CARSON CITY— Gov. Jim Gibbons lashed out at state lawmakers on Monday, blaming them for the state’s fiscal crisis even as he called them into a special session to consider government spending cuts.
The special session, set to begin Feb. 23, will bring lawmakers together to tackle a $881 million state budget shortfall expected to affect all state services, especially education, which accounts for more than 50 percent of Nevada’s general fund spending.
In his State of the State speech, Gibbons urged lawmakers to give a “fair hearing” to his education reform proposals. His plan would end mandatory requirements for full-day kindergarten and approve education vouchers that would allow parents to send their children to private school.
“It’s time to stop whining that education in Nevada doesn’t work because of a lack of funding,” Gibbons said. “We need to quit throwing money at programs that haven’t worked and don’t work for our children.”
But in a response to Gibbons’ speech, Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford said a special session is the wrong time to make wholesale changes to public education. One element Gibbons and Horsford agreed on? Not to support increasing taxes during the special session.
“While many of us believe Nevada needs a broader, more stable and fair tax structure, during this recession I will not support raising taxes,” said Horsford in delivering the Democrats’ response to Gibbons’ message.
He also pledged to work with the governor and Republican lawmakers to come up with a budget solution. Gibbons and state lawmakers must reduce state spending by about 20 percent between March and June 30, 2011, the end of state government’s spending cycle.
Horsford cautioned against bogging down the special session with major education reform, which he said would amount to a decision to “play politics with proposals that aren’t well vetted.”
“We have urged the governor to focus the special session on the budget crisis at hand,” he said.
But Gibbons cited a recent federal study that found 142 of the 613 public schools in Nevada rated among the worst in the nation.
“Continuing to allow unions to dictate Nevada’s education policy doesn’t work.” he said. “We need true reform. We need to rethink how we deliver public education in Nevada.”
In his 25-minute address, Gibbons reminded the public that he had proposed a balanced budget in 2009 that cut the size of state government and included no tax increases.
“The Nevada Legislature disregarded my solution,” the Republican governor said. “They made the wrong call.”
To balance the budget now, Horsford expressed support for implementing a four-day work week in some state agencies, scaling back hours in others and “closing buildings and departments where we must.”
“There is no magical formula or one simple solution to solve this problem,” he said.
But Horsford contended that Gibbons’ plan to give vouchers to parents who want to send their students to private schools is “unconstitutional and will further decimate funding of our public schools.”
Under the governor’s plan, the state would give vouchers — the equivalent of 75 percent of the $5,400 in per pupil funding that goes to public schools — to the private schools where parents want to send their children.
There is an obstacle to Gibbons’ plan. Last week, state Department of Education officials testified that there are few openings available for students who want to enroll in private schools. About 3,000 students are now are enrolled in private schools in Nevada.
Lynn Hettrick, Gibbons’ deputy chief of staff, said Monday that legislators were told in advance that Gibbons would criticize them for approving taxes, but asked them not to take the criticism personally.
Gibbons himself said in the news conference following his speech that he and legislators have been working well with each other recently, and he saluted them for agreeing not to back tax increases at this time.
The governor added that negotiations with the mining industry over how much of an advance payment it will make in sales taxes to help with the shortfall have not yet produced results.
While opposing tax increases, Horsford also said in his speech that mining and other industries must pay “their fair share” and be part of the solution to the shortfall.
Gibbons did not expand on the proposed list of initial cuts that he has released in recent weeks. Those cuts add up to only $418 million, less than half of what he and legislators must reduce.
He wants to close the Nevada State Prison, lay off 236 state workers and cut the budgets of most state agencies by 10 percent. He added during his speech that he may have to reduce state employee salaries by 6 percent.
The governor did announce Monday that he is setting up an Education Gift Certificate plan at state offices to allow residents to donate to teacher salaries.
Gibbons added that he will not tell the public schools, colleges and universities where they must make cuts. They will be told how much they must cut and then decide themselves where to make the reductions.
“We are in the middle of the greatest economic crisis of our generation,” he said. “It won’t last forever and there will be a recovery. Not tomorrow. Not next week. And things may get worse before they get better. But we will survive.”
Contact reporter Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901. Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@ reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.