by Sean Whaley
Nevada News Bureau
CARSON CITY, Nev. — Nevada Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford said today that dozens of cuts proposed by Gov. Jim Gibbons to help erase an $881 million budget shortfall are ideas only, at least for now.
“There is no plan in place at this point,” said Horsford, D-Las Vegas. “We’ve been given a list of ideas from the governor’s office and that’s all they are, ideas.”
Gibbons’ proposed 10 percent cuts would generate $418 million in savings, less than half the total shortfall. No solutions have been presented yet on how to fill the remainder of the gap. The cuts would require 235 layoffs in state agencies, with 136 of those coming from the closure of the Nevada State Prison in the capital.
Horsford said hearings this week and next will give lawmakers the information they need to come up with a final plan to balance the budget during a special session expected later this month or in early March.
Lawmakers of both parties and from both houses said before the start of the hearings that the challenge of balancing the budget requires cooperation by everyone. That cooperation has been in evidence with Gibbons and his staff, lawmakers said.
Those hearings got off to a tough start however, when Jim Wells, deputy superintendent of the Nevada Department of Education, said his office believes the public school system will need $44 million more in state support than was forecast by the Economic Forum last month. That would make the shortfall $925 million.
“You’re trying to get us over the $900 million mark,” said Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno.
Wells said one idea under consideration for public education to meet the 10 percent, $167 million budget reduction target would be eliminating one day of the 180-day school year, which would save approximately $13 million. It would require a change to state law, he said.
Raggio said if such a cut were made, it should be a non-instructional day where teachers spend the day in staff development.
Walt Rulffes, superintendent of the Clark County School District, said increasing class sizes by one student in grades one through 12 would mean the elimination of 400 teaching positions and result in $26.5 million in savings in his district.
Dealing with the budget cut in the district entirely by increasing class sizes would require an expansion of every class by six students and mean the elimination of 2,322 teaching positions for a savings of $159 million, he told lawmakers.
To achieve the cut by reducing the school year, 17 days would have to be cut, Rulffes said.
“I think it’s graphic from that that there isn’t a single fix to this, it is going to have to be a combination of items,” he said.
Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, asked if any of these proposals could occur this year, or if the bargaining agreements with teachers are inviolable.
Rulffes said his proposals are aimed at next year because agreements with teachers are closed this year. Both sides would have to agree to reopen the agreements to modify them, he said.
Not all of the $418 million in savings proposed by Gibbons involves cuts. Included in the dozens of proposals is taking nearly $9 million from the low-level radioactive waste fund, which is used for monitoring and mitigation. Also proposed is a fee increase to fully cover the costs of the Nevada State Health Division to inspect and permit licensed facilities, which would generate $550,000 in new revenue. A $1.8 million “problem gambling” fund would also be diverted to cover the shortfall.
Also proposed is an increase in the premium paid by low-income families to enroll in the Nevada Check Up health insurance program, from $25 a quarter to $75 a quarter for the lowest income families. Families with higher incomes would see premium increases as well. About $1.1 million would be generated from the increases.
Another recommendation is closing the Summit View Youth Correctional Center in Las Vegas effective March 1 for a savings of $3.7 million. About 30 layoffs would occur. The inmates would be moved to other youth facilities in Elko or Caliente or would participate in an early release program.
And while Gibbons pledged not to raid local government funds, his plan does include a 10 percent reduction in support to Washoe and Clark counties for child welfare programs for a savings of $8.1 million.
One of the proposed layoffs has a more personal connection to Gibbons. His plan proposes to eliminate the position of assistant to the First Lady since there will be no First Lady because of his recent divorce from Dawn Gibbons.