By SAM METZ AP/Report for America
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada lawmakers masked up Wednesday morning, kicking off an emergency special session called to balance the state’s budget amid plummeting revenue projections and a growing stack of pandemic-related expenses.
As a sea of teachers wearing red T-shirts flanked the building to protest anticipated cuts to education, lawmakers walked through mostly empty halls into statehouse chambers that have been transformed to prevent the spread of the pandemic.
After pumping hand sanitizer onto their palms and finding their places between transparent plexiglass barriers, they grilled state agency heads and finance officials who put together the revised budget under consideration.
Visitor volume is down and unemployment is up in Nevada’s leisure and hospitality industries. Unless there’s a surprise turnaround, the state will have to overcome a projected $1.15 billion revenue shortfall either through budget cuts, tax increases or federal relief.
Gov. Steve Sisolak’s proposal would cut $233 million from the Department of Health and Human Services. Richard Whitley, the department’s director, explained how the department could cut 14% of the dollars it receives from Nevada’s general fund by moving around reserves and maximizing the use of federal relief dollars without violating rules that forbid them from using them to backfill revenue loss.
“We’re delivering direct services, on one hand, in a crisis. And we’re having to reduce our spending on the other hand,” he said.
State senators probed Whitley over his plan, alternating between wonky questions about Medicaid reimbursement rates and constituent-informed questions that gave a human face to policy proposals that have, until now, been described in hard-to-fathom million and billion dollar figures.
Their questions addressed pregnant women who use Medicaid to receive dental care and residents who struggle with gambling addiction.
“I think all of these services are essential to people who have the need for them,” Whitley told senators as he outlined the cuts.
State Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas, sounded the alarm over a $700,000 cut to an adult occupational therapy program. In 2019, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Nevada had the second highest the suicide rate among older adults in the nation.
“I understand there’s not a lot of money, but since there’s not, we have to figure out how to stretch it,” she said.
Spearman said she already worried the coronavirus pandemic and its isolating effects could make residents in need of mental health care more vulnerable. Now, as health officials target where to make cuts, Spearman worries their strategies to reach vulnerable populations is far from adequate, she said. It’s a problem, she said, that none of the state health officials presenting the budget proposal were Black or Latino.
She’s offered to connect Whitley and his staff to Black faith leaders who understand the healthcare needs of underserved communities in Las Vegas but wants to see a more detailed outreach plan from the health department that will allow them to provide care to the state’s most vulnerable residents.
“COVID-19 has taught us a different way to live, but guess what? It’s taught us different ways to die,” she said.
Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, said it was risky for state health officials to bank that yet-to-be-approved federal relief funding was on its way.
Even after talking to U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei and U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, he said, “I think it’s dangerous to bank on anything happening in the United States Congress.”
Considering more than $1 billion in cuts in an empty Legislature was eerie, Kieckhefer said, his glasses fogging as he exhaled from underneath his face mask. With public comment not scheduled to start in the Senate until late in the day, he said he worries that he and his colleagues weren’t hearing enough about how their decisions would impact residents.
“When we create these budgets, we go through a long process of listening to people, trying to understand how what we do means for them. And unraveling it very quickly, without their knowledge, is incredibly dangerous,” he said.
In the Assembly, lawmakers deliberated over proposals to cut about $160 million from K-12 education, and $190 million from higher education from the state budget.
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.