Posts Tagged ‘Leslie’

State Senate Candidates Await Fate

By Sean Whaley | 2:46 pm November 5th, 2012

CARSON CITY – The precincts have been walked, the issues debated and the media campaigns run. Now many Nevada voters will get to weigh in on five critical races to determine whether Republicans or Democrats will control the state Senate after the polls close tomorrow.

The 21-member Senate currently has an 11-10 Democratic edge.

Gov. Brian Sandoval and many of his Republican colleagues are working to change this by winning at least four of five of the races in play between the two parties on Election Day tomorrow.

Sandoval, who is expected to push for further education reforms and other changes in the 2013 session, would love to have the leverage a Republican Senate would provide to help win passage of his agenda.

State Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas.

Democrats meanwhile, are working hard to hold on to or even increase their majority in the Senate, where they have been in control since 2008. The 42-member Assembly is expected to remain under Democratic control following the election.

Races to watch

Four of the five Senate seats in play are in Southern Nevada and the fifth is in Reno:

Senate 5, where Republican and former Henderson city councilman Steve Kirk is facing Democrat and former state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse;

Senate 6, where GOP attorney Mark Hutchison faces Democrat businessman Benny Yerushalmi;

Senate 9, where Republican Mari Nakashima St. Martin faces Democrat Justin Jones;

Senate 15 in Reno where Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, is running against former state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno; and,

Senate 18, where Republican Assemblyman Scott Hammond faces Democrat Kelli Ross.

Republicans have a voter registration edge in Senate 15 and 18, while Democrats lead in the other three. There are a large number of nonpartisan voters in all five districts as well, however. How they vote could determine the outcome of the races.

Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, said the top drawer candidates recruited by the Republican Senate caucus are all in a position to win on Tuesday.

State Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas.

“We’re right where we want to be, we’re right where we expected to be,” he said today. “We’re positioned to win all of these races. Whether we do or not the voters will tell us tomorrow.

“All of our races are very close,” Roberson said. “Some of them could certainly go either way. But we feel like we’ve done everything we can to put us in a position to be successful.”

The Republican candidates have been successful in attracting both Democrat and nonpartisan voters, he said.

“So I think you’re going to see a lot of ticket splitting; I think you’re going to see a lot of people who are registered Democrat or registered nonpartisan that come over and vote for our candidates,” Roberson said.

Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, was equally optimistic about the outcome for his Democratic candidates.

“Our take has always been that we were going to maintain and expand our majority,” he said today. “We went out and recruited some great folks and we’ve been out working hard on the ground since February, knocking on doors.”

The candidates and the caucus have raised the funds needed to fund competitive campaigns, and polling shows they are doing well with voters, Denis said.

“The registration numbers were great for us, and the early vote has been great for us,” he said. “So I feel real confident about our folks and how they’re going to do tomorrow.”

Early voting results statewide did favor Democrats, with 307,877 votes cast compared to 259,913 for Republicans. Not all of those votes came in the five Senate districts.

Republicans out raising Democrats in all five races

But the campaign funding race has favored Republicans, according to the Campaign Contribution and Expense forms filed with the Secretary of State’s office updated through Nov. 1.

Even so, all of the candidates have brought in and spent large sums since the beginning of the year, showing just out important both parties see the races.

The Brower-Leslie race alone has generated nearly $1.2 million in contributions combined since January.

In Senate 5, Kirk has raised $336,000 since the beginning of the year, but has spent $392,000. This compares to $243,000 for Woodhouse with nearly $267,000 spent.

In Senate 6, Hutchison has brought in just over $572,000 while spending nearly $520,000. Yerushalmi has raised $292,000 while spending $290,000.

In Senate 9, St. Martin has raised over $388,000 and spent $376,000, while Jones has raised nearly $313,000 and spent $297,000.

In Senate 15, Brower has almost $704,000 and spent $718,000, with Leslie bringing in nearly $483,000 and spending $500,000.

In Senate 18, Hammond has raised $214,000 and spent 208,000, while Ross reported just over $201,000 in contributions and $186,000 in expenses.

Roberson said a Republican majority in the Senate will bring more balance to the Legislature.

“And that’s going to encourage more bipartisanship, more cooperation, more collaboration,” he said. “And I think the end result will be better legislation, better public service for the people of Nevada, coming out of Carson City.”

Denis said he has a track record of working across the aisle with Republicans, and that his leadership will ensure bipartisanship and balance with the GOP.

“I think the balance has to come from leadership, and I’ve show that,” he said. “I know Sen. Roberson has said he wants to do that; he’s going to have to prove that with his actions. And so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he’ll want to do that.”

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Audio clips:

Sen. Michael Roberson says the Senate GOP candidates are positioned to win on Tuesday:

110512Roberson1 :23 to be successful.”

Roberson says Republicans will draw Democratic and nonpartisan voters:

110512Roberson2 :10 for our candidates.”

Roberson says a GOP Senate will encourage bipartisanship:

110512Roberson3 :18 of Carson City.”

Sen. Mo Denis says Democrats are poised to hold on to and even expand their Senate majority:

110512Denis11 :19 knocking on doors.”

Denis says he is confident the Senate Democratic candidates will do well Tuesday:

110512Denis2 :13 to do tomorrow.”

Denis says he has a track record of working with Republicans:

110512Denis3 :24 to do that.”

 

GOP Political Consultant Predicts Obama, Heller Victories

By Sean Whaley | 2:45 pm October 23rd, 2012

CARSON CITY – A long-time Republican political consultant said today he sees Nevada voters supporting President Obama on Nov. 6 while at the same time giving Republican Sen. Dean Heller a victory against Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley in the hard fought U.S. Senate race.

Pete Ernaut, president of government and public affairs for R&R Partners, said he believes there is an Obama-Heller voting bloc in Nevada.

“If Gov. Romney carries Nevada, without a doubt Heller will win the Senate race,” he said during an interview on the Nevada NewsMakers television show. “I don’t think there is a Romney-Berkley voting bloc. But there is clearly an Obama-Heller voting bloc.

Political consultant Pete Ernaut.

“And I actually made the prediction that I think the margins of victory will be similar,” Ernaut said. “That I think Obama will carry the state somewhere, one, three points, something like that. And I think that’s about the margin of victory for Heller.”

A similar situation occurred in Nevada in 2010, when Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid won re-election while GOP governor candidate Brian Sandoval won as well.

Ernaut said the potential of a split result should make Nevadans feel good in some respects because it shows that voters are so independent that such a vote-switching scenario could occur on election day.

“I think that makes me feel good about Nevada; that that type of result is possible,” he said.

Ernaut, a former state lawmaker, also weighed in on the closely watched state Senate 15 race, where Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, faces former state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. Ernaut said Brower, appointed to fill out the term of the late Sen. Bill Raggio, has an advantage.

But Leslie’s former state Assembly seat is located entirely within the Senate district, which could make the race close, he said.

“It’s going to be a closer race that it probably should have been, given the registration and given the dynamics of that district,” Ernaut said. “I think though that Brower still has a slight advantage.”

Ernaut said he has also reconsidered Washoe County’s critical role in the statewide election contests because of the huge Democratic voter registration edge that has emerged over Republicans in Clark County.

