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Lawmakers to tackle $1.2B budget deficit in special session Wednesday

Updated July 7, 2020 - 8:28 pm

CARSON CITY — Closing the state’s $1.2 billion budget hole will be the prime focus of the upcoming special legislative session, which will convene at 9 a.m. Wednesday in Carson City, according to a proclamation issued by Gov. Steve Sisolak.

Other topics that had been discussed for possible policy changes, including police reforms and changes to election laws, will be pushed to a later special session, Sisolak’s office announced in a news release. It was unclear Tuesday when that second session could happen.

The governor’s proclamation was issued less than 18 hours before lawmakers are scheduled to convene, although the date had been previously announced.

“I am eager to work with our Nevada lawmakers on this difficult undertaking, and finalize the necessary reductions while prioritizing resources to protect Nevada’s residents as much as possible,” Sisolak said in a statement. “I understand that the COVID-19 public health crisis has put us in the position to make very painful decisions on the state budget, but I am confident we will be able to overcome this challenge together and forge a new path forward.”

Lawmakers meeting in special session can take up only bills related to the items in the governor’s proclamation. Sisolak’s list has eight items to be addressed, six of which are directly related to the state budget.

They include:

■ Budget cuts to the state’s general fund.

■ Allowing mining companies to prepay taxes.

■ Shifting money from various state accounts to the state’s general fund.

■ Giving the Department of Health and Human Services flexibility to transfer funds between its various accounts.

■ Giving flexibility to the state to restore cuts made during the session in the event that Nevada receives federal funding to assist with the financial impact created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proclamation also gives lawmakers wide latitude, as it states that they can consider “any other actions directly related to solutions for the projected general fund.”

The other two items lawmakers can consider are more narrowly tailored. They can look at allowing school districts to carry forward unspent funds into the following school year and consider potential waivers or changes to the Millennium Scholarship eligibility requirements.

Budget cuts

Current estimates show that the state’s budget for fiscal year 2021 is short by about $1.2 billion. In other words, about one-quarter of the money the state expected to be there won’t be because Sisolak shuttered nonessential businesses in Nevada, including casinos, for roughly two months. Gaming taxes for April and May were near zero, buoyed only by revenue generated by some sportsbooks mobile apps.

On Monday, Sisolak released a rough outline of a proposal to close that budget hole. His ideas include significant cuts to state agencies that total around $550 million, including large cuts to education and health care budgets, big hits to state workers with a freeze to their merit pay increases and one unpaid furlough day per month through June 2021. That budget document also indicated that while Sisolak won’t support any new taxes, he’s open to the idea of increasing some already existing taxes in order to stave off the full brunt of the cuts.

State workers and the unions that represent them have been vocal in recent weeks about their disdain for the proposed furloughs and cuts to agencies, airing their concerns during lengthy public comment periods during several interim legislative meetings last month.

And although members of the public won’t be allowed inside the building because of COVID-19 restrictions, the state teachers union is planning a rally outside the Legislature building at noon on the session’s first day to call for action to ensure that schools are properly funded, as districts continue to figure out how Nevada students will learn in the middle of a global pandemic.

“As we reopen our schools, districts will have new expenses to implement state recommended health and safety guidelines. Cuts to public education will compromise the ability to safely reopen, jeopardizing the safety of our kids, educators, and community,” said Brian Rippet, president of the Nevada State Education Association, in a statement Tuesday.

Nevada lawmakers will get a chance to make changes to Sisolak’s plan, although with Democrats in control of both legislative chambers, wholesale changes to the plan proposed by the Democratic governor are unlikely.

The new round of cuts follows moves already taken to close the previous fiscal year’s roughly $812 million hole. Lawmakers slashed agency budgets by 4 percent, drained the entire $401 million out of the state’s rainy day fund and rolled back funding for several programs to help offset the funding gap.

“Just like many Nevada families, we operate our state with a required balanced budget, and we must make some painful cuts to get through this period,” Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, said in a statement. “We are doing so with an eye towards protecting vital services, including access to health care and education. We believe that Nevada families deserve more and we again call on the U.S. Senate to pass critical state aid.”

How to watch and participate

Normally, the public is allowed to show up to legislative hearings to watch and testify on bills in front of lawmakers.

But these are not normal times, and the Legislature’s staff has imposed significant social distancing restrictions that limits who can be inside the building during this special session. Only lawmakers, essential staff and a limited number of media will be allowed inside the building.

That means for the general public, including lobbyists, the only way to watch the meetings will be via livestreams, which can be found on the Legislature’s website.

A calendar of what times lawmakers will meet can be found on the Legislature’s calendar page. And new for this session, meetings will also be livestreamed on the Legislature’s new Youtube page, where replays of previous meetings can also be viewed.

And for those who want to make their voice heard in the meetings, the Legislature will allow people to participate via teleconference, although those conference numbers and other details had not been released as of Tuesday afternoon.

If you don’t want to call in but still want to be heard, you can also submit written testimony to the individual committees.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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