CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — The Burning Man festival has won a victory in the Legislature to keep county authorities from imposing their own rules and fees on the popular counterculture festival.
A Nevada legislative panel narrowly approved a bill Wednesday to prevent rural Pershing County from regulating the festival held annually in the Black Rock Desert.
The legislation bars a board of county commissioners from regulating or licensing an event if a federal agency has issued a license or permit for it. Burning Man, a counterculture festival that draws more than 50,000 people, is held on land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The Assembly Government Affairs Committee approved the measure on an 8-6 vote.
The proposed legislation follows a lawsuit filed last fall by Black Rock City LLC, the organizers of Burning Man, challenging a new Pershing County festival ordinance that seeks to impose a $1.50-per-head fee to cover law enforcement costs. Organizers said the fee would force them to pay the county $600,000 or more, up from $175,000 in 2010.
Organizers also said the ordinance violates their First Amendment rights by allowing Pershing deputies to regulate activities at the festival.
While quirky, the weeklong festival also pumps an estimated $15 million into the local economy, as "burners" flock to the desert 110 miles north of Reno.
The bill was opposed by some county officials, who see it as a slap to local authority.
Pershing County District Attorney Jim Shirley, in written testimony, called the proposal a "kneejerk" reaction to the lawsuit. He noted the desert is nearly two hours from the nearest sheriff's substation, most of it on unpaved roads.
"It would seem counterintuitive to tell counties they have no authority over such events when counties are responsible for keeping the peace in their counties and sheriffs have a duty to provide law enforcement," Shirley wrote.
He also proposed several amendments if the bill was to pass, relieving the county of any law enforcement responsibility or liability.
To that end, Shirley suggested making Burning Man "exempt from all criminal laws."
"This would ensure that whatever happens, small rural counties will not have to bear the burden of prosecuting state criminal violations which occur as a direct and proximate result of the large outdoor assembly occurring within a particular county," he said.
The committee rejected Shirley's amendments.
AB374 was sponsored by Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, and a host of other lawmakers. It now goes to the full Assembly for a floor vote.