By Sean Whaley, courtesy of Nevada News Bureau
CARSON CITY — Gov. Jim Gibbons and nine state lawmakers from both political parties spent about an hour today informally discussing potential solutions to the state’s budget shortfall, including a discussion of state employee furloughs versus pay reductions.
The first “open door” meeting proposed by Gibbons to discuss solutions to a current $67 million shortfall in the state general fund budget was productive, according to two of the lawmakers who attended.
The meeting was not open to the general public, and it disbanded before an invitation to the media to attend the last 15 minutes of the get-together could be accommodated.
Gibbons left to attend another engagement after about an hour of discussion.
Gibbons spokesman Dan Burns said the governor appreciated the open dialogue with the five Democrats and four Republicans and said there was agreement to continue the meetings on a regular basis.
“The important thing was to have a starting point for a dialogue, which seemed to go very well today,” he said. “The second thing is, make sure your dialogue includes the exchange of ideas. Everyone got a chance to speak.”
Burns said the furlough and pay reduction discussion came up because not all state employees are now being required to take a furlough day as required by the 2009 Legislature to help balance the budget. Key correctional positions are exempted, for example, creating an inequity with other state employees, he said.
Gibbons had proposed a straight pay cut for all employees instead.
“It is not fair to have a certain segment that doesn’t have to take a furlough or some sort of pay reduction, and a certain segment that does,” Burns said.
Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, who attended the meeting via videoconference from Las Vegas, said he welcomed the chance to talk directly with Gibbons.
“I needed the opportunity to lobby him to have a special session in order to clear the decks so we can get the Race to the Top money,” he said.
Some lawmakers have called on Gibbons to quickly call a special session so a Nevada law prohibiting the state from receiving the federal stimulus funds to improve student achievement can be repealed and an application can be submitted next month.
Gibbons has so far rejected the call for an early special session, saying Nevada is better off applying for the second round of funding in June.
Coffin said he also pushed for a legislative change at a special session to allow the state to use $160 million in borrowed funds to help get through this fiscal year rather than next year. Only $30 million in the loan from a local government investment pool can be used this year without the change.
Some lawmakers have proposed accessing the borrowed funds now rather than making immediate budget cuts to balance the budget.
Assemblyman James Settelmeyer, R-Gardnerville, said the meeting provided good interaction.
“It opened a line of communication which is good to see,” he said. “There have been times when the Legislature and the executive branch have not talked that much.”
Settelmeyer said he agrees that it is better to wait to call a special session so that the Race to the Top issue and the budget problems can all be addressed at the same time.
Settelmeyer said he is concerned about the inequities in the application of the one-day-a-month furlough requirement. The fact that the furloughs do not apply to all employees equally was an unintended consequence the legislation failed to recognize, he said.
Settelmeyer said he would rather see staff prepare a list of all the new programs approved by the Legislature over the past 10 years so they can be evaluated as to whether they are necessary.
“Are they all necessary or are there some programs we could do without?” he asked. “I don’t want to see any more cuts to state employee salaries across-the-board.”
Other lawmakers attending the meeting included Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas; Assemblyman Tom Grady, R-Yerington; Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka; Assemblyman John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas; Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, R-Henderson; Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, and Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson.