Sandoval hints at plans to balance Nevada budget

Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval dropped some hints Wednesday about how he plans to balance Nevada’s upside-down budget.

But he didn’t dive into many specifics other than to repeat several times that spending cuts would be deep and widespread and that tax increases are off the table.

“A lot of folks have talked about the fact we need more taxes. The question that needs to be asked is who is going to pay them,” Sandoval said during a question-and-answer session with Las Vegas news media.

He talked about efforts to recruit new businesses and remained upbeat despite a bombardment of bad news that included an unemployment rate near 14 percent statewide, falling or flat tax revenue projections and poor performance by the state’s schools.

“If Nevada was a stock, I’d buy now because we are going up,” he said.

Sandoval, who is scheduled to take office Monday from fellow Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons, highlighted the devastating effect the recession has had on Nevada businesses and families and said the private sector doesn’t have extra money to hand over to government.

“Who are you going to collect that revenue from?” Sandoval asked.

Later, he added: “A tax has to be paid by somebody. There has never been a tax that wasn’t collected by somebody, from a struggling family, from a business.”

He did give some hints as to where he will find the cash to balance a general fund budget that, according to some estimates, has projected expenses outpacing anticipated revenue by about $3 billion from 2011 to 2013.

Sandoval indicated that he would consolidate services performed by the Department of Information Technology and that personnel management services from several departments could be folded into the Department of Personnel.

“We don’t need a personnel person in every single department of state government,” Sandoval said.

When asked about differences between the budget he plans to submit for printing a week from Friday and the proposals that agency chiefs submitted to Gibbons, Sandoval noted one change.

One agency budget suggested cutting personal care attendants who help the elderly and disabled. Sandoval said he will not cut the service.

“That was slated to be eliminated in (Gibbons’) budget,” Sandoval said. “There are other things … presented in the budget by Governor Gibbons that will not be part of our budget.”

Mike Willden, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the decision to maintain funding for personal care assistants will be good news for the 6,554 people who receive the service.

“The governor-elect I think heard loud and clear from the advocates in the disabled community and the people who receive those services, and he didn’t want us to make that cut,” Willden said.

The cut would have saved more than $50 million over the biennium but might have cost money in the long run because assistance with feeding, hygiene and toilet use helps prevent costlier medical problems from developing, Willden said.

He said personal care attendants are among optional services offered under Medicaid. Others include speech and physical therapy, elder day care, orthotics, prosthetics, vision, dental and other care.

Willden said there will be a “significant difference” in the budget his department submitted to Gibbons and what comes out of the Sandoval administration.

“Generally he is not in favor of cutting those optional services,” Willden said.

On education, Sandoval said he expects improvements in student performance in kindergarten through 12th grade and higher education despite the likelihood that more funding cuts are on the way.

“I think that the education system is going to understand there is going to be shared sacrifice in this,” he said. “Part of the conversation has to focus on not just the money. We need to improve systemically.”

Education, roughly 53 percent of the state general fund, has suffered from budget cuts and poor student performance in recent years.

Sandoval wants to reverse the performance trend but isn’t offering more money to offset earlier cuts and might propose even more cuts.

Walt Rulffes, former superintendent of the Clark County School District, said it would be difficult but not impossible to improve public school performance outcomes with flat or reduced funding.

“There is potential for improvement,” Rulffes said. “However, I don’t think we should look for big changes across the board for improvement.”

With more flexibility, Rulffes said, the district could focus more on student performance in core subjects such as math, English and science, which would have a positive effect on graduation rates.

He said new Superintendent Dwight Jones, who was out of town and unavailable for comment, could press the administration to commit to more funding in the future if schools meet performance targets.

Dan Klaich, chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, was more skeptical than Rulffes about the feasibility of enacting Sandoval’s vision.

Klaich said that the system already has absorbed cuts of about 20 percent and that more would compromise quality.

When asked whether the system could take more budget cuts and improve performance at the same time, Klaich responded: “I think the answer is ‘no.’ ”

Other cuts the governor-elect hinted were minor.

Sandoval said he will not accept a pay raise that is scheduled to kick in Saturday for the job of governor. And he will reduce his pay 4.6 percent, the amount state workers lose through furloughs, but will work on the furlough day.

Sandoval said he plans to work hard to forge relationships with legislators, local government officials and others to solve problems.

It’s a contrast from the governing style of Gibbons, who was criticized for being uninterested in the policy study and politicking.

“We’re two different people,” Sandoval said. “I’m going to be an individual who is engaged.”

Incoming Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, said that Sandoval’s eagerness to work with the Legislature is a welcome change from Gibbons’ style and that the governor and legislative leaders probably will agree on many spending cuts.

But Oceguera said that cuts alone will not do the job and that it will take increased tax revenue to balance the budget.

“I think the governor is going to find there is a major hole in his budget,” Oceguera said.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@
reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

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