Democrats have 390,227 active registered voters in Clark County, compared to 262,806 Republicans, for a 45.8 percent to 30.9 percent split. Another 151,490 voters, or 17.8 percent, are nonpartisans.

“But I think that this is going to be a race that is going to be very, very affected by the turnout of Democrats in Clark County,” he said. “And that, I think, will determine the relevancy of Washoe in this statewide race.”

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Audio clips:

GOP political consultant Pete Ernaut predicts an Obama and Heller victory in Nevada on election day:

102312Ernaut11 :26 victory for Heller.”

Ernaut says Greg Brower has a slight advantage in the state Senate 15 race:

102312Ernaut2 :11 a slight advantage.”

Ernaut says the strong Democratic voter edge in Clark County has potentially affected Washoe County’s influence in the statewide races:

102312Ernaut3 :16 this statewide race.”

 

 

 

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.

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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.”

Humane Society Says New Laws Mean Nevada Is Now Nicer to Animals

By Sean Whaley | 2:05 pm June 15th, 2011

CARSON CITY – The Humane Society of the United States says Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Legislature enacted several important measures to strengthen Nevada’s protections for animals in the just-ended 2011 session.

“We commend Gov. Sandoval and Nevada lawmakers for passing this raft of legislation to protect animals from cruelty and abuse,” said Holly Haley, Nevada state director for the organization. “The anti-cruelty laws of a state are a reflection of our basic values and attitudes toward animals, and this collection of bills is a measurable step forward for the state of Nevada.”

Not all the bills aimed at animal issues were successful in the session.

Senate Bill 364, which proposed to ban horse tripping, a practice of roping a horse’s legs used in some non-sanctioned rodeos, failed to win approval in the Senate Natural Resources Committee. Supporters of the bill, including the Humane Society, said the practice is cruel and does occur in some non-advertised rodeos in Nevada.

Opponents said the proposal was an attempt to open the door to banning other types of rodeo events, and ultimately, rodeos themselves. Testimony in opposition showed that the Professional Cowboys Association has long banned horse tripping as a rodeo event and sanctioned rodeos, like the Reno rodeo, have not had a horse-tripping event in 50 years.

But other measures saw success.

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

Senate Bill 223, sponsored by Sen. Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, and Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, known as “Cooney’s Law” after a dog brutally killed with a box cutter, was the highest profile animal welfare measure considered during the session. The new law makes willful or malicious cruelty to pet animals a felony on the first offense. Under previous law, a felony charge could be issued only after a third act of cruelty.

“I’m so proud of the efforts by Nevada animal advocates to get the job done,” said Gina Greisen, president of Nevada Voters for Animals, who helped author the legislation. “I want abusers in Nevada to know their behavior will not be tolerated if they choose to harm a helpless animal.”

Senate Bill 226, sponsored by Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, Parks, and Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce, D-Las Vegas, requires the wildlife commission to regulate leg hold traps in congested areas.

Senate Bill 299, sponsored by Sen. Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, requires commercial dog breeders to be licensed and to have regular county inspections, bans the stacking of cages and the use of wire floors in puppy mills, and prohibits the breeding of dogs younger than 18 months of age. The bill applies only to commercial breeders selling dogs as pets, and exempts hobby breeders.

Senate Bill 102, proposed by the Senate Natural Resources Committee, imposes civil penalties for illegally killing or possessing a trophy big game mammal, or for illegally killing or possessing certain wildlife species.

 

Budget Deal Announced Today Includes Extension Of Taxes, Major Reforms

By Sean Whaley | 5:03 pm June 1st, 2011

CARSON CITY – Gov. Brian Sandoval and legislative leaders from both parties announced a budget agreement today that will see tax extensions and restorations of funding to public and higher education in exchange for significant policy reforms in education and collective bargaining.

The agreement came on the 115th day of the session, and virtually guarantees that lawmakers will adjourn the 2011 session by Monday as the constitution requires.

“Nevadans deserve leadership, stability and consensus, and I believe this budget and reform package provide all three,” Sandoval said at a press briefing attended by numerous lawmakers, lobbyists and other interested parties.

Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, called the agreement fiscally responsible and a true compromise that “protects the most essential funding for our schools, our community colleges and universities, and services for our most vulnerable.”

Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, head of the Assembly GOP caucus, said the deal is the best that could be achieved among the two houses and parties.

“None of us got everything we wanted,” he said. “But the bottom line is we hung together.”

Faced with a recent Nevada Supreme Court decision that threw his budget into turmoil, Sandoval reluctantly agreed to extend higher business taxes on the state’s largest employers for two more years to bring in nearly $300 million. The budget deal also includes a reduction in tax exemptions for the mining industry that will bring in another $24 million to the state general fund.

In all, the two-year state budget that begins July 1 totals $6.24 billion. This does not include another $265 million in other revenue that will go directly to the state’s public schools system bringing total spending to about $6.5 billion.

Sandoval decided to agree to extend sun-setting taxes because of the court ruling issued last week over the decision by the Legislature in 2010 to sweep a$62 million local government water fund. The court said it was impermissible. While opinions on the effect of the ruling differed, ultimately $481 million in anticipated revenue was eliminated from Sandoval’s proposed budget. The ruling forced lawmakers and Sandoval into intense budget negotiations.

Until Sandoval opted to relent on the tax issue, Republicans had held firm with him opposing new revenues to increase funding to public education, higher education and health and human services programs.

In exchange for extending the sun-setting taxes, Sandoval and Republican lawmakers won a number of reforms, including the elimination of teacher tenure and ending the seniority system used in the public schools for layoffs.

“These reforms do not hurt good teachers,” said Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas. “If you are a good teacher, you have a job.”

The reforms also include the complete elimination of the modified business tax for 70 percent of the state’s smallest employers. This group currently pays a 0.5 percent rate based on payroll.

Other reforms include the elimination of health care benefits upon retirement for new state hires. The state currently subsidizes health insurance for retirees. The change effective Jan. 1, 2012 will save an estimated $275 million over the next 30 years.

There are also reforms to the state’s collective bargaining law, including a provision allowing agreements to be reopened in cases of fiscal emergency and eliminating bargaining for supervisory public employees. There will also be a study on how to deal with the $10 billion unfunded liability of the Public Employees’ Retirement System.

The governor will also get to appoint the superintendent of public instruction.

One area that remains an issue is construction defect reform.

Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Reno, said Assembly Bill 401, proposed by Oceguera, is not real reform. The construction industry is expected to oppose the measure, he said.

“It does absolutely nothing,” Hickey said.

Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said the budget bills implementing the spending plan should be introduced tomorrow. A final joint money committee hearing set for later today will put the few final minor finishing touches on the budget, she said.

But even with the increased funding, Leslie said the 2011-13 spending plan is not one she is proud of, or believes adequately funds important social and education programs.

“We’re eliminating programs like a senior outreach program,” she said. “We have the highest suicide rate for seniors in the country, and we eliminated the one outreach program for senior mental health that we have.”

It does eliminate the unacceptable securitization of the insurance premium tax proposed by Sandoval as a way to generate $190 million in additional funds for the budget, Leslie said. It also eliminates the use of the school bond reserve funds.

