Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak convened a special session of the state Legislature on Wednesday. Lawmakers — who normally only meet every two years — met in Carson City to review a sweeping plan to reduce state expenditures prepared by the governor’s staff.
But proceedings were interrupted on Friday, when officials confirmed that someone who had been in the building tested positive for COVID-19. They didn’t specify if it was a lawmaker, employee or member of the press, but shortly after the announcement, Assembly members convened for less than five minutes to announce they would adjourn for the day.
According to fiscal analysis, the state is facing a budget shortfall of about $1.2 billion. Proposed cuts amount to more than $530 million in reductions to state agency budgets, while budget sweeps, federal aid and other measures account for the rest.
Education and public health account for more than 80% of the state’s general fund, so those areas have also seen most of the proposed cuts.
Sisolak’s plan includes $166 million in proposed cuts to K-12 education, which historically has been cash-strapped. According to policy-oriented news outlet Governing, Nevada ranked 42nd in per-student spending in 2016.
The reductions also come on the heels of significant changes to the school funding formula, which was updated for the first time since 1967 during the last regular legislative session.
Jennifer Cantley called the Assembly to give public comment during their Wednesday meeting. She told legislators she’s a mother of three from Douglas County. Cantley expressed dismay about the proposed education cuts, especially the impact they could have on rural communities. “When I heard education was on the chopping block it just brought me to my knees,” she said. “Budgets have been cut enough from the rural communities.”
Yvette Williams, who is chair of the Clark County Black Caucus, also urged the Assembly to avoid education spending cuts. “Use the lens of equity and justice, and in particular education justice,” she said.
Williams is opposed to eliminating the Read By Grade 3 initiative and the New Nevada Education Funding Plan. Both programs were designed to improve achievement gaps among students of color — especially Black students, who are faced with a staggeringly low 58.1% graduation rate.
“It’s not fairly distributed among all students,” Williams said of the proposed cuts. “Students who are most vulnerable are asked to bear the weight of these budget cuts”
Michelle Booth of the advocacy group Educate Nevada Now told lawmakers that schools have never recovered from cuts made over a decade ago, during the Great Recession. “Nevada crumbles during times of national economic crisis,” she said.
Outside the Legislature, teachers, school employees and advocates lined South Carson Street to protest budget reductions.
Elizabeth Cadigan is a music teacher for the Washoe County School District who joined the demonstration Wednesday. She acknowledged the pandemic had put Nevada in uncharted territory, but rejected any proposed cuts to education.
“We have faced issues with our education funding for decades,” she said. “What we have seen is that once money is cut, it’s nearly impossible to get back.”
On Thursday, Washoe County School District Superintendent Kristen McNeill told senators that the funding they’re being asked to cut supports services for underserved youth, like afterschool programming.
“Those intervention strategies are extremely important,” she said.
Agency staff also proposed significant cuts to public health services, especially if federal coronavirus relief dries up.
Suzanne Bierman is an administrator for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). She told senators they’ve been able to maintain Medicaid services so far, because the federal government is providing more money in its matching funds for states as part of coronavirus relief.
But the extra cash is scheduled to stop later this month, so DHHS staff hope it will get extended to avert cuts to the program.
“The division has proposed a 6% across-the-board rate reduction, for projected state general funds of $53 million through the end of Fiscal Year 2021,” Bierman said.
Reimbursement rates determine how much the state pays health care providers. Some of those providers already say they’re underpaid by the state, so cuts could make it harder for people who are covered by Medicaid to seek treatment.
Other DHHS programs slated for cuts include problem gambling treatment and mental health services, which could lose as much as $12 million — a further setback for Nevada, which was ranked last in the nation for access to mental health care by the nonprofit Mental Health America.
The Legislature still has to approve all these proposed cuts, but it’s not clear how long that will take.
But advocates have also called on lawmakers to look into raising revenue to address the shortfall, rather than cutting the state’s beleaguered social safety net.
On Wednesday, Annette Magnus of the group Battle Born Progress admonished the Legislature for what she calls historic failures in state funding. “We have never raised revenue in this state in the right way and we must change that,” she said. “We cannot continue to cut, cut, cut.”
In his initial budget summary, Gov. Sisolak explained he would be open to revenue-raising proposals. But he told reporters Thursday that the Legislature wouldn’t be able to achieve the required two-thirds vote to approve new taxes without Republican support, which he says he hasn’t seen yet.
“I’m happy to look at revenue sources, but I am not naive,” he said. “I have to be realistic. We couldn’t raise revenue in the last session. Raising it in a special session is not going to be any easier.”
Sisolak and Democratic lawmakers have also been pushing for more federal aid to states in a future congressional funding package.
Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson told CapRadio that the money Nevada has already received has helped cushion the blow, but more will be needed if the state is to avoid the worst cuts. “I think that it’s important now that we continue to press the United States Senate to get more dollars to the states,” he said. “I think we’ve learned in the past that we couldn’t do it on our own when you have a pandemic like this.”
Once the special session on the budget is over, lawmakers might be called back for another to address police reform.
Meanwhile, Sisolak just announced the state is moving back to stronger restrictions from Phase One of its reopening plan. Starting Friday at midnight, bars will have to close their doors to customers, although they can still offer curbside pickup or delivery services, if local laws allow for that.
This mostly applies to bars in hotspot counties, where new COVID-19 cases have been surging.
Sisolak told reporters Thursday rising case numbers are a big concern, but also explained that many bars haven’t been following COVID-19 safety guidelines set by the state. “I’m concerned because based on our inspection thus far, fewer than half the bars that OSHA inspectors have visited have been found to be in compliance,” he said.
The new restrictions affect bars in Washoe and Clark counties, where most of the state’s population lives, but also in more rural areas like Elko, Humboldt, Lander, Lyon and Nye counties.
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