Posts Tagged ‘Debbie Smith’

Dispute Emerges Between Sandoval, Lawmakers Over Access To Budget Data

By Sean Whaley | 5:23 pm October 25th, 2012

CARSON CITY – A dispute has emerged between Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Legislature over what information in the initial state agency request budget should be made available to legislative staff and the public.

At a meeting of the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee today, state Budget Director Jeff Mohlenkamp was asked about what is considered by legislative staff to be a departure from past practice regarding the budget information provided to legislative fiscal staff and the public.

The 2013-15 budget information conveyed to the Legislature on Oct. 15 does not include “items for special consideration” requested by state agencies. These items are budget requests from agencies that Sandoval will consider including in his final spending plan, but that have not yet been approved for inclusion by Sandoval.

Sandoval’s budget won’t be made public until mid-January.

Rick Combs, director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, said this information has been provided to legislative staff historically as specified in state law. It has also been made available to the public.

LCB Director Rick Combs.

An example of an item of special consideration is the expansion of the Medicaid program to a new group of Nevadans as provided for in the federal Affordable Care Act. Sandoval has not made a decision on whether to expand Medicaid to this new group of Nevada residents.

Because of this apparently new interpretation by Sandoval, the Medicaid expansion information has not been provided to the Legislature’s fiscal staff and so is not available to the public either.

“The part that is of concern to us there is twofold,” Combs told the committee. “Your staff doesn’t have access to the information. The other concern is that information that is provided to us on Oct. 15 is supposed to be open for public dissemination at that point.

“Now if you, or a member of the public, asks us for anything that was in an item for special consideration, we don’t have it,” he said. “Even though we feel the statute requires that that to be available to you or a member of the public that ask for it.”

Combs said his staff  has asked for the information but has not received a response from Mohlenkamp.

IFC Chairwoman and Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, asked Mohlenkamp for an explanation.

Mohlenkamp said a decision has not been made yet on whether to provide the information to legislative staff, and that the budget information transmitted to lawmakers has fulfilled the statutory obligation to lawmakers.

“We’re still considering whether we will be able to provide access to LCB fiscal,” he said. “That decision hasn’t been made. I’ve been in coordination with the governor’s office on this and I’m hopeful that we will be able to give a firm and final response in the near future. But right now that decision hasn’t been made.”

Mohlenkamp said there are all kinds of agency requests beyond Sandoval’s flat-budget guidelines that may not end up as part of the budget, and so should not be subject to speculation.

The change is significant enough that Geoff Dornan, the long-time capital bureau reporter for the Nevada Appeal, made a rare public comment at the meeting.

“We have always gotten the items for special consideration,” he said. “This change completely changes how the law has been interpreted, for longer than Mr. Mohlenkamp, no offense, has been working for the state.”

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, also expressed concern, saying that if Sandoval decides not to propose expanding Medicaid to the new eligible population, then the budget data collected to provide background on this item of special consideration might never be provided to lawmakers or the public.

Kieckhefer said he would have a problem if that information was never made public.

Mohlenkamp said the Sandoval administration has not yet decided whether that information would be made public at some point.


Audio clips:

LCB Director Rick Combs says the lack of budget data creates two concerns:

102512Combs1 :13 at that point.”

Combs says the LCB fiscal staff cannot provide information to lawmakers about the special budget requests because it does not have the information:

102512Combs2 :16 asks for it.”

Nevada Appeal reporter Geoff Dornan says the budget information should be made public:

102512Dornan :33 capital press corps.”

State Budget Director Jeff Mohlenkamp says  a decision has not been made on whether to provide the information to legislative staff:

102512Mohlenkamp :21 hasn’t been made.”




Nevada Lawmaker Elected Vice President Of National Legislative Organization

By Nevada News Bureau Staff | 12:56 pm August 20th, 2012

CARSON CITY – Nevada Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, has been elected vice president of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a bipartisan organization that serves the nation’s 7,382 state lawmakers and legislative staff. She took office at NCSL’s Legislative Summit in Chicago on Aug. 9.

Nevada Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks.

Smith will serve one year as vice president, ascend to president-elect the following year, and then become president at the Legislative Summit in 2014. NCSL leadership alternates between parties every year. Smith is the first Nevada legislator to serve as an officer on NCSL’s Executive Committee.

“As legislators, we are tuned in to the needs of our constituents and sensitive to the issues facing states and our nation,” Smith said. “Representing the interests of all states, NCSL takes a bipartisan approach to problem solving and provides a forum for constructive dialogue. I look forward to working with NCSL to develop innovative solutions for our future.”

Smith has served Nevada’s 30th Assembly District since 2000, currently as the speaker pro tempore and chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee. Smith has been actively involved in NCSL for several years, including service on NCSL’s 60-member Executive Committee and as vice chair of NCSL’s Budgets and Revenue Committee. She has also served on NCSL’s Labor and Economic Development Committee.

NCSL is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories.

State Job Creation Efforts Move Forward With Funding Of New Economic Development Office

By Sean Whaley | 6:00 pm December 15th, 2011

CARSON CITY – Efforts by Gov. Brian Sandoval and state lawmakers to encourage new business creation, relocation and expansion in Nevada took a major step forward today when the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee approved nearly $3.5 million to fund a new economic development office.

The funding will enable Steve Hill, executive director of the Governor’s Office on Economic Development, to develop a state economic development plan and hire the staff needed to move forward on private sector job creation efforts.

Steve Hill, executive director of the Governor’s Office on Economic Development. / Nevada News Bureau file photo.

The state plan, relying in part on research performed by the Brookings Institution and SRI International, is expected to be released in early February. The report identified seven economic sectors, some already in existence such as gaming and tourism, and some emerging, such as clean energy, where Nevada should focus its efforts.

