State budget director cashes out
Perry Comeaux has spent the past 25 years keeping control of the state of Nevada’s numbers.
No more. Comeaux’s last day with the state was Friday.
He says he’ll still be watching the numbers. But from now on, it’ll be his golf handicap, not the state budget and tax revenues.
Comeaux, 60, has been director of the Department of Administration and Nevada’s budget director since 1993. Before that, he spent nearly a decade as director of the Department of Taxation, giving him a unique understanding of both how public money is raised and how it is spent.
“The way things normally work, and should work, putting the budget together is a negotiation between the governor, us and the agencies,” he said. “It’s up to individual agencies to explain and defend the nuts and bolts. My job is to explain the budget, how much is available and where it came from. We defend the overarching issues, the decision to fund a particular program.”
Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, said Comeaux “did a great job in some very difficult times.”
“As chairman of Senate Finance and Senate leader, I’ve never worked with any finer state executive than Perry Comeaux,” said Raggio. “Every position he has served in, he has done a highly credible job.”
He also received high marks from Gov. Kenny Guinn, who said Comeaux’s replacement will have some big shoes to fill.
Comeaux said he has enjoyed a good relationship with lawmakers, for the most part.
“They pretty nearly always let us speak our piece. Some of them, I have a lot of respect for. They do that job for damn little money and almost no public respect.”
He said the part of the job he’ll miss most is working with the governor to build a budget that is balanced, but accomplishes what the chief executive wants.
“Governors Bryan and Miller were more interested in general program areas and had a lot of involvement in those areas,” he said. “In other areas, they depended on the cabinet to take care of business.
“Gov. Guinn is interested in the process of government. He has so much more to do with the operation of government on a daily basis.”
He said Guinn’s focus is on the money available after building the base budget, and the options and priorities for using that money.
“Which really is a pretty good way to do it,” he said.
In taxation and as budget director, Comeaux has shepherded some of the most controversial and expensive programs in state history through the Legislature.
When the governor and lawmakers created the Business Activity Tax (BAT) in 1991, Comeaux was the point man. When the state created the class-size- reduction program, Comeaux was budget director.
His worst memories as taxation director are from the 1991 session and the BAT tax debate.
“That was not a fun experience,” he said.
The result was the head tax imposed on businesses, which Comeaux says he never liked. It was replaced by the payroll-based Modified Business Tax based in 2003, which Comeaux described as “a lot better tax.”
As budget director, he said 1995 and 1997 were the roughest – especially class-size reduction, which Gov. Miller strongly supported.
“It was the kind of warm fuzzy idea that there wasn’t a lot of empirical evidence for. But you knew instinctively if you had fewer kids in the classroom you were going to get some improvement. But it stressed the budget to do that.”
Class size now costs the state more than $125 million a year.
He said 2003 wasn’t as rough on his department because “the governor’s office carried a lot of the water on that one.”
Comeaux defended the budget. The governor defended the tax plan.
“Frankly, the budget wasn’t that much of a problem. It was how to get the money they didn’t like.”
Comeaux was hired by Prison Director Chuck Wolf in 1980. At that time, the prison system had no financial officer and only rudimentary fiscal controls.
“They had overspent their appropriations and were in big trouble with the Legislature,” said Comeaux. “So in some kind of compromise, they created a systems director for finance. I was the original.”
Comeaux, a certified public accountant, was brought in from Florida to straighten out the prison’s finances.
“I was coming out here for just a year or two to see what the West was like and found a good place to raise my son and daughter,” he said.
He said he now looks forward to doing some volunteer work, playing golf, and some fishing. The golf, especially, he said, needs work.
“When I break 100, I’m a happy guy,” he said.
A fly fisherman since he was a kid in Florida, he hopes to rekindle that passion.
“It’s been a couple of years since I’ve wet a line, but (his wife) Diane likes fly fishing, too, so I’ve got a fishing buddy.”
And if the weather doesn’t allow either of those pastimes, his Austin-Healy sports car that’s nearly 50 years old will always need some attention.
n Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 687-8750.