Nevada lawmakers approved deep cuts to state services on Sunday in order to fill a $1.2 billion hole in the state budget caused by economic disruption related to COVID-19.
The reductions impacted Medicaid, education programs like Read by Grade 3 and the Nevada System of Higher Education, which oversees the state’s public universities and community colleges.
Legislators also imposed six furlough days on state employees.
Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) told her colleagues she was disappointed by the cuts, but that they were the best way to balance the budget while maintaining as many services as possible.
“This is not how I pictured my last two years of service,” she said. “This isn’t good, but it’s necessary.”
Over 12 days, the Legislature reviewed a budget proposal from Gov. Steve Sisolak that included around $530 million in cuts. The plan also called for replacing state funds with federal CARES Act money for certain programs.
Lawmakers adopted an amended version of the budget Sunday evening. It included some funding restorations to programs like child welfare services in Clark and Washoe counties and an additional $50 million of CARES Act money to support education.
Senate Minority Leader James Settlemeyer (R-Minden) praised the end result, but expressed reservations about the state’s uncertain future as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
“I’m glad that we worked together to avoid the draconian cuts that were sent over to us,” he said. “But then again, we may be back here,” hinting at another possible special legislative session later this year.
Nevada’s economy relies heavily on tourism. More than 47% of general fund revenues come from sales tax and taxes on casino winnings — both of which dropped significantly after Sisolak ordered non-essential businesses to close in March in an attempt to slow the pandemic.
Lawmakers had already addressed several measures, like loosening the rules for scholarships to help students maintain their eligibility for financial aid. They also approved a bill that requires mining companies to pay their taxes for the next fiscal year in advance.
But the proposed cuts to social services prompted backlash from citizens and community groups, because they would disproportionately impact low income Nevadans and communities of color.
Dom Hall, student body president of the University of Nevada, Reno, told lawmakers the deep cuts to higher education were part of a “false economy,” which would save money in the short term but ultimately cost the state down the road.
“We students are tired of making up for the state’s fallout and being the state of Nevada’s punching bag,” she said. “When economic conditions are bad, you all come to higher ed.”
On Saturday, Democrats failed to pass mining tax reform for the second time, after it was first voted down Thursday.
The measure, which was amended to direct funding toward education, would have raised an additional $100 million in taxes. But it was blocked by one vote after an apparent deal with state Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) fell apart.
J.D. Klippenstein is director of ACTIONN, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washoe County. His group joined with educators and environmentalists to push for more revenue to help offset some of the proposed cuts. He was encouraged that some legislators responded to public pressure, but was disappointed when the mining tax reform failed.
According to Klippenstein, Democratic leaders failed to prioritize revenue. “It wasn’t a central part of their strategy going into the legislative session,” he said.
He also feels let down by Republican lawmakers because of their staunch opposition to any new taxes — even for a multibillion dollar industry. “It seemed like a nonstarter for them,” Klippenstein said. “It doesn’t seem that they came to the table in good faith to have revenue conversations.”
In a statement, Sisolak praised the Legislature for reaching a budget deal, but acknowledged the cuts to state funding would be painful.
“With a $1.2 billion shortfall, we know our state will be challenged to provide the essential services Nevadans deserve in health care, education, and so much more.”
Sisolak had already issued a statement saying he would delay an anticipated second special session due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Lawmakers were expected to address policy issues related to COVID-19 worker protections and police reform, which advocates have called for in the wake of the police killings of unarmed African-Americans, such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
“I have serious reservations about having our lawmakers convene again for a similar — or longer — period of time in the midst of this spike in our State,” the governor said.
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