(Andrew Doughman/Nevada News Bureau) – Nevada’s rural Republican legislators are struggling to defend the cuts to their communities in the governor’s budget.
Democrats have been showcasing cuts to the rural counties in order to convince rural Republican legislators that a vote for tax increases is a vote to mitigate the harm to their districts.
Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said that rural counties are already “cut to the bone,” and in many cases could lose all that they have left.
“Are they willing to be so loyal that they hurt the very constituents that elected them?” Horsford asked.
Many of the governor’s budget cuts would affect rural counties. The budget reduces the money going to rural health clinics or shifts that responsibility to county governments. Many clinics and college campuses that have branched out into the countryside are slated to consolidate to more populated areas.
So far, these cuts have not pushed any rural Republicans to voice anything but support for Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed general fund budget.
“There’s nobody blinking, so to speak, from the rural areas about increasing taxes,” said Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora.
Rural legislators say they understand they must share in the cuts, but that the cuts should be fair. For some Democrats, though, that means rural counties need to shoulder more of the burden.
This Monday, Assemblyman William Horne, D-Las Vegas, said that Washoe and Clark counties have to subsidize the rural counties.
“A lot of you come from areas of the state that are taking from the largest counties of the state,” he said to his fellow legislators in the Assembly chambers.
Horsford has argued that it is unfair for the state to divert property tax revenue from Clark and Washoe counties to the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas when counties like Elko and Eureka, beneficiaries of Great Basin College, do not.
The governor’s staff has said that Washoe and Clark counties benefit economically from the state’s two universities and should therefore pay more to support them.
“If you close Great Basin College, which does mining and other training to the mining industry, if you close that campus, that’s going to have a tremendous economic impact to that region,” said Horsford, who earlier urged the Board of Regents to consider closing campuses to save money. “So to suggest that there’s no economic benefit to those rural communities either by underfunding or funding their programs, I’m not understanding their logic.”
The governor’s chief of staff, Heidi Gansert, said that Washoe and Clark counties have more money. The governor is asking all counties to pay for a greater share of health services, but she said the two largest counties can shoulder that burden and rural counties cannot.
Despite this defense, budget cuts in rural counties worried Sandoval enough that he traveled to Elko this past Saturday to listen to concerns from county officials and state legislators.
Rhoads said he had personal chats with the governor during the flights to and from Elko. They discussed cuts to the Wells Honor Camp and the rural bookmobile program. Rhoads said the governor told him he would “add back” funding for these services if the state receives more revenue as the economic recovery inches forward.
“He’s looking at amending this stuff back in now,” said Assemblyman John Ellison, R-Elko, who also met with the governor in Elko this