Massive modernization bill characterized as rebranding
by Dana Gentry, Nevada Current
April 27, 2023
Gov. Joe Lombardo’s bill to modernize government and make it more efficient will add more layers of government oversight and threaten the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches, according to lawmakers of both parties who questioned the bill’s provisions as well as its constitutionality Wednesday during a marathon four-hour hearing before the Senate Government Affairs Committee.
“This bill aims to make us more nimble, more strategic, and more responsive,” Lombardo’s chief of staff Ben Kieckhefer said as he presented Senate Bill 431.
Former gubernatorial staffer Daniel Stewart testified Nevada’s government is made for the 1800s “and held together with duct tape.”
The bill would allow for an increase in the state’s Rainy Day fund, from the current 20% of general fund appropriations to 30%, with half of the increase placed in a new “Nevada Way” fund to be used at the governor’s discretion.
“I’d really like to talk about the Nevada Way,” Republican Sen. Pete Goicochea said. “I don’t understand it.”
The Nevada Way account, according to the governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Wells, “is dedicated to help him (Lombardo) find transformative projects that can help the state reduce its reliance on his existing tax structure, and diversify our economy. This can be critical infrastructure projects. That can be public-private partnerships, public-public partnerships, but it provides a flexible bucket of money that the state would be able to use throughout the interim, and to help grow our state in ways that we think are appropriate.”
“You have read the Constitution, right?” Democratic Sen. Skip Daly asked Wells. “No money can be expended except by appropriating through legislative action.”
Wells responded the Legislature would be appropriating the money to be used at the governor’s discretion.
Daly suggested the governor’s Nevada Way endeavors should have to make their way to the Legislative Commission for approval.
“I’m just wanting to find out if the goal is to actually accomplish these things, or have somebody’s name on it,” he said.
Daly also took issue with a provision that would allow the governor to expand his staff if extra money is available.
“You remember ‘Ghostbusters’? Don’t cross the streams,” Daly told Kieckhefer and Wells, in a metaphorical warning against violating the separation of powers. ”Seems like it’s crossing the streams to me.”
Sidestepping legislative approval?
Another provision of SB 431 would raise the financial threshold for programs that require approval from the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee, which decides fiscal matters when lawmakers are not in session.
“I understand trying to avoid IFC from a practical efficiency standpoint,” committee Chairman Sen. Edgar Flores said, adding it’s easier to achieve something without “having to go before somebody. … But taking out the efficiency and focusing more on an accountability transparency input lens. Why do we think that we’re not in any way circumventing those aspects…?”
Wells estimated the governor’s bill would allow hundreds of work programs to be approved without going before the IFC.
Daly said the “most concerning” provision of the bill asserts the IFC shall not take any actions that interfere with the operations of state government.
“The idea here is to be clear there’s a separation, a clear line between the two branches,” Wells responded.
“The way I read that language is ‘I don’t need to go to IFC. Now that we’ve got it we can do what we want with it,’” Daly responded.
Real change or rebranding?
SB 431 also seeks to streamline the state’s job training and placement efforts and push the proverbial reset button on the state’s beleaguered Department of Employment and Rehabilitation Services, the target of pandemic-era angst for thousands of Nevadans who waited weeks, even months, for unemployment benefits.
The bill would replace DETR with the Department of Workforce, which would be composed of several divisions and would administer all workforce training grants.
“There are certain citizens in this state that see DETR as a four-letter word,” observed Chris Sewell. “We need to move on from that.”
Flores asked Sewell how the governor’s plans amounted to more than just rebranding.
“It’s supposed to be a one stop shop, and it actually is,” Sewell said of the state’s network of One-Stop Career Centers. “We want to make sure that it’s a one stop shop for everything that they (clients) need – whether that is looking at child care, whether it’s looking at other social services, And that’s what this does. It’s not just rebranding. It puts all of that under that umbrella.”
Ann Silver, president of the Reno/Sparks Chamber of Commerce, testified the state’s alphabet soup of workforce training provision is duplicative, confusing, ineffective, and does “not meet people where they are, specifically in underserved neighborhoods, often without access to internet, unable to drive long distances, with few to no childcare options, with limited literacy or even a high school equivalency certificate.”
‘Rearranging the deck chairs’
The legislation would place all of the state’s boards and commissions under the purview of the Department of Business and Industry, a proposition that prompted testimony in opposition from the state’s Ethics Commission, which has regulatory authority over the department and its divisions, which include Real Estate, Mortgage Lending, and the Transportation Authority.
SB 431 would also revamp the state’s human resources system, which critics say complicates the hiring and retention process and pits state agencies against one another in an attempt to recruit workers. It would eliminate a provision of state law that caps workers’ salaries at 95% of the governor’s pay, which is approximately $170,000 a year.
Another provision would create more direct reports to the governor, including a Chief Information Officer and a Chief Innovation Officer.
Goicochea said the personnel moves amount to “rearranging the deck chairs,” noting the governor “is the one who selects you. He appoints you.”
The committee took no action on the bill.