Lawmakers adopt governor's 4.5 percent budget cuts

The Interim Finance Committee on Friday approved the governor's original 4.5 percent budget cuts for this budget cycle - but not before making it clear they don't like the situation or many of the cuts.

Lawmakers weren't part of the process when Gov. Jim Gibbons originally announced the cuts in January. But the Legislative Counsel and the Attorney General's office both agreed state law give IFC the power to review and sign off on budget cuts that exceed 10 percent or $50,000 of an appropriation.

The strongest opposition came from longtime Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, who has argued from the beginning the Legislature should be involved and have a say.

After Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, moved to accept the 315 work-program reductions that reduce this general fund spending this budget cycle by $236 million, Coffin called for an amendment that would hold off on the cuts to mental health and parole and probation for fiscal year 2009.

He said it took more than a decade to restore mental health budgets after they were chopped in the budget crunch of 1991 and that the department is so short staffed that an estimated 15,000 parolees aren't being supervised.

Coffin said those proposed cuts could be discussed and acted on at the IFC meeting on June 26.

He won the support of both Democratic floor leaders, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley and Senate Minority Leader Steve Horsford, both of Las Vegas. Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, expressed the majority opinion, saying, "if we're going to act responsibly, we'd better bite the bullet and understand we have to make these budget cuts."

Despite leadership support, a majority of the other Democrats on the two money committees that make up IFC voted against that amendment.

Throughout the meeting, members expressed their frustration with having to make the cuts.

"None of us want to do this," said Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, who supported many of the education and human resources programs that are being scaled back.

"Many of us would have made different choices," said Buckley. "I don't think we have much choice."

"We've got to make the tough decisions," said Assemblyman Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, "The economy is not doing well."

Ways and Means Chairman and interim IFC chairman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, said he too shares Coffin's frustration but that the cuts have to be made before the end of the fiscal year June 30.

"We have do something today," said Sen. Bernice Mathews, D-Reno, "The money is not going to drop out of the sky."

In the end, only Coffin and Assemblywoman Ellen Koivisto, D-Las Vegas, voted against adopting the governor's budget reductions.

"I will not carry the governor's water," said Coffin.

Buckley said she wanted to put on the record that Friday's meeting is only about the 4.5 percent reductions to the current budget. She said Friday's meeting has nothing to do with rumors a special session would be called to take away the 4 percent raises lawmakers approved for state and educational employees and nothing to do with the potential 14 percent reduction to operating expenditures that could be necessary for the 2010-2011 budget cycle.

Department of Administration Director Andrew Clinger said the governor has given no indication he plans to call a special session to take back the raises which take effect July 1.

The request that agencies develop plans to cut 14 percent is designed to give the administration a clear picture of what those reductions would do to agencies, schools and the university system, Clinger said.

He was backed by Raggio: "I don't think the governor or the budget office is suggesting we are bound to have 14.1 percent cuts. I think the governor is being prudent in trying to understand what the impact would be."

In addition, school officials pointed out that those 4 percent raises are already obligated to employees in contract negotiations and that any attempt to take it back would result in lawsuits.

Clinger said the reductions before IFC Friday total $236 million over the two-year budget cycle, which includes $56 million from the Department of Transportation for the Interstate 15 and Blue Diamond highway projects, $55 million from the Department of Education, $46.5 million from the university system and millions more from Health and Human Services.

He also advised lawmakers they will see more pieces of the governor's budget reduction plans at their June IFC meeting.

Altogether, the cuts for this budget cycle total $913.7 million. Most of the rest of that total is coming from the $267 million Rainy Day Fund and $190 million in Capital Improvement Project funding. Much of the remainder of the cuts are coming out of agency operating budgets.

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