One bit of bad news for Nevada’s economic future was mentioned in passing in the budget compromise. Nevada’s forecast for revenue from unclaimed property was revised downward by nearly $34 million. The reason is the relocation of a division of Citibank now located in Southern Nevada.

The state’s unclaimed property fund has benefited from the Citibank presence because money belonging to the company’s customers from around the world ends up here when the owners cannot be identified. The company turned over $36 million in unclaimed property this year. With the relocation, this revenue will no longer flow to Nevada.

Reaction to the budget and reform deal varied.

Assemblyman Crescent Hardy, R-Mesquite, said: “I think neither one of us ended up real happy with the situation. I think we’re both pleased we have come to a consensus. They didn’t get their $1.2 billion tax package; we’re really happy about that.

“We had five reforms we wanted. We didn’t get all of them,” he said.

Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, said: “The Republican Assembly caucus had certain goals and priorities in mind and we stuck to them, but unfortunately through no fault of the governor he was handed a devastating blow by the Supreme Court’s ruling and he had to pick up the pieces.

“I had personally hoped for a little more depth in construction defect and collective bargaining reforms,” he said.

Nevada News Bureau Editor Elizabeth Crum contributed to this report

Audio clips:

Gov. Brian Sandoval says the budget deal is the result of leadership and consensus:

060111Sandoval :12 provide all three.”

Assembly Speaker John Oceguera says budget deal is bipartisan and fiscally responsible:

060111Oceguera1 :18 our most vulnerable.”

Oceguera says work is still needed on reforming the state’s revenue structure:

060111Oceguera2 :12 state forward, thank-you.”

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford says the reforms to teacher tenure won’t harm good teachers:

060111Horsford1 :13 a great job.”

Horsford says Nevada policy makers came together while facing the biggest fiscal challenge of any state:

060111Horsford2 :13 to the plate.”

Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea says not everyone got all they wanted in the deal:

060111Goicoechea :15 resolve this issue.”

Sen. Sheila Leslie says the budget is not one she is proud of because of the necessary cuts to important programs:

060111Leslie :12 that we have.”

‘Campus Carry’ Bill Wins Approval In Senate, Heads To Assembly

By Sean Whaley | 2:40 pm May 28th, 2011

CARSON CITY – A bill allowing Nevadans to carry concealed weapons on college campuses passed the Senate today and now heads to the Assembly for consideration as the legislative session draws to a close.

Senate Bill 231, sponsored by Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, passed 15-6.

Current law prohibits anyone from carrying a concealed weapon on the property of the higher education system unless an individual has written permission from the president of the campus.

In testimony earlier this session, Lee said the bill would allow properly licensed concealed carry weapon (CCW) permit holders to carry concealed weapons on the Nevada System of Higher Education campuses.

The bill was amended to prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons at large campus events such as football games.

Lee said there are over 40,000 people nationally supporting this movement through the grassroots organization known as Students for Concealed Carry on Campus.

“Nevada colleges and universities are labeled ‘gun-free zones,’ ” he said in his committee testimony. “I argue these zones are ‘defenseless-victim zones.’ Gun-free zones are often referred to as ‘criminal empowerment zones’ because they take away the ability for citizens to protect themselves.”

Also testifying for the bill earlier this session was Amanda Collins, who recounted an emotional story of her brutal assault at University of Nevada, Reno campus. Collins said she was defenseless when serial rapist and convicted murderer James Biela attacked her in a UNR parking garage and that having her weapon would have saved her from the assault.

Collins had a permit to carry a concealed firearm, but had left it at home knowing that it was illegal to carry her weapon onto campus.

Officials representing police departments throughout Nevada have opposed the bill, saying it would make campuses less safe if guns were to be allowed.

In a brief debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, argued against the bill, saying allowing students to carry guns will not make Nevada’s college campuses safer.

Leslie said criminologists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, have analyzed the pros and cons of the bill and found that the arguments in favor do not hold up.

The assumption that armed students would prevent a Virginia Tech type of massacre is not accurate, she said.

“The typical mass murderer, however, in school shootings is often so mentally impaired that he is unable to make rational decisions,” Leslie said. “Many are already prepared to die for their acts so the supposed deterrence of armed students is of no use.”

There is no need for the bill, but there is much danger in it, she said.

In response, Lee said only trained and qualified individuals would be able to carry a gun under the law. Predators know that students are not able to protect themselves from attack, he said.

“There is nothing there that can allow these people who get out late at night after work to take these classes, security,” Lee said.

Audio clips:

Sen. Sheila Leslie says allowing guns on campuses won’t make students safer:

052811Leslie :19 of no use.”

Sen. John Lee says without the ability to carry a weapon, students are vulnerable to predators:

052811Lee :12 these classes, security.”

 

 

Democrats Admit New Taxes Dead For Session, Plan Meeting To Cut Their Proposed Spending Plan

By Sean Whaley | 1:52 pm May 23rd, 2011

CARSON CITY –Democrats in the Nevada Legislature are conceding they cannot raise new taxes this session to restore spending reductions in public education and other programs.

As a result, lawmakers have scheduled a joint Senate-Assembly budget committee Tuesday to “reconsider” their previous actions on adding hundreds of millions in funding to public education, higher education and health and human services programs.

Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, a member of the Finance Committee, said the purpose of the meeting is to make more cuts in the Democrat-approved budgets that have ended up about $968 million over the $6.1 billion spending plan submitted by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

“Yes, more cuts, more cuts in line with his budget,” Leslie said when asked the purpose of the meeting.

News of the budget meeting to make the cuts was first reported by the Nevada News Bureau.

Democrats in the Legislature have proposed a $1.2 billion tax plan to fund their spending restorations, but so far Republican lawmakers have not been willing to go along with the call to extend a package of sun-setting taxes, impose a tax on some services and establish a new business margin tax.

Sandoval has flatly rejected any proposal for new taxes to balance the budget. He has already vetoed a Democrat-approved public education funding plan passed earlier this month.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, who also serves as chairman of Senate Finance, was not as blunt about the purpose of the joint meeting: “We’re just going to open up the debate about where we are based on the budget and the revenue and see what type of consensus we can reach.”

But Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, said Republicans have not wavered in their opposition to new taxes, and that Democrats are expected to make further spending cuts at the meeting tomorrow.

“I understand they are going to propose additional cuts, but I don’t know what they are going to be,” said Kieckhefer, a member of the Finance Committee. “I assume that it will either be to Economic Forum levels or to levels of Economic Forum plus sunset (taxes) extension, considering they are well over that. So they would have to pare it back to get to that level. We’ll see.”

There is no agreement with Republicans to extend the taxes approved by the 2009 Legislature that will expire June 30. If the taxes were extended, they would bring in about $626 million in additional revenue over the two years of the budget that will start July 1.

Horsford would not say tax increases sought by Democrats are officially dead for the session.

“We continue to meet with individual members to talk about ways to responsibly fund the budget and address concerns from the other side and I hope we will be able to reach full consensus by the June 6 deadline,” he said.

Horsford said Friday is a “big” deadline for getting the budget approved in time for the constitutionally-mandated adjournment.

“We don’t have to take action tomorrow,” he said.

