Agencies see positive changes from legislation | NevadaAppeal.com

Agencies see positive changes from legislation

Now that the 2007 Legislature is history, agencies have begun sorting through budgets and a long list of last-minute changes to see exactly what they did and didn’t get.

Public school funding received most of the attention during the session, but probably the most significant changes to the status quo are in the Department of Corrections. Legislation doubled the good-time credits for inmates, making them retroactive in some cases and, for nonviolent offenders, applying those credits to minimum sentences instead of just reducing the maximum. That will get a large number of inmates out of the prison system earlier, helping relieve overcrowding.

Unfortunately, Deputy Director for Operations Fritz Schlottman said, they don’t know how many inmates will get out yet. He said they have asked the attorney general’s office for a ruling on several points because the legislation is more complex than prison officials had hoped.

“Until the lawyers and the computer geeks get together and do some calculations, I don’t know what the effect will be.”

He said, however, the changes will make a big difference in the long run.

“Look at the department now and look at the department in five years and you’re going to see a vastly different Department of Corrections,” Schlottman said. “We may not have many more minimum-custody offenders than now, but we’re going to have more violent and sex offenders.”

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Freeing more inmates on parole will put more pressure on the Division of Parole and Probation. That issue was taken care of by adding 44 additional parole officers to that budget. Kathalie Koche, of the Department of Public Safety, said those officers were “greatly needed” to handle case-load growth.

In addition, she said, the Nevada Highway Patrol was budgeted for 58 more troopers plus the necessary support positions to back them up.

She said one of Public Safety’s biggest issues was funding for the methamphetamine initiative. Lawmakers approved Gov. Jim Gibbons’ request for money to create two anti-meth enforcement teams to work primarily in rural areas.

Paired with that is funding for more education and treatment programs in the Department of Health and Human Services, a total of $17 million.

And lawmakers tightened the controls on paroled sex offenders, mandating GPS tracking of those most likely to re-offend and requiring they live a minimum distance from schools, parks and playgrounds.

New programs in education

Public education was funded with a record $2.67 billion in state money. More than $5,000 was added per student in basic support, special-education and class-size-reduction money. The governor and lawmakers also put millions more into creating empowerment schools, teacher incentives, money for creative and innovative programs and a trigger that will give teachers a bit more of a raise if revenues come in above projections.

Empowerment was the program Gibbons touted. He said giving school principals, teachers and parents more control over what is taught in each school lets the education be tailored to the specific needs and nature of the pupils there. He said it has made for dramatic improvements in achievement in New York and other places that have tried empowerment.

Also for the first time, lawmakers approved a pilot program providing performance pay for the best teachers and tied it to student performance and improvement.

The final budget was more than $60 million above what Gibbons originally budgeted for K-12.

The university system received the first funding for its Health Sciences Center project unifying health education programs throughout the state. About $100 million will be spent constructing the first buildings to house those programs. The total university system budget came in at just over $1.7 billion for the biennium.

Paying for new highways

After education, the subject of highway construction received the most attention during the session. Gibbons rejected the recommendations of a blue ribbon task force which spent a year developing funding sources to cover the projected $3.8 billion in construction needed over the next decade. He said he would not support tax or fee increases.

The compromise developed with lawmakers instead takes money from other existing sources, including the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, local government property taxes and the rental car tax. Altogether it generates enough money to bond for just under $2 billion in construction. At the same time, lawmakers including Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, have urged the Department of Transportation to do cost-benefit analyses on their list of projects. Beers said some of those projects may not be as critically needed as originally believed.

But all agree they will be revisiting transportation needs in the 2009 session.

Changes to elections

Another area where lawmakers made significant changes is election reporting requirements.

Matt Griffin, elections deputy to the secretary of state, said those who circulate initiative and referendum petitions will see “quite a difference.” Groups cannot pay for signatures. They can pay gatherers to do their work, but those signature gatherers must disclose to those signing that they are paid.

Another change is designed to prevent frivolous challenges to voters at the polls by requiring a challenge be supported by some factual basis.

And Griffin said lawmakers closed a “huge loophole” that became obvious when Gov. Jim Gibbons created a legal defense fund without filing with the elections division and reporting contributors. He did so after learning the Justice Department is still investigating his relationship with Reno businessman and defense contractor Warren Trepp.

“There was no requirement,” Griffin said.

Now there is and candidates or office holders will have to report creation of a legal-defense fund within five days. They will also have to file reports on contributions and expenses just as political-action committees, candidates and parties must now do.

Help for child welfare

Mike Willden, director of Health and Human Services, said his department received several badly needed augmentations this session. He said that includes increases in child welfare budgets, including an increase in foster care allowances from $21 a day to $28 by the second year of the budget cycle. He said he received about 100 more staff to handle case-load growth in several programs, including child mental health. He said lawmakers approved a mobile emergency team to handle children with mental-health issues without institutionalizing them.

And, he said, lawmakers approved money for more community placements, as well as funding the Rawson-Neal adult mental-health hospital at 238 beds.

Gibbons is currently reviewing more than 200 bills delivered to his office over the past two days to determine whether there are any problems that would prevent him from signing them.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.

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