Prison board Democrats criticize budget process

CARSON CITY — The two Democrats on the Board of State Prison Commissioners voiced objections Tuesday to their lack of involvement in Gov. Jim Gibbons’ budget cutting plans.

But the members, Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, stopped short of voting to reject the budget cuts that have been submitted to Gibbons by Howard Skolnik, director of the Department of Corrections.

Instead, Miller and Cortez Masto, with Republican board member Gibbons opposed, voted to call another meeting as quickly as possible to discuss the role of the three-member panel in the oversight of the Corrections Department.

"I believe the process ought to be open and inclusive," Miller said. "That’s not what this is. This is clouded in a veil of secrecy."

The board potentially could vote to become more involved in the operations of the agency and do so over the objections of Gibbons, who has only one vote of three.

Gibbons rejected the call for a discussion of budget cuts, citing a 1996 attorney general’s legal opinion on the role of the board that he said makes it clear the panel’s responsibilities are to provide guidance, not day-to-day oversight, of the department.

That opinion also could be a subject of discussion by the board at its next meeting.

Miller initially proposed at the meeting to reject the budget cuts for the department because of what he called the exclusionary budget process being used by Gibbons.

Miller also wanted Skolnik to report back to the board with a range of budget cutting options that the panel could consider at a public meeting.

"The bottom line is I was not presented with full information in a timely manner to be able to make an informed decision," Miller said. "I wasn’t elected to the board to be a rubber stamp."

Miller said he did not question Skolnik’s budget cut decisions, but the secretive process being used to implement them.

He received a copy of the budget cut details Friday, but was told the information could not be disseminated because it was privileged.

Miller said he does not want to be involved in day-to-day decisions of the Corrections Department, but the board should have oversight on the significant issue of the proposed corrections cuts and should be able to discuss the cuts in public.

Gibbons has asked state agencies, the university system and public education to make 4.5 percent cuts in their funding in this year and next to help deal with a projected $450 million revenue shortfall.

The Department of Corrections must cut just over $24 million as its share of nearly $284 million in total cuts. The rest of the shortfall is expected to be made up primarily through the use of the state’s rainy day fund.

Gibbons has not released details of the budget cuts proposed for the state agencies, saying the information is privileged. A Carson City District Court judge ruled last month that the budget cuts under consideration are privileged and that Gibbons did not need to reveal them to the public.

Details of what the cuts will mean for state agencies are expected to be announced later this month.

Skolnik did say at the meeting that no positions will have to be cut to implement the cuts. Prison medical care for inmates, the subject of an ongoing dispute between the agency and the American Civil Liberties Union, will not be cut either, he said.

But Skolnik refused to provide any details on what he has submitted to Gibbons.

Joshua Hicks, general counsel to Gibbons, said an effort will be made to delay the announcement of the budget cuts to at least allow a discussion by the prison board on the oversight issue.

But legal conflicts between Gibbons’ authority to implement cuts versus the authority of the board might not be resolved quickly, Hicks said.

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