 

For example, health standards at the time required vendors to prep all their food in commercial kitchen facilities — facilities that are far beyond the means of most low-income individuals trying to enter the market. Los Angeles regulators even went so far as to prohibit the “slicing [of] fruit or reheating [of] previously prepared food” at food carts, making it impossible for most street taco stands to become licensed at all. 

While Clark County’s adopted ordinance isn’t anywhere near as draconian as that of Los Angeles, it will still be similarly exclusionary to a great number of would-be food cart operators throughout the Las Vegas Valley. From licensing fees to the restrictions on when and where vendors will be able to operate, last week’s ordinance will force far more vendors back into the shadows than it will legalize. 

Unfortunately, such barriers and obstacles aren’t unique only to this one industry. As it turns out, Nevada has long had a problem with overregulating predominantly low-income occupations and vocations. The Institute for Justice regularly ranks our state as the most burdensome jurisdiction in the nation for licensure requirements on low-income professions. 

For workers and entrepreneurs struggling to build a livelihood in Nevada, this hostile regulatory environment undoubtedly feels at odds with the way our electeds endlessly drone on about the need to diversify and grow our local economy. After all, what better way to improve the economic lot of ordinary Nevadans than reducing the barriers so many of them face when trying to enter the legal marketplace? 

Clark County’s decidedly hostile approach toward legalizing street vendors also exposes just how unserious and hypocritical “economic development” policies have actually become in this state. Sure, politicians will rush to give $380 million in public financial incentives to one of Major League Baseball’s worst performing teams — or tear up a large portion of the resort corridor for a brilliant weekend of F1 racing — but allowing a low-income entrepreneur to set up a “puesto” after 9 p.m. is apparently a bridge too far. 

Conservative or progressive, such obvious favoritism in Nevada’s economic development approach should scream out for reform. After all, a “pathway” to legitimacy isn’t of much use if it’s made too expensive, burdensome and narrow for the vast majority of would-be business owners to navigate. Maybe, before saddling an entire industry with regulations that will price countless individuals out of the market, the county should spend at least as much time collaborating with street vendors as they do with politically connected mega corporations and international motorsport organizations. 

Surely, if commissioners can find a way to turn Las Vegas Boulevard into a raceway for one weekend each year, they can figure out an amicable way to let a few enterprising individuals sell tacos to passing tourists and hungry locals the rest of the time.

Michael Schaus is a communications and branding expert based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary, having worked as a news director, columnist, political humorist, and most recently as the director of communications for a public policy think tank. Follow him at or on Twitter at @schausmichael.


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