Budget Cuts Spark Nevada Prison Board Debate

Gov. Jim Gibbons' plan to cut about $24 million from the budget for Nevada's crowded prisons was held up temporarily Tuesday as he and another state Prison Board member clashed over his authority to impose the cuts without a full board vote.

Secretary of State Ross Miller challenged the process used in the governor's prison budget-cut planning, part of an overall 4.5 percent budget reduction for most state agencies, saying he was "deeply troubled" by the "veil of secrecy" surrounding that process.

"I wasn't elected to this board to be a rubber stamp," said Miller, a Democrat who got an automatic seat on the Prison Board when he was elected secretary of state in 2006 and since then has pressed for more activity by the panel - which has met infrequently in recent years.

Gibbons countered that a 1996 attorney general's opinion says the Prison Board has an advisory, policy-setting role.

The Republican governor's view is that state Prison Director Howard
Skolnik, his appointee, makes the day-to-day decisions subject to Gibbons' oversight.

Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, the third member of the Prison Board, intervened after Miller moved to reject the prison budget cuts, calling instead for another board meeting as soon as possible to clarify the authority of panel members.

The vote for Masto's proposal was 2-1, with Gibbons voting "no." The governor's legal counsel, Josh Hicks, said afterward that the prison cuts probably will be delayed providing another board meeting can be held promptly.

Gibbons wants to impose the overall 4.5 percent reduction plans throughout state government this month - possibly by next week - to
avert a worst-case revenue shortfall estimate of $440 million for the current two-year budget cycle that closes in mid-2009.

Miller's bid for more involvement in decisions affecting Nevada prisons faces more roadblocks than the 1996 attorney general's opinion.

In December, a judge held that the governor could keep secret the details of proposed 5 percent and 8 percent cutback plans that had been developed prior to the final 4.5 percent plan.

Carson City District Judge Todd Russell said that not disclosing details of the earlier plans was essential to ensuring a private and "frank exchange" between the governor and his top aides in concluding work on actual reductions.

During Tuesday's board meeting, the panel also heard numerous complaints from family members and representatives of inmates about
an update in various regulations governing activity inside prisons.

Many of the speakers called for an outside audit of prison operations, saying that's the best way to get to the bottom of inmate complaints and concerns about medical care, disciplinary procedures, law library access, job assignments, credits that can reduce sentences and other issues.

While Prison Board members decided to adopt many of the regulation changes, several were delayed, including the rule update dealing with inmate disciplinary procedures.