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July 30, 2014

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POLITICAL MEMO:

First, Democrats wanted clout on cuts; now they’re not sure

Democratic legislators felt snubbed when the governor started cutting the budget this year without consulting them.

We need to be in the loop, they said.

Well, be careful what you wish for.

Legislators are now included in the budget-cutting process, and the Democrats are squirming.

They don’t want to be responsible for skinning a paltry system of government services because it could hurt their chances to take control of the Senate and build a veto-proof majority in the Assembly. And in the wings: A possible bid by Speaker Barbara Buckley for governor.

“The big picture, in the long run, is to get these folks elected. Then you can get a whole lot of things done,” a veteran Carson City lobbyist close to Democrats said. “If you’re picking a fight with the governor (over budget cuts) it’s probably not the best use of (Buckley’s) time or her political will.”

State Sen. Bob Beers, the Las Vegas Republican and a member of the Interim Finance Committee, which now has the ability to weigh in on budget cuts between the biennial sessions, agrees: “Legislative leadership is more than happy to cede ownership of the budget cuts to the governor.”

A veteran Democratic legislator said the party is unlikely to raise a ruckus over the old cuts, particularly because more cuts — and a summer session — could be on the horizon if the state’s economy worsens.

“Why rehash all those old cuts?” the legislator said. “We’re more worried about the next round of cuts.”

Democratic legislators might still try to create a donnybrook over later cuts. But given their history, that scenario is not certain.

The mood was different among the Democrats back in January. They were angry at the governor’s decision to cut the budget by 4.5 percent across the board, including K-12 education. But even as Democratic leadership complained loudly that the governor didn’t consult them, they were quietly relieved. They could blame the governor for slashing education and social programs, rather than take any of the heat themselves.

Controller Kim Wallin forced the issue of who could make the final call on budget cuts by continuing to write checks to state agencies at precut levels, arguing that Gibbons had to present budget changes before the Interim Finance Committee.

After initially resisting, Gibbons asked for a legal opinion from the attorney general’s office. Wallin prevailed. She said she expects the Interim Finance Committee to insert itself into the process of future budget-cutting. She is less sure about whether legislators will look back at Gibbons’ previous, unilateral decisions.

If the committee members want to do that, they need to decide soon. The governor presented his cuts Friday, and the committee has 15 days to call a special meeting. If the committee doesn’t meet, the cuts take effect.

Democratic Sen. Bob Coffin, for one, has something to say about the budget cuts and has asked the committee chairman, Morse Arberry, to call a special meeting. It’s unclear what Arberry is going to do.

Coffin said he was distressed by cuts to the state’s mental health programs in 1992, another severe budget year, and wants to prevent further cuts to those programs.

“I’ve helped rebuild mental health programs from the 1992 cuts. I know there’s no wasted money in them,” he said. “I’m not going sit idly by and let the cuts happen.”

Coffin also said he wants to preserve the legislature’s authority by at least raising objections to some of Gibbons’ cuts. If he and other Democrats can draw attention to how budget cuts are affecting Nevadans, it could bolster their case if they ever decide to push for a tax increase.

But Coffin acknowledges that not everyone wants to look over the governor’s shoulder as he makes cuts.

“It’s human nature not to want to do the dirty work,” Coffin said. Cutting the budget, he said, “is ugly.”

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