By Ray Hagar, Nevada Newsmakers
The leading Republican in the Nevada Legislature criticized Gov. Steve Sisolak this week for reacting too slowly to implement state budget cuts due to the COVID-19 economic shutdown.
“I think he is creating a problem that will be worse,” Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer said of Sisolak’s tardy planning during an interview on Nevada Newsmakers. “We could have got away with a lot less (trouble).”
Settelmeyer, R-Minden, also called for an overhaul of Nevada’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation amid the ongoing struggle in providing unemployment payments to the state’s workforce.
“There just is a massive amount of people who have not been able to get their claims processed all the way back to March and who are continuing to email us and contact us,” Settelmeyer told host Sam Shad. “We hear their stories and they’re sad.”
Sisolak should have had formulated a plan for budget cuts, layoffs and furloughs of state workers soon after shutting down the state’s main source of tax revenue — the casino industry — back in March, Settelmeyer said.
Sisolak announced his plan for furloughs and layoffs for the next fiscal year this week.
“When you shut down (gaming) businesses, your main engine, that is when you should automatically start talking about it,” Settelmeyer said of the necessary budget cuts. “We needed to look at all capital improvement projects that are planned, (and postpone them because) we don’t have the money. That’s what we should have done immediately.”
The state faces a $900 million budget shortfall for the current budget year, which ends June 30. It projects a $1.3 billion shortfall for the next fiscal year.
Sisolak announced this week that state workers would be furloughed one day a month beginning in July. Those furloughs should have started in March, Settelmeyer said.
Settelmeyer also criticized Sisolak for sending many state workers home — with pay — after the pandemic hit.
“On a day-to-day basis, the state spends about $14 million or $16 million on employees,” Settelmeyer said. “Instead, we sent all of the employees home, with pay, and didn’t require them to work. I don’t think that was a wise idea. That was back in March. If we would have effected changes (furloughs, layoffs) in March, we would have been in a much better position that we are here in June.”
Some legislators, such as state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, have called on Sisolak to call a special session of the Legislature to address budget issues. Settelmeyer, however, is not keen on the idea.
Since Sisolak has declared a fiscal emergency, he already has the authority to call for furloughs, layoffs and budget cuts, Settelmeyer said.
“Most of this could be done without a special session,” Settelmeyer said.
Settelmeyer is also concerned about potential political shenanigans that could come with a special session, in which only the governor has the authority set the agenda.
“I’m worried that a special session is nothing more than a second bite of the apple for their social agendas,” Settelmeyer said of Sisolak’s Democrats. “That is my fear.”
When asked to expand about “social agendas, Settelmeyer said he is concerned about “everything from potentially a mail-in ballot to wanting to try to blame the cops for situations that did occur in our state.”
Settelmeyer also sees the state government getting hurt by extreme partisanship. Democrats currently control the executive branch and have majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
“We should not go down one partisan road — whether that is from the right or the left — to find the solution,” he said.
He then hearkened back to a time when Nevada politics was not so divided.
“Go back to the days of (former Assembly Speaker) Joe Dini. That’s what I want. I’m tired of this pathological partisan stuff I’m seeing right now,” he said.
Nevada’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, needs a complete overhaul, Settelmeyer said. The agency has been struggling to keep up with the unemployment crisis caused by the COVID-19 economic shutdown.
The Las Vegas area, for example, lost more than 200,000 jobs from March to April, putting its unemployment rate at 33.5 percent — up from just 4 percent in April of last year, DETR reported.
“We never could have anticipated the increase in numbers for DETR. That was obvious. That is no one fault. No one could have ever predicted that,” Settelmeyer said.
“But once the first month hit and we saw 100,000 (unemployed) people in a month … If you look at states larger than us, New Mexico for example. New Mexico was only able to process like 300 claims a week. They realized, ‘We’re in trouble.’ They outsourced it to a private entity and they went to 2,000 a day, in an app-based program, rather than doing it through the telephone system.”
DETR’s telephone system is part of the problem, Settelmeyer said.
“There’s a point where you have to realize that you are over your skis or under water and it’s time to jettison that type of system and do something better.”
Settelmeyer, a rancher in Douglas County, used an analogy of a broken-down piece of farm machinery to describe DETR’s technology.
“When I have a piece of equipment on the ranch that keeps breaking and keeps nickel-and-diming me, then I have to make the decision to buy a brand-new machine,” he said. “And I think it is time.”
Settelmeyer praised the work of new DETR interim director Heather Korbulik, who took over the department in early May under trying circumstances.
“She (Korbulik) has done a phenomenal job trying to turn it around,” Settelmeyer said.
However, DETR needs a major upgrade in technology, Settelmeyer said.
“DETR has great people, very skilled and intelligent people who have the capability to do it. I just feel that we really need to give them the tools,” he said.