Governor Steve Sisolak’s special session convened Wednesday morning and addressed the scope of the economic impacts created by COVID-19. The state senate covered some of the proposed cuts to public health services.
Senators started the day off in disagreement about the special rules to go off of to keep lawmakers safe while they are in the same building during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Special Rule No. 4 states that a lawmaker may attend the special session and vote remotely if needed as a safety measure. Lawmakers needed Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s approval.
Two Republican senators, James Settelmeyer and Joe Hardy, spoke out against the rule.
“I seriously object to this concept,” Settelmeyer said. “The Nevada Legislature has been meeting since July 4 of 1864, and section one of the constitution indicates it shall be held at the seat of government of the state of Nevada, which is Carson City.
“This motion or ability would allow people to vote not only not in Carson City, you wouldn’t even have to be in Nevada. You wouldn’t even have to be in the United States of America. I question that this leaves a problem of accountability and transparency. Even now, we’re still under rules and protocols and safety and have all done everything we can, from wearing a mask, to getting tested, to make sure to alleviate these concerns,” Settelmeyer added.
Hardy echoed Settelmeyer’s concerns.
“Obviously we’ve all had issues, who have been here before, with sickness, emergencies and families, even loved ones dying,” Hardy said. “I think we are trying to do, potentially, create a mischievous situation where someone would be looking at this saying, ‘Well, I don’t need to be at the seat of government as it’s identified in the constitution.’ So, you know, our duty as an elected is a sacred trust, it’s not convenient. It definitely is a sacrifice of time, of money, of family.”
However, Republicans were outnumbered and the special rule passed 13-8.
Deep cuts considered
The Senate then went to learn about the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic through a presentation from the Governor’s Finance Office (GFO). GFO Director Susan Brown said that Nevada’s General Fund is facing a budget deficit of $1.15 billion. It was previously reported Nevada was facing a budget shortfall of $1.2 billion.
All state agencies must cut 14 percent of their budget, and the GFO is proposing that some agencies can expect to have their own funds swept into the state’s General Fund.
Some of the largest budget funds will come from the Inmate Welfare Fund, the Public Employees Benefits Program Office, the Healthy Nevada Fund, the Disaster Relief Account and the Governor Guinn Millennium Scholarship Fund.
Some lawmakers questioned how these sweeps would impact the services offered.
Brown addressed some of those concerns.
“With the Healthy Nevada sweep, we don’t expect to see a reduction in services there. That is money that was not obligated after all of the programs that are currently funded, or continued to be funded, into the next biennium, and as far as the Millennium Scholarship, we did work with the treasurer’s office on that, and they are expecting an excess reserve of about $3.4 million, and so we are asking them to sweep $2 million of that,” Brown said.
Health services to get gutted
About 34 percent of Nevada’s General Fund is allocated to health and human services. Since the governor required all state agencies to cut 14 percent of their budget, the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) had to reduce their budget by $233 million.
DHHS Director Richard Whitley presented the areas of reductions for several hours.
DHHS proposed to reduce budgets for several departments, including a little over $30 million from the Aging and Disability Services Division. The department proposed a cap on caseloads for several programs, including Autism Treatment Assistance, Community Options for the Elderly and Regional Centers Supported Living arrangements.
Whitley said capping caseloads can create waiting lists. As of now, there are 191 children on the waitlist for Autism Treatment Assistance.
DHHS is also proposing to reduce the Division of Health Care Financing and Policy by over $140 million. The division is proposing a six-percent rate reduction for Medicaid services. This means the state would pay health care providers less starting August 2020.
In addition, the division is proposing to eliminate services for adults, including dental care like tooth extractions and dentures, along with capping physical therapy sessions and hospice services.
The division is also proposing to eliminate optional services for Medicaid recipients. Optional means the state is not required to provide them. Some services for adults on the cutting board are optometry services, prosthetic services, private nursing, occupational therapy, chiropractic services and behavioral case management. Whitley recognized even though these programs aren’t federally required, some Nevadans rely on them.
“As a result of that service not being available, they may in fact require a higher level of need, or there may be an emergency room visit because of decompensation or of complications,” Whitley said.
The proposal also includes an almost $20 million reduction from the Division of Public and Behavioral Health. This includes an over $8 million reduction from Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, which would cut housing for 270 individuals.
Nearly $2 million from both Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services and rural mental health clinic services are proposed to be reduced as well.
State Senator Julia Ratti shared her concerns about the proposed cuts to mental health services.
“I feel like maybe we’re reverting back to a place that if you really need behavioral health services, you almost have to be part of the criminal justice system to access them,” Ratti said. “It feels like we’re heading towards a perfect storm for individuals who are at risk of experiencing homelessness, or we’re trying to help them move away from being homeless.”
Additionally, nearly $2 million is being proposed to cut from problem gambling, leaving about $600,000 available. Lisa Sherych with the Division of Public and Behavioral Health explained what this cut would look like.
“So the problem gambling covers prevention, public awareness, treatment, evaluation, workforce development, and research,” she said. “With the remaining dollars, after the cuts, there would be about 25 percent left. So there is the possibility to focus the remaining funding on treatment services.”
Public: No raised taxes, no cuts to problem gambling
The Assembly started its day with public comment, whereas the Senate heard from citizens around 6:45 p.m.
Many public commenters spoke out against the reduction to gambling addiction services.
Public commenter William Hartwell spoke about how the services helped him in the past.
“Despite any attempts to stop gambling, I nearly destroyed myself, and my family, before I was willing to admit I needed help,” Hartwell said. “That help came in the form of professional treatment at the International Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas. In 2007, I was one of the early benefactors of Nevada’s problem gambling. Without that service, I’m unsure where I would be today or whether or not I would even be alive.”
Other public comments spoke out against raising taxes, even though tax increases have not been discussed.
Tax increases may be possible, though. According to the Nevada COVID-19 Fiscal Report, the governor may consider raising existing taxes after winning a two-thirds vote. A new tax cannot be created.
Others asked lawmakers to avoid cutting funding from education, and protestors gathered outside the Nevada Legislature Building expressing the same concerns.
The senate put two bills forth by the end of the first day of the special session. SB1 revises the amount of proceeds to special projects of capital improvement.
SB2 authorizes the Board of Regents to temporarily waive requirements for the Governor Guinn Millennium Scholarship, like enrolling in a certain amount of credits and maintaining a certain grade point of average, for students affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Feature image: The Nevada State Senate chambers on the first day of the 31st Special Session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City, Nev., on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Pool photo by David Calvert/The Nevada Independent