Nevada lawmakers: No easy answers to budget deficit

Here, says Nevada Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, is one way to understand the state's budget crisis:

The Legislature needs to prepare a budget for two years. There's only enough money for one year.

Or try this: If the Legislature were to approve the deepest budget cuts in the history of the state government, and follows up with the biggest tax increases in the history of the state, there still wouldn't be enough money to cover a deficit that's been variously estimated to total as much as $3 billion.

Smith, a Democrat from Sparks who will serve as chair of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, joined with three of her Democratic colleagues from the Legislature on Wednesday to tell a business group in Reno that there won't be any pain-free solutions to Nevada's budget crisis.

The approximately 100 people in the audience - all of them participants in a legislative conference sponsored by the Northern Nevada Human Resources Association - focused many of their questions on the possibility of tax increases to bridge the budget gap.

The lawmakers didn't rule it out.

"Nobody goes to the session with the intention of raising taxes," said Kelvin Atkinson, a Democratic Assemblyman from North Las Vegas who is slated to be chair of the Assembly Committee on Commerce and Labor. "Taxes are a subject that no one wants to discuss."

But Michael Schneider, a Democratic member of the Senate from Las Vegas, said business people and others who believe the budget gap can be closed entirely with belt-tightening and budget cuts need to reconsider.

"When you are laying people off," he told the business audience, "the cost of state government goes up because we are the safety net."

The easy budget cuts such as the layoffs of 1,000 state workers have been made, he said, and closing the gap at this point might require cuts such as entirely mothballing one of the state's big universities - UNLV or UNR - or eliminating school bus service and extracurricular activities at local school districts.

And those sorts of cuts, he said, chew into Nevada's ability to attract new employers.

"Everyone hates taxes, but we are cheap. We're just cheap, and we don't want to invest in Nevada," said Schneider, who will be chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Labor and Energy.

He said, too, that no one should overestimate the potential savings from privatization of state services such as prison operation or motor pools.

"They look good on the surface, but they don't always work out," Schneider said.

Marilyn Kirkpatrick, a Democratic member of the Assembly from North Las Vegas and chair of the Assembly's local government committee, said city and county governments also face hard decisions.

In some instances, Kirkpatrick said, they need to tighten pay and benefit packages that were sweetened during the state's boom years when cities and counties found themselves in bidding wars for staff.

Salaries in the state government, she said, are generally comparable to those in the private sector.


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