The 2007 Nevada Legislature opens for business today, facing the challenge of balancing rapidly growing state needs with a spending cap.
That cap has been in statute since 1979, mandating that general fund expenditures not grow faster than the combined growth of population plus inflation. The state has grown so fast since 1979 that the cap has never been an issue.
This year's spending will finish just $17 million below that cap. The proposed budget is $158 million below the projected 2008-09 cap.
At the same time, many lawmakers and interest groups are looking at significant increases in spending to pay for programs such as all-day kindergarten, expanded health care access for the uninsured and needy. Assemblywoman Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, the first female to lead that house in state history, says all-day kindergarten is a must. Senator Bill Raggio, R-Reno, leading that house for a record 10th session, says the state should wait for results from the pilot program in at-risk schools before committing the money.
There are huge needs to care for Nevada's overcrowded prison system, reduce the liability for state retiree health benefits, begin construction of the university's Health Sciences Center project and fight methamphetamine addiction.
And road construction needs are critical in both the north and south.
The total proposed budget for the next two years is $18.2 billion when all state, federal and other revenues are included. The capped general fund budget totals $7 billion.
Ways and Means Vice Chairwoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said she was generally pleased with the improvements in Medicare provider reimbursements and efforts to expand health-care access in the proposed budget. But she said the governor and Assembly Democrats have a difference of opinion over all-day kindergarten. While they support the idea, Gov. Jim Gibbons pulled the program from the proposed budget saying the state should see how well the pilot program is working before committing to future expenses of more than $130 million a year.
Leslie and Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, say all-day kindergarten is a proven success which the state should find a way to fund.
Gibbons has proposed an Empowerment Program that would give teachers, administrators and parents in 100 Nevada schools much more say in how their school is run. However, the expert he brought in to push his empowerment program has said in at least two interviews he believes all-day kindergarten is an excellent way to improve student achievement.
That disagreement is widely expected to be the first major battle of the 2007 session.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, warned fellow lawmakers during the budget overview that the task of providing for the state's needs while staying under the cap won't be an easy one.
The first order of business today will be the swearing in of new and re-elected members. There is one new Senator, Democrat RoseMary Womack, of Henderson, and 10 new Assembly members.
After an hour or so of pomp and ceremony, the first bill introductions will begin.
More than 140 bills will be put into the mill today and at least one will be pushed through both houses to the governor's desk. SB1 pretty much must be signed into law the first day because that measure appropriates the money to pay for operation of the Legislature. This year, SB1 puts $10 million into the Legislature Fund - about half the projected total cost of the 120-day session.
Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, again introduced his bill to require Nevada to fund public education at or above the national average. His plan would require the addition of more than $1.5 billion to public education budgets over the biennium. But there has been considerable debate over the methods used to determine each state's funding for public schools with some arguing Nevada is much closer to the average when all funding is considered.
There are a number of proposals to try protect children from drugs, alcohol and tobacco among other dangers including bills to make it a crime for those under 18 to possess or use tobacco; increasing penalties for drag racing; make it a crime for allowing a child to be present when any controlled substance is being unlawfully used, manufactured or sold. Other proposals would allow a child to be taken from a parent who authorities believe drinks too much, increase penalties for selling, furnishing or allowing consumption of alcoholic beverages by those under age and stiffen anti-graffiti penalties.
And while one bill by Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, would remove the requirement that motorcyclists wear a helmet in Nevada, another by the Nevada Sheriff's and Chief's association would expand seat-belt laws to allow police to pull over anyone they think might not be wearing a belt.
Opponents have blocked that plan in the past saying to let police stop anyone they think might not be wearing a belt would amount to open ended probable cause to stop anyone at any time. The ACLU has expressed concerns that such a law would violate individual civil rights.
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 687-8750.
At a glance
The 74th Nevada Legislature and future of state government will be the center of attention in Carson City for the next four months. The capital city will be abuzz with lawmakers, their staffs, state officials and workers, hundreds of activists, lobbyists and business people.
As the session begins today, here are some of the numbers, facts and issues associated with the Legislative session - many obvious but others you may not have thought about.
1 freshman senator
42 Assembly members
10 freshman Assembly members
160 floor sessions
1,054 committee meetings
1,500 bill draft requests
1,100 bills introduced
26,000 pieces of mail
8 million sheets of copy paper
3,000 e-mails a day
60 accredited members of the press
6 constitutional offices
31 executive branch departments, special purpose offices and
424 budget accounts
2,672 pages in the budget
$18.2 billion total biennial budget
$7 billion state general fund budget
$5.2 billion public education budget
$1.8 billion university system budget
$912 million Capital Improvements Program
$20 million cost of Legislative session
16,300 state employees, average age: 46, 50-50 men and women
7 Supreme Court Justices, 2,086 cases filed
60 District Judges, 120,000 cases filed
426,400 public school students
103,000 university and community college students
315 seats in the gallery for the visiting public
74 seats in the Senate and
231 seats in the Assembly
6 spaces for handicapped chairs in the Assembly's
$200 million - To fund all-day kindergarten
$1.9 billion - Construction to alleviate prison overcrowding
$7 billion - Budget cap
-$3.8 billion - Shortfall in monies for highway construction
$17.4 million - Program proposed by governor to fight methamphetamine
$4 billion - Unfunded liability for retiree benefits
$150 million - Construction of Health Sciences Center
$60 million - Empowerment Schools program proposed by governor
Issues with unknown costs
Medicaid Reimbursement Rates