Lawmakers peppered Hill with questions ranging from the measures that will be used to determine the success of his agency’s efforts at job creation to the proposed salaries of the eight positions that will be filled with a portion of the funding.

Positions approved for his office include three industry specialists at a maximum salary of $110,000 each, an industry analyst with a maximum salary of $90,000, a communications manager with a maximum salary of $80,000, and a technology commercialization director with a maximum salary of $110,000. There are also two support positions with maximum salaries of $40,000.

The new approach to economic development is the result of Assembly Bill 449, a measure sponsored by Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, and supported by Gov. Brian Sandoval and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers. The bill also established a $10 million Catalyst Fund to help firms relocated or expand in Nevada. The money will be used to provide grants to local governments for economic development projects.

“I am in the process of finishing my 10th week on the job,” Hill told lawmakers. “And I think I can provide very solid reasons for the request that we’re making today. But we’re also learning as we’re going along. We understand that resources are tight, not only throughout Nevada but through the country, and we want to spend this money in the most effective and efficient way possible.”

In response to lawmaker questions, Hill said the state plan will include ways to measure the success of the new effort.

“There will be a detailed description of how we will measure progress in economic development and in the development of our economy in the state,” he said.

Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, chairwoman of the IFC, asked Hill if the funding request is premature since the state plan has not yet been published.

“So I think the question is, without the state plan, where is the confidence level in moving forward with all of these positions and this work without the state plan being done, kind of relying solely on the Brookings report?” she asked.

Hill said the budget request will be in alignment with the state plan.

“And finally I think we all sense, the governor and the Legislature, everybody involved in economic development throughout the state, and the citizens of Nevada, an urgency to get started on this,” he said.

Nevada’s unemployment rate is the highest in the nation.


Audio clips:

Steve Hill, executive director of the Governor’s Office on Economic Development says he wants to spend the money as efficiently as possible:

121511Hill1 :27 efficient way possible.”

Hill says the state plan will provide clear ways to measure progress:

121511Hill2 :11 in the state.”

Hill says there is an urgency to get started on the agency’s efforts:

121511Hill3 :16 started on this.”

Assemblywoman Debbie Smith questions the timing of the funding request without a state plan in place:

121511Smith :23 the Brookings report.”


State Employee Contracting Controversy Addressed With Administrative Changes

By Sean Whaley | 3:37 pm October 13th, 2011

CARSON CITY – Ten months after a legislative audit first raised serious questions about current and former state employees working as contractors for state agencies, the Board of Examiners earlier this week approved administrative changes to prevent future abuses.

The changes approved Tuesday bring closure to the issue of “double dipping”, but not before it spawned legislation and a serious examination of the state employee contracting process.

The audit, released in December 2010, identified numerous potential concerns, including a case of one worker seeking payment for 25 hours of work in one 24-hour day and another where a current state employee earned $62,590 as a contractor in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 while earning a state salary as well.

The audit identified 250 current and former employees providing services to the state. These employees were paid a total of $11.6 million during fiscal years 2008 and 2009, the years covered by the review.

The Board of Examiners is composed of Gov. Brian Sandoval, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Secretary of State Ross Miller.

In addition to the administrative changes, Masto’s office was asked by the Legislative Commission’s Audit Subcommittee to review the information for potential criminal violations.

Jennifer Lopez, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said today the requested review was completed on June 10 but no action was taken against any current or former employees referenced in the audit.

“The case was declined due to insufficient evidence primarily related to the fact, as pointed out in the legislative audit, that no positive controls were in effect to document or record the time state contractors were actually engaged in their state duties,” she said.

The new rules added to the State Administrative Manual implement the changes mandated by Assembly Bill 240, sponsored by Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks.

The new rules prohibit a current state employee from being hired under contract by a state agency unless approved by the Board of Examiners. The same approval is required of a former state employee who has not been out of state employment for at least two years.

Such contracts can only be approved if certain circumstances are found to exist, including situations where a short-term or unusual economic circumstance exists for an agency requiring such employment.

Smith said she is pleased with the voted by the board.

“I think we’ll see a lot better accountability and reporting on the use of consultants because of this,” she said. “I’m glad. It may be the type of thing that we need to keep sort of tweaking each session until we have it where we need it to be, but so far, so good.”

“I think we demonstrated it was the right thing to do,” Smith said.

State Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, who serves as chairwoman of the Audit Subcommittee, said she was pleased that the Sandoval administration took the audit recommendations seriously. They are overdue, she said.

“There were a few instances that either were very sloppy record keeping or might have been more suitable for prosecution, so I hope somebody is following up on those,” Leslie said.

Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. / Nevada News Bureau file photo.

“If citizens are going to have confidence in government, they need to be assured that everyone is playing by the same rules,” she said. “The audit raised a lot of red flags about whether there were state employees who were getting sweetheart contracts.”

The administrative changes approved Tuesday will go a long way to correcting any such abuses, Leslie said.

The administrative changes come as yet another state employee contracting controversy involving a new member of Sandoval’s cabinet was recently reported in the Las Vegas Sun. The newspaper reported Sept. 29 that Frank Woodbeck, the newly appointed director of the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, held down two state jobs last fiscal year, earning almost as much as the governor.

Woodbeck told the newspaper he worked 60- to 70-hour weeks to fulfill the demands of the two jobs.


Audio clips:

Assemblywoman Debbie Smith says the law may need tweaking, but she is pleased with the changes:

101311Smith :10 far, so good.”

State Sen. Sheila Leslie says she is pleased the Sandoval administration took the audit recommendations seriously:

101311Leslie1 :20 the same rules.”

Leslie says the audit raised red flags about whether there were state employees getting sweetheart contracts:

101311Leslie2 :26 the Audit Subcommittee.”

