By SAM METZ AP/Report for America
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada lawmakers painstakingly approved millions of dollars of unforeseen virus-related spending, reluctantly slashed millions in funding and cancelled plans for previously green-lighted projects in a marathon eight-hour meeting Thursday as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the state’s tourism-driven economy.
Tensions ran high as the Legislature’s Finance Committee interrogated state agency employees, trying to get a handle on the intricate patchwork of accounts that fund state services and manage the $812 million state budget shortfall for the fiscal year that concludes at the end of the month.
As they made their way through more than 100 agenda items, one question emerged repeatedly: if Congress approves another round of coronavirus aid, will it include relief funds for state governments?
Five out of 10 of the funding requests discussed by lawmakers involved funding Nevada received under the coronavirus relief measure that Congress passed in March, which state government has used to stock food banks, roll out virus testing and provide laid off workers unemployment benefits.
Lawmakers want to guard the federal relief funds that are left, in case Congress doesn’t pass a bill that provides state governments another installment of relief funds for the budget year that begins July 1. With agencies requesting additional federal virus relief funding, they asked for assurances that dollars were distributed geographically — reaching rural corners of the state — and equitably, including communities like North Las Vegas where many students lack household internet access.
When state Sen. David Parks, a Las Vegas Democrat, asked Nevada Division of Emergency Management Chief Justin Luna why the Nevada National Guard needed $2.5 million more coronavirus relief funding than previously approved, Luna had to explain to committee members how the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s complex grant-matching formula that has thus far funded the Guard’s coronavirus testing and relief efforts was about to change.
“We’ve been notified that the federal assistance for the Guard is being removed at the end of July, so this work program requested the Guard … continue their support through the end of the year,” he said.
Republicans and Democrats unanimously approved funding unforeseen virus-related expenses, including from the state’s health department, food bank program and education department. They had already passed the $89 million in budget cuts at an earlier meeting and spent Thursday nailing down details in state agency proposals to reduce expenses and dig into reserves.
Although agency leaders for the most part said the cuts wouldn’t affect their ability to provide services, Democrats lamented cuts that rolled back funding increases and allocations for new projects passed in 2019, when they controlled the Legislature and governorship.
“A number of these are going to hurt. We’ll just have to find other ways to support the things that we’re passionate about,” Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, the committee’s chair, said.
Though he voted along with Democrats on the virus-related spending and cuts, state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, a Reno Republican, blasted Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak for circumventing the Legislature and withholding necessary details about plans to address Nevada’s budget shortfall.
“I just feel, as we move into the next fiscal year, I sure hope that the Legislature gets much more of a say,” he said.
Carlton, in response, said she didn’t feel sidelined by the governor’s budgeting process at all.
State lawmakers will now move onto budgeting for the fiscal year that begins July 1, when they’ll have to confront a projected $1.27 billion shortfall.
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.