Lawmakers Differ Over Suing Nevada Governor Over Budget Cuts

The state senator who chairs the Legislative Commission and Sen. Bob Coffin are at odds over Coffin's bid to have the commission sue Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons over his budget cuts designed to head off a looming $500 million-plus revenue shortfall.

Coffin, D-Las Vegas, urged Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, to have the commission chaired by Townsend sue the Republican governor. Townsend responded with a letter, released Wednesday, saying that would be inappropriate.

Coffin argued that Gibbons is making the cuts on his own "despite statutory requirements to keep the Legislature informed and involved."

"He has not sent even a courtesy copy of his intentions to the fiscal staff of our (legislative) body and they have had to rely on the public media for that, Coffin said.

Coffin noted that the appropriation act passed by lawmakers last year says the governor must submit budget cut plans to the Legislature's Interim Finance Committee if the state's ending fund balance drops below $80 million.

But Coffin said he's heard "disturbing" accounts that Gibbons will schedule the budget cuts so that the ending-fund balance never drops below the $80 million - and he won't have to bring his cutback plans to Interim Finance.

Without a legal challenge from lawmakers, "we may unintentionally ratify what amounts to an unconstitutional line-item veto of our budget by the governor," Coffin said.

The budget cuts are on the Interim Finance Committee's Thursday agenda, but only as an informational item, Coffin said.

Townsend said he had "no intention" of calling for a lawsuit against the governor at this point, adding that any changes in the lawmakers' power to review budget cuts should be considered during a regular session.

The next such session will open in early 2009.

Townsend said existing state law gives the governor broad authority over the budget, and a lawsuit "would simply be saying that 'we don't like the way that you are carrying out the statutes that we passed.'

The remedy is to change the statutes, not to sue the governor."

Gibbons on Jan. 11 released details of 4.5 percent budget cuts affecting all but a few government programs, saying a projected revenue shortfall in the current two-year budget cycle ending in mid-2009 had grown to $517 million.

Gibbons also said he won't call a special legislative session to consider new taxes as a way to deal with the state revenue slump.

He's also opposed to tapping a "rainy day" fund for fiscal emergencies until late in the budget cycle, rather than now.

The 4.5 percent budget cuts affecting most government programs are hitting the state's K-12 schools and its human services programs the hardest.

The K-12 system faces cuts of nearly $93 million while the big Department of Health and Human Services is cutting $82 million.

The state's university and college system is in line for cuts of nearly $58 million while the prison system must deal with reductions of nearly $25 million.