Leslie says there were a few instances that may have risen to the level of prosecution:

101311Leslie3 :11 up on those.”

Lawmakers, State Agencies Argue Over Budget Compliance

By Anne Knowles | 7:04 pm August 31st, 2011

Nevada lawmakers today approved money to cover the costs of the upcoming special election, received an update on the progress of the state’s health care insurance exchange and complained repeatedly that state agencies were thumbing their noses at the legislative process.

Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, saw passage of her bill regulating the use of leg hold traps./Nevada News Bureau file photo

The Interim Finance Committee approved more than 100 requests for funds from nearly every state agency, but reprimanded a handful who legislators said were not adhering to budgets passed during the last legislative session.

“This is some of the most blatant disregard of legislative intent that I’ve ever seen,” said Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. “I hope this doesn’t continue this interim. I know these are tough times, but we must follow the law.”

Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, the committee chair, also voiced concern several times that issues before the committee should have been resolved during the budgeting process.

When about $33,000 was requested to hire a consultant to help the Nevada Department of Transportation track the state’s inventory of vacant lands in compliance with Assembly Bill 404, Smith asked Paul Saucedo, NDOT chief right-of-way agent, why NDOT had not submitted a fiscal note delineating the need for that money with the bill.

Smith then almost tabled a request from the Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs (DTCA) because it was found that the department is now using a contract worker to do the work of a job eliminated when the budgets were approved by the legislature.

“This is a budget discussion and should have taken place then,” said Smith.

In the end, the DTCA request for $84,616 in federal National Endowment for the Arts money was approved because the agency would miss a deadline to request the federal grant money if the request was pushed to the committee’s next meeting.

“Let’s move it ahead so as not to lose the federal money,” said Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka. “In the meantime, staff can work with them on this contract employee. We may pay $8,000 for a few months of the employee, but that’s better than losing $84,000.”

The committee was also concerned about a request to transfer about $4.5 million from the budget for the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) to the University of Nevada School of Medicine budget. The university’s goal was to keep the school of medicine budget cuts to a minimum in order to expand the school’s class sizes from 62 medical students to 100 and expand its nursing class from 98 students to 196, said Mark Johnson, UNR president.

Johnson said higher education had made certain programs a higher priority and was trying to maintain them while eliminating some and making others self supporting.

“We wanted a more fair and equitable approach,” said Sen. Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas referring to the legislative intent of higher education cuts. “I feel we are going backward by protecting one program at the expense of others.”

Secretary of State Ross Miller / Photo: Nevada News Bureau file photo.

The IFC also approved $539,137 to reimburse counties for costs incurred for the special election in the 2nd congressional district. Secretary of State Ross Miller said counties requested the money since none had budgeted for the special election. He said the money would cover fixed costs and would not be reduced by lower than anticipated turnout.

“This is the minimum amount needed to run it without jeopardizing the integrity of the election,” Miller told the committee.

Miller’s office requested the money from the state’s contingency fund, adding that $6 million the state has in reserve from the federal Help America Vote Act is not intended for special elections.

Lawmakers asked if the some of the money could come from an approximate $340,000 surplus in the Secretary’s office budget. Miller said his office is projecting a deficit, not a surplus and agreed to work with the Legislative Counsel Bureau staff to resolve the discrepancy in the budget projections of his office and the LCB.

The committee also received an update on the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange Nevada is building to meet requirements mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act enacted by Congress.

The Department of Health and Human Services has received $1 million from the federal government for planning the exchange. HHS spent $320,000 in fiscal year 2011 and is rolling over the remainder into the next fiscal year. The department requested about $2.6 million of a $4 million establishment grant from the federal government to create a new agency and to fund four new positions – an executive director, operational officer, grants manager and executive assistant.

During the 2013 legislative session, the state will need to decide how to fund the exchange once federal support for it ends in 2015, said Michael Willden, HHS director.

Willden also said he was meeting with Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office later in the day about possible appointments to the board that will oversee the exchange.  The board will consist of five members appointed by the governor, one member appointed by the state Senate majority leader, and one member chosen by the Assembly speaker.

The IFC also approved a subcommittee’s recommendations yesterday to cut or delay several building and maintenance projects due to budget constraints.


Lawmakers Respond to Poor Marks on Teachers’ Union Report Card

By Anne Knowles | 5:45 am August 30th, 2011

School just started and every Republican state lawmaker has already received a failing grade from Nevada’s teachers’ union.

The Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) has released its 2011 legislative session report card and the 16 Assembly and 11 Senate Republicans all earned an F, according to the statewide association.

“Taking away educators’ rights is not education reform, it’s union-busting,” said the report. “You cannot have proper reform unless the proper funding is in accompaniment. In this regard, the 2011 Legislature came up woefully short.”

But the report didn’t spare either political party.

“NSEA believes this unfortunate outcome lies at the feet of the leadership in both parties, along with Governor Sandoval,” the report says.

Only one Democrat, Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, received a failing mark, while the rest of the members of the Senate Democratic caucus got A or B grades. But more than half the Assembly Democrats fared little better than their Republican colleagues, receiving eight C and seven D grades in total.

Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, for example, the speaker pro tempore, who is known for her interest in education issues, received a D.

Smith was chairwoman of Assembly Ways and Means, where two major education bills, Assembly Bill 225 and AB 579 originated. AB 225 changed teacher probationary rules and supersedes collective bargaining, while AB 579 funded K-12 education. Smith was also a primary sponsor on two other key bills: AB 222, which created a leadership council to evaluate teacher performance, and AB 229, a broad reform bill.

“I’m disappointed, of course,” said Smith in reaction to her grade. “My whole adult life I’ve worked as an advocate for K-12. I understand the teachers’ union has a job to do, to represent their members on jobs and benefits.  But I’m comfortable with the packages we put forth.”

