Money committees get down to business
With just two weeks left in session, the Assembly Ways and Means Committee finally got down to serious business Saturday, closing dozens of agency budgets in a marathon five-hour session.
That followed a similar push Friday by the Senate Finance Committee.
Both committees are up against a tough deadline, since it takes more than a week after they finalize the budget package for staff to process all those decisions and prepare the bills necessary to approve the budget and allow the 2007 Legislature to shut down.
Most of the budgets on the list were closed, according to the recommendations made by joint Ways and Means/Senate Finance subcommittees, which reviewed the governor’s proposed spending plans in detail over the past 16 weeks.
But Gov. Jim Gibbons is likely to be unhappy with some of the decisions lawmakers made – particularly those in which both committees have reduced general-fund spending by increasing fees.
Many of those increases were in the original budget prepared by outgoing Gov. Kenny Guinn, but removed by Gibbons in January. Gibbons has said he opposes fee increases not supported by those who will pay them. But leadership in both the Senate and Assembly has said some of those increases are necessary.
During a discussion of Gibbons’ opposition to raiding hospitals and health-services inspections, Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, commented at an earlier meeting that those businesses should pay for the services they receive, rather than putting the cost on all Nevadans through a general fund appropriation.
Several of the fee hikes are in the Health Division budgets, including health inspections and hospital licensing, consumer health protection and radiological health inspections.
Ways and Means also raised fees for commercial weddings in Valley of Fire State Park from $15 to $125, saying that increase is supported by the wedding chapels.
A recurring theme in closing discussions in both committees has been finding ways to reduce general-fund spending, since that spending is within a few million dollars of the statutory spending cap.
That issue prompted Assemblyman Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, to call for cutting $10 million out of state support for advertising and other support given in 2005 to the Nevada Development Authority and Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada.
“I don’t think we can afford this,” he said.
The committee agreed after Denis made it clear the state would still continue to provide $1 million a year to help rural development authorities which have far-less resources.
In the Division of Child and Family Services budgets, general-fund spending was cut a total of $7.3 million over the biennium. Another $500,000 in general fund was saved in Conservation and Natural Resource budgets, about $100,000 in Buildings and Grounds. Some of those were offset by increases needed in Business and Industry, the Welfare Division and Veterans Affairs.
Even as committees approach the end of budget closings, the battle over education funding remains unresolved. Assembly Democrats want to pump more money into K-12 budgets, while the Senate Republicans want to protect higher-education budgets from cuts to help fund those increases.
Both sides agree, however, the best possible source for any significant amount of money for education would be prison reform that could significantly reduce construction and operating costs to handle serious overcrowding in Nevada’s prisons.
Among the ideas in play are doubling good-time credits and making them retroactive, which would immediately remove over 1,000 inmates from the system and even more from the Parole and Probation caseload by expiring the sentences of those within a year of freedom.
Prison officials say that would greatly reduce the need for new construction and operating increases over the next decade.
Leadership is expected to resume closed-door meetings this week to find a compromise on those issues.
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 687-8750.
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