Grinding to a halt

Assemblymember Debbie Smith of Washoe County, who oversaw construction of the state budget in the Nevada Assembly, listened to an audience member last week at a Nevada Women’s Lobby meeting.

Some Nevada programs, including aging services, are at risk of slowing down radically or even shutting down because they are being kept afloat by federal funding, and state government may not be able to pay its small share.

Some of the programs involved, such as police staffing levels, cut close to the daily lives of citizens.

“I will tell you that I had our staff do a matrix for me of how much [state] general fund was in every budget across the state, and there’s so little general fund money left in most places that you can’t really cut,” Assembly budget chief Debbie Smith told a Nevada Women’s Lobby luncheon last week. “Aging and Disability Services is another example. There really isn’t much general fund [money] there.”

With the state providing so little money to its own programs, federal moneys or grants are keeping them going. But to qualify for those federal dollars, the state must provide matching funds. That match is normally only a fraction of the federal grants but even those small amounts are becoming more difficult to come by.

“We have a great deal of federal money that funds a lot of the programs,” Smith said. “Aging is a perfect example. … With the federal deficit reduction, all that going on, the grants to the states will probably be cut by about 30 percent. And so a lot of these justice grants, for example, that fund cops on the streets, that schools use … foster care … that kind of stuff is just going to be gone. Thirty percent of that money will just be gone.”

She said legislators are in conversations with the Washoe County School District, which is on precarious financial footing.

“They have virtually no funding—no funding—once they use up the money that we were able to free up in this [2011] legislative session. Once that’s gone, they aren’t going to have any bonding capacity ’til 2017. 2017. And that means roofs, asphalt—if anything big happens, they have to go to their [school district] general fund. … That’s a really scary situation, but it really tells you that with our property values declining and therefore property tax revenue [also declining], that’s the ramification of that, is that the programs that we fund like that are in serious jeopardy. And there’s no ability, then, to do the repairs needed for schools other than going into general fund, which would hit the classroom. So that’s one example of the still-precarious position we find ourselves in.”

A couple of her listeners asked Smith about cultural programs such as libraries, and she had to tell them that with budget levels now so low, choices have become much more painful (“Artburn,” RN&R, Dec. 30, 2010).

“When you’re talking about human life versus anything else, it’s always hard to preserve,” she said. “It’s hard to preserve culture and parks and that type of budget item because you’re looking at taking older people off of day care. … There were hearings that I personally as the chairman had a hard time getting through because I knew what we were facing. You know, cutting the senior property tax assistances program, cutting veteran’s services officers.”

She said legislators had made some progress in rebuilding mental health programs after previous economic downturns and now find themselves returning those programs to reduced levels again.

With four waves of budget cutting behind the state, the easy cuts were already made two or three rounds ago. One of those is state workers and their benefits, which have been slashed more than once, to the point that some state workers are now eligible for public assistance and workers are departing state service. That kind of turnover causes expensive and perpetual training costs. Moreover, the desirability of state employment is not what it once was.

“The state employees have continually taken cuts in the form of furloughs,” Smith said. “The last session we did a combination of furloughs and pay cuts. They had their benefits cut and their costs increased. Because they are such a large part of the budget they are a natural target, if you will, for cuts. But it’s hard. Doing it once is one thing, but over and over is very difficult. We have state employees who qualify for state aid”—a murmur ran through the audience—“and that’s very, very difficult for us to know.”

State workers leaving for the private sector or leaving the state now number in the thousands, she said.

“It has really changed the whole climate of the situation for state employees. … And we have double digit numbers of agency heads leaving.”

Harder to ignore

State legislators and executive officials have worked hard to insulate the public from the effects of budget cuts, but that is becoming more difficult to do. “This is where the rubber meets the road, that the cuts that we’ve made are starting to take effect, and people are starting to notice,” Smith said.

Smith said that as chair of the committee that builds the state budget, she was often exasperated by the shortsightedness of some decisions she had to preside over.

“I said a couple of times during budget hearings it was reminding me of my mother’s old saying about tripping over a dollar to pick up a dime, that at so many budget hearings that’s what it felt like, that we were cuttings something that we knew, down the road, was going to cost us more.” (Italics reflect the emphasis in Smith’s voice.)

She also noted that at meetings of the Interim Finance Committee—a panel that handles legislative money matters when the full legislature is out of session—some lawmakers who, at the 2011 Nevada Legislature, opposed restoring any programs, are now taken aback by the dwindling services.

“And I’ll tell you that every single Interim Finance Committee meeting, there’s tons of discussion of ‘Oh, my gosh.’ And I think, ‘Well, people, what did you think was going to happen?’ When you cut millions of dollars out of the child care subsidy program … people are going to lose their child care subsidies and then they are not going be able to go to work.”

Smith described a couple of bright spots, if they can be called that. In answer to a question about state parks, she said because Nevada has never created much of a state park system, it was relatively easy to protect it from funding cuts.

“Because there’s so little there, really, we managed to keep things together.”

And she said lawmakers in 2011 made things a little easier for themselves at the 2013 Legislature by reducing some of the bookkeeping tricks they had used since the beginning of the recession to patch budgets together.

“Fortunately, we did solve the budget problems with fewer of the sort of smoke-and-mirror things that had happened in the past, where all were doing was moving money from one place to another, but we would have to deal with it down the road,” Smith said. “We eliminated a lot of those in the budget that we finally passed. So at least we don’t have those things to deal with going into the next session.”

One of those arrangements was stopped only by a timely Nevada Supreme Court ruling. On May 26, 2011, Smith was presiding over a hearing on Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposal to take school district construction bond money for state use when an aide handed her a note saying the court had just handed down a decision curbing the Legislature’s ability to take money away from local governments in order to fund state programs.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.