7 May 2023
Nevada’s business class talks a good game about the glories of the capitalist free market and the dangers of overregulation, but some of the state’s most successful transportation operators thrive with help of a protectionist law that often muscles out the competition.
Sen. Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) is spending time and political capital attempting to change the law that allows licensed limousine, bus and similar operators to intervene before the Nevada Transportation Authority (NTA) to block the licensing process of newcomers to an important and lucrative industry in our tourism-dependent state. The NTA also regulates household movers, tow operators, Northern Nevada taxicab services and nonemergency vehicle transport companies.
Flores was at it again Thursday in a hearing before the Assembly Growth and Infrastructure Committee, respectfully calling the current law the kinds of names transportation company operators hate to hear. Under his proposal, licensees’ ability to intervene in applications would be curtailed, and the licensing process would be sped up in statute.
The senator appeared especially motivated by the inability of small-business operators to crack into an industry that traditionally has underserved marginalized communities. No one should be afraid of a little competition, he said.
“What I am fixing is the fishing expedition that occurs,” Flores said. “Whoever comes in first is going to have the upper hand, because they’re going to consistently file these petitions to intervene to keep competition from coming into their space. Bottom line, if what we truly cared about was safety, then we would talk about that. We would say, you know what, we need a more detailed background check. … I don’t blame business from wanting to keep a bigger chunk of the territory. Of course, it’s business. It’s competition. But it is anti-Nevada, it is anti-American, it is anti-capitalism for us to continue.”
It turns out representatives of the industry, including former NTA commissioners, like things just the way they are. They countered that the ability for licensees to intervene was similar to other laws on the books and had improved the industry while protecting the riding public.
Attorney Neal Tomlinson has spent more than two decades working with the transportation regulatory apparatus. He said the bill as written appears to target one part of the industry and not others. He said the real responsibility for ensuring fairness lies with NTA commissioners acting as hearing officers. They can deny petitions to intervene, limit the scope of discovery process and limit the number of interveners.
“Those three things can be done by the presiding officer to make this process work in the way it was intended,” Tomlinson said.
Former NTA chair Kimberly Maxson-Rushton called the carrier regulations “old and antiquated, but it’s not to say that they’re not effective. … I agree that there are areas of the intervener process that can be improved to ensure that the concerns that he raised are properly addressed. But that should be done in the regulation process, when each of the applicable industries that are otherwise regulated by the NTA have a chance to participate.”
Just don’t eliminate the ability of competing licensees to challenge the industry’s newcomers.
Among the more intriguing comments offered by those in opposition came from AWG Ambassador limousine company owner Alan Waxler, who conjured images of the violent Las Vegas cab wars of the 1960s that led to the early regulation of the industry. It almost sounded like he was saying that without the power to intervene against potential competitors all hell would break loose.
Flores wasn’t buying it, but my sense via livestream was that most members of the Assembly committee appeared more patient with a colleague than engaged in his cause.
At one point Flores implored his colleagues to step outside the status quo.
“I want you to think of it in the context of a small business,” Flores said at one point. But the industry historically has shown more than a little hostility toward newcomers.
The NTA is led by a three-member commission of gubernatorial appointees. Although Flores noted that NTA officials were present at the hearing, and its administrative attorney Patricia Erickson made a brief statement, it was made clear that the commission was taking no stance on the pending legislation.
Even a decade ago, I would have given Flores zero chance to succeed against well-connected limousine operators and other transportation industry licensees. The passage of time, Nevada’s growth and changing technology appears to be loosening licensees’ political grip on legislators. But with only a month left in the legislative session, time is on the side of one of the state’s decidedly old-school traditions.
Just the same, I’d suggest Flores find his own ride home for the next few weeks.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.
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