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The smallest cut

There was a time when the Legislature’s biggest budget battles focused not on whether state government should grow, but on how much it would grow. Merely maintaining the size of government? Pshaw! Reducing it? Impossible.

These are unprecedented times. The state’s unemployment rate will soon top 10 percent. Companies and consumers are cutting back to the bare necessities with the goal of merely surviving 2009. And because tax revenues have fallen right along with the rest of the economy, Gov. Jim Gibbons has proposed shrinking some of the operations and expenses of state government, eliminating nonessential functions in the process.

A Monday meeting of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee was a case study in the lengths to which legacy-building politicians will go to preserve even the smallest bureaucracy, no matter the taxpayers’ ability to support it.

As part of his two-year, $6.17 billion budget, the Republican governor has proposed closing the state Consumer Health Assistance Office at a savings to the public of nearly $1 million over the biennium. This is not a $50 million “Draconian cut,” as Democrats are fond of crying. This is not a $10 million cut.

Yet the Democrats who control the Assembly were willing to spend most of one morning in a constitutionally mandated 120-day session making the argument that the tiny office, which has just nine employees, absolutely, positively cannot be closed.

The program helps cash-strapped Nevadans find low-cost or fully subsidized medical care and medication; provides coverage options for jobless residents who can’t afford COBRA; offers guidance and advocacy in coverage disputes with insurers and Medicaid; reviews billing statements; and assists people who suffer on-the-job injuries. (That these mazes of red tape and networks of buck-passers are a product of government regulation and legislative micromanagement is a topic for another day.)

Office Director Valerie Rosalin told The Associated Press after the meeting that her caseloads are growing every year, and that the worsening recession has increased demand for her team’s services. “We have testimony of people who have told us that without us, they would be dead,” Ms. Rosalin said after the meeting. “In these economic times, there is nobody to help you. We’re that anchor. We’re that safety net that will give people the hope to move on.”

Ms. Rosalin didn’t use the exact words, but the message clearly is implied: If this office is closed, people will die.

Such scare tactics ignore the fact that when there is demand for a particular service and a provider disappears, some other entity will step forward to fill that void. Clearly, Nevada’s Department of Health and Human Services has the personnel — and the incentive — to promote their welfare programs and direct nonqualifiers to other resources. Nonprofit social service providers routinely provide personal assistance. Then there are the people who are most familiar with the bureaucracies and the best ways to navigate them: lawmakers themselves.

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, was the driving force behind the creation of the Consumer Health Assistance Office in 1999. She said she created new government jobs because she “spent every lunch hour getting operations approved” for constituents. Since then, she said, the office has saved Nevadans $30 million in health care expenses.

“I haven’t been prouder of an agency that was created than this one,” Ms. Buckley said. “Valerie and her staff run a lean, mean operation. And you can see from her cost savings, the millions of dollars that have been saved, they have more than proven their worth.”

Ms. Buckley has spoken. She controls the Assembly, and her party has a majority in the state Senate. And so yet another minuscule attempt to reduce the size of government will be dashed. But the question has to be asked: How in the world did the state get along for 135 years without the Consumer Health Assistance Office?

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