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Gibbons to call special session, lawmakers plan public meetings


Cathleen Allison / Nevada Appeal / File photo

Gov. Jim Gibbons answers questions from reporters on April 30, 2009, in Carson City.

Updated Monday, Jan. 25, 2010 | 4:54 p.m.

State legislators plan to hold a series of public meetings on the state budget shortfall, which is estimated at between $840 million and $900 million.

The first meeting will be Feb. 3 to discuss how lawmakers plan to cut the budget in light of new projections released Friday by the Economic Forum, a panel of five business leaders.

While the final numbers are still being calculated, Dan Burns, Gibbons' spokesman, said the number "is approaching $1 billion." The total two-year general budget budget for Nevada is $6.5 billion, and the state would already be eight months into its first fiscal year before cuts could be made by the Legislature.

In interviews with Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera and Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, all Las Vegas Democrats, a few things are clear: There will be dramatic budget cuts, and there's no appetite to raise taxes during a special session.

Buckley said $900 million in cuts, if instituted on March 1, would equate to a 22 percent across-the-board reduction in state general fund spending.

"It is impossible for me to see how a cut of that magnitude could be done to K-12 without destroying our schools," Buckley said.

Still, she said, "I don't think there's an appetite to raise taxes."

Oceguera said, "My initial reaction, like everyone else's is, it's horrible. It's jaw-dropping. It's almost unimaginable the challenges we're facing with a deficit that big."

Gov. Jim Gibbons will make a special State of the State speech at 6 p.m. Feb. 8 to address the state's budget problems. He has not announced a date for a special session to deal with the budget, though it is likely to be sometime in late February.

Gibbons will hold a meeting with legislators on Tuesday to talk about the budget situation.

The Legislature will hold a series of three or four Interim Finance Committee meetings to review cuts, Horsford said.

The role the governor will play in this process is not clear. While he is the one who can call a special session and sets the agenda, the amount of control the executive can wield over the session has has never been tested.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, said in his memory, the governor and legislative leadership have gotten together and devised a plan prior to a special session.

In one positive sign, Oceguera said he met today with Deputy Chief of Staff Lynn Hettrick in Carson City. "It's a great start," Oceguera said. "We've had struggles communicating between legislative and executive branches in the past. Hopefully this is the beginning of a new level of communication."

Buckley said, "Communication is always a good thing, especially when times are so dire. But I don't hold out much hope he'll work in a collaborative manner. He has rarely done so in four years in office and seems more desperate than ever."

Horsford said that many of the cuts restored to the budget last session, when the Legislature raised $1 billion in taxes over the governor's veto, will have to be looked at again.

Asked if taxes would be on the table, Horsford said: "From my vantage point, no. Not in this prolonged economic recession."

Horsford said he would look to protect the K-12 and higher education systems. He noted, though, that 93 percent of the state's budget is education, health and human services and public safety.

"Whether it's additional furlough days, we cut holiday pay, a percentage cut to all state workers; all are things we'll look at," he said. "I hope we look first at some areas, like parks and conservation and prisons. All the things we protected last session now are on the table for possible reduction."

Oceguera said, "I don't think the votes are there to raise taxes."

Buckley agreed, but added that the state could raise fees on industries that are regulated by the state but don't pay the full cost of that regulation.

She also said that legislators have found $150 million in reserve funds that could be tapped.

Agencies started today presenting 6, 8 and 10 percent budget cut scenarios to Gibbons' executive staff. The governor's office has so far declined to release those budget plans, saying it's part of the deliberative process.

Burns, Gibbons' spokesman, said: "The government is going to look dramatically different than it does today."

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