Nevada’s budget mess has moved a lot faster than the SAGE Commission | NevadaAppeal.com
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Nevada’s budget mess has moved a lot faster than the SAGE Commission

Solving Nevada’s fiscal mess won’t be easy, but I doubt the SAGE Commission is the answer.

You remember the Spending and Government Efficiency Commission. Its creation was announced by Gov. Jim Gibbons in April, back when the state faced an unprecedented revenue shortfall.

A lot has happened since then, none of it good.

On May 2, Gibbons decided it was a good time to file for divorce. In the ensuing weeks, the divorce proceedings have grown increasingly weird.

Come to think of it, so has the economy.

In May, the state’s projected deficit grew to $914 million. That includes the $236 million a legislative panel approved cutting at the governor’s request.

Now we’ve learned that, thanks to the faltering economy, more cuts are needed. This time, the governor has decided a special session of the Legislature is necessary to cut upward of $60 million. One plan being floated would clip the cost-of-living-allowances from the paychecks of teachers and state employees.

If you’re confused, don’t feel bad. In early June, the governor’s press spokesman Ben Kieckhefer announced, “We’re not going to cut the COLAs.” Just last week Gibbons indicated there wouldn’t be a need for a special session.

And you wonder why I don’t have high hopes for the SAGE Commission.

With a little help from legislators and department chiefs, Gibbons has managed to carve the budget like a Civil War battle surgeon, trimming, slashing and outright hacking his way to more than $900 million. The Legislature should be able to tear out another $60 million ” even if it comes from teachers’ paychecks ” in the name of preventing layoffs.

It all will happen without the SAGE Commission, which doesn’t meet until June 26. Gibbons has gained a reputation for governing in a locked room, and creating the SAGE Commission makes him appear willing to call upon the fiscal experts to help determine the wisest course of spending and efficiency. SAGE echoes the Reagan-era Grace Commission, which stood up for government efficiency and then took a highly efficient space on a dusty shelf.

Trouble for Nevada is, the state’s budget mess has moved a lot faster than the SAGE Commission, whose members were announced Monday. To have a short-term impact, they’ll have to move very quickly, or immediately seek treatment for the clinical depression that’s sure to accompany their frustration with our troubled system.

A look at the commission’s members suggests that some day it may generate some thoughtful proposals. Obviously, they have more faith in the process than I do.

In addition to SAGE Commission chairman and former U.S. Printer Bruce James, there’s former Nevada Tax Commission chairwoman Barbara Smith Campbell, insurance company president Robert Feldman, Ahern Rentals CEO Don Ahern, politically astute businessman Robert Forbuss, investment specialists Randy Garcia and David Goldwater, former Harrah’s and Mandalay Resort Group executive Steve Greathouse, former Las Vegas mayor and current Harrah’s senior vice president Jan Jones, gaming and banking veteran Jerome Snyder, construction executive Jim Thornton, cement company vice president Steve Hill, former airline company vice president Howard Putnam, and Nevada Taxpayers Association president Carole Vilardo.

Call it a wild hunch, but I’m guessing the SAGE Commission isn’t going to recommend any tax increases.

You’d think people so successful would have better sense than to jump into the quicksand that is Nevada’s economic crisis, but the commission will conduct its first meeting June 26 ” three days after the Legislature is scheduled to begin meeting in special session.

Better late than never, perhaps. But the idea that somehow the problem in Nevada is “spending” should insult state employees and any thinking person aware that the Silver State squats near the bottom in funding nationally in many major social service categories. We also don’t spend money on Nevada Highway Patrol troopers, prison employees and elsewhere.

State Sen. Bob Beers, a Republican budget wonk, puts the SAGE Commission in perspective.

“I’m not entirely sure the commission was destined for greatness in the first place,” Beers said prior to the release of the members list.

Perhaps Beers hoped the governor would improve government spending and efficiency by eliminating one more commission. Just think of the forest Gibbons could have saved by not printing the eventual and likely unheeded commission report.

I hope I’m wrong, but what in Nevada’s history gives anyone confidence the SAGE Commission will be anything but soon forgotten?

– John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.