Debate Over Prison Budget Cuts Delays Approval

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CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - Nevada Prison Board members opted Tuesday to delay approval of $8.1 million in budget cuts outlined by Corrections Director Howard Skolnik after one panel member said he lacked enough information and wouldn't give a "rubber stamp" endorsement.

Secretary of State Ross Miller, who serves on the board with Gov. Jim Gibbons and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, repeatedly questioned Skolnik about the basis for the cutback decisions - the latest in more than $85 million in budget-balancing cuts for the prison system.

Among the latest reductions is about $700,000 that can be saved by eliminating 5 percent differential pay that about 450 prison guards get for working swing-shifts - a change scheduled for later this month that prompted questions both from Miller and Masto.

Skolnik said he's been able to avoid all but a few staffing reductions through his moneysaving efforts, terming most of them "the least painful things we could do" to avoid more drastic moves such as another prison or prison camp shutdown.

"I'm out of options. I don't have any options left," Skolnik said, adding that his cutback decisions - outlined in a 1-page summary to prison board members - were based on "my best judgment" rather than some "democratic decision" involving other administrators.

The Prison Board won't meet again until October, but Skolnik said even with the delayed approval he should be able to achieve the new budget cuts which affect prison system spending through next June.

The latest reductions follow the Legislature's June 27 special session called by Gibbons to deal with a $1.2 billion state tax revenue shortfall projected through mid-2009. While most agencies now face additional 3.3 percent cuts atop earlier reductions, the 13,000-inmate prison system's cuts work out to just under 3 percent.

While Skolnik had talked earlier about shutting down the old Nevada State Prison in Carson City, that's not on the latest list - although it remains an option.

The biggest savings, $3.2 million, would be achieved by delaying a High Desert State Prison expansion in southern Nevada. A northern Nevada prison camp closure will save nearly $1.3 million, a delay in a women's prison project in southern Nevada saves $1 million, and staffing freezes save nearly $1 million.

The cuts follow a series of dismal reports on slumping revenues from major sources, such as casino and sales taxes, as a result of a housing crisis and slowing tourism industry. In advance of the recent special session, lawmakers and the governor already had slashed many agency operating budgets, delayed building projects and drawn down a state rainy day fund to help cover the revenue gap.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)