Audio clips:

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford says the meeting is to have a debate to see if a consensus can be reached:

052311Horsford1 :09 we can reach.”

Horsford says talks with individual Republicans continue on the possibility of new revenues:

052311Horsford2 :13 June 6 deadline.”

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer says he expects Democrats to cut their party-line approved budget at the meeting tomorrow:

052311Kieckhefer1 :08 to be, so.”

Kieckhefer says he does not know if the cuts will match Economic Forum revenue projections or the projections plus the sun-setting taxes:

052311Kieckhefer2 :18 level, we’ll see.”

 

Democrats Oppose Cost Shift of Mental Health Courts To Counties, Open $6 Million Hole In Sandoval Budget

By Sean Whaley | 1:13 pm May 17th, 2011

CARSON CITY – A proposal by Gov. Brian Sandoval to transfer the state share of operating the mental health courts to the counties was rejected by Democrat lawmakers today, creating another $6 million hole in the upcoming two-year budget that starts July 1.

The party-line vote by members of the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees came after repeated testimony from advocates for the courts since the session began that they would close without continued state support because of fiscal problems facing the counties.

It was yet another in a series of party-line votes on the budget, with Republicans standing firm with Sandoval in opposition to increased spending.

Sandoval has proposed eliminating the $3 million a year in general fund state support for the courts operating in Clark and Washoe counties and Carson City. County officials would have to pick up the costs to continue the programs.

Rene Norris, chairwoman of the state Mental Health Planning Advisory Council, asked lawmakers in a letter to look beyond the general fund savings despite the economic challenges faced by the state.

Estimates provided to lawmakers suggest the cost of imprisoning mentally ill offenders to be two- to five-times the cost of the courts, she said. So the cut of $3 million a year in state general fund support could cost the Department of Corrections $6 million to $15 million, Norris said.

“We realize that, because of these challenges, some cuts to mental health services are inevitable,” she said. “However we strongly believe that the mental health courts must be maintained as a fundamental component to build upon when the economy improves.”

The vote to maintain the state support came from Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, who said the courts are an example of a program working well in Nevada. If the courts close, restarting them in future years when the economy improves might never happen, he said.

Assemblyman David Bobzien says mental health courts likely to close without state support/Photo: Sean Whaley, Nevada News Bureau

“This just seems to be one of those great examples of something that we’ve all figured out how to do and do well,” Bobzien said. “We heard extensive testimony from the judges, both in Clark and Washoe, and we’ve got these amazing stats of just how successful the program is.

“But I think the one thing that I took away from the testimony that is most important is just the complexity of putting those programs together and the recognition that if this money goes, the county and the court representatives told us: ‘no more, we’re done, were closing the courts,’ ” Bobzien said.

He cited the statistics on the success of the program, including information from Clark County showing an 87 percent reduction in arrests while individuals are participating in the program, and a 95 percent reduction in arrests post-program.

“Those are success metrics on a large scale,” Bobzien said.

Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, who works in the Washoe County specialty court system, said the clients being served in the mental health courts have to be served by the state Division of Mental Health and Developmental Services whether they are in the court program or not. Eliminating the court program with its high success rate is ludicrous, she said.

Senior Washoe County District Judge Peter Breen, who testified in support of funding the courts in earlier sessions, called Sandoval’s funding shift a “death sentence” for the mental health courts.

Democrats on the two money panels have repeatedly voted in the past two weeks to spend more money on a variety of programs, from $660 million for public education to $90 million more for Medicaid-related programs. Even more funding may be proposed tomorrow when the budgets for the state’s higher education system are voted on by the panels.

Democrats have floated several tax proposals to generate the revenue to pay for the increased spending, but Sandoval has repeatedly rejected any call for new taxes to balance the budget. On Monday he vetoed the public schools budget passed by Democrats because of the higher recommended spending levels.

The veto provoked a lengthy discussion on the Senate floor Monday evening with lawmakers debating Sandoval’s proposed public education budget.

Audio clips:

Assemblyman David Bobzien says the mental health courts are a program that is working well:

051711Bobzien1 :20 the program is.”

Bobzien says if the courts close due to cuts in state funding, they may never reopen:

051711Bobzien2 :20 closing the courts.”

Specific Tax Proposals Finally On The Agenda In Week Nine Of The Legislature

By Sean Whaley | 5:30 pm April 1st, 2011

CARSON CITY – Tax revenues, or more specifically the lack thereof, have been topic No. 1 during the 2011 legislative session.

Thus far it’s been mostly talk, with GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval saying no to any new taxes or fees and some Democrat lawmakers saying additional revenues are essential to preserve education and critical social services. Republican lawmakers thus far are standing with the governor.

But the tax debate is going to get down to specifics in week nine of the session when two tax measures, one to raise liquor and cigarette taxes, and a separate measure to increase the cigarette tax only, will be heard by two different legislative panels.

The Assembly Taxation Committee on Tuesday will take up Assembly Bill 333, which would raise taxes on hard liquor by 25 percent from $3.60 to $4.50 a gallon. Taxes on beer and wine would increase as well.

The measure, sponsored by Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce, D-Las Vegas, would also increase cigarette taxes from 80 cents a pack to $1.70 a pack, for a 112.5 percent increase.

Together the increases on these “sin” taxes would generate about $250 million to the general fund over two years, according to a fiscal note from the Nevada Department of Taxation.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate Revenue Committee will take up Senate Bill 386 to increase the cigarette tax to $2 a pack, a 150 percent increase.

Cigarette and liquor taxes were last increased in Nevada in 2003.

The American Lung Association of Nevada is seeking the cigarette tax increase in SB386, but Amy Beaulieu, director of Tobacco Control Policy for the organization, will be testifying in support of both measures.

“We see it as a health impact fee,” she said. “Not only will it generate new revenues for the state, but we will see a 16 percent decrease in youth smoking.”

The increase in the price of a pack would also cause an estimated 16,000 adults in Nevada to quit, Beaulieu said.

Nevada ranks 35th now in the state tax imposed on a pack of cigarettes at 80 cents. New York is the highest at $4.35 a pack, while Missouri is lowest at 17 cents, she said.

Over 3,000 postcards in support of an increase in the cigarette tax have been delivered to Sandoval, Beaulieu said.

A number of other tax measures have been introduced this session, including one that would increase the amount of taxes collected from the mining industry, one to tax bottled water and another to impose a tax on some services. This measure, also sought by Pierce, would also extend the June 30 sunset on sales and other tax increases approved by the 2009 Legislature to fund the current budget by two years, to June 30, 2013.

None have yet had hearings.

These other revenue measures do not yet have fiscal notes indicating what kind of revenue would be generated if they were to become law.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said lawmakers on the Assembly and Senate money committees have completed a review of Sandoval’s proposed two-year, $5.8 billion general fund budget. Lawmakers are now considering what cuts in Sandoval’s budget should be restored, and what level of new tax revenue will be needed to fund those “add-backs.”

Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said the amount of new revenue needed to fund the budget will be known in the next few weeks.

In the discussion on taxes earlier this week, Horsford said there must be a review of the state’s revenue code, “in ways that fund education and other vital services.”

