Director: We can avoid ‘ugly program cuts’ to human services budgets | NevadaAppeal.com

Director: We can avoid ‘ugly program cuts’ to human services budgets

Advocates joined forces Tuesday in issuing a call to the Gibbons administration not to cut Health and Human Services budgets.

“This is the Grinch that stole Christmas,” said Sen. Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas before the legislative committee on health.

HHS Director Mike Willden began his testimony before the committee by advising Chairman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, he is still prohibited from releasing any details about the cuts being considered. But he told her he believes with the new plan, which includes cuts to K-12 education, he can avoid what he termed “ugly program cuts.”

That didn’t appease Leslie and other members of the committee, including Sen. Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas.

Jan Gilbert of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada led off for advocates who attended the meeting.

“We’re opposed to all cuts, and I would include K-12 education as an area that should not be cut,” she said.

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But Gilbert said the cuts are especially critical in Willden’s budgets because, “we always get education restored; human services are always slow to recover.”

She said by the time human services recovers from one series of budget reductions, another arrives and removes those gains.

Sean Griffin, representing Community Chest of Southern Nevada, said it’s not fair that “the people most vulnerable will suffer the brunt of these cuts.”

Bob Fulkerson of PLAN said the cuts should focus on capital improvement projects, one-shot expenditures and the Rainy Day Fund, which currently has $267 million.

They were joined by a variety of advocates representing the disabled, those with mental disabilities, the cancer society, senior representatives and others all wearing badges bearing the image of a tiny umbrella – a symbol to urge the governor to dip into the Rainy Day Fund for a large portion of the cuts.

Nevadans for Quality Education is also weighing in on the proposed reductions, which will hit public schools for more than $96 million statewide. They have scheduled candlelight vigils in Las Vegas, Reno and on the steps of the Legislature for this afternoon.

The lone voice on the other side was Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, who said the governor’s responsibility is the same as the head of a house when money comes up short – to cut spending.

He said there is a “silent majority” of taxpayers out there who want government to tighten its belt and run more efficiently.

Willden advised him they aren’t silent. That, like the human services advocates, they too are calling his office every day.

He assured the committee and audience he will do his best to ensure the cuts do as little damage to services for those in need as possible. He said the governor’s decision Friday to spread the cuts across all general fund recipients instead of exempting corrections, public safety and K-12 education will help his agencies significantly.

Where he was looking at more than $138 million in cuts to the general fund and an equal reduction in federal funds from an 8 percent budget reduction before that decision, he said now he is looking at $78 million and about half that amount in federal money – a total of about $120 million – in a 4.5 percent cut.

Willden said his top priority is to “try not to impact client services.”

He said that means cutting capital improvement projects, one-shot purchases such as new computers and deferring some rate increases.

Next, he said, there will be vacancy savings by holding some positions open. But he said layoffs won’t be necessary and travel, training and some operating money will be cut back.

He said the idea of an unpaid furlough for state workers is up to the directors to decide. He said HHS has looked at the idea, but plans to use vacancy savings first.

If more cuts are needed, he said he would be delaying or eliminating growth packages in different programs and finally those “ugly program cuts,” which would reduce existing services.

Willden said he believes he can avoid the last two levels of cuts.

“The last thing they want to do is harm the existing level of client services,” he said of the administration. “We’ll try take to things that are the least harmful.”

“I think even some of the easy things are going to have a dramatic impact on real people,” said Leslie.

She asked when lawmakers and the public will be told what the cuts are. Willden said the deadline for agencies to file their final recommendations with the budget office is Friday but that he doesn’t think the governor will release his final decisions until after the first of the year.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.