Members of the powerful Senate Finance committee heard testimony Monday on budget bills dealing with subjects ranging from education to Nevada prisons, including one allocating $6.9 million to help deal with inmate overcrowding.
The prison funding bill, SB282, was revised upward from the $5.7 million that state prisons chief Howard Skolnik originally asked for. On Monday, prison officials said the unexpected increase was driven by the state's constantly expanding inmate population.
"Our inmate population has increased significantly," said Darrel Rexwinkel, Department of Corrections budget director. "(The costs are) mostly medical and inmate-driven."
Nearly $900,000 of the $1.2 million increase discussed Monday is for medical expenses, according to the amendment brought by prison officials.
The bill will reviewed again next Monday after legislative staffers have a chance to look at the new numbers, said Finance Chairman Bill Raggio, R-Reno.
State schools chief Keith Rheault joined union and building trade representatives to support SB167, which would give $1.2 million to support vocational apprenticeship programs in Nevada schools.
Rheault also joined representatives from school districts and the state teachers' union in supporting SB166, which would sustain a program that gives 5 percent bonuses to school psychologists, counselors, and nurses who have national certification in certain topics.
Sen. Bernice Mathews, D-Reno, sponsored the proposal to expand the program, which has not covered school nurses in past years. About 20 percent of eligible employees get certification and earn the bonus, said Rheault. He estimated the bonuses will cost $1.3 million over the upcoming two-year budget, and $1.8 million in future budgets.
Al Bellister, a lobbyist for the Nevada State Educational Association, said that the bonuses are worthwhile, but added that the process should be made consistent across various professions. He offered an amendment to add school librarians to the program.
The committee also discussed SB108, sponsored by Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, that would introduce "zero-based budgeting" and require increased scrutiny of departments budgets.
Beers said the process would require departments to justify all their expenditures every year, rather than just the additional sum above the base budget.
Jan Gilbert of Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada spoke against Beers' bill, saying that such budgeting would take the state backward, and make it easier to cut needed government programs.
"I think it's an attempt to diminish government," said Gilbert. "I'm concerned that this is going to have a severe impact."