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State Lawmakers Check In About The Special Session

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(David Calvert/The Nevada Independent via AP, Pool)

The Nevada State Senate chambers are seen on the first day of the 31st Special Session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City, Nev., on Wednesday, July 8, 2020.

State lawmakers will meet for the third day of the 31st special session of the Legislature on Friday.

For the last two days, they’ve heard detailed explanations of how state agencies plan to reduce their budgets.

It’s all part of a proposed plan by Governor Steve Sisolak to make up more than a billion-dollar deficit in the state’s coffers caused by COVID-19.  

State Senator Pat Spearman, a Democrat who represents a section of North Las Vegas, told KNPR's State of Nevada that despite the grim figures she is optimistic that lawmakers will find a solution.

However, she doesn't think the state can make enough budget cuts to get out of the hole it is in.

"It is becoming increasingly clear to me that we're not going to be able to cut ourselves out of this malaise," she said. "And cutting too much, although it may stabilize the budget, would more than likely destabilize the lives of Nevadans for a very long time." 

Instead, the senator would like to see the state use some of the federal dollars it received to fight the virus to create public works projects that will not only create jobs but solve some of the problems created by the pandemic.

"I believe what we have to begin to look at are ways that we can fund projects, necessary projects, that people already need," she said, "We can fund those projects with public works and we can help people who need jobs, people who need some type of economic safety net, we can help them do that as well."

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Spearman said her idea isn't a silver bullet but it is a way to multiply those dollars by investing them in job-making efforts. 

There is no doubt the state will have to cut funding for programs but Spearman said there are ways to mitigate the impact. She wants state departments to partner with organizations that are already established in communities to stretch the funding they do have.

"I think that if the Department of Health and Human Services looks beyond just deploying people at a scattershot method and looks to give support, including money, into communities where they're already doing the work," she said.

With such a massive shortfall to fill, the question of revenue streams has come up. The governor's plan doesn't include any new revenue. State Senator Ben Kieckhefer, a Republican who represents parts of Washoe County, said lawmakers are looking at all options.

"We've started the process of looking at what the governor has proposed to cut," he said, "I think legislators would be interested in finding ways to offset those cuts."

Under Gov. Sisolak's plan, the biggest cuts would be to K-12 education, higher ed and Medicaid. Kieckhefer said it is now up to the lawmakers to decide if they agree with the governor's ideas. 

"If we agree with that, we can approve this plan as presented," he said, "If we disagree, then we're going to have to rearrange some things."

One idea might be mining taxes. Currently, there is a cap on the taxes mining companies pay and it is part of the Nevada Constitution. There was a ballot measure a few years ago to change that but people voted against.

Kieckhefer said mining companies have offered to pre-pay their 2022 taxes in 2021, which could help with the shortfall. However, commodity prices fluctuate and the state could end up having to pay back the companies if prices fall. 

One revenue stream that is off the table for Kieckhefer is a hike in sales taxes. He noted that sales taxes in the state are some of the highest in the nation to begin with and sales taxes disproportionately impact people who can't afford it.

"As people are struggling to put food on their table, which is the reality of many, many Nevadans right now, sucking more money out of their pockets in the form of a sales tax, instead of us having to make some of the hard decisions, just doesn't seem very palatable," he said.

Despite those hard decisions ahead, Kieckhefer - like Spearman - is optimistic about finding a solution.

"It's a problem but it's going to take the adults in the room to get together and solve it," he said.

He noted that state lawmakers are required to balance the budget. 

"I feel confident that my colleagues in the Senate and the Assembly take this seriously and we'll come up with a solution," Kieckhefer said, "It's not going to fun and people are going to feel the impact."

Guests

Pat Spearman, State Senate District 1, North Las Vegas; Ben Kieckhefer, Senate District 16, Reno and Carson City

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