Horsford has also expressed concern about some of the one-time revenues Sandoval is proposing to use to balance his budget, suggesting they will create a hole in future budgets, forcing the Legislature to engage in a never-ending discussion of revenues and creating ongoing uncertainty in the business community about the state’s tax policy.

“I’m concerned that if we don’t take this opportunity to reform our revenue code in responsible ways that we’re creating even more uncertainty for the private sector, because now we’re choosing to have a discussion about revenue every two years,” he said.

It takes a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. Democrats do not have enough votes to increase taxes without some Republican lawmaker support.

In response to Horsford’s concerns, the Sandoval administration said lawmakers should focus on finishing work on the upcoming two-year budget in the short time remaining in the session rather than worry about spending in 2014 or 2015.

State Budget Director Andrew Clinger said he expects there will be some additional revenue available to restore some of the cuts in Sandoval’s budget when the Economic Forum meets May 2. The panel of private sector fiscal experts will revise their projections one last time on that date.

Any additional revenue would be used to restore cuts based on the top priorities of Sandoval and lawmakers.

Audio clips:

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford says there has to be a discussion about reforming the state revenue code:

040111Horsford1 :20 other vital services.”

Horsford says reform would bring stability to state tax structure:

040111Horsford2 :17 every two years.”

Sen. Sheila Leslie says lawmakers are close to determining the additional revenue needed to finish work on the state budget:

040111Leslie :12 up the number.”

 

Legal Analysis Says Medicaid Rate Cuts To Nursing Home Industry Would Violate Federal Law

By Sean Whaley | 10:52 am March 23rd, 2011

CARSON CITY – A legal analysis provided to the skilled nursing home industry regarding a proposed Medicaid rate reduction to cover the cost of caring for Nevada’s seniors says the cuts would be a violation of federal law.

The analysis says the proposed reductions of $20 per Medicaid resident per day are being proposed in Gov. Brian Sandoval’s budget, “purely as a means to alleviate the budgetary crisis.”

Because Nevada has not performed the analysis required under federal law before such rates can be reduced, the cuts would be in violation of federal law in the jurisdiction of the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals, which includes Nevada, the analysis says.

“Therefore, the rate reductions, if implemented, will be a violation of federal law and will leave Nevada vulnerable to a series of costly legal challenges, which could well result in imposition of an injunction against the rate reductions, given the current judicial precedents,” the analysis says.

“The unlawful rate changes could also affect federal funding of Nevada’s Medicaid program,” the analysis says. “Therefore, the legislators must find alternate means of balancing the budget that do not include reducing rates to Medicaid providers.”

The memo from the legal firm of Lionel, Sawyer & Collins to Charles Perry of the Nevada Health Care Association, the organization that represents Nevada’s skilled nursing home industry, was provided to the Senate Finance Committee.

The committee took testimony on Senate Bill 54, which would change state law regarding a nursing facility provider tax to allow for the Medicaid rate reductions. The panel did not take action on the bill, which is being sought by the Sandoval administration.

The tax was implemented in 2003 with the support of the industry to improve the quality of care provided to Medicaid recipients living in skilled nursing facilities. It was intended to provide funding over and above the support in the general fund budget. SB54 would eliminate this requirement and save the state general fund about $10 million.

The panel was also told by nursing facility representatives that there are now two homes that are looking at closing if the reduction is approved by the Legislature. Initially the industry said as many as five facilities might close.

Charles Duarte, administrator of the Division of Health Care Financing and Policy, testified in support of the bill. But he acknowledged he has concerns that if the reimbursement rates are reduced, more issues with the quality of care provided to nursing home residents could arise.

Duarte said he is aware of the suggestion by industry representatives that some facilities could close if the reductions take effect, but that the agency would have to wait and see what the effects would be.

Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said if closures do occur, those affected will be vulnerable elderly people and their families.

“It bears watching,” she said.

State Senate Majority Leader Requests Emergency Bill To Audit Tax Department

By Sean Whaley | 11:02 am March 14th, 2011

(Updated at 2:12 p.m. on March 14, 2011 to include new comments from Sandoval Administration)

CARSON CITY – Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford has requested emergency legislation to conduct a performance audit of the revenue collection functions of the Department of Taxation following questions last week about the thoroughness of the agency’s review of mining tax payments.

“We were told by the head of the Tax Department that they haven’t had properly trained individuals in place for two years on the net proceeds – that’s a major problem,” he said. “I am glad that the governor is going to immediately try to address that but the question then becomes what else isn’t being properly audited at a time when we have a $2.5 billion budget hole.”

Sen. Steven Horsford/
Photo: Cathleen Allison/ NevadaPhotoSource.com

Horsford, D-Las Vegas, is working with Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, the chairwoman of the Legislative Commission’s Audit Subcommittee and Chairwoman of the Senate Revenue Committee, on the precise language for the bill.

A number of the members of the Senate Revenue Committee expressed concern at a hearing Thursday when former Tax Department Executive Director Dino DiCianno told the panel that his agency has not had trained auditors to review the net proceeds of minerals tax reports submitted by mining companies, “for a couple of years.”

This at the same time gold prices have reached record levels.

Horsford asked DiCianno if he had informed former Gov. Jim Gibbons about the lack of trained auditors to review mining deductions claimed under the law, which are self reported by the companies.

DiCianno replied he had not, and that maybe he should have informed the governor.

The following day, DiCianno submitted his resignation to Gov. Brian Sandoval effective immediately.

In announcing DiCianno’s departure, Sandoval also named Deputy Director Chris Nielsen to lead the agency until the governor can appoint a successor. Sandoval asked Nielsen to begin preparing a full transition plan, including an immediate strategy to resume auditing mine operators to ensure the proper payment of the net proceeds of minerals tax. Sandoval has also directed the state Internal Audit Division to assist the Department of Taxation as it resumes the net proceeds audits.

Sandoval Senior Adviser Dale Erquiaga today said at a press briefing the governor has instructed the interim tax agency director to determine when the last mining audits were performed, which operators were audited and whether any deficiencies were identified.

The information will then be presented at a special meeting of the Tax Commission set for March 21. Sandoval may also call the Executive Branch Audit Committee together to consider evaluating other revenue sources collected by the Tax Department.

Erquiaga said there is at least one audit of a mining operator that the Tax Department is aware of. The Tax Department is required to conduct random audits so it is not clear if the 100 mining operators in the state could all be reviewed right away, he said.

Sandoval in his proposed budget made only a minor reduction in the agency funding to ensure it could effectively collect tax revenue, Erquiaga said.

“It’s bad management practice in the last administration to allow two years to go by without an audit,” Erquiaga said. “We want an explanation from the staff. We’re going to work with them to be sure going forward that doesn’t happen.”

Horsford said he does not know if the tax deductions claimed by the mining industry over the past few years are legitimate or not. The audit being requested will help answer that question, as well as whether audits of other revenues owed to the state are also being handled appropriately by the agency, he said.

“I was a little concerned about the fact that we’ve had increased revenues from mining, but also increased deductions,” he said. “So the tax payments are down.”

Horsford said the state needs to make sure the reporting is accurate.

“It’s obviously a top priority,” he said.

Leslie said one major focus will clearly be the auditing of the net proceeds of mines.

