Nevadans can’t sustain any more cuts

In his cost-cutting wisdom, Gov. Jim Gibbons has instructed state agencies to lop 14 percent off of their budgets for 2009-11.

That’s 14 percent across the board, no matter if your department is tasked by the federal government with, essentially, keeping people alive.

It’s hard to imagine how this kind of flat approach can be good in a state with so many dimensions — nearly all of them still growing faster than anywhere else in the country.

We already have a system that often combines national leading growth with the nation’s lowest funding levels. In many social service areas Nevada lives up to its derisive moniker “Mississippi of the West.”

Yet in Nevada, where schools receive less money per child than anywhere else, some people still defend the status quo by trying to tweak the numbers to make them seem better than what might characterize a backwater.

They argue you have to consider capital construction in your estimate of what we spend per child. No, schools aren’t cheap. But it matters little once they’re constructed if they’re already bursting at the seams.

Schools districts are quite aware what education will look like if they cut another 14 percent. This will be on top of the 4.5 percent schools have already slashed.

Those who argue we aren’t cutting into the bone like to say the Legislature can change whatever budget the governor and his staff develop based on the 14 percent reductions.

But the reality is that the governor’s budget is hard to rip apart. Jim Gibbons discovered this last year when he learned of several fee increases buried within the parameters of outgoing Gov. Kenny Guinn’s spending blueprint.

Lawmakers also know that if they dump more into the schools, they’ve got to take it from somewhere, or propose a veto-proof revenue plan to fund the increase.

This year Nevada was ranked D+ for education — 45th overall in the nation — by Education Week’s “Quality Counts” report card.

Imagine if the school children received that kind of report card.

We already know a majority of students failed a variety of math review tests this year. And even if they’re making the hoop-jumping “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind by ticking up 1 percentage point or so on a nationally normed test, there’s noting normal about high school sophomores who can’t do basic arithmetic.

Into this reality comes the budget crisis fiscal conservatives have longed for. It’s much easier to drown government in the bathroom when it’s on life support.

The governor may look at the numbers and plug them into his little puzzle neatly — projecting no growth, not even one tick — but he’ll do it in a kind of voodoo economic vacuum, blind to the human faces behind the numbers.

If I were running a state agency, I’d give the governor a budget with 14 percent cuts as instructed. But I’d also file the kind of supplemental documentation that might actually sway a thinking person.

In Clark, estimates are that a 14 percent cut would result in $434 less per student.

Given the continued student population growth, schools would be left with several ways to keep their D+ average. They could cut art and phys-ed programs. They could increase class sizes even more and pay teachers even less.

Each agency should prepare a similar scenario.

What, for example, does it mean to slice another $42 million from the prison budget. Will we lay off corrections officers? And if we do, how safe will it be for those who get to keep their jobs?

What will Nevada’s higher education system look like with roughly $100 million lopped off across the board? Even with the money, it doesn’t sound like a system trying to recruit the best instructors even as it remediates the worst students.

Surely UNLV and the University of Nevada aren’t going anywhere, but what about smaller institutions — Great Basin, the community colleges, Nevada State?

And then we have the great $150 million cuts to Health and Human Services at a time when doctors are infecting patients with deadly diseases because, frankly, they can.

What will the cuts mean to Medicare recipients and how will slicing those programs impact health care costs for everyone else working and living here?

If we simply stop caseloads from growing, where will those people go for help? What will mentally ill patients do without their medication?

It’s almost trite to call the 14 percent cuts a doom scenario given the gloomy reality so much of state government was already in.

The SAGE Commission — the governor’s effort to find fat in state spending — will undoubtedly find some “waste” in the system. But if starving government is the intended goal, SAGE and the governor don’t have too far to go — especially when the numbers come in so nicely on budget.

Contact Erin Neff at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at

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