Sunday, Jan. 4, 2009 | 2 a.m.
In less than two weeks, Gov. Jim Gibbons is going to present his budget, severely pared down to keep his “no new tax” pledge in the face of tough economic realities.
But so far he has left the hours of decision-making in the hands of his senior staff members and at least one outside adviser.
Nearly every day, they meet in person or call in on a speakerphone in Chief of Staff Josh Hicks’ office, said Dan Burns, Gibbons’ spokesman.
Gibbons will occasionally be briefed on policy proposals, and Hicks said the governor will have the final say on major budget decisions.
But so far, Gibbons has not participated in these meetings, which Burns described as “spirited.”
Burns would not say who besides the senior state employees were on the calls. “It’s not germane,” he said.
“The people of Nevada, on Jan. 15, will see the details of the budget,” Burns said. “A lot of people are working a lot of hours on this budget. It is very, very difficult. No one is smiling, no one is laughing. It is not fun.”
Gibbons will present the budget when he gives his State of the State address in Carson City. The governor’s budget is commonly the foundation for the budget the Legislature eventually passes.
But this year, with Democrats in firm control of the Assembly and needing only two Republicans to join them to override a governor’s veto, officials are saying that if the cuts are too deep and the budget too conservatively ideological, they will throw it out and build their own budget.
Gibbons has rarely been in his Carson City office during the past month.
Besides Hicks, Burns and outside advisers, the other participants in these meeting are Deputy Chief of Staff Mendy Elliot, General Counsel Chris Nielsen, Legislative Director Jodi Stephens and Budget Director Andrew Clinger.
State workers, including some department heads, are nervous. They submitted proposals to cut their budgets by 14 percent, 24 percent and 34 percent, but have yet to hear back on what kind of cuts will be included in the governor’s budget.
Some observers think copies of Gibbons’ budget might not be printed by Jan. 15, meaning he could give his speech to a state that hasn’t had a chance to look at his decisions.
Gibbons has offered few clues on what his budget will look like, other than to say it will be smaller and more efficient and to reiterate that he won’t raise taxes.
Veterans of state government, both Republicans and Democrats, and previously tax-resistant interests such as the Greater Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, say they do not see how Gibbons can balance the budget without raising revenue.
Yet Gibbons has instructed his staff to do just that.
The staff needs to find $2.3 billion in cuts from the previous budget approved by the Legislature. The budget approved in 2007 was $6.8 billion.
For hours, Gibbons’ senior staff members throw proposed budget cuts into an Excel spreadsheet. They argue. They take some proposals, deemed too severe, off the list. Some will eventually make it back on.
“We do have a heart. There are kids and single moms who don’t have jobs, who need help,” Burns said. “On the other hand, we cannot help everybody who needs help.”
The decisions they make are closely held secrets, though some hints have trickled out.
The governor has talked about no raises for state employees, Burns said. “We’re looking at pay cuts.”
Burns would not give a percentage they were considering.
He said they are looking at small projects — the state sets aside general fund money to remove bears from neighborhoods — and at big-picture policy ideas.
And they’re close to finalizing the budget, Hicks said.
“I do think we’re going to be a leaner government,” Hicks said, “but we’re still going to provide core services” such as public safety, health care and education.
Massive layoffs are likely to be avoided.
“We’re very aware of the economy and the high unemployment rate, and we want to avoid putting more Nevadans out of work,” Hicks said.
How they will do that, though, remains a closely guarded secret.