Las Vegas Sun

November 22, 2017

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Oceguera: More state cuts in education, elderly care, prisons on the way

Nevada Assembly Speaker-elect brings grim budget projections to the Las Vegas City Council

John Oceguera

John Oceguera

Nevada Assembly Speaker-elect John Oceguera started off with grim news about the state's economy. And then the key legislative leader's news spiraled downward.

"We could make the largest cut ever made in state government and, at the same time, make the largest tax increase and it still would not balance our budget," Oceguera told the Las Vegas City Council Wednesday morning.

Oceguera, a Las Vegas Democrat, gave a 30-minute presentation to the council, which some council members said was the first time such a pre-session address was given to the council.

Mayor Oscar Goodman told Oceguera that council members will meet with city staff and submit any ideas, then consolidate those ideas at an upcoming council meeting and forward them to the Legislature.

Oceguera said when the Legislature reconvenes for 120 days on Feb. 7, lawmakers will begin using fiscal projections that show the state will bring in $5.3 billion over the next two years, which is about $2.7 billion short of what is needed.

The 10 percent cuts Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval wants will make up only $819 million of that shortfall, he said.

"We have to have a balanced budget," Oceguera said. "As you know, there's no simple answer here. If there was a simple answer, I believe would would have already done it."

During his presentation, Oceguera read through facts and figures about cuts that had already been made in the last few years to state programs — cuts made despite Nevada being ranked at or near the bottom on scales measuring quality of life and education.

"We're not sitting on our hands," he said. "We're cutting deeply."

He also outlined was expected under 10 percent cuts that have been proposed by Sandoval.

Educational cuts would include lowering per pupil support, eliminating full-day kindergarten, eliminating the technology and career program and continuing to suspend non-reference tests that compare Nevada to other states.

Health and human services cuts would include eliminating the state's problem gaming program, the senior citizens property tax assistance program and the senior mental health coverage programs, he said.

"We'd have to eliminate generally all of our optional services provided under our Medicaid programs," he said. Those include in-home personal care, adult day care, dentures and some of the vision services.

"It gets pretty ugly at this point," he said.

Also on the chopping block is the state's breast cancer detection program, the Mammovan, which is a mobile mammography van that travels across the state to underserved areas. Also being cut is all the funding for the non-medical room treatment of children, Oceguera said.

Beds at the Nevada Youth Training Center in Elko will also be further reduced, he said. There will also be reductions in support for people with mental illness, he said.

Reductions will also need to be made in state funding for Mental Health Court in both southern and northern Nevada, he said.

"In the Department of Prisons, we would have to close the Nevada State Prison," he said. "We would have to eliminate our differential pay for employees in rural and remote areas."

The caseload of people supervised by parole officers would be increased from 70 to 80 people, he said. Seventy is already three times the national average, he said.

All of the staff support for the Pardon's Board would be eliminated, he said.

Oceguera outlined his own five-point strategy for what lawmakers need to do.

"I think we're going to have to cut," he said. "We will have to cut and we will have to do spending reform. There's no doubt in my mind."

Where? One possibility is reform in the Public Employees Retirement System.

"We've swept every account. We've cut everything we could possibly cut," he said. "I think there needs to be some long-term reforms in our pension programs. And I think we need to work on that."

He also said the state needs to work to bring in more jobs and businesses.

He praised Goodman's vision to create "medical tourism" for Las Vegas by recruiting more facilities such as the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Institute for Brain Health.

"We should remove hurdles to bring folks here," Oceguera said. He said Las Vegas has 12 million square feet of industrial space available.

"I think we should try to fill those spots with data and computer and IT-type folks, high paying jobs. We should do everything we can to bring those folks here," he said.

Oceguera said there's also no reason that the state shouldn't be the green energy capital of the world, with solar power in southern Nevada and geothermal power in northern Nevada.

The state also needs to set out a vision for the future. During the last legislative session, Oceguera said he and state Sen. Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, created a "Vision Stakeholders Group."

"Quite frankly, one of the things that local government does way better than state government is plans for the future," he said.

For example, cities have capital improvement plans for five to 10 years and stay with it. But the state changes its plans every two years, he said.

But after improving the state's business climate and creating a long-term vision, the revenue issue still remains, he said.

"There's an opportunity in leveling out the up and down in our revenue system and broadening our tax base," he said.

Councilman Steve Ross asked Oceguera whether the Legislature might change its schedule to go into session more than once every two years.

Oceguera he's seen over being in the legislature for 10 years that they have trouble making budget forecasts — the state's economic projections have missed the mark for 36 straight months.

He said they wouldn't need to meet every year to change policies.

"But on the fiscal side, I think we should be meeting at least every year for at least 30 or 60 days," he said.

Councilman Ricki Barlow asked what will happen when the state begins closing prisons.

"Can we then anticipate a backlog in the local jails?" he asked.

"That's accurate," Oceguera said. "People will be staying in your facilities longer, waiting for beds to be available in the state system."

Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian said she was concerned about reductions in educational technology and career education programs.

"Are you closing some of those schools or limiting enrollment further?" she asked.

Oceguera said the Clark County School District has some autonomy to make those decisions.

"If we cut the funding for that, it makes it difficult for them to make any decisions, unless they move money from somewhere else," he said.

Tarkanian said "those are some of the finest schools in the city. They are jewels, those and our magnet schools, are the best. And I don't think anybody could think we were ranking at the bottom in any of those schools."

Oceguera said he agreed that they do a lot of good for the community and put people to work.

"But that's where we're at," he said.

During the North Las Vegas City Council meeting Wednesday night, Oceguera gave a similar presentation.

Oceguera said Nevada leads the country in the scope of its budget deficit. The approximately $3 billion deficit the state will have to deal with this legislative session represents 54 percent of the state’s total budget, he said.

Oceguera noted that although some have proposed raising taxes on items such as cigarettes, that influx of money wouldn’t be enough.

“If you look at cigarette tax, that’s about 3 percent of our budget,” he said. “We wouldn’t raise anything close to what would do anything for our general fund budget.”

He also said some have proposed that museums and park funding be cut. The problem with that line of thinking, he said, is that museums and parks make up less than 5 percent of the state’s budget.

“That won’t make a dent,” Oceguera said. “We rank near the bottom of just about every quality-of-life factor, which I think makes it difficult to bring businesses to the state.”

North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck, whose city is dealing with a $35.1 million budget hole that will occur by June 30, 2012, if no changes are made, thanked Oceguera for coming to the council meeting. She said she hoped open communication would be part of the solution to the state’s and city’s budget woes.

When making cuts to fill their budget hole, North Las Vegas officials have had to ask themselves, “What are our priorities of the city and what are the priorities of the state?” Buck said. “I’m sure that that’s where you’ll start also.”

Mayor Pro Tempore William Robinson said he thought North Las Vegas was in even worse financial standing than the state.

“Hopefully you won’t pass any unfunded mandates,” he told Oceguera.

Oceguera said he couldn’t make any promises to the council, but he would have the cities’ and state’s best interests in mind when making decisions.

Sun reporter Erin Dostal contributed to this report.

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