Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Gov. Brian Sandoval's administration is keeping secret millions of dollars in spending requests submitted by state agencies for the next two years, breaking precedent set by prior administrations and possibly violating state law, legislators suggested.
Indeed, even Sandoval held to the practice two years ago, submitting the so-called “items for special consideration” to lawmakers and the public well before releasing his final recommended budget to the Legislature in January.
This year, however, Sandoval has elected to publicly release only the agency requests that fit within strict caps he issued as part of his budget instructions, and not what agencies said they needed to properly operate.
Some of the budget requests being kept under wraps by Sandoval this time include the cost to expand Medicaid, a politically tempestuous decision that would provide thousands of low-income Nevadans additional health care, but have short and long-term costs for the state.
Other agency requests are to restore programs that have been cut since 2008, such as those that help poor families afford child care, according to interviews this fall with state workers.
Many of the requests are likely as banal as new computers and vehicles for state agencies that have been operating under fiscal constraints since the economy took a nose dive in 2007, forcing agencies to scale back.
Still, lawmakers from both parties said they wanted to see an honest accounting from state agencies on the ground, who run the state’s parks, prisons, and programs for the poor and disabled.
“I think legislators and the public should know what the requests are from agencies, what the real needs are,” said Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee. “It puts our staff, and ultimately legislators, at a severe disadvantage to not have that information.”
Sandoval’s top staff would not be interviewed for this article. Agency heads said they have been instructed not to talk about the “items for special consideration.”
Neither the state budget office nor the governor’s office would release total supplemental requests by agencies. Outside experts, though, have estimated Medicaid expansion alone would cost the state tens of millions of dollars in administrative costs over the next two years.
In a statement, budget director Jeff Mohlenkamp said the governor’s office is following the law.
“Since the budget process is very fast-paced and dynamic in nature, we asked agencies to identify potential enhancements that could be considered by the governor in the event that revenues allowed for additional expenditures to be considered,” he said.
Some agency requests, he said, could never be made public.
“These items are not public unless they become part of the governor's budget," he said.
Sandoval, who is up for re-election in 2014, has built a rosy budget narrative heading into next legislative session, where he has promised not to cut K-12 education and to protect social services for the poor, while not raising taxes above their present levels.
Last week, when the Economic Forum issued revenue projections that Sandoval is required to use for his proposed budget, the forecast seemed to be tailor-made for the spending proposals state agencies have already put forth.
The forum projected $5.8 billion in revenue over the next two years. Add to that the $620 million in tax hikes Sandoval wants to extend and the total revenue almost exactly matches the $6.4 billion in spending that agencies have requested.
But that’s because Sandoval's administration issued budget instructions to department heads earlier this year to keep their budget requests under a certain cap.
Sandoval instructed agencies to keep spending requests basically flat, and to include only mandatory increases above the 2011 budget such as utility costs and caseload growth.
But the 2011 budget, passed by the Legislature and signed by Sandoval, hasn’t been without some degree of pain. Services to newborns to 3-year-olds suffering with autism, Down syndrome and other conditions had to be cut because of state budget constraints. Wait times for veterans to get state help to access federal benefits are at eight weeks, after Sandoval’s budget in 2011 did not include two staff positions in Las Vegas. And schools across the state have had to reduce teaching positions and face rising class sizes, while headlines blare about Nevada’s worst-in-the-nation graduation rate.
Sandoval is also constrained on the tax side. He has promised not to raise taxes above their current levels.
Still, the issue of transparency is bipartisan.
At an October legislative hearing, Democratic lawmakers brought up the fact that the additional agency budget requests were not being released.
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, referred to the possible expansion of Medicaid, the state health insurance for the poor. It’s a provision under the Affordable Care Act which the U.S. Supreme Court said could be optional for states, and a decision Sandoval is still weighing.
“My concern is this: Medicaid expansion has been penciled out, calculated, but if it’s not part of the governor’s budget, (that information) would not be public?” Kieckhefer said. “I have a problem with that.”
Brenda Erdoes, Legislative Counsel for the legislative branch, said the administration had broken with the “historical interpretation of the statute” requiring governors to make public agency requests in October prior to the legislative session.
Mohlenkamp said at the meeting the budget office was complying with the law.
“There could be wish lists — this could go on forever if you say, 'What are things people want that aren’t included in the budget?'” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair to speculate on things that are not in the budget.”
Nevada law says that on Sept. 1, agency budget requests should be transferred to legislative staff. It also says agency budget requests should be made public on Oct. 15.
On Sept. 1, legislative staff agreed to accept an electronic version of the budget from the Sandoval administration, to save on printing costs. At that time, legislative staff had access to the “items for special consideration” in the governor’s executive budget system.
But on Oct. 15, when the agency budgets were supposed to be made public, legislative staff’s access to the special items was shut down.
Smith, the state senator, said: “I think it’s fair to the public, to the taxpayers, that we see what the actual requests are.”