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In the Nevada desert, a technology firm aims to be a government

CARSON CITY, Nev. — within the Nevada desert, a cryptocurrency magnate hopes to show dreams of a futuristic “smart city” into reality. to try to do that, he’s asking the state to let companies like his form local governments ashore they own, which might grant them power over everything from schools to enforcement.

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Jeffrey Berns, CEO of Nevada-based Blockchains LLC, envisions a city where people not only purchase goods and services with digital currency but also log their entire online footprint — financial statements, medical records, and private data — on the blockchain. Blockchain may be a digital ledger known mostly for recording cryptocurrency transactions but also has been adopted by some local governments for everything from documenting marriage licenses to facilitating elections.

The company wants to interrupt ground by 2022 in rural Storey County, 12 miles (19 kilometers) east of Reno. It’s proposing to create 15,000 homes and 33 million square feet (3 million square meters) of economic and industrial space within 75 years. Berns, whose idea is that the basis for draft legislation that some lawmakers saw behind closed doors last week, said the traditional government doesn’t offer enough flexibility to make a community where people can invent new uses for his technology.

“There’s need to be an area somewhere on this planet where people are willing to only start from scratch and say, ‘We’re not getting to do things this manner simply because it’s the way we’ve done it,’” Berns said.

He wants Nevada to vary its laws to permit “innovation zones,” where companies would have powers like those of a county government, including creating court systems, imposing taxes, and building infrastructure while making land and water management decisions.

The prospect has been met with intrigue and skepticism from Nevada lawmakers, though the legislation has yet to be formally filed or discussed in public hearings. Most within the Democratic-controlled Legislature are wanting to diversify Nevada’s tourism-dependent economy, but many fear backlash against business incentives as they struggle to fund health care and education.

This proposal differs from the large tax rebates they need grown wary of offering, just like the $1.3 billion given to Tesla to create its northern Nevada battery factory or the billions NY and Virginia offered Amazon to create new corporate headquarters.

But it raises deeper issues about increasing modern technology companies’ grip on lifestyle at a time when antitrust regulators and Democrats in Congress allege tech giants like Facebook and Google are controlling markets and endangering people’s privacy.

Blockchains LLC and so-called innovation zones were a key part of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s January State of the State address when he outlined plans to rebuild a more diversified economy after the coronavirus pandemic.

Sisolak, whose campaign and affiliated political action committee received a combined $60,000 from the corporate, said the proposal would transform Nevada into “the epicenter of this emerging industry and make the high-paying jobs and revenue that accompany it.”

The governor’s office declined to comment further on innovation zones. But with Sisolak’s backing, the thought could garner serious consideration within the Legislature.

“I don’t know enough yet to mention whether I’m comfortable with this because of the next step or not. But, look, it’s an enormous idea and Nevada has been built on big ideas, so let’s hear it out,” said state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, a Republican who sponsored blockchain-related legislation in 2017 and 2019.

If lawmakers back the proposal, technology companies with 50,000 acres of land (200 square kilometers) that promise a $1 billion investment could create zones governed by three people like county commissioners. The draft legislation says two of them initially would be from the corporate itself.

In Storey County, which is home to Tesla’s factory, officials are expecting more information before offering opinions but say questions still got to be answered.

Commissioner Lance Gilman, who owns the Mustang Ranch brothel and purchased most of the county’s land to show it into a tract decades ago, has supported luring technology companies to the world and growing its population. But Gilman, who worked in marketing for Blockchains LLC from 2018 to 2019, said there are many unknowns about ceding control to a replacement jurisdiction that falls within county borders.

”(The bill) wants the host county to let it form, become successful, not pay them considerably money, and eventually allow them to take over the entire county and every one the operations if it becomes successful,” Gilman said. “If it doesn’t become successful, who becomes liable for all the things that were inbuilt in the meantime?”

The county’s plan doesn’t permit residential development within the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, where most of Blockchain LLC’s property lies, but it allows for 3,500 homes in Painted Rock, a subsection of the company’s 67,000 acres (271 square kilometers).

Berns said officials told him in an off-the-cuff discussion two years ago that they weren’t curious about zoning for more homes, a gathering that former County Manager Pat Whitten confirmed. Berns understands that elected leaders in Storey County might not want an experimental city in their backyard but believes the thought should be a state decision due to its potential to “singularly define Nevada going forward.”

“We bought 70,000 acres of land within the county. What did they think we were getting to do?” he said.

The former consumer protection attorney said the thought was born from how he sees government as an unnecessary middleman between people and concepts.

“For us to be ready to take risks and be limber, nimble and figure things out such as you do when you’re designing new products, that’s not how government works. So why not allow us to just create a government that lets us do those things?” Berns said.

Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price contributed reporting from Las Vegas. Metz may be a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America may be a nonprofit service program that places journalists in newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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