When Nevada Republican Party chairman Michael McDonald mistakenly called Las Vegas the “most entertaining capital city,” at the 2016 Republican National Convention, he set off a firestorm of Twitter ridicule from anyone who ever learned their state capitals.
McDonald, perhaps unwittingly, alluded to a touchy subject for many Nevadans, especially those in Clark County who often wonder why the state’s government is located hundreds of miles to the north of the state’s population center.
Lawmakers throughout the years have introduced legislation designed to shift power away from Carson City, including a proposed constitutional amendment in 2013 that would have allowed the Legislature to meet annually and outside of Carson City by a majority vote. Those efforts failed, which former state lawmaker and current Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin chalks up to a fear of change.
But do state residents actually think the center of government should move? Most Nevadans say no, according to results of the new Nevada Poll that show 70 percent of voters support keeping it in Carson City with only 21 percent supporting a move to Las Vegas.
Voters were asked the following question:
“Nevada’s state capital is currently in Carson City. Some have proposed moving the state capital to Las Vegas. Do you think the state should keep the state capital in Carson City or move the state capital to Las Vegas? Do you feel that way strongly or not so strongly?”
Opposition to a move was widespread throughout the state: Voters in Clark County supported keeping the capital in Carson City by a 60 to 29 percent margin, while opposition to a move was much more monolithic in Reno (91 to 4 percent) and rural parts of the state (88 to 7 percent).
Support for keeping the capital in Carson City was widespread across the political spectrum, though poll respondents who identified as Democrats were less likely to support moving it (63 percent to 27 percent) than Republicans (75 percent to 17 percent) or Independents (73 to 18 percent).
Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak does not count himself among the Democrats who are more open to the idea.
“There’s just too much tradition and infrastructure and history to really seriously contemplate that move,” he said. “While it might be fun to talk about it, I don’t think it’s a realistic proposition.”
Carson City was named the initial capital of Nevada Territory when it was established in 1861, and remained the capital after the federal government granted statehood four years later. Despite the state Constitution prohibiting any expenditures for a capital until 1869, Carson City remained popular in large part because a railroad ran through town. Las Vegas wasn’t even founded until 1905.
In reality, moving the state capital would be a costly venture. Thousands of state employees live in Carson City, and building a new capitol complex in Las Vegas that could house lawmakers would likely cost millions.
Assemblyman John Ellison, a lifelong Elko resident, said he opposes the idea for that reason — the potential taxpayer burden.
“I think it should stay right where it’s at,” he said. “It would be crazy to try to move that stuff down there.”
Coffin toyed with the idea during his years in the Nevada Legislature. He introduced a bill in the late 1980s that would allow the Legislature to meet on a regular basis in Las Vegas, he said. The bill didn’t recommend moving the capital to Las Vegas, but the mere suggestion of allowing law-making to occur down south created a stir.
Or as Coffin put it: “Feathers flew.”
Coffin said his rationale for the bill stemmed from the lack of technology at the time. Without Internet and videoconferencing technologies, the state’s southern residents couldn’t easily make their voices heard.
The digital age has alleviated some of those challenges, he said. Walk into the Grant Sawyer Building in downtown Las Vegas during a legislative session, and there’s often a video-conferenced meeting happening.
Coffin doesn’t advocate moving the capital these days, but he said he supports flexibility.
“Let the Legislature meet wherever it wants, whenever it wants,” he said.
Logistics and politics aside, Sisolak pointed out another benefit to Carson City — the capital’s charm and less frenetic pace of Las Vegas. Even the drivers are more courteous, he said.
“They stop when people cross the street,” Sisolak said.
The bottom line: Don’t expect Nevada lawmakers to be conducting business down south anytime soon. The last state to move its capital city was Oklahoma, which moved its capital from Guthrie to Oklahoma City shortly after obtaining statehood in 1910.
The poll of 600 likely voters was conducted with live interviewers between Jan. 12 and 15, and has a margin of error of 4 percent, with a 95 percent level of confidence.
The Mellman Group is an opinion research firm that has done polling for former Sen. Harry Reid, Rep. Steny Hoyer and other political and corporate clients, including many in Nevada. FiveThirtyEight gives the group a “B” grade in their ranking of political pollsters and says their polls historically tilt slightly Democratic. 538 does not include Mellman's work for business clients.
Editor Jon Ralston explains why The Nevada Independent hired Mellman in a blog post here.