Lawmakers Skeptical About Budget evisions

By  | 

Skeptical Nevada lawmakers demanded Thursday that the Gibbons administration prove its claim that a projected revenue shortfall of nearly $137 million has been erased by a series of budget cuts and recalculations.

The biggest single factor in the budget revision was a reduction in the expected caseload of Medicaid recipients, for a $52 million savings, and that led to sharp questioning from legislators during a Senate-Assembly budget panel hearing.

Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, who chaired the budget subcommittee meeting, raised some general questions about the savings, and Democrats on the panel went beyond that by asking whether GOP Gov. Jim Gibbons' administrators were providing reliable information.

"I want to make sure that the decreases are real before we count on them," said Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, adding that a miscalculation now could lead to a budget crisis later on.

Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, challenged a downward revision of an earlier mental health services caseload, saying, "Either they were bad projections to start with or else now they're artificial cuts to try to save money."

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, also questioned the new projections, asking whether new identification requirements for Medicaid recipients might be scaring off some otherwise-qualified elderly people unable to find documents such as birth certificates.

Chuck Duarte, administrator for the Division of Health Care Financing and Policy, said the information on caseload declines is "as reliable as it can be." He also said that safeguards have been built into the governor's nearly $7 billion spending plan for the next two fiscal years to guard against a Medicaid funding crisis.

"I'm just telling you our numbers are not artificial. They're basically what they are," said Carlos Brandenburg, administrator for the Division of Mental Health and Developmental Services, responding to questions from Titus.

Brandenburg also said the earlier caseload estimates were based on data dating to September, while the updated estimates are based on information obtained in December.

The Medicaid and mental services programs are part of the big Health and Human Services Department, headed by Mike Willden who on Wednesday joined with state Budget Director Andrew Clinger to say
that cuts and recalculations had erased a projected revenue shortfall of up to $137 million.

Willden said that cuts and adjustments within his agency accounted for nearly $72 million of the total. But he also said there would be "few if any" actual reductions in services to individuals.

When legislators and Gibbons began discussing the need for cuts due to the projected shortfall, the initial concern was that two-thirds of the program "enhancements" sought by various state government agencies would have to be scrapped.

Clinger said he now estimates that only about one-third of those
enhancements will have to be deleted from the spending plan.

Besides Health and Human Services, other reductions suggested by
Gibbons include nearly $11 million for Nevada's higher education system. He also suggested cutting out a $15 million one-shot appropriation for renovating part of the Shadow Lane campus of the
University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Other cuts or reductions are much smaller, including about $915,000 from the state's public safety budget, which includes Nevada prisons; about $587,000 out of the state Military Department budget; about $195,000 from the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation; and about $180,000 from the state Wildlife Department spending plan.

The budget calculations are subject to more changes once the state's Economic Forum meets on May 1 and provides lawmakers with updated revenue projections for the coming two years. Those projections must be followed by lawmakers in producing a budget by
early June.

Also, legislators can make changes in what Gibbons has suggested as they wrap up work on the proposed spending by government agencies that must be balanced against available revenues.

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