Special Elections Could Reshape Congress, Nevada Traffic Laws

James Blatt
October 29, 2011 — 1,004 views  
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This week voters in Northern Nevada went to the polls in a special election to fill the state's Congressional District 2, a seat in the national House of Representatives left vacant by now-Senator Dean Heller. As the election drew near, some observers asked if voters' choice might have an impact on Nevada traffic laws.

The election was one of two held September 13, 2011, the other in New York State's ninth district. That seat was left open by former Representative Anthony Weiner, who was forced from the seat after a scandal involving inappropriate photos of the Democrat that surfaced on the social networking site Twitter. Even before the scandal broke Rep. Weiner had been catching some flak for his vocal opposition to the expansion of bicycle lanes in the urban core of New York City. His comments were seen as being out of touch with a growing trend; the nationwide spread of bicycle use has spread as wide as cosmopolitan centers like New York as well as sleepier, less dense states like the Silver State where new Nevada traffic laws emphasize a greater deference to two-wheeled travelers.

In Nevada, the special election was for Sen. Dean Heller's former seat but that position was left open only because Heller moved up the ladder to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by shamed Republican John Ensign, who was also felled by a sexual scandal. Heller was appointed to fill the seat by sitting Governor Brian Sandoval, a Republican. Gov. Sandoval is himself a former Nevada attorney general, once charged with enforcing a wide range of state statutes and representing the state government's interest in a variety of cases, perhaps even some involving Nevada traffic laws. The Republican governor did make his mark on these statutes in the most recent legislative cycle. He signed SB 140 into law, which survived a kind of last-bill-standing competition with several other proposed Nevada traffic laws to limit the use of cellular phones while driving.         

Although the election this week – which was won by Republican Mark Amodei – was for a federal office, it may still have some impact on Nevada traffic laws. Our system of government utilizes a concept known as federalism, which is a way of blending federal and state power. The general idea here is that legislation and regulation is meant to operate at the lowest possible level of power in the hierarchy, thus providing as responsive and sensible government as possible. Critics fro the political left and right will tell you that the reality belies this theory, albeit for differing reasons. Some advocates of improved highway safety argue that we need a nationwide ban on cell phone use while driving because the patchwork of state laws on the matter are confusing and send mixed messages about the dangers of distracted driving. These advocates would have Congress pass some parallel to the Nevada traffic laws that now limit cell phones while driving, with the idea being that this national standard would be imposed universally in all states and pre-empt any legislation or prior Nevada traffic laws already on the books in those states.

Amodei's election may have an impact on Nevada traffic laws even if such a nationwide ban is not put in place. With Republican victories in these two special elections, the House of Representatives has seen the GOP majority grow even more and concentrate that party's power more heavily in that house of government. Congressional Republicans continue to advocate for measures to drastically shrink the size and scope of the U.S. government, and if they get their way it is possible that major federal entities such as the Department of Transportation could be affected. In the absence of federal laws as well as federal dollars apportioned by current national highway funds, one can imagine a parade of frantic efforts to fill these regulatory and funding gaps at the state level. This would result in consideration of a variety of Nevada traffic laws that would variously attempt to regulate matters such as big-rig trucking in the state of Nevada as well as ratcheting down on current Nevada traffic laws to generate additional revenue for filling potholes and performing other maintenance.

Although the GOP will proclaim its two victories this week as harbingers of the election to come, the reality is that pundits from all sides are unsure of how the 2012 General Election will play out. Whatever happens at the national level, we know we can count on another four months of spirited debate when the Nevada Legislature convenes in 2013 to consider new Nevada traffic laws.

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James Blatt