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VICTOR JOECKS: Sisolak’s budget dithering may delay the start of CCSD’s school year

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s refusal to proactively make tough budget decisions has worsened Nevada’s financial situation — and may postpone the start of the next school year.

“The current delays related to funding and budget cuts are placing the reopening of our schools in peril,” Clark County School District superintendent Jesus Jara wrote in remarks prepared for delivery Thursday night. “Without accurate guidance and budget projections, our school leaders cannot adequately prepare for the school year.”

The state controls the bulk of the funding school districts receive. In the aftermath of the coronavirus, however, there’s going to be less money for everything, including education. The problem is that Sisolak has yet to tell the school district how much to expect in cuts. Jara warned that without financial details from Carson City, a delay in the start of the school year is “inevitable.”

There’s a time crunch because, after June 19, school principals are off work until July 22. That’s just two weeks before teachers are supposed to return to school. But budget reductions will likely force principals to cut positions. That could mean layoffs, a process complicated by collective bargaining.

By dithering, Sisolak is making a bad situation worse. Unfortunately, that has defined his response to the virus’s devastating effect on the state budget.

Sisolak isn’t responsible for the pandemic. In the face of an unknown virus, his initial shutdown order was reasonable, even if new evidence suggests it was an overreaction. In contrast, the damage he’s done by refusing to reopen Nevada as quickly as possible is entirely his responsibility.

But Sisolak could have taken steps in March to ease the upcoming and entirely predictable budget pain. Nevada law gives government agencies the ability to furlough employees during a “fiscal emergency” or if the state “will experience a shortfall in revenue.” But Sisolak waited until May 11 to declare a fiscal emergency. Furloughs won’t start until July.

No one wants workers to lose their jobs, especially during a global pandemic. But furloughing state workers for one or two days a month during the shutdown was the best bad option. When Nevada’s unemployment rate tops 28 percent, government has to tighten its belt. Republican state Sen. James Settelmeyer, minority leader of the upper chamber, estimated furloughs would save Nevada at least $14 million a day.

Workers who weren’t able to do meaningful work with state offices closed should have been furloughed until those offices reopened. They could have collected unemployment, including an extra $600 a week from the coronavirus stimulus bill, while state government continued their insurance coverage.

Instead, Sisolak let the situation worsen. To fix the $812 million hole for the fiscal year ending in June, he primarily relied on using up Nevada’s savings, including raiding the Rainy Day fund. Nevada has almost no reserves left to deal with next year’s $1.3 billion deficit.

No wonder Sisolak doesn’t want to share financial details with Jara or anyone else. He’s waiting on a federal bailout to hide how badly he’s bungled Nevada’s budget situation.

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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