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VICTOR JOECKS: Sisolak to blame for reduced Unemployment Insurance staffing

Gov. Steve Sisolak is being disingenuous in his attempt to hide that he successfully recommended cutting staff in Nevada’s unemployment insurance office.

On Tuesday, Sisolak held a press conference addressing the struggles people are having filing for unemployment. There haven’t been enough staff to handle the level of calls coming in. That’s led to a legion of complaints about people not being able to get through or even leave a message. Sisolak assured Nevadans that those problems aren’t his fault.

“Attempts to upgrade the unemployment insurance system or increase staffing or even maintain staffing levels were not approved in past legislative sessions,” Sisolak said. “I want to emphasize that. We saw that there was a need for expanding and updating the system and the staffing in unemployment, and it did not get through the Legislature.”

On the surface, it’s not a very compelling narrative. The governor isn’t a bystander in the budgeting process. He’s the most powerful person in Carson City. He submits a recommended budget and works with legislative leadership on the final product. His fellow Democrats dominated the legislative branch, too. If he had wanted an upgrade to the unemployment system, he could have gotten it.

But there are bigger problems with Sisolak’s version of events: He proposed the very cuts he’s now bemoaning.

In his recommended budget, Sisolak wanted to reduce unemployment insurance staffing by around 20 percent. His budget called for eliminating 42 positions and transferring seven other positions. During a budget hearing, Renée L. Olson, Employment Security Division administrator, warned about the risk of Sisolak’s cuts.

Across the country, there is concern that “we will not be able to adequately respond to the next downturn,” Olson said in March 2019. “I do share these concerns for Nevada. It does not matter if there is money in the trust fund if we cannot service claims.”

Unfortunately, numerous Nevadans now know that firsthand.

The Legislature approved an unemployment insurance budget only a few tenths of a percent different from what Sisolak proposed. Remember, his fellow Democrats, Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, controlled the Legislature. Federal funding for the unemployment insurance program did decrease, but Nevada had record-high state tax revenue. If Sisolak had wanted to boost unemployment insurance staffing or upgrade technology, as he now claims, the state had money available.

A past Legislature did fund a technology upgrade, too. In 2015, the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation installed a new unemployment insurance computer program for employers. That upgrade replaced a 30-year-old system. At the time, Olson called it a “state-of-the-art system.”

Sisolak’s blame shifting has political implications as well. Cannizzaro is facing a competitive re-election campaign. Now her opponent, April Becker, can tell voters that Sisolak blamed Cannizzaro for passing a budget that cut staffing in the unemployment office. Without those budget cuts, thousands of Nevadans would have received their unemployment payments sooner.

What’s ironic is that Sisolak didn’t need to throw anyone under the bus. He recommended reducing unemployment insurance staffing because Nevada had low unemployment. That made sense in 2019. He couldn’t have anticipated a global pandemic shutting down the state’s economy. There was no need to blame anyone for Nevada’s unemployment insurance programs being overwhelmed by record weekly unemployment claims.

But if Sisolak wants to point the finger, he should point it at himself.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen to him discuss his columns each Monday at 10 a.m. with Kevin Wall on 790 Talk Now. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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