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October 23, 2014

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MEMO FROM CARSON CITY:

Gibbons’ staffers face barrage of budget questions

On Thursday and Friday, a legislative subcommittee began the biennial process of examining the executive budget.

Partisan sniping is always a part of the process, but these are no ordinary times, this is no ordinary budget and Gov. Jim Gibbons isn’t your average chief executive.

Republicans could find few rallying points in the budget. Democrats shook their heads and called attention to what they saw as its weakest points.

The governor’s staff — including the human pinata known as the governor’s budget director, Andrew Clinger — sent to defend the spending plan admitted the cuts were painful, but necessary given the economic situation and the boss’s attitude toward taxes.

The hearings continue this week. The legislative session will start Feb. 2.

What is clear is that few like the budget. And even if no alternatives were proposed last week, major changes will be made.

Asked to describe the hearings so far, Assemblyman Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, said: “There’s bleak and there’s dismal.” The changes to the governor’s budget will be “huge,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said, “The governor’s approach is clearly not the answer. We can do better.”

“We can do better” appears to be the theme the Democrats have settled on.

“We can do better,” Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley said repeatedly about some cuts proposed by the governor.

The Democrats weren’t offering hints of about what their version of better is. Three days of hearings remain. But the first two days offered some insight into how the governor’s budget will be picked apart.

Governors are not tasked with defending their spending plans to legislators. That job — as the unpleasant ones usually do — falls to staff members.

The governor’s senior staff members, in developing the spending plan, were given a job many said was impossible. Gibbons told them to cut a huge amount from the budget without raising any tax except the room tax.

Clinger, who was eventually accompanied by Chief of Staff Josh Hicks, became the first face of the budget Thursday morning, offering an overview of the plan.

Later Thursday, as well as Friday, Hicks and Clinger were replaced by department heads or administrators of specific programs.

When Mike Willden, director of the Health and Human Services Department, expressed relief that his department had been spared the worst of the cuts, Democrats stopped him.

“It could be worse, it definitely could be worse, but it’s definitely not good,” Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said.

Willden agreed there were holes in the budget he would like filled.

Buckley brought up cuts in funding for pediatric treatments, which, she said, meant that abused children would not be able to get needed surgeries.

Cutting Medicaid funding would cause hospitals to close, she said.

Even rural Republicans, such as Assemblymen Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, and Tom Grady, R-Yerington, expressed concerns about taking money from counties that are struggling.

When it came to higher education, an obviously skeptical (though mostly quiet) Sen. Bill Raggio, the longtime Republican leader, noted the system faces a 36 percent cut in the budget — “a pretty hefty reduction.”

“What justifies that heavy of a reduction?” Raggio said.

Clinger responded that “higher ed has other options to look at,” presumably tuition increases.

But it was primarily Democrats ripping away, trying to make the governor’s budget appear as if it was assembled in a bubble, in a slapdash effort to match revenue to expenditures without regard to the effects.

When Clinger brought up taking property tax money from Clark and Washoe counties, legislators pounced.

“Why are you taking money from the counties, other than the Willie Sutton rule,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Coffin. (Sutton, a bank robber, said he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.”)

Clinger replied that the counties could reduce the salaries of their workers and trim their budgets.

Buckley asked if they consulted Clark and Washoe counties.

Clinger said no.

“Is that normal procedure not to tell those who will be affected?” she said.

“I’m not sure anything is normal these days,” Clinger said.

Buckley would later ask Clinger and Hicks whether the administration had asked school superintendents about the effect of eliminating funding for programs.

Hicks said no.

What about the effect of the 6 percent pay cuts on recruiting and retaining teachers?

No.

What about whether Washoe County School District could cut pay in that district, given its extended employee contract?

No.

Clinger and Hicks had no satisfying answers for this skeptical audience.

Clinger noted that, except for higher costs for teachers for benefits and the wage cuts, the governor’s budget actually proposed an increase in education spending.

Buckley would not let that stand, pointing out that teacher training centers had been slashed.

“There’s not much new money,” she said. “There’s inflation, more student enrollment, replacing of school buses. This doesn’t reflect new investment in education, correct?”

Clinger: “There are no new programs, correct.”

Buckley said, “There have to be ways to trim costs without closing down programs, only to restart them in two years. There has got to be a better way.”

Hicks said, “We spent months, hundreds of hours, putting together this budget. We’re trying to make cuts with the least possible effects on the citizens. We’re cutting $2.4 billion from an $8 billion budget.”

Buckley said by her calculations, cuts in K-12 education would take Nevada from 47th in per-pupil funding to 50th.

“Is that correct?” Buckley asked.

Hicks said he did not know.

She had made her point.

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