Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009 | 2 a.m.
The list of projects approved by the 2007 Legislature looks like a collection of receipts from a Christmas past, when mommy and daddy still had jobs and the house wasn’t in foreclosure.
There’s $10 million for the Nevada Cancer Institute; $3 million for the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute; a few hundred thousand for school foundations in Clark County and another couple of hundred thousand for one in Washoe County; half a million each to Las Vegas’ natural history and children’s museums; tens of thousands sprinkled around to schools, community groups, parks and the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko.
In years past, after the Legislature wrangled over funding state services, lawmakers divvied up what was left in so-called “pork bills.” In 2007 that amounted to $30.6 million.
This week a Legislative committee will take a regularly scheduled look at the one-time appropriations made by the 2007 Legislature — before the state entered its fiscal free fall — to see how the groups spent the money.
To some, what they’ll see is evidence that the Legislature spent too freely in good times, even if the projects were worthy.
“When you’re looking at raising taxes but looking at giving taxpayer dollars to non-state programs, that’s problematic,” said Carole Vilardo, president of the Nevada Taxpayers Association. “You’re just going to need that much more tax money.”
In 2007 the Legislature added $36 million to the state’s rainy day fund. The entire fund of nearly $260 million was drained in early 2008 to cover the state’s budget deficit.
That deficit, of course, has continued to grow.
This year there was no money left so the Legislature closed a budget gap with $1 billion in cuts, $1 billion in tax hikes and help from the federal stimulus.
In 2007 Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno and then the majority leader, defended one of the spending bills.
“You will hear this (bill) referred to as the ‘pork bill,’ unless you ask the people involved who would receive the appropriations,” he said, according to minutes of the meeting. “These are considered worthy measures by the committees that have heard them.”
Reached Monday, Raggio again defended the state’s spending record, noting that several outside groups have declared Nevada a lean state government. “You want to call it pork. In my opinion, they were projects and organizations that performed public services, provided some worthwhile construction of that kind.”
Maureen Peckman, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, said the money was used on one-shot expenses such as medical equipment, software and general infrastructure.
She said the center provides services to Nevadans with Alzheimer’s disease and helped the university system’s neuroscience medical program, which, she said, “was on the verge of closing down. We were replacing state-funded infrastructure.”
Jennifer McDonnell, spokeswoman for the Nevada Cancer Institute, said the $10 million the 2007 Legislature appropriated was used to expand facilities and recruit researchers and clinical staff from across the country. It also funded a statewide program to help cancer patients navigate treatment hurdles, including issues such as child care and transportation.
She noted that no money was appropriated to the organization in the 2009 session.
Whether the current downturn will change how future legislatures spend excess money is an open question.
Former state Sen. Bob Beers voted for some of the “pork bills” in 2007, and said such spending is the nature of the institution. When there’s more money than expected, legislators will want to spend it, he said.
“Having lived through it, it’s hard to be judgmental. Is it good or bad? It is,” he said. “It’s like asking ‘Is gravity a good thing?’ Not when you’re falling down. But it does keep us all here on earth.”
Others believe the recession and related state budget deficits will prompt legislators to save more in the good times. (The Legislature passed a bill last session, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, to create a forced savings account.)
Vilardo said the downturn has highlighted the deficiency of the state’s savings. Nevada’s rainy day fund was unable to prevent deep cuts or tax increases.
“It’s a given” that more savings are needed, Vilardo said. “If it proves not to be a given, I will be one very disappointed and upset taxpayer.”