“This is a direct result of the testimony at the Revenue Committee last week which seemed to shock everyone,” she said. “That at a time when the price of gold is at record highs, we have not been auditing. And I think many of us are concerned about the whole idea of self reporting.”

The huge mining corporations likely have the best tax attorneys available to ensure they take advantage of every “loophole” in claiming exemptions from the mining tax, Leslie said.

“I’m sure they have been looking very closely at how to minimize their tax obligations, and that’s not illegal,” she said. “Right now it seems very one-sided on behalf of the mining companies.”

Leslie said she has questions about whether the mining exemptions have possibly been expanded over the years through the regulatory process that the Legislature may not be fully aware of.

The state has to ensure the exemptions are appropriate and the state is collecting all that is owed, she said.

“We’re outgunned to begin with,” Leslie said. “But the idea that we have nobody and haven’t had anybody looking at that for the last two years is preposterous. We need to be armed with our experts and right now we are unarmed.”

The mining industry has been a major target of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers already in the 2011 session. Some lawmakers have suggested the mining industry can afford to pay more in taxes and lessen the severity of cuts to education and state programs proposed in Sandoval’s $5.8 billion general fund budget.

Leslie said she wants to look at the multiple exemptions the mining industry can take on the minerals tax paid to the state and county governments and whether they are still appropriate, particularly the changes made in 1989.

Audio clips:

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford says the Tax Department has not been properly auditing the net proceeds tax:

031411Horsford1 :11 a major problem.”

Horsford says the question is what else has not been audited:

031411Horsford2 : 15 $2.5 billion budget hole.”

Horsford says mining revenues are up but tax payments are down:

031411Horsford3 :21 payments are down.”

Sen. Sheila Leslie says the bill request is a direct result of the shocking testimony last week:

031411Leslie1 :25 idea of self-reporting.”

Leslie says she is certain that mining companies are taking every tax deduction they can:

031114Leslie2 :13 that’s not illegal.”

Leslie says the state is outgunned in the auditing process:

031411Leslie3 :30 years is preposterous.”

Sandoval Senior Adviser Dale Erquiaga says it was bad management practice by the Gibbons Administration not to audit mining companies:

031411Erquiaga :11 that doesn’t happen.”

Nevada Medicaid Program Continues To Grow, Adding To State Budget Challenges

By Sean Whaley | 10:15 am December 9th, 2010

CARSON CITY – Despite the need for drastic spending reductions to balance Nevada’s budget, the government program that provides health care to the poor continues to expand, consuming a growing share of the state’s scarce state revenues.

Medicaid, the cost of which is shared by both the federal government and the state, could require about $1.25 billion in state general fund support in the upcoming two-year budget. That’s a spike up from the $835 million approved by the 2009 Legislature for the current spending plan.

The increase is due both to an ever rising caseload and the loss of federal stimulus funds that paid for a greater share of the Medicaid budget in the current biennium.

Unlike many other state-funded programs, the state must provide Medicaid coverage to those who qualify. Higher education funding can be cut and prison populations can be managed with early parole or alternative sentencing. While the state must also fund the public education system, enrollments are expected to be nearly flat because of the current economic situation in Nevada.

Medicaid has expanded significantly in the current economic slowdown, however, as more people lose jobs and become eligible for the government funded health care coverage. As a result, the program is consuming a larger piece of a shrinking budget pie.

The increasing cost of the Medicaid program can be seen in the caseload. The number of Nevadans receiving assistance totaled nearly 276,000 as of October. The caseload is expected to hit 311,416 by the end of the next biennium on June 30, 2013.

“That’s significant growth,” said Charles Duarte, administrator of the Division of Health Care Financing and Policy, which oversees Nevada’s Medicaid program.

In December of 2000, Nevada had a Medicaid caseload of 116,000, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured. In December of 2009 that figure had more than doubled to just over 238,000.

The foundation reported recently that from December 2008 to December 2009, Medicaid enrollment increased by 8.4 percent nationally. In Nevada, that number was 22.4 percent, the biggest increase reported by any state.

Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval, who will take office in January, recently traveled to Washington DC to discuss Nevada’s growing Medicaid costs with U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. Sandoval intends to balance Nevada’s two-year general fund budget without a tax increase, which could mean even greater reductions to the Medicaid budget than are already under consideration by the agency.

Duarte said that despite the increasing caseload, the agency is looking at reducing the cost of the program in the next two-year budget. Options are limited, however, since Medicaid is an entitlement program and people who are eligible must be served. The cuts are even tougher because of reductions already made over the past two plus years, he said.

Two general approaches to cost cutting are reducing or eliminating some services to recipients and reducing payments to the various medical providers who treat Medicaid recipients, Duarte said.

Nevada’s Medicaid program does offer some optional programs which can be cut to the adult population, he said. Under consideration are cuts to personal care services, which involve helping adults with daily activities at home, eye glasses and dentures.

“Final decisions aren’t made on a lot of this,” Duarte said.

There are other optional programs that could potentially be cut, including pharmacy coverage for adults, but such reductions could result in serious adverse consequences, he said. Cutting prescriptions could result in increased hospitalization, Duarte said.

Pharmacy coverage is a big factor in the Medicaid program, costing Nevada $81 million total in fiscal year 2008, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

There are also potential legal challenges to program cuts if they could lead to people ending up in institutional care, Duarte said.

“We fully understand the effects on lives,” he said. “But we’re looking at a cash issue.”

Any budget cuts could also have an effect on the state’s employment situation, since Medicaid pays for many programs such as those that employ thousands of home health care aides, Duarte said. Most of Nevada’s Medicaid program is spent directly on care provided by private sector health care professionals, he said.

“It affects their revenues and the ability of those providers to pay people,” he said. “We’re a fairly big chunk of the health economy.”

Cutting rates paid to health care providers has its own set of issues, Duarte said.

Decisions at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, mostly involving challenges to reductions in California, could make such reductions difficult if they are challenged in court, he said.

“So there is a host of legal restrictions, dealing with the courts, judicial actions, as well as federal regulatory actions, that really restrict our ability to manage the budget in a crisis,” he said.

State Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said there are no realistic options available to policy makers to cut Medicaid.

Nevada has one of the stingiest Medicaid programs in the country, and other states that are cutting Medicaid are making reductions to services that Nevada never offered to begin with, she said.

Cutting personal care services that keep Medicaid recipients in their homes will just shift costs to more expensive nursing home care, Leslie said.

“Any of the optional Medicaid programs that we have, if you eliminate them, there is a corresponding cost in another area that exceeds the cost of providing that optional service,” she said.

And the state has already made some payment reductions to health care providers, Leslie said. Further reductions could reduce access to care for Medicaid recipients as providers drop out, Leslie said.

About the only option is to seek more funding from Congress, unless there is an appetite to drop out of Medicaid entirely as outgoing Gov. Jim Gibbons suggested at one point earlier this year, she said.

Other states have also entertained the idea.

“It’s a very difficult problem,” Leslie said.

State Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, said the reality is there will be painful cuts to education, Medicaid and other programs in the upcoming session because there just isn’t going to be enough revenue to continue to pay for all existing services.