Republicans lawmakers were less concerned with the report.

“I’m not really as bothered by the failing grade for all the Republicans as I am by the failing grades in our schools,” said Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden.

Settelmeyer said the Republicans were right to work to reform collective bargaining and get rid of the so-called “last in, first out” way of laying-off teachers that protected seniority regardless of performance.

“I think the report shows how out of touch with reality the association is with both the economic situation and the desires of both parents and students,” said Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno.

Kieckhefer said NSEA’s stand on legislation showed it cared more about protecting its adult members than students.

The NSEA disagrees.

“Kids right now are going to school with fewer services and more kids in the classroom,” said Craig Stevens, director of government relations at NSEA. “If they were truly putting kids first, they wouldn’t have done what they did.”

The NSEA says the legislature gutted the budget, cutting $300 million from the previous budget and forcing a 9 percent pay cut on school employees.

In addition, says Stevens, the legislature did nothing to address the state’s budget deficit.

“To truly fix the funding problem we must fix the deficit. They’re going to walk into the next session with a billion dollar hole,” said Stevens. “At least the Democrats came out with a plan to try to fund the budget responsibly. The Republicans made no effort and sat there saying ‘no, no, no.’”

Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick (D-North Las Vegas) said she thought lawmakers did the best they could on education measures in light of the challenges of balancing the state budget.

“In my mind, we are sent up to Carson City to make hard choices,” said Kirkpatrick. “And it could have been so much worse. If the taxes that were set to sunset had not been extended, I don’t know that I would have supported deeper cuts — but they were, so we found a way. And I think the reforms were fair.”

The Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), a conservative think tank based in Las Vegas, characterized the report as misleading, especially on funding issues.

Victor Joecks, communications director for NPRI, said the education budget was cut in a 2010 special session by several hundred million dollars so the budget passed in 2011 actually increased funding slightly.

“It’s a false narrative that flies in the face of reform,” said Joecks of the report.

Joecks said per pupil spending will increase from $5,192 last year to $5,263 this fall and $5,374 in 2012-2013.

He also said that the nine percent cut in teacher pay cited in the report includes contributions teachers will now be making to their Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) accounts. Previously, teachers did not contribute to their retirement accounts.


Higher Education Budget Could Be Cut Further Under Legislative Proposal

By Andrew Doughman | 3:40 pm May 18th, 2011

CARSON CITY – The budget situation for Nevada’s universities and colleges may have worsened today as legislators voted to both cut and restore funding for higher education.

Democratic legislators first voted to restore $100 million to the higher education budget, but Democrats also continued to oppose a shift of Washoe and Clark County property tax money from county governments to the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

That property tax shift represents $120 million that the universities were counting on in the governor’s recommended general fund budget.

Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said legislators fully intend to replace that money with general fund dollars.

But Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, was not so sure.

“That decision has not been finalized,” he said.

Horsford said backfilling that $120 million hole is “one of the options” the Legislature may consider.

If the Legislature does nothing, Nevada’s higher education world may be worse off than it was under Gov. Brian Sandoval’s recommended general fund budget.

“If they don’t replace the property tax money they took out, we’re in very bad shape,” said Jim Richardson, a lobbyist for the Nevada Faculty Alliance.

Richardson said he had thought the Legislature would either apply the property tax shift to all 17 counties or use general fund dollars instead.

Legislature Votes To Reduce Tuition Increase By 13 Percent

Students, however, might feel a little better after legislators on two money committees voted today to support a 13 percent tuition increase spread over the next two years rather than a 26 percent increase, as was proposed earlier.

That would mean the universities would have to find more money because many colleges and universities assumed a 26 percent increase.

“That money has to be cut from somewhere and it would appear that means program cuts and layoffs,” said professor Gregory Brown of the UNLV Faculty Alliance.

The 13 percent tuition increase would bring Nevada’s colleges and universities about $42.4 million during the next two years.

The problem is, higher education administrators were counting on the $120 million worth of property tax diversions in addition to revenues collected through tuition.

The votes, however, all hinge on the Legislature passing new taxes or extending current ones, which are scheduled to sunset June 30. If that does not happen, legislators would have to re-examine these actions.

“We closed the budget, but the funding has not been identified so you can’t get too excited yet,” Smith said. “All you can count on is what we did today, and that’s contingent on us finding the revenue …It’s a budget in motion.”

Sandoval has recommended a two-year, higher-education budget that was $254 million less than the amount of money the Legislature approved during the 2010 special session.

That would be reduced to a $112 million cut if the Board of Regents approves the tuition increases and the Legislature finds $100 million to give to colleges and universities. The Legislature would also have to find $120 million to replace the funding that would have gone to higher education through the local property tax diversion.

Before today, legislators had anticipated following Klaich’s four-point plan, which would have called for $80 million in new revenue and a 26 percent tuition increase.

Students had testified before a legislative committee about keeping tuition low before legislators voted to recommend a 13 percent increase to the Board of Regents, which makes the final call on student fees.

Republicans largely objected to the $100 million in new revenue.

“I don’t know where we’re going to get the money to pay for this,” said Assemblyman Randy Kirner, R-Reno. “I just think we don’t have the money. At this point in the game, this is kind of where I have to stand.”

At this point in the legislative game, legislators are debating taxes.  Sandoval included spending $6.1 billion in his 2011-2013 general fund budget. Democrats want to spend about $7 billion, with $626 million coming from extending taxes set to expire June 30 and the rest from new taxes on business and services like haircuts, attorneys and brothels.

“Bottom line is: there are taxes being paid that if continued would cover this [$100 million],” said Horsford.

