Before Nevada joined the Union in 1864, the U.S. Congress explicitly promised more than two dozen times that the new state would be on an equal footing with the original states.
That promise, however, was not kept.
Today, as this report’s cover illustrates, only 13 percent of Nevada’s surface is available to provide the state with a tax base for the funding of services. In some counties — examples are Mineral, Nye and White Pine — the tax base is virtually nonexistent, at 4 percent or less.
Behind this problem is congressional bad faith — the breaking of a commitment to new states, a commitment even older than the U.S. Constitution: that the federal government would facilitate the settling of new states by selling or giving away unappropriated land and not keeping it. Indeed, it was on the basis of this commitment that the original 13 states agreed to the Constitution.
Nevada’s enabling act, with its famous disclaimer clause, is widely misunderstood. It states:
That the people inhabiting said territory do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States …
Contrary to the impression still present with many Nevadans, however, Congress did not require this provision in order to forever lock the Silver State’s unappropriated public lands away from its citizens and into permanent federal ownership.
Virtually all American states’ enabling acts have such disclaimer clauses, going all the way back to the 1787 Northwest Ordnance.
The clauses were necessary to clear title, to the lands, so that they could be sold. Thus, disclaiming was not an obstacle to disposal, it was the necessary preliminary step — the vehicle by which disposal was going to be accomplished.
Nevada and the other modern Western states are not the first to be faced with a faith-breaking U.S. Congress.
In the late 1820s and into the 1850s, states in the “West” of that day — Missouri, Illinois and others — experienced the same kind of Congressional recalcitrance.
Nevertheless, focused pressure by citizens of those states and their representatives, eventually forced Congress to honor its commitments and dispose of those public lands.