Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2017

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Rooting out waste, abuse alone won’t close budget deficit

Fraud! Waste! Abuse! It is often politicians’ and taxpayers’ rote answers to any budget deficit. No matter the amount of additional funding needed to balance a budget, it can found through improving efficiency and rooting out bad spending, the argument goes.

Lawmakers and activists who plan to make that argument as the 2011 Legislature grapples with the state budget got some ammunition Wednesday. A legislative audit found current or former state employees double-dipping to the tune of $11.6 million in state consulting contracts.

Some of the examples were stomach churning:

• A $350-an-hour contract that began the moment a worker retired from state employment.

• A state employee billing for 25 hours of work in a 24-hour period.

• Eight examples of state workers doing consulting work for the state during normal work hours, or unable to document that they did the job on their own time.

Conservatives, needless to say, were salivating.

“So ... Nevada agencies paying $350/hr for contracted services can’t find places to cut? What were those budget numbers again ...?” tweeted Elizabeth Crum, editor of the Nevada News Bureau, an online news source, and a conservative blogger.

One senior state worker bemoaned how these findings would be held up time and again by ideologues as proof the state doesn’t need to raise taxes to fill its budget deficit, estimated by the Sun at about $2.2 billion.

Here’s the reality: There is waste in Nevada state government, as there is in any organization. But it isn’t anywhere near enough to solve the state’s budget crisis.

Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, and the incoming chairwoman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, said she hopes the audits send a positive message to taxpayers: The state is doing its best to spend the money it has wisely.

“This is an example of how we can do the budget better, and regain public trust,” said Smith, who sponsored a bill requiring the audit and other reporting requirements. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Jim Gibbons last session but overridden by lawmakers.

Still, Smith maintained, rooting out the fraud and waste wouldn’t find enough savings to close the budget deficit.

The years of lean budgets have, or at least should have, spurred internal cost savings and soul searching within state agencies.

Take, for example, what has happened to medication funding for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled in recent years. The 2009 Legislature cut funding by $20.6 million, or 30.3 percent, compared with what was approved by the 2007 Legislature. This came about not with any cut in services to these vulnerable individuals, but by diverting state-funded patients to Medicaid and Medicare (paid for by federal dollars), increasing the use of free medications and using better inventory controls — all uncontroversial changes.

The contractor audit brought about by Smith’s bill required the examination of only a portion of state consultants. The Gibbons administration has worked to shield from the Legislature a complete accounting of consultants.

This means the $11.6 million in suspect spending found by the audit released Wednesday might not represent all potential waste. Yet alongside the billions the state needs, it can almost appear irrelevant.

Not so in the tax debate that has begun.

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