But the problem with cutting state dollars to Medicaid is that the federal match is lost as well, so it costs the state as much as $2 or more in Medicaid funding to save $1 in state general fund support, he said.

The key to reducing Nevada’s funding for Medicaid is to create jobs and get people back to work, Hardy said.

“The most important thing we can do to decrease Medicaid expenses is get people back to work,” he said. “If we get people back to work, if our focus is on jobs in the private sector, where the jobs produce instead of use, anything we do that gets people to work will help us with our Medicaid budget.”

Several states have a program where employers can hire the unemployed and use the individual’s jobless benefits as part of the worker’s salary, Hardy said. It is an incentive for businesses to hire workers.

The last time Nevada’s Medicaid population declined was in the boom years of 2005 and 2006. Nevada now leads the nation in unemployment.

Heading off potential cuts to Medicaid reimbursement rates will be the top goal of the Nevada Health Care Association in the upcoming session of the Legislature, the group’s president said this week.

Charles Perry, president and chief government affairs liaison for the non-profit group, said the association will play a defensive position in the 2011 session in an effort to ensure adequate Medicaid funding to the nearly 50 non-profit and for-profit assisted living and nursing facilities that care for over 6,000 elderly and disabled individuals statewide.

Perry said the association was able in the 2010 special session in February to head off a proposed $10 per day per patient reduction in Medicaid reimbursements after it was shown the state would only save $3.60 because of the sizeable federal matching share of the program.

There has been discussion of a $20 per day per Medicaid patient reduction in the 2011-13 budget, he said.

Such a reduction would lead to some facilities having to close, Perry said.

“And it would also have a very detrimental effect on the issue of access to care,” he said.

According to a recent study published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and authored by University of Kentucky economics professor John Garen, a big part of the increased cost of Medicaid is the conscious decisions by many states to greatly expand who is eligible for the program.

According to research done by Matthew Mitchell, a research fellow with the Mercatus Center’s State and Local Policy Project, since 2001, 24 states have expanded their eligibility. In some of these cases, the expansion more than doubled the number of possible participants for the program.

Duarte said Nevada has not expanded its eligibility in any significant way so this expansion is not a factor driving the state’s Medicaid costs.

On a per recipient basis, Nevada’s costs are about in the middle of all states because the Medicaid population is smaller and there are fewer healthy people in the program, he said. Nevada is also a high health care cost state.

But on a per capita basis, Nevada historically has spent the least of any state on Medicaid, Duarte said.

“We run a fairly modest program from an eligibility standpoint,” he said.

Nevada has likely seen an increase in the percentage of people covered by Medicaid because of the economic downturn, Duarte said. Nevada is probably at about 10 or 11 percent now, but nationally the rate is higher at 14 percent to 15 percent, he said.

Audio clips:

Chuck Duarte, who oversees the Nevada Medicaid program, says caseload growth and the loss of federal funding is driving costs higher:

120810Duarte1 :07 issues for us.”

Duarte says the state is limited in its ability to reduce Medicaid spending in a crisis:

120810Duarte2 :18 in a crisis.”

State Sen. Sheila Leslie says Nevada’s Medicaid program is already stingy.

120810Leslie1 :12 to begin with.”

Leslie says cutting optional services just transfers the cost elsewhere:

120810Leslie2 :12 that optional service.”

State Sen. Joe Hardy says the key to reducing Medicaid spending is to create private sector jobs:

120810Hardy :26 our Medicaid budget.”

Health Care Association President Charles Perry says Medicaid reimbursement reductions could close some facilities:

120810Perry :17 access to care.”

Audit Of Nevada Agency Use Of State Workers As Contractors Finds Abuse, Potential Criminal Activity

By Sean Whaley | 12:00 pm December 8th, 2010

CARSON CITY – An audit of Nevada state agencies using current and former employees as contractors has 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 former state worker is now earning $350 an hour as a contractor versus $65 an hour in his state job.

The audit also found an example of a current state employee earning $62,590 as a contractor in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 while earning a state salary as well.

At least eight examples were identified where state employees working as contractors either did the contract work during regular state work hours or could not provide documentation to show they did the work on their own time.

The audit also shows that the Legislature was kept in the dark about much of the contract work by state employees because the Department of Administration used a narrow definition of the term “consultant.”

State Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, the chairwoman of the Legislative Commission’s Audit Subcommittee, said the audit suggests the potential of criminal actions in some cases. The panel voted to turn the audit over to Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto for review and possible action.

Even if there is no criminal activity, the audit shows abuses of the contracting process, Leslie said.

Andrew Clinger, director of the state Department of Administration, agreed the use of current and former state employees as contractors “is out of hand.” The agency accepted all seven recommendations made in the audit.

The Legislature is expected to further address the issue in the upcoming 2011 session.

The use of current and former state employees as contractors was a major issue in the 2009 legislative session. The Legislature passed Assembly Bill 463 to tighten up the use of consultant contracts for current and former state employees.

But because of the narrow definition of consultant used by the state, AB463 has not resulted in information about such contracts entered into by the state being provided the lawmakers, the audit found. The Department of Administration did not provide any consultant contracts to the IFC for review and approval from July 2009 through July 2010, a period of more than one year, the audit found.

“Therefore, only under rare circumstances would a contractor be deemed a consultant and reported to the (Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee),” the audit found. “In contrast, boards, school districts and the Nevada System of Higher Education (NHSE) used a broad definition of consultant and reported many contracts to the IFC.”

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 state employee who put in for 25 hours of pay in a single day was paid for 10 hours of contract services, a regular 10-hour shift on his timesheet, plus an additional five hours of overtime.

The former employee being paid $350 an hour as a contractor compared to $65 an hour while a state employee is identified as a person with “an extensive background in complex water and natural resource issues.” The individual started work as a contractor at the higher rate of pay immediately after leaving state employment. The contract is still in effect and has been extended through June 30, 2011. As of September this year, the contractor has earned $472,493 from the state.

Among the other audit highlights:

A former state employee had a contract rate of $150 an hour versus $71 an hour as a state employee. The individual retired and came back to the same agency as a consultant regarding water and natural resource issues. The contract started in December 2007 and has been extended through February 2013. As of September 2010, the former employee has been paid $55,125.

A significant number of the current and former state employees doing independent contractor services are doing work similar to their state jobs. A total of 51 of 111 contracts reviewed show pay for similar work, including 18 current and 33 former employees. Many returned to the same agencies where they had worked.

The audit did find appropriate situations for employing a former employee as a consultant.

“Former employees provide a valuable resource to the state because of their knowledge and skills gained through years of state service,” the audit said.

In one example, a firefighter provided training for the Department of Public Safety at a rate of $26 an hour. Total payments were $1,400 over a two-year period.

Nevada State Medical Association To Seek Health Insurance Transparency

By Sean Whaley | 3:29 pm December 7th, 2010

CARSON CITY – The Nevada State Medical Association believes consumers should have access to clear and understandable information about the cost and coverage provided under health care insurance policies before they sign on the dotted line.

Executive Director Larry Matheis  said the association will pursue legislation next year to require companies offering health insurance policies to post such information on the Nevada state website to provide transparency for such critical health care decisions.