Legislative committees also earlier supported a 4.8 percent salary cut to university employees, adding between $7.5 and $10 million in extra spending because the governor recommended a 5 percent cut.

“The reality is, the work is not done because we still need to get folks to pay for it,” Horsford said.

Governor Sandoval Calls For Patience, Optimism In Televised Speech

By Andrew Doughman | 6:50 pm May 3rd, 2011

CARSON CITY — Gov. Brian Sandoval tonight highlighted an improved economic output as reason to stay the course with his proposed general fund budget.

During a televised address from the governor’s mansion,the governor highlighted a lower unemployment rate and an aggregate $440 million reduction in budget cuts that comes from revised revenue projections and federal government changes.

He used his speech as a platform for patience and optimism, refuting claims from Democrats that Nevada needs more revenue.

“We can’t tax our way out. We can’t cut our way out. But we can, and will, grow our way out,” Sandoval said.

As Nevada’s economic recovery continues, he called on the Legislature to establish “priority triggers” to make sure any new revenue goes to Nevada’s K-12 or higher-education system.

“It’s pretty simple: we will agree now that as revenues increase we will direct that money straight to education,” Sandoval said. “Just as the most recent economic projections came in higher than many expected, there will be continued growth, and we should therefore trigger new revenue directly into the classroom.”

He also challenged claims from Democrats that his budget still eviscerates the states social services and education system, even after the revised economic projections.

“Some will say this is not enough. Yet they offer no plan for how to find additional money without harming the fragile economic recovery we now know Nevada is experiencing,” Sandoval said.

Legislative Democrats, however, today said the governor’s budget is still unacceptable.

“I could not support the governor’s proposed budget because it absolutely destroys our kids’ education,” said Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks.

Democrats today voted to close the K-12 budget with $700 million more in spending than the governor recommends. They have not yet, however, described a funding plan to find that money.

““I did not get into public service to rob the children of Nevada of the opportunity to succeed,” said Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas. “Today, we closed the (public education budget) at an acceptable level. Our young students deserve no less.”

Democrats also declined to respond to the governor with a televised rebuttal.

“Tomorrow is a new day and we hope we can all come together and solve this budget,” said Democratic spokesperson Charles Blumenthal.

Republicans, however, appeared on television with Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston following the governor’s address.

“We can do without a tax increase because we are basically going to grow the economy,” said Sen. Joe Hardy.

Democrats could be close to presenting a tax plan.
They have paraded representatives from some of the state’s most influential businesses through legislative hearings during which groups like the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and the Nevada Resort Association have hinted about conditional support for taxes.
Republicans, however, dismissed these efforts.
“Frankly, they’re not doing a good job of it,” said Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno.

In his speech, Sandoval also highlighted education reforms he touted on the campaign trail and spoke of during his State of the State address. He also announced that a major new business will be coming to Northern Nevada, creating 650 jobs.


$50 Million Budget Amendment Mitigates Cuts To Autism, Mental Health, Rural Counties

By Andrew Doughman | 4:29 pm April 26th, 2011

CARSON CITY – The governor has found $50 million that could erase some of the most controversial cuts in his $5.8 billion proposed budget.

The new revenue projections could mitigate an array of budget cuts to autism, mental health, emergency medical services and rural counties. Those services would have been eliminated or transferred to cash-strapped counties that may not have been able to fund them.

The money going to rural counties drew criticism from Senate Majortiy Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, who called the governor’s recent trip to the Elko area a “blatant attempt to shore up a handful of votes from legislators whose districts will be crippled by this budget.”

“The governor is trying to cut deals to get votes,” Horsford said in a statement released this evening.

The budget amendment fulfills some of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s promises made to rural legislators. The amendment restores an additional $3.6 million to keep open Wells Conservation Camp in Elko.

The governor’s staff refuted claims that the budget amendment had to do with rural counties.

Sandoval’s senior adviser, Dale Erquiaga, said they made the decisions through “a combination of listening to the [budget] hearings and listening to legislators, both urban and rural.”

Added to a Mar. 28 amendment of $25.8 million, that leaves the budget about $86 million larger than when the governor submitted it. Improved economic conditions also mean at least an additional $72 million available as economists change their revenue projections for the state.

Today’s amendment amounted to about $60.7 total, but $10 million was split between correcting earlier estimates and establishing reserve, unappropriated account.

“The governor’s been listening and we realized there were some significant cuts to some of the camps and to mental health services and autism,” said Heidi Gansert, the governor’s chief of staff. “So when this money was made available, we went back through and did a careful evaluation of where we should add back.”

Mike Willden, director of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, said he worked with the governor’s budget staff and his own staff to decide what programs deserved funding.

Democratic legislators suggested the possibility of changing where the money goes in the governor’s budget amendment.

“Now it’s in the hands of the Legislature to move things around,” said Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks. “…I’m not a real fan of making promises in this budget. We have an obligation to the whole state of Nevada.”

Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, echoed his colleague’s comments about the Legislature’s role in deciding how and where the state spends its money.

He said, however, that while the new money is good news, the Legislature still has to fill what he claims is a $1.2 billion shortfall in the education budget.

Legislators are still waiting until next Monday, May 2, when an official group of economists will revise projections for the amount of revenue the state will collect during the next two fiscal years. A nascent economic recovery could mean the Legislature will have more money with which to craft a budget.

Today’s amendment comes after the state found savings from revised federal projections for Medicaid matching funds, reduced costs due to rooting out fraudulent billing and a reduced number of cases.

The good news has a bitter downside, though, since the federal projections are based on how poor a state is. This past month, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis released a report showing Nevada’s per capita growth in income was last in the nation during 2010.

That figure means the federal government will give Nevada more aid than the governor had projected when his staff crafted the budget earlier this year.

