Las Vegas Sun

July 7, 2015

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Memo From Carson City:

Money games make it tough to trust government

Chancellor Dan Klaich

Chancellor Dan Klaich

Ben Kieckhefer

Ben Kieckhefer

The stone of government is squeezed dry. No gimmick will yield a drop more. No budget sleight of hand can save the day. This time, lawmakers and the public are told, the cuts will hurt — students will be turned away from school, teachers laid off, seniors left to die in the streets.

That, the argument goes, is why the state must raise taxes.

Then on Wednesday, Senate Democrats said they wanted to spare college and university students a double hit on tuition. The higher education system could raise fees 13 percent in the first year, but not in the second, as the system had planned, said Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas.

Why? Chancellor Dan Klaich told the committee the system could find the $22 million that the fee and tuition increases would generate elsewhere in the budget.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, was stunned. “You just found $22 million in one minute?” he asked during the hearing.

“Why are we talking about eliminating programs when you can find $22 million from the table to the chair?” he said in an interview after. “I’m significantly more confused about higher education’s budget if $22 million can be found that quickly.”

Klaich, in an interview after the meeting, said this was not magic money.

“There was a strong statement from the committee that the students have shared enough,” Klaich said. “The message was that as we put the budget together, they don’t want us to look to students for more fee increases.”

He wasn’t sure where the extra money would come from; it could come in other operating cuts or one-time sources, like from taking money set aside for buildings, he said. The higher education system was still working on a full accounting of its reserve funds Friday, at the request of the Las Vegas Sun.

But the issue highlights a problem governments and agencies have: The public has a hard time believing them when they say they’re broke. That’s because for three years they’ve muddled along using creative budget gimmicks and sweeping bank accounts to spare the worst cuts.

That is ammunition for conservatives, who argue tax increases are unnecessary and predictions of the fiscal apocalypse are exaggerated.

Dale Erquiaga, senior adviser to Gov. Brian Sandoval, said the $22 million in higher education money is “all the more reason to stick with the governor’s plan (not to raise taxes) and trust higher education to do the right thing. They clearly have the ability.”

That’s not the only example where allegations were raised of game playing.

The governor has said schools can avoid layoffs if teachers agree to certain concessions equal to a pay cut of 11 percent.

A preliminary budget passed last week by the Clark County School Board figured that under Sandoval’s budget, 1,800 positions would be eliminated. Horsford sent out a news release stating, “Clark County to lay off over 1,800 teachers.”

Well, they aren’t all teachers and that number doesn’t represent actual people who will lose their jobs. Clark County School District lobbyist Joyce Haldeman said the number represents positions — many vacant — of educators, administration and support staff. About 900 are filled, mostly by teachers.

To be sure, the number is tentative and based on the questionable assumption that workers will agree to one furlough day a month and to pay more toward retirement and health care benefits.

No layoffs or 1,800 layoffs? No money or $22 million of magic money?

“We’re pretty far apart (with the governor’s office) in how we interpret where we are,” Haldeman said.

Skeptical lawmakers have heard this before.

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