Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2015

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Warnings of drastic budget cuts fall on public’s deaf ears

With details of cuts proposed by departments kept secret, it’s easy to assume they won’t sting


Nevada’s budget director has put the two year shortfall at $3 billion, and that’s after several rounds of cuts in a state government that’s among the nation’s leanest by almost any measure. More cuts undoubtedly will be part of any budget-balancing package.


Gov. Jim Gibbons has asked department heads to propose 10 percent cuts in their budgets, though experts say that’s unlikely to be enough. The proposals have been submitted — agency heads call them “ugly” — but the public won’t get a look until Oct. 15.

Click to enlarge photo

Reporters question Rory Reid after his debate on education issues with Brian Sandoval Sunday, August 29, 2010.

Click to enlarge photo

Reporters question Brian Sandoval after his debate on education issues with Rory Reid Sunday, August 29, 2010.

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The state budget director asked departments to prepare scenarios describing 10 percent spending cuts. And the state agency heads delivered their reports Sept. 1.

The governor’s office won’t release the documents, but agency heads describe the cuts as “ugly.” Programs for the elderly and disabled will be eliminated. Hundreds of public employees will be laid off. About 3,000 prisoners will be released. School districts will go bankrupt.

But let’s admit: You don’t believe it.

After three years of budget-cutting and belt-tightening and predictions of pending bureaucratic catastrophes, the warnings have almost lost meaning.

Residents have heard the dire predictions before — at least four times during the state’s previous rounds of budget cuts — and the doomsayers were wrong.

Until the cuts are detailed, the public will be skeptical.

According to the state budget director and legislators, these 10 percent cuts will be released Oct. 15. Then, perhaps, the real political debate — in races for the Legislature and Governor’s Mansion — will begin.

Are the proposed cuts acceptable? Are they misguided? Will new taxes be needed? Is there an alternative to balance the budget?

Ask the people, and they consistently say you can find the money by eliminating “fat,” waste and fraud. It’s not just conservatives or anti-government types saying this. Rory Reid, the Democrat running for governor, describes it as too many administrators shuffling papers, “thinking about the same things.”

He proposed a 50 percent reduction in administrative overhead.

Both Reid and Brian Sandoval, the Republican in the race, have vowed to protect classrooms, the elderly and disabled, and public safety. All without raising taxes.

Until the public can see their budgets, who’s to dispute that it can be done? (Reid has released a generic plan to balance the budget; Sandoval has so far refused to say even when he will release a plan.)

Budget experts and conservative and liberal partisans say privately the state can’t balance the budget without additional revenue. The cuts that would be required, they argue, are ones that only the hardest of hard-line libertarians would accept.

But Nevadans have heard that since the cutting began three years ago.

Government at all levels, in all places, is notorious for crying wolf — declaring the sky will fall if it loses a penny. Or doing the really disingenuous thing and threatening to make high-profile cuts to dramatically make its point.

(Conservatives call it the Washington Monument ploy — threaten to cut the most appreciated and visible services first to make the public feel the pain. The name comes from tactics the National Park Service is alleged to have used to protect its budget.)

For the most part, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Carson City. Instead, to balance the budget in prior rounds, the state has borrowed money, raided local governments and reserves built up from fees, and tried to stretch staff and dollars.

Programs have been eliminated. Waiting lists for services such as housing and public assistance have grown.

But agency heads, the governor’s senior staff and legislators have avoided truly gruesome cuts.

Call them victims of their own success. When they predict end-times, the public is now skeptical.

“There will be programs that we’ve operated for years that will be eliminated,” said Mike Willden, director of the Health and Human Services Department. Under a 10 percent cut, there will be staff reductions “in the hundreds.” Offices closed. Services not mandated by the federal government, such as dental or vision care for the poor and elderly, will be eliminated. “It’s ugly,” he said.

Howard Skolnik, head of the Corrections Department, told the budget office that a 10 percent cut would mean 3,000 inmates released. He and the budget office settled on a smaller number to cut, budget Director Andrew Clinger said. He said the percent cut has been lowered and maintains public safety.

Mike Fischer, director of the Cultural Affairs Department, also wouldn’t discuss specifics of his 10 percent recommendations.

“We were devastated prior to 10 percent,” he said. “We’ve cut through the fat a long time ago. We’re emaciated.”

But until he can point to a museum that will close, some might not be buying it.

During February’s special session, for example, when lawmakers turned from platitudes about belt-tightening to the fact that the state would begin eliminating dentures and hearing aids for the elderly and poor, even fiscally conservative Gov. Jim Gibbons compromised on some fee increases.

Here’s the other open secret: A 10 percent cut isn’t nearly enough to balance the state’s budget. A 10 percent cut in agency budgets would save about $660 million over the state’s two-year budget cycle.

The budget hole has been put at $3 billion by Clinger. Consider that some things, such as continuing to suspend longevity pay, step increases and furloughs, will save $480 million. And consider that the economy has yet to turn around. Consider that there have been round after round of cuts over the past three years.

Given all that, some agency directors say 10 percent seems rosy.

When the 10 percent cuts will become public is unsettled.

Under one reading of state law, the date will be Oct. 15, when the executive branch transmits the agencies’ recommendations to legislative staff.

But that hasn’t been the practice of past administrations. Historically, agencies’ recommended budgets have been released in the January before the legislative session begins — in this case, 2011. On the day the governor releases his budget, he gives the State of the State speech, and it goes to the Legislature for discussion.

Those who say that taxes will need to be raised say the public debate should begin now.

“The public and the Legislature absolutely need to know what’s being contemplated,” Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said. “I would love for one of Gov. Gibbons’ last acts as governor to be to foster transparency by releasing the information and engaging the public in a dialogue about impending cuts.”

She said, “You can only starve these institutions so long before they die. Death is imminent.”

But without any specifics to point to, it will just be rhetoric to propelling the state toward November.

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