Lawmakers, the governor and a stimulus czar

Gov. Jim Gibbons has apparently won the battle over who will oversee the handling of some $2.2 billion in federal stimulus money earmarked for Nevada, despite the Legislature’s recent refusal to authorize him to appoint a $120,000 “czar” to oversee and track that spending.

The governor’s budget office issued an executive order declaring that he is authorized to accept the stimulus money. Legislative Democrats have apparently agreed not to contest the order.

Previously, the Interim Finance Committee moved the $120,000 position out of the governor’s executive Cabinet and into the controller’s office, simultaneously reducing the position’s proposed salary.

Lawmakers also directed that the position would be “classified” — meaning the job would be filled through established personnel hiring procedures.

Both sides in the dispute claimed the other side’s actions would delay the arrival of the federal funds, though it’s clear this was a spat between a Republican governor and Democratic majority legislators who haven’t exactly been necking in the bleachers, up till now.

The fight was over the distribution of money from the federal government’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion spending plan President Barack Obama signed into law in February.

The state is in line to receive as much as $2.2 billion to help finance everything from unemployment checks to home weatherization projects. To receive the maximum amount possible, state officials need to provide thorough and timely documentation of how the money is used.

Democratic members of the Interim Finance Committee objected that Gov. Gibbons, a Republican, cannot be trusted to oversee the process. So, on Aug. 3, they shifted the overseer position to the office of Controller Kim Wallin, a Democrat.

At the time, Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, criticized Gov. Gibbons’ personal life and leadership ability.

Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, serves on the Interim Finance Committee and voted against shifting the job out from under Gov. Gibbons, saying the move was a political shot at the governor, as opposed to a decision aimed at efficiently distributing stimulus money.

“The governor has to sign certifications the (stimulus) law is being complied with,” Sen. Raggio said. If the work is done through Wallin’s office, “He’s got to sign certifications for something that isn’t under his auspices. I felt it was inappropriate and unworkable.”

It’s tempting to add up the scores and pick a winner in this dispute. The legislators get points for proposing a reduced salary; the governor for issuing his executive order. It’s also tempting to ask how quickly Democrats would have moved this position back under the governor’s control if it were a Democrat sitting in the governor’s mansion.

Of course, to ask where the new state “stimulus czar” shall sit and who shall control his or her salary is to miss the bigger question: Why does Nevada need a six-figure bureaucrat to shepherd these funds, at all?

Most of the so-called “stimulus” funds are earmarked. They will flow into the budgets of existing bureaucracies, whose officers already know how to disburse them. Yes, the recipient departments will then have to document how the funds were used.

But is this a new challenge? Don’t these offices have people on staff who perform such auditing and documentation, every day?

It would have been better if the funds had never been seized from private taxpayers — America’s real job creators — in the first place. But these monies are not to be thought of as kindergarten kids, needing someone to hold their hands as they cross the street for their first day at school.

These government-to-government transfers — supposedly intended to help private-sector citizens — have already “grown government” enough. Four of the 50 states have opted to do without any new state “czar” in charge of certifying where these funds go. Nevada could and should become the fifth.

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