Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012 | 2 a.m.
When Gov. Brian Sandoval’s administration relented to public pressure and released agencies’ full budget requests, the total was stunning - $419 million, a 6.5 percent increase over what agencies had officially requested under Sandoval’s strict limits.
Quickly, the left and right tried to define these requests.
Conservatives said to ignore the list as part of a bygone process that led to bloated budgeting.
The left suggested that this is what agencies really needed to do their job. Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks and chairwoman of Senate Finance, tweeted a story about the excess requests: “$419 million... and they were being conservative.”
So is the $419 million a “wish list,” as Sandoval called it, of items that would be nice to have if the state were flush with money? Or are they legitimate needs of a state government that has been cutting budgets for four years?
That’s the essential question for the public, lawmakers and the administration.
The list is 97 pages. Most are small requests — $58,000 for maintenance that had been put off at the Governor’s Mansion and $161,000 for reinforced doors at the psychiatric hospital in Southern Nevada, for example.
In interviews with agency heads, it’s clear they approached the added spending requests differently. Steve Hill, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said that he viewed the list as a place to put ideas if, as he put it, “the sky opened up and there was much more money than we anticipated.”
Others, such as Department of Education Superintendent James Guthrie, said his list included good programs for the governor to consider funding, but the agency “can limp on for another year or two if we have to.”
And other agency heads admitted they asked for items they regarded as “essential.”
Here’s a look at a handful of the requests:
$5.2 million for children with autism spectrum disorder
The state, like the country, has seen a surge in request for autism services over the past decade. Even during budget cutbacks, the state has tried to keep up with the demand but has struggled.
The state serves 228 children in programs for children with autism. An additional 263 children are on the wait list that lasts an average of 206 days.
Under the current Health and Human Services budget, an additional 60 children could be served.
But to eliminate the rest of the wait list, it would cost $5.2 million more, according to budget documents.
That $5.2 million “is critical,” said advocate Jan Crandy, a member of the Nevada Commission for Autism Spectrum Disorder.
It’s the fiscally responsible choice for the state to make in the long run, she said. If children aren’t treated at a young age, they’re much more likely to require more intensive services — or even be institutionalized — later in life, at a much higher cost to taxpayers.
But it’s also a moral issue, she said.
“It’s very hard to tell a parent that it will take a year for their child to be picked up,” she said. “Morally, if we do not treat these kids, the likelihood is we have condemned them to a life locked in autism.”
$11 million for 199 highway patrol vehicles
Department of Public Safety Director Chris Perry said some of his agency’s requests are items that the department considers a priority but not essential.
For example, he wants $8.5 million to replace Nevada’s criminal history database, the statewide repository of criminals history used by various law enforcement agencies. Now, it’s run on 15-year-old computer software programs.
But Perry called the request for 199 new sedans, SUVs and pickups, at a cost of $11 million, “essential to perform our duties.”
So why not include them in the agency budget?
Perry said vehicle requests had, in the past, been included in the items for special consideration. But he also added: “It did not fit under our budgetary cap.”
Without new vehicles, the state would face increasing maintenance costs for vehicles that have already run through a useful life.
“What would happen is we would run the vehicles longer and there would be a greater chance of breakdown,” he said. “There will be a greater expense to repair vehicles.”
$24 million for all-day kindergarten
Guthrie, who was appointed by Sandoval, said the agency is requesting $24 million over two years to expand full-day kindergarten to more schools.
Currently the state spends about $24.6 million a year on full-day kindergarten for low-income schools. The rest of the schools are half-day.
The Department of Education request would increase funding for full-day kindergarten by $8 million in the first year of the budget and $16 million in the second year.
“The governor supports the idea,” Guthrie said of expanding full-day kindergarten. “The more we can do for small children earlier, the better.”
But, he said, money is the barrier.
He said the items in his agency’s budget are what he deemed crucial to the operation of the department.
The $83 million in total “items for special consideration” are add-ons.
“These are items we’d very much like to have,” he said. “But we can limp on for another year or two if we have to.”
$120 million — or $60 million — for economic development
Steve Hill, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said he thought of the items for special consideration as a true “wish list” for what the state needed to attract jobs here. That included buying space for a biotech industry incubator for $13 million and spending $10 million to foster the unmanned aerial vehicle industry in Nevada.
His agency listed a stunning $120 million over two years. Hill, in an interview, said that many of the spending requests were meant only to be funded once and were mistakenly included in both years, so the request should be closer to $60 million.
Still, even without double counting some items, he acknowledged the budget request was generous.
“It was a wish list," he said. "If the sky opened up and there was much more money than we anticipated, here are some of the budget enhancements.
“We can continue to operate the way we are without anything on the list. There’s nothing on there, that’s ‘Oh my gosh, if we don’t get that, we can’t continue to operate reasonably.’”