Some of the largest “add-backs” to the budget are below:

  • Nursing homes should receive back $5 per Medicaid resident per day, meaning a $15 per day reduction rather than a $20 per day reduction. A legal analysis provided one month ago suggested such a cut could violate federal law.
  • The state will provide $3.3 million to restore 75 percent of funding to a welfare program that assists parents with disabilities.
  • $9.2 million could go back to a variety of northern and southern Nevada mental health services.
  • About $5.3 million could be returned to services providing for rural child welfare.
  • $3.4 million would revert to an account for substance abuse prevention and treatment.


AUDIO CLIP: Gov. Brian Sandoval’s chief of staff, Heidi Gansert, says $50 million is going back to cuts to autism and mental health services, which were decided through a careful process:

042611 Gansert :20

Legislators “Offended” and “Insulted” As They Make Symbolic Party-Line Vote Over Education Budget

By Andrew Doughman | 7:00 am April 20th, 2011

CARSON CITY – It was not until 30 minutes before midnight that a six-hour debate in the Assembly ended with a promise to talk more later.

After listening to presentations outlining more than $1 billion in “major reductions” to the K-12 budget, legislators debated their willingness to compromise or negotiate about Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed general fund budget.

“My caucus will be voting gov rec,” said Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, using an abbreviation for the governor’s recommended budget. “So you’re not going to get the wiggle room you’re looking for.”

In the end, all 16 Assembly Republicans voted in a symbolic motion to support a motion last night to pass Gov. Brian Sandoval’s recommended budget. All 26 Assembly Democrats opposed the motion.

The Senate will debate the same budget in the same process today.

Republicans repeatedly said they want to see specific tax proposals as well as a reassurance that reforms they want will pass out of the Assembly as a trade for tax increases.

“Until we have the discussions about the reforms and the revenue package, we will continue to have a discussion about gov rec,” Goicoechea said.

Democrats stressed the need to debate specifics of the governor’s proposed education budget. Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, said the Assembly needed to find common ground for an acceptable level of cuts before they could discuss additional revenues.

“We rarely change a lot … 10, 15, 20 percent of the budget,” he said.

He called the six-hour marathon hearing in the Assembly chambers a success.

“We got the temperature of where people are at,” he said. “It felt to me that we saw a few people who said we can look at a few things.”

Sprinkled throughout the hearing in Assembly chambers were instances of legislators calling each other “disingenuous” and saying they were “offended” and “insulted” with each other.

The verbal sniping came only hours after the Senate inducted former Sen. Bill Raggio into the Senate’s Hall of Fame. Raggio, a legislator who retired earlier this year, was a constant critic of the partisan hardening and lack of respect characteristic of 21st century political debate.

Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D- North Las Vegas, said Nevada’s Assembly was starting to look like D.C.

“If we want to have D.C. politics, here it is,” she said.

Both Democrats and Republicans did, however, say that the new process of having budget discussions involving all 42 Assembly members appealed to them more than having a few key legislators meet and make decisions in private.

But that does not make anybody more likely to agree.

“It looks like we’re going to be here for a very long haul,” said Assemblyman William Horne, D-Las Vegas.

Assemblyman Mark Sherwood, R-Las Vegas, called the whole hearing a “farce,” to which Kirkpatrick, retorted: “if you don’t respect the institution, don’t come back.”

As Wednesday morning drew close, Goicoechea said there’s “no doubt” everybody wants to find a solution.

“This is the beginning, this isn’t the end,” Smith said. “This was the first tough discussion we had … We can’t call each other disingenuous because we disagree. It’s not a farce. It’s not a train wreck.”

But by 11:30 p.m., the only unanimous motion was for the Assembly to retire for the night.


In Late Night Hearing, Assembly Caught Up In Education Funding Numbers Game

By Andrew Doughman | 10:37 pm April 19th, 2011

CARSON CITY – The Assembly was awash with numbers tonight.

As part of the Democratic strategy to close the budget, the Assembly as a whole discussed for four and a half hours the education budget so that all legislators could learn about the cuts.

Legislative staff presented to the Assembly more than $1 billion proposed “major reductions” to school districts. These numbers come from a variety of sources:

  • $600 million from freezing teachers’ pay increases, reducing salaries by 5 percent and making teachers contribute more to their retirement plans.
  • $238 million from the governor’s direct reductions to state support for public schools.
  • $221 million of room tax money continues to shift from supporting schools to the state general fund, as it does in the current budget.

The governor has also proposed to use $301 million in districts’ bond debt reserves for day-to-day expenses. School district representatives argue that this equates to an additional cut.

For legislators who do not sit on fiscal committees, the hearing in the Assembly chambers allowed them to ask questions about the education budget and education policy.

What ensured was a semantics game.

Gov. Brian Sandoval’s budget director, Andrew Clinger, said that a $141 million pay freeze does not equate to a reduction and the $221 million room tax is already diverted to the state budget this year.

Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, contended the pay freeze was a reduction.

Clinger said shifting $301 million from debt reserves to day-to-day expenses was not a cut.

Smith said it was.

The confusion, however, did not end there.

Assemblywoman Marilyn Dondero-Loop, D-Las Vegas, asked how much money the state would cut per student. That ever elusive “per pupil spending” number was no easier to find this evening.

“It really depends on who you ask,” Clinger said. “Depending on what your source is, you’re going to get a different answer.”

Depending how one cooks the numbers, those estimates can vary by thousands of dollars. But boiled down, the proposed budget would allot $315 less per student than it currently does.

Smith asked Washoe County Superintendent Heath Morrison whether he thought sweeping districts’ bond reserves should be called a “cut.”

“The semantics of ‘is it a cut?’ Here’s what I know: It hurts the Washoe County School District,” he said.

