Nevada Lawmakers Start Budget Review

Nevada lawmakers, starting their review Tuesday of Gov. Jim Gibbons' record $7 billion state general fund budget for the next two fiscal years, offered both praise and criticism of the plan.

As a joint Assembly-Senate budget panel held its first meeting, Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, said people who are "always yelling" about taxes and spending should realize the budget remains below a mandatory spending cap.

Raggio said a report from state Budget Director Andrew Clinger showing that the state has not exceeded the cap in the 30 years that it has been in place should be "mandatory reading" for the critics.

Outside the hearing, Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, questioned whether Gibbons, who defeated her in the governor's race in November, had delivered a "mean and lean" budget since it's a record amount and up 18 percent over the current budget.

"He has not changed the way you do business in the state," said Titus, adding that Gibbons termed her a big spender in the campaign season but judging from his proposed budget he isn't making good on his promises to voters.

Raggio also said there's criticism about "bloated government" but Clinger's budget report showed that the state ranks 50th among the states in the per capita percentage of public employees.

Titus noted that the governor's plan calls for about 1,300 new state government workers. State Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, who lost to Gibbons in the Republican gubernatorial primary last summer, said government workers may have low per-capita status, but are among the best paid compared with other states.

Beers also questioned whether lawmakers could approve appropriations above the cap, but Raggio said the chances of that
"are slim or none."

"There's only one chance of spending beyond the cap: none," added Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas.

In his State of the State address Monday night, Gibbons outlined a spending plan for the coming two fiscal years that calls for no new taxes and slightly cuts the percentage of education funding while increasing the percentage for public safety and human services programs.

When the general fund dollars are added to federal funds and other revenue sources, the total spending for ongoing government programs hits $18.23 billion. That overall figure is up 15 percent over the current two-year budget cycle.

The biggest expenditure is for the state's K-12 schools and university-community college system. That funding would increase some $495 million over current spending to $3.63 billion.

The 52.6 percent total of all general fund dollars for education is less than the 53.7 percent for education that legislators approved for the current two-year budget cycle.

Gibbons balked at funding full-day kindergarten, putting him on a collision course with legislative Democrats who want it. Currently, all-day kindergarten exists only as a pilot program in schools considered at-risk.

Besides the 52.6 percent in state spending on Nevada's K-12 schools and the state's universities and community colleges, Gibbons' plan would allocate 29.4 percent of the funds to human services, including Medicaid and mental health services, for a total of $2 billion.

Ten percent of the state general fund revenues would be used for
public safety, including the state's prison system. Gibbons wants to expand some prison facilities to handle a growing inmate population, and hire more than 330 new prison guards.

The balance of the spending in the governor's tentative budget would go to commerce and industry-related agencies, constitutional offices and other special-service government operations.

About a third of the projected revenue that would support the spending comes from sales and use taxes, and another 28 percent comes from fees and taxes paid mainly by casinos. The balance comes from various insurance and business levies, real estate transfer taxes, secretary of state fees and from taxes on liquor and cigarettes.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)