Saturday, Dec. 30, 2000 | 2:14 a.m.
CARSON CITY -- Gov. Kenny Guinn feels he deserves a "passing" grade at the halfway mark of his term.
Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, who has been a critic of the governor, would give him a B-.
Political scientist Erik Herzik says Guinn has "delivered on what he promised. You see a very businesslike administration" but "not especially creative or any bold policy initiatives."
A good part of Guinn's first two years was spent putting out fires or solving inherited problems: The state employees health insurance system was almost insolvent, the new computer system for registering a car didn't live up to its promise and NOMADS -- the computer system at the state Welfare Division -- was over-budget and late.
Guinn was forced to carve out $250 million in his first budget to keep it balanced when he presented it to the Legislature.
Yet he has been able to deliver on such things as the Millennium Scholarship, eliminating the State Industrial Insurance System as a state agency and starting a prescription-drug program for low-income senior citizens.
Now he is getting ready to unveil a $3.74 billion budget that will include some radical changes, he says. He is intent on reshaping government and its spending programs.
Herzik, former chairman and a current member of the University of Nevada, Reno's political science department, said Guinn is "actually a low key but effective kind of leader." The governor is making internal reforms, "but these are out of the public eye."
Titus says Guinn "performed like a sophomore during his second year in office. He laid low and hoped he didn't make many mistakes.
"It's not hard to do OK when nobody is in town," she said, referring to the Legislature's absence. "But he's going to have to deliver because he's up for election" in 2002.
"We are following up on our commitment to restructure the budget," Guinn said in an interview. In the past, administrations have taken state agency budgets and added 3 percent to 5 percent on top of what was being spent. This time the budgets are flat.
"This is going to make a substantial difference on how we can reallocate our money for new priorities. That's not to say anybody who worked previously on the budget did anything wrong. It's just something approved 10 to 15 years ago might have been the No. 1 priority, but today it may not be No. 1 or 2 or 3."
Guinn's budget priorities will be unveiled during his State of the State address Jan. 22. But he's already said he is committed to pay raises for state workers, university faculty and perhaps school teachers if there is enough money. He also wants to spend more money on health and mental-health programs.
The Legislature has done a good job in raising the standards for Nevada students, he said. He wants to put more money into programs to help students achieve those higher requirements.
His administration conducted a "fundamental review" of government, and there will be some recommendations because of that. One is to shift more programs and responsibilities to local government.
Titus points out Guinn promised a fundamental review of the tax system, but that hasn't occurred.
"Before you start looking if you have enough revenue, you first have to look at how you are spending the money," Guinn responded. If his budget is approved, "we will be able to show them how we are efficient."
His budget won't call for new taxes -- one of his campaign promises.
"Certainly I want everybody to understand I didn't commit that forever for the time I am here. But I didn't feel you should come in and the first thing you say is, 'we have to have more money.'
"Today we can balance our budget. Now, if we are going to continue to grow, it's going to be more difficult to balance our budget. That's why we projected out eight or nine years in the economy. If we continue to spend money the way we're spending and if we continue to receive the money the way we are, we will have about a $1 billion shortfall in nine years.
"I believe that's a warning for the people to start talking about how we can correct that situation," Guinn said.
The governor feels his biggest accomplishment is the Millennium Scholarship, which provided money for more than 4,200 students its first year. That will have a long-range effect on Nevada's future, he believes.
Guinn takes issue with those who say his senior prescription drug program is off to a slow start because only 300 people signed up the first month. It's gaining momentum, with 25 to 40 people entering it every day, he said. It's estimated more than 10,000 low-income seniors are eligible, and it will take a while before everyone can be reached, he added.
His administration has fallen short in several areas.
Guinn said he gets irritated at the leaks in government in which his decisions are sometimes in the media before he announces them.
One of Guinn's strong points is working with people toward a compromise. He has called legislative leaders in twice to get their ideas on his budget before he makes a final decision.
Titus commended the Republican governor for this "nice gesture."
Herzik added, "That's good consensus-type Nevada politics. It's not what you see nationally -- the hardball politics."
One of his strongest allies has been Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa, a Democrat who thought about challenging him for the governor's chair. They have worked closely on a number of issues.
An ironic footnote is that some conservative Republicans in Northern Nevada are uncomfortable with Guinn, Herzik said.
"They think his talk about an economic downturn and a tax shortfall are setting up the state for some kind of a tax increase. He has vehemently denied this.
"But there is apprehension, if not an undercurrent of distrust," Herzik said.
Guinn has resigned himself to the slow pace of government. In his first year, he said he was more impatient.
"But I've adjusted to a slower process. There is nothing you can do but adjust."
The governor has not said what changes he will recommend to the Legislature on how to make state government more efficient.
The Governor's Steering Committee to Conduct a Fundamental Review of State Government suggested watering down plans for class-size reduction in the primary grades, the Family-to-Family project and the Office of Science and Technology.
Guinn says he is going to continue funding the class-size reduction program started by former Gov. Bob Miller. And consolidating the Family-to-Family project could run into resistance from Democrats in the Legislature.
There is a possible cost of $5 million for an in-depth study and implementation of putting all tax collections under the state Department of Taxation.
The committee recommended the Parole and Probation Division contract with private companies for preparation of pre-sentence reports on convicted felons, an idea that might save $2 million a year.
Guinn has been silent on suggestions that local governments and nonprofit groups put up 10 percent in matching funds to get state grants and allow state agencies to send their printing to private companies rather than the state Printing Division.
But he backed a plan to split the Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Safety -- a proposal that has been rejected by the Legislature.
By Jan. 22, when he delivers the State of the State address, the public will get a chance to see just how much Guinn is willing to bite off to reshape the state government.