If progress is being made on the big-ticket budget items of the legislative special session currently underway, it’s happening behind the scenes.
Tuesday brought no movement on proposed bills that would balance the state’s $1.2 billion budget shortfall by slashing nearly half a billion in health care and education funding, requiring state employees to take furloughs or equivalent pay cuts, or shifting existing taxes schedules and allocations in order to temporarily boost the general fund. That perceived lack of progress on the seventh day of the 31st Special Session has frustrated advocates and Nevadans whose livelihoods rely on the dozens of programs whose funding currently sits on the chopping block, though it simultaneously suggests lawmakers are attempting to work out whether alternative solutions to cuts have a chance at bipartisan support.
The Nevada Legislature is not subject to the state’s open meeting laws, making such behavior par for the course. However, the special session is uniquely buttoned up given the pandemic protocols in place. The legislative building is physically closed to the public, with access limited to the elected officials, key staff and some media. One-fifth of all lawmakers — 12 in the Assembly and one in the Senate — are working remotely after someone asymptomatic tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
On Tuesday, the Legislature did unanimously pass Senate Bill 4, which allows the state to borrow up to $150 million through general obligation interim debentures, which are similar to bonds. Debentures can be issued only during this current fiscal year and only if the cash balance of the general fund falls below a certain threshold. Treasurer Zach Conine pitched the bill to lawmakers as being an additional tool for the state to rely on if the state’s financial situation were to worsen.
While the bill is not inconsequential, it is not one that addresses the state’s immediate financial needs.
Beyond that bill, the Nevada Legislature passed a resolution.
Assembly Joint Resolution 1 urges President Donald Trump and Congress to “provide flexible funding for state, local, and tribal governments to account for anticipated public budget shortfalls as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The full text of the resolution is available here.
The resolution passed unanimously in the Assembly and nearly unanimously in the Senate, with Republican Sen. Ira Hansen casting the lone nay vote. In floor statements explaining their votes, Democrats stressed support for the federal HEROES Act passed by their fellow Democrats in the U.S. House. Republicans stressed the need for flexibility in federal relief dollars and expressed concerns about government waste of previously received money.
Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts introduced the bill on the Assembly side, saying federal relief funds are a much-needed solution beyond budget reductions or new revenue. On the issue of revenue, Watts added, “I am ready for that conversation” but added that a special session is a “less than ideal place for that.”
While expressing her support for the resolution, Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus praised President Donald Trump, saying he has been “more than generous” with coronavirus relief funds, and stressed fiscal transparency and accountability.
“If our president blesses us with any additional federal funding, I hope that we use it in the most responsible and transparent way possible,” she added.
Assembly Republicans a day earlier criticized Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak for failing to release financial information related to the proposed cuts being considered by the Legislature. “The lack of transparency from the governor’s office is limiting our ability as legislators to make responsible budget cuts and damaging trust between the branches of government,” read a statement released as part of a legislative wrap up to their newsletter subscribers.
“D.C. politics has become hyper-partisan, as we all know. But we don’t need to be that way in Nevada,” added state Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert.