Nevada Official: Few Human Services Cuts

Nevada's human services budget will lose more than $100 million in state and federal funds due to reductions mandated by a tax revenue slump, but the official who oversees such spending pledged Tuesday to keep client service cuts to a minimum.

"One of the last things I want to do is harm the fiscal level of client services," Mike Willden, director of the Health and Human Services Department, told a legislative panel, adding, "We will take heavier hits at the administrative level before we're going to take client services."

Willden said he couldn't provide details about the cuts that his big agency will impose. That's in line with a mandate by Gov. Jim Gibbons - a mandate that's under court challenge - to withhold the information until he signs off on a final cutback plan for all government agencies.

Members of the legislative panel, backed up by representatives of various public advocacy groups, criticized the secrecy, saying the public wants to know the details now rather than wait until a 4.5 percent across-the-board cutback plan is in place in a few weeks.

"This is like the grinch that stole Christmas, really," said state Sen. Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas, adding that lawmakers as well as the public have been left in the dark and "the public is demanding answers to very legitimate questions."

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, who chairs the study committee that heard from Willden, thanked him for his efforts to
avoid actual client service reductions but added, "The sooner you
guys can get that (detailed) information out to the public, the better."

The government safety net for children, the poor, elderly, disabled and others "really is pretty threadbare," Leslie said, adding that cutbacks mean "we're digging ourselves a deeper hole to dig out of."

Willden said his agency cuts include $78 million in state general funds and about $40 million more in federal funds.

His plan is to achieve most of the savings by delaying capital and
technology improvement projects, defer some rate increases for service providers, and not fill vacant staff positions.

Program cuts were likely under Gibbons' initial plan for 8 percent budget cuts but with the governor's announcement Friday of a new plan for 4.5 percent the need for program cuts "goes away fairly quickly," Willden said.

He also said certain child welfare and juvenile justice programs remain "officially exempt" from any cuts.

Tuesday's hearing followed a demonstration Monday in Las Vegas by about 50 children's advocates, activists and mental health and education professionals concerned about the governor's cutback proposals.

Carrying signs and umbrellas, the demonstrators said Gibbons should rethink the 4.5 percent cuts and instead dip into the state's rainy-day fund that's set up to handle fiscal emergencies in between Nevada's every-other-year legislative sessions.

Gibbons said Friday that the state's revenues could fall $440 million short in the current two-year budget cycle, which ends in mid-2009.

But he said he was able to reduce cuts from 8 percent to 4.5 percent by spreading them to all agencies rather than selected agencies.

The change helps the state's human services programs and its university and college system, which were hard hit by the 8 percent

But the new 4.5 percent reduction plan now includes prisons and K-12 public schools, which had been exempt.

For the university-college system, the reduction drops from nearly $103 million to just under $58 million. K-12 public schools now must deal with about $95 million in reduced state funding, and the state's crowded prisons have to cut spending by about $24 million.

Gibbons said that spreading the impact to more agencies was essential to avoid layoffs of employees, potential court battles raising fairness issues, and a big loss of federal matching funds.

Also scheduled pay raises for state workers and teachers remain in