Lawmakers draw line at Equal Rights Commission cuts |

Lawmakers draw line at Equal Rights Commission cuts

The money committees Wednesday drew the line at the governor’s deep cuts to the Equal Rights Commission, voting instead to restore two investigators and the assistant who processes new complaints.

But they reluctantly adopted Gov. Brian Sandoval’s reductions to vocational rehabilitation and blind services budgets, even though that meant giving up a much larger block of federal money.

The governor’s recommended budget chopped the Equal Rights Commission staff from 18 to 13 and the budget by 28 percent. The reductions included eliminating three investigators, an administrative assistance and an assistant administrator in the north.

Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said the reductions would extend the time before a new case is even assigned to an investigator to nearly a year.

“We do have to cut but we don’t have to destroy,” she told the joint Ways and Means, Senate Finance committee. “I just want an Equal Rights Commission that works.”

Assemblyman Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas, said he agrees but that the Legislature may not have any choice.

“At the end of the day, where are we going to come up with the money to fund this?” he asked.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, joined Leslie saying in these tough economic times, there are more, not fewer complaints and that making them wait even longer for help isn’t acceptable.

They voted to restore two of the investigator positions and keep the administrative assistant who handles intake of new complaints by people who believe they are being discriminated against. The decision will cost about $367,000 over the biennium.

Members of the joint committee balked at the recommended General Fund reductions to vocational education and services to the blind budgets.

Cutting state money for vocational education by $1.39 million costs the state $5 million in federal funds over the biennium. Likewise, the $290,810 state reduction in the Bureau of Services to the Blind and Visually Impaired costs $1 million in federal money.

“I will not support that motion,” Horsford said. “It makes no sense.”

He especially objected to the $353,502 General Fund cut to the Life Skills program for those who are impaired to the point where they can’t seek employment.

“Those who are unable to seek employment are ineligible for vocational rehab dollars,” she said.

There is no federal funding available for that program.

He suggested several changes to move money from the Blind Business Enterprise Program or other revenue sources within vocational rehabilitation to qualify for those federal funds or put some funding back into the Life Skills program. Maureen Cole of DETR told the committee that money is in an enterprise fund and not available to move. He made a similar suggestion for some of the Employment Security Division money being moved to the governor’s Silver State Works program but, again, was told that plan wouldn’t work.

Asked what the agency’s priorities would be for adding back money, Cole described the situation as “a choice of poisons.”

“I feel like there is revenue in this account we can use to match,” said Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno.

But agency officials said they don’t think that is possible.

Horsford moved to restore the General Fund needed to qualify for the $5 million in federal cash and to add 50 percent of the current Life Skills budget to at least keep some services for those clients.

Analysts said that would require a total of $1.56 million in General Fund.

Conklin raise the same issue he raised on the Equal Rights Commission vote: “The fact of the matter is … whatever we add back here, we have to cut somewhere else.”

When the vote was taken, both Conklin and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, joined Republicans in opposing the plan and it failed.

Horsford then said there is no point in pushing the issue further and moved to adopt the governor’s recommendations on those budgets.