Republicans, however, contended that school districts could make the cuts hurt less through changes to state government.

Assemblymen Pat Hickey, R-Reno, and Mark Sherwood, R-Las Vegas, suggested that school districts suspend prevailing wage – a requirement to pay a certain wage for public works projects – in an attempt to help districts save money.

Assemblyman Mark Hammond, R-Las Vegas, who is a teacher at a Las Vegas school, said he would like to see principals have more control over funds that come to their schools.

Assemblyman Crescent Hardy, R-Mesquite, said the Legislature should change collective bargaining rules so districts can drive a harder bargain for contracts with teachers and administrators.

Morrison contended this would not help. He said teachers and administrators have agreed to cuts in the past.

“I did not see collective bargaining as a problem,” he said. “I did not see anything but cooperation and support.”

Smith also said that reform is not the issue.

“We do need reform and we are working on reform,” she said. “But we also need to adequately fund our education system.”

Through the semantics squabbles and policy debates, a partisan bent seemed to triumph.

Democrats said there was too little in the governor’s $5.8 billion budget to help Nevada out of the recession.

“The elephant in the room is that we have a revenue problem rather than a spending problem,” said Assemblyman Joseph Hogan, D-Las Vegas.

Republicans said Sandoval’s budget is just right.

“The governor is trying to restore the economy,” said Assemblyman Pete Livermore, R-Carson City. “If you’re going to tax people out of their businesses and out of their homes, how can you restore the economy?”







Assemblyman Asks Lawmakers To Put “Cards On The Table” In Forum Today

By Andrew Doughman | 12:47 pm April 18th, 2011

CARSON CITY — Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Sparks, is asking other legislators to “lay your cards on the table.”

As the budget debate in Carson City roils to no discernible conclusion, Hickey is bringing 21 lawmakers, business leadersa and academics to the Legislature to talk taxes and government reform.

“This forum will help get out into the open things that have only been talked about behind closed doors,” Hickey said. “As moderator, I plan to press participants to speak openly about the ‘end game’ here this session.”

That end game has traditionally involved closed door meetings between legislative leadership.

Hickey will moderate the “Recession, Revenues and Nevada’s Recovery” panel today between 3 – 5 p.m. at the Legislature. Viewers online can watch here.

Hickey said he would like to have a serious discussion in public that could evolve into legislative negotiations about the budget.

At the very least, the diversity of voices at the forum should provide an interesting sideshow to the day-in, day-out legislative hearings and committees.

Speaking at the forum span nearly every position on the tax debate. Politically, Hickey’s guests span the spectrum from left to right and include representatives from unions and contractors, free-market libertarians and progressive groups, chambers of commerce and school districts.

Hickey’s forum is not the only change in the legislative end game.

This year, Democratic leaders in the Assembly and Senate have said they will conduct budget hearings in the Assembly and Senate chambers. They say the move will lead to more transparency and include more legislators in budget discussions.

As first reported in the Las Vegas Sun, the change could prompt legislators toward a budget battle over education.

The Legislature has 49 days remaining to conclude its session, pass a budget and finish the drawing of political districts as required every 10 years by the U.S. Census.


Panelists for the “Recession, Revenues and Nevada’s Recovery” include:

Heidi Gansert, the governor’s chief of staff

Speaker Pro Tempore Debbie Smith, D-Sparks

Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas

Tray Abney, Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce

Carole Vilardo – Nevada Taxpayers Association

Dr. Elliott Parker – UNR economist

Clara Andriola – Associated Builders and Contractors

Geoffrey Lawrence – Nevada Policy Research Institute economist

Dr. Heath Morrison – Washoe County School District superintendent

Mary Lau – Retail Association of Nevada

Dr. Tyrus Cobb – former assistant to President Ronald Reagan

Neil Medina – Northern Nevada Contractor

Jim Pfrommer – Education Alliance of Washoe County

Former Sen. Randolph Townsend

Assemblyman Crescent Hardy, R-Mesquite

Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks

Bob Fulkerson, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada

Chuck Muth – Citizen Outreach

Dave Humke – Washoe County Commissioner

Danny Thompson – AFL-CIO union representative

Norm Dianda – Q&D Construction

Sandoval Issues Executive Order To Review Commissions

By Andrew Doughman | 2:42 pm April 12th, 2011

CARSON CITY — Gov. Brian Sandoval has created a task force charged with reviewing executive branch advisory bodies.

The governor has asked three former state senators to identify, evaluate and recommend whether groups created by former governors or state agencies should continue.

“Advisory bodies were last reviewed in 1977, and some advisory bodies have outlived their original mission and no longer provide valuable service for the people of the state of Nevada,” Sandoval said.

Identifying and eliminating some of these groups could save the state money. So far, the governor’s office knows of 43 such bodies.

Bill Raggio, R-Reno, Bernice Mathews, D-Reno, and Ann O’Connell, R-Las Vegas are the three former Senators comprising the task force.

None of the former senators are taking compensation for doing this work. The governor’s staff will assist the three former legislators in their work.

The governor released an executive order creating the “Sunset Task Force” this morning.

The group will meet publicly three times, finish their work by June 30 of this year and submit a report to Sandoval by July 15 of this year, according to the executive order.

The governor’s group mirrors several bills moving through the Legislature that would review boards and commission created by statute.

Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, has worked with the governor’s staff to craft a bill that would identify and review boards that the Legislature created.

Smith said there are 160 to 180 commissions that the Legislature would review should the bill pass into law.

The governor’s executive order and the bill in the Legislature are complementary, but cannot overlap since each branch of government has separate powers.


Partisan Politics Enter Fray As Regents Consider Closing Colleges

By Andrew Doughman | 3:59 pm April 8th, 2011

CARSON CITY – Campus closures, consolidations and mergers are back on the table after the Board of Regents today undid a vote from last month to not consider campus closures, which itself followed a February vote to consider campus closures.

