Las Vegas Sun

November 18, 2017

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Unsung politician tying up budget cuts

Controller says Gibbons missed step, so agencies get more money, for now

Beyond the Sun

Here’s how life in Carson City has historically gone when the economy tanks: The governor makes budget cuts. The Legislature sits on its hands.

But a little-noticed elected official could force legislators to take up this year’s budget reductions.

State Controller Kim Wallin has refused to recognize two rounds of budget cuts ordered by Gov. Jim Gibbons because he did not get those cuts approved by an interim legislative panel.

That means state agencies are effectively getting checks for more money than the governor has said they may spend, which in turn could cause careless — or rogue — state bureaucrats to spend money Gibbons ordered them to set aside.

“It’s a concern we have,” said Josh Hicks, Gibbons’ general counsel.

When asked whether any state agency has spent money it shouldn’t have, he said, “Not that we know of.”

Wallin, a Democrat, said this is not about politics or even a disagreement with a Republican governor over the cuts. She said she is merely following the law’s requirement that program cuts larger than $50,000 be approved by the Interim Finance Committee, which includes legislators from the state Senate and Assembly.

“I have to make sure laws and regulations are carried out,” said Wallin, a certified public accountant and certified management accountant. “I know what my laws and regulations are.”

Wallin said an opinion from the attorney general’s office backs up her interpretation of the law. Saying that opinion is confidential, Wallin would not share it with the Sun.

She also dismissed concerns about state agencies spending more money than they should.

“We have competent state employees who can add and subtract,” she said.

The law that requires legislative approval of budget cuts was passed after a particularly contentious round of reductions in 1979. It appears, though, that the law has never been enforced.

Hicks pointed out that the administration is following other governors’ precedent.

“No other governor has gone to the Legislature or Interim Finance Committee to enact budget reserves,” Hicks said. “We try to do things the same way as in the past.”

That might be changing, though.

The Interim Finance Committee approved some cuts in March. Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, said it was the first time the Interim Finance Committee had reviewed a governor’s cuts.

“The issue was never raised before,” said Raggio, chairman of the Interim Finance Committee.

With state revenue falling short of projections, Gibbons in January announced a 4.5 percent cut to state agencies and ordered department heads to reduce spending. This month, Gibbons met with legislative leaders — including Raggio and Assembly Majority Leader Barbara Buckley of Las Vegas — and they agreed on a second round of cuts.

“At this point, the issue is moot since there’s general agreement on the cuts,” Raggio said.

Buckley, however, said she believes Gibbons “is required to go to Interim Finance Committee for any of these cuts to be implemented.”

“It’s a better way to govern,” she said. “We don’t have a monarchy here.”

Assemblyman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, said the Interim Finance Committee’s approval is unnecessary because legislative leaders have agreed to the latest cuts.

“I’m pretty sure members trust the decisions that were made,” said Arberry, vice chairman of the Interim Finance Committee. “I don’t think we need to sit down and beat it up again.”

Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, who serves on the Interim Finance Committee, said the Legislature has given up too much of its power over the years.

“At this point, we have a serious constitutional problem,” Coffin said. “We are now an inferior branch of government. Too many of our members have conceded that.”

Two professors at UNLV’s law school agree that the governor is required to get legislative approval for budget cuts. The Nevada Constitution does not allow a governor to veto portions of a bill or a budget. But by issuing specific cuts without legislative approval, the governor is essentially exercising a line-item veto.

“Even if it comes to the same outcome, the process matters,” said Tuan Samahon, an associate professor of law. “It ensures the correct decision-makers are making decisions voters elected them to do.”

He also said it would allow voters to hold their elected leaders accountable.

Sylvia Lazos, a professor of law at UNLV, said there has to be a “de facto rewriting of the constitution.”

“The Legislature has acquiesced,” Lazos said.

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