“It is essential that people have an understanding of what they’re getting with this package called health insurance,” he said.

There are many anecdotal examples of people purchasing health insurance policies only to find out that illnesses such as cancer were excluded, Matheis said.

“So all of those kinds of issues are what we want to see a much more open demonstration of the information that people need,” he said. “They (insurance companies) can make decisions about what they will and won’t cover, but it has to be then very clearly explained to people at the front end, not the back end. You don’t want to be shocked after you’ve had care to find out that the insurer has decided, not that you didn’t need it, but that they’re not going to pay for it.”

Making health insurance decisions more transparent by providing the information up front to consumers is even more important as the federal health care law begins to take effect, Matheis said.

Transparency efforts are moving forward in Nevada in the areas of reporting key hospital and physician data, he said. But the same cannot be said for the health insurance policies offered by the insurance industry.

“How does the health insurance industry deal with things like coverage,” Matheis said. “What does coverage mean? When do they exclude something. When do they exclude somebody. How much of the premium dollar goes for health care. How much goes for other things. Just a range of issues.

“People don’t need to have the unpleasant surprise when they or their family are going through serious illness and medical care decision making,” he said. “That is not the time to find out what your insurer does and doesn’t cover.”

The association plans to work with lawmakers to require such information to be posted by the state on its official website. Matheis says he hopes to win the support of the state Insurance Commissioner and Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval in the effort, which has no significant fiscal issues associated with it.

State Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said she has not talked with Matheis about his proposal but that it is an idea she would support. Standardizing such information would be of great benefit to consumers, she said.

“Of course we should be educating ourselves but reading an insurance policy is like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” Leslie said. “You can never find the answer to the question you have without a lot of work.”

Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, proposed a similar measure in the 2009 session that would have required health insurance policies to identify certain medical conditions not covered by the policy. It also would have required posting on the state website. Assembly Bill 438 did not make it out of the Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee, however.

Las Vegas attorney Jim Wadhams, a lobbyist who represents Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in the Nevada Legislature, said the industry would not likely have any issue with the idea of providing helpful health insurance information to consumers on the state’s official website.

But he did suggest that if the Legislature wants to move ahead with such an idea, it should include all health insurance providers, including those operated by private companies for their employees and those operated by such organizations as the Culinary Union.

“I don’t think the industry would have a particular problem with it,” he said. “But if we are going to have transparency let’s have it for all.”

Individuals seeking health insurance can already do some comparison shopping on the internet through a couple of different brokerages, ehealth.com and insuremonkey.com, Wadhams said.

“So the concept is not particularly radical,” he said.

 Matheis said the association agrees that all plans should be included. But he said the special need is going to be for those buying individual or small group plans, particularly if the health insurance exchanges are to function under the new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Matheis said that while some opposition could emerge to the idea from the health insurance industry, it will be hard to oppose the idea of providing more information and information people need when they make their critical health care choices.

The idea is not to create new regulation or mandates, but to provide more sunshine on the issue of health care insurance coverage, he said.

“More front end information makes for fewer unpleasant surprises at the back end,” Matheis said. “If we do it right, that is what transparency brings to the health care system.”

Audio clips:

Larry Matheis of the Nevada Medical Association says people need to know what their health insurance plan covers before they need care:

120310Matheis1 :17 does not cover.”

Matheis says health insurance industry needs to make insurance information more transparent:

120310Matheis3 :13 that people need.”

Matheis says the public needs the information before purchasing health insurance:

120310Matheis4 :19 pay for it.”

Matheis says more information at the front end will eliminate unpleasant surprises at the back end:

120310Matheis5 :14 health care system.”

State Sen. Sheila Leslie says transparency in health insurance plans would be helpful to consumers:

120710Leslie1 :24 should participate in.”

Leslie says any way to help consumers understand policy coverages is important:

120710Leslie2 :15 is very important.”

Public Pension Reform Will Be Issue in 2011 Legislative Session

By Sean Whaley | 3:11 pm November 12th, 2010

CARSON CITY – Newly named state Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness is adding his name to the list of Nevada policy makers who believe the state retirement system needs major change to head off a growing unfunded liability.

McGinness, R-Fallon, said he agrees with GOP Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval that the retirement plan now covering 103,000 active public employees across the state needs to switch to a “defined contribution” plan for future hires.

McGinness said the switch would at least keep the long-term unfunded liability of the retirement system from growing larger.

“I pretty much agree with that idea,” he said. “Otherwise we will continue to build on the problem we have now.”

McGinness said his views are his own. The possibility of reforms to the Public Employees Retirement System in the upcoming legislative session have not yet been discussed by the Republican Senate Caucus as a whole, he said.

State Sen.-elect Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said the unfunded liability is clearly an issue that needs to be discussed in the upcoming session, but that it is more of a long-term policy question than one requiring immediate action.

There is no suggestion that the retirement plan be changed for people already in the system, she said.

“We’re not going to take away benefits that have been promised to people,” Leslie said. ‘It’s more of a conversation we need to have as we hire new employees, whenever that’s going to happen. It is a topic that needs to be considered for the long-term fiscal stability of the state.”

Senate Democrats have not yet discussed the issue as a caucus either, she said.

At a meeting of the PERS board on Wednesday, it was announced that the system’s long-term unfunded liability hit $10 billion as of June 30, 2010, up from $9.1 billion as of June 30, 2009. The plan was 70.5 percent fully funded on June 30, 2010, down from 72.5 percent in the previous year. At its high point in 2000 the plan was 85 percent funded.

The PERS board recommended increases in the contribution rates paid by public employers and their employees to maintain adequate funding for the retirement system

While there is interest in considering a major change to PERS, no bill drafts calling for reforms have yet been requested by lawmakers.

The PERS board did authorize an analysis of what a conversion to a defined contribution would mean in terms of cost and required regulatory changes because of the interest in the issue. The report is expected to be discussed by the board next month.

There are court rulings saying that public employees already in the retirement plan have a legal right to the benefit that cannot be taken away, so any changes would have to be applied to future employees.

Some changes were made to the retirement system by the 2009 Legislature, including raising the retirement age to 62 from 60 for an employee with 10 years of service. An employee can still retire at any age with 30 years of service.

It is expected to be a topic of discussion, however, given Sandoval’s views on the need for more fundamental change. The existing “defined benefit” retirement plan provides a guaranteed pension to a retiree based on salary and years of service. A defined contribution plan would provide no such guarantee, and would not create an unfunded long-term liability.

Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce President Matt Crosson said in an interview in August that the organization wants retirement system reforms to be part of a package of changes to be considered by the 2011 Legislature. He did not specify what changes are needed to the retirement system.

“We have to take advantage of the crisis that we are in right now to set the state on the right course into the future,” Crosson said. “And in part that requires reform.”

The SAGE Commission, a panel created by outgoing Gov. Jim Gibbons to look for efficiencies in state government, also recommended changes to the retirement system but did not advocate a change to a defined contribution plan.

Recommendations from the Spending and Government Efficiency panel include setting a minimum retirement age of 60 before benefits can be paid out. Other recommendations include calculating the retirement benefit over five years of pay, not the current three highest pay years, and imposing a moratorium on any benefit enhancements until the plan is fully funded.