Many of the smaller colleges are in districts represented by Republicans.

Some Republicans consider the Regents’ move a political one. The threat of campus closures could be a bargaining chip Democrats can use later to convince Republicans to vote for tax increases.

“I’ve never seen political hayday as bad as this,” said Assemblyman John Ellison, R-Elko, whose district includes Great Basin College. “I’m not a supporter of blackmail.”

Democrats refuted the claims.

“It’s more of a reality check that they’re going to have to take some pretty drastic measures,” said Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, the chairwoman of the Assembly Ways and Means committee.

But, she said, the Legislature is a political environment. Last month, Assembly Republicans released their own list of bargaining chips that they would trade for taxes.

“We’re fooling ourselves if we think that these decisions won’t be somewhat political,” Smith said.

The Board voted 10 – 3 to again consider closing campuses. They did not, however, vote on any actual campus closures.

Sen. Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, spoke at the meeting in Las Vegas in support of considering campus closures.

Horsford has been a driving force in putting the possibility of closures back on the table. He earlier asked Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Klaich to develop full plans for how the universities and colleges of Nevada will absorb Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed $162.4 million higher-education budget reduction.

“I would urge you to reconsider your earlier action that took campus closures off the table as one of the implications of reduced funding for higher education,” Horsford said. “One of the realities we must face – in light of the new information on the full extent of the governor’s proposed cuts – is that if those cuts are accepted, campuses would have to close.”

The debate in the Legislature mirrored the Regents’ debate about campus closures.

“It’s hogwash, it’s politics, and I’m not in favor of it,” said Jack Schofield, a regent representing Clark County. “I’m not in favor of getting this thing back in where we can emasculate anything that we’ve worked for.”

Regent Michael Wixom, who represents Clark County, said that all they are doing is gathering information about campus closures.

“If I’m going to make an informed decision, I have to follow that process,” he said.

Regent Ron Knecht, a former Republican Assemblyman from Carson City, was the primary supporter of keeping campus closures off the table. He said it would cause undue stress and demoralize students, staff and faculty at institutions considered for closure.

“Apparently some politicians have some political battle to fight with the governor and minority party legislators and that fight is more important that those considerations,” he said.

Assemblyman Pete Livermore, R-Carson City, represents a district that includes Western Nevada College.

“I believe it’s an issue of targeted political pressure,” he said.

The Regents met in March at Western Nevada College and heard a preliminary report from Klaich that closures could save $7 to $15 million.

The Regents voted to not further consider closures at that meeting after hearing hours of public testimony during which students and faculty described how detrimental those considerations could be to morale.

Following today’s vote, the Regents will again consider all options to mitigate cuts. To that end, they also voted unanimously to support raising revenue for higher education.

The campus closures, however, appear to be more politically contentious than the unanimous vote.

“I’m a little concerned that you keep asking a question until you get the answer you want,” said Livermore.

Governor’s First Veto Sparks Public Relations Battle

By Andrew Doughman | 2:04 pm April 4th, 2011

CARSON CITY – Gov. Brian Sandoval’s first veto has sparked a fight over who, exactly, has the support of the people.

Sandoval today vetoed a bill from Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, that would have allowed school districts to use debt reserves for school renovation.

Sandoval is counting on that same pot of money to fund school district operating costs.

Both the Republican governor and the Democratic Assemblywoman are pointing fingers accusing the other of being irresponsible.

Democrats argue that Sandoval’s veto represents a betrayal of the voters will. Smith contends that the governor is raiding a fund that voters approved for school construction.

“Not only are these children being disregarded, so are the voters who voted for these funds to be used for school rehabilitation and construction,” she said in a statement released following Sandoval’s veto.

Sandoval said that the Democrats would open up a hole in his budget that would result in teachers losing their jobs. His advisers said the voters understand times have changed, and the funds are required for operating costs.

“We think the voters understand that the circumstances have changed,” said Dale Erquiaga, the governor’s senior adviser.

Assembly Bill 183 will almost certainly die since Democrats in the Assembly and Senate do not have the two-thirds majority vote required to override Sandoval’s veto.

Assembly and Senate Republicans voted as a bloc against the bill before it arrived at the governor’s office, and nothing indicates that any of them will change their minds now.

So the real battle is over how Nevadans interpret the veto.

Voters in the school districts of both Clark and Washoe counties approved school construction bonds about a decade ago.

The school districts are required by law to save some of that money in a debt reserve account for repayment of the construction bonds.

Another way of viewing it is to say that voters approved buying a bottle of soda for school districts. The law allows districts to drink most of that soda, but they have to keep some of it in the bottle.

Both Sandoval and Smith want the districts to keep less. Sandoval would use the money to pay for operating costs, the basic expenditures that ensure schools open every day.

“In appropriating bond reserve money for construction, proponents of the bill have reduced the amount of funds available for classroom instruction by approximately $301million,” Sandoval said in a statement issued this morning. “Along the way, they have misleadingly cited those who voted for the issuance of school bonds in the past as supporting their cause today, unfairly attributing to them their narrow view.”

Smith said it was “shocking” that the governor would accuse her and her supports of misleading the public.

“When the voters voted for this, they didn’t vote for part of it to for construction and part of it to go to a reserve,” she said. “…If I’m a voter, I’m assuming anything in that fund is going to go for construction.”

Voters approved the bond money, and the Legislature required in law that some of that money be kept in a reserve account.

None of that money was slated for anything except debt service. Smith and Sandoval want to use some of that money for two different purposes.

The better use of that money is the fight Smith and Sandoval are trying to win.

You can read the bill here and decide for yourself.