Legislators’ tones darken as they feel purse strings tighten

green
Chanilim714 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the final pieces of balancing the current fiscal year budget fell into place Thursday, as legislators on the Interim Finance Committee unanimously voted to approve approximately $88.5 million in budget cuts and appropriation reversions.

“This is not the type of vote any of us want to take,” said Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, who chairs the committee.

The budget cuts and reversions approved Thursday did not change dramatically from what was outlined by the Gov. Steve Sisolak earlier this month to help balance the $812 million general fund budget shortfall for Fiscal Year 2020, which ends Tuesday. However, more than 100 state employees were conferenced into the virtual IFC meeting in order to provide specific details on the reductions within their departments.

Nevada Department of Health and Human Services Director Richard Whitley told the lawmakers that the millions of dollars in cuts to his department did not reflect a cut in services and that the total amount was within range of their normal budget margins. Many of their reductions are being offset by federal pandemic relief packages, namely the CARES Act. There were also some natural cost-savings in some programs that halted or slowed during the stay-at-home order.

“I don’t want to mislead you (and say) that we aren’t looking at (cuts to service),” continued Whitley. “We’re going to have to. But for these reductions… we’ve not deliberately held back on services for clients.”

“We’ll have that conversation at a different time,” added Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez Thompson. “We were able to hold the line for 2020 until we get to 2021.”

That sentiment was a recurring theme during the eight-hour meeting. While IFC members routinely grill state administrators on the details of their spending proposals, all of the discussions Thursday were saturated with the dark shadow of the projected $1.3 billion budget shortfall for Fiscal Year 2021, which begins July 1.

That shortfall, which represents a quarter of the state’s operating budget, will be addressed in an announced but not-yet-scheduled special legislative session.

When discussing the approval of $5 million toward wildfire prevention and suppression, the lawmakers discussed whether they could approve only part of the money now and additional funds later. That discussion petered out after several legislators expressed concerns the project might never happen if money was held onto. The full amount was approved.

Before approving the transfer of more than $800,000 in contingency funds to cover a budget shortfall related to medical costs in the Nevada Department of Corrections, lawmakers asked if the prisons might be eligible for reimbursement through the CARES Act. They also pressed the NDOC director to project any additional shortfalls and have a plan for balancing their budget.

Before approving an $11.4 million CARES Act-funded education program aimed at supporting professional development, materials and wraparound services for students, Carlton questioned why the Nevada Department of Education decided not to distribute the funds using the number of students or some other objective measure.

“Why a competitive grant process when we know there is a need everywhere?” she asked.

State Superintendent Jhone Ebert responded that the department wanted to make sure the dollars were effectively used because they are a limited resource. The grants will be available to community-based organizations, school districts, private and charter schools, and the Nevada System of Higher Education. The competitive grant process will involve a committee using a rubric to rate applications.

Ebert noted that separate CARES Act funding was distributed according to district or school size.

Carlton voted to approve the program but requested details be presented on what organizations received the money: “I want to see who the winners and losers are, see how the competition played out.”

That sentiment may be repeated more and more as Nevada’s budget shortfall continues to unfold in the upcoming weeks and months.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.