The Reno Gazette Journal is among a select group of news outlets covering the state’s 31st special session of the Nevada Legislature. Please consider supporting our coverage in Carson City by subscribing to RGJ.com.
Nevada lawmakers have started cleaning up a ten-figure budget mess caused by the coronavirus, opening a special legislative session on Wednesday that will see hundreds of millions of dollars slashed from the state’s $4.4 billion annual spending plan.
Lawmakers spent the first day of Nevada’s 31st special session taking a deep dive into across-the-board budget cuts recommended by Gov. Steve Sisolak, who is calling for a combined $590 million in reductions to planned spending on higher education, K-12 schools and health care.
Top administrators provided more granular detail on those proposals during lengthy hearings on Wednesday, when state senators learned that Sisolak’s plan to stem a projected $1.2 billion budget shortfall would not adversely affect K-12 teachers’ salary and benefits.
Susan Brown, Sisolak’s finance director, said a projected $172 million gap in the state’s main school spending account can be bridged without eliminating special student programs and reversing long-promised teacher pay raises.
Instead, Brown’s office has proposed more than $576 million in transfers from reserve funds and reimbursements from congressional COVID stimulus funds.
The office is also seeking $175 million in changes to previously OK’d construction projects.
Richard Whitley, Brown’s counterpart at the Department of Health and Human Services, said his agency can shave $140 million in spending largely by delaying and reducing Medicaid reimbursements for health care providers.
Whitley told state senators he did not plan to lay off any workers, but would look to sweep nearly $17 million from the state’s tobacco settlement fund and preserve another $28 million by eliminating state-subsidized dental services for women and children.
The agency is also poised to freeze hiring for more than 138 vacant positions, cancel planned training sessions and reduce Medicaid spending on a dozen “optional” health services ranging from podiatry to optometry.
Federal approval for those changes is expected to arrive sometime within the next three months.
State lawmakers also found time for some politicking amid the hardcore budget discussions.
Minutes after the session was called to order, Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, raised loud objections to a Democrat-sponsored motion that will allow lawmakers to vote remotely on measures considered during the special session.
They said the rule change, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, runs afoul of a state constitutional requirement mandating that members meet in person and in Carson City.
“I seriously object to this concept,” Settelmeyer told his colleagues. “This motion would allow people to vote not even in Carson City and not even in Nevada.”
Longtime state Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, also scoffed at the rule change allowing proxy votes, one that he said would create a “potentially mischievous situation” where senators would not feel the need to join their counterparts in the state capital.
Cannizzaro said members would only be allowed to remotely cast a vote with her approval or the approval of a standing committee chair.
The measure passed on a strict party-line vote, with all eight Senate Republicans opposed.
Sisolak on Tuesday issued a formal proclamation setting the policy parameters for this week’s long-awaited emergency lawmaking session.
The order allows the Legislature to consider a proposal that would permit the Clark County School District to donate unspent school funds toward the state’s budget-patching effort.
Lawmakers will also weigh a measure that would permit the Nevada Board of Regents to waive Millennium Scholarship requirements for students “negatively impacted during the pandemic.”
Sisolak’s office said that once the budget shortfall is addressed and the special session is concluded, the governor plans to “issue a subsequent proclamation for the Legislature to consider policy items that rise to the extraordinary occasion of a special session.”
The first-term Democrat on Monday released a 40-page budget-repair blueprint centered around “deep cuts in services and proposals.” The plan leaves it up to the Legislature to decide whether to pursue “augmentation of existing revenue sources” via tax increases.
Nevada law says legislators must conclude the special session within 20 days.
James DeHaven is the politics reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal. He covers campaigns, the Nevada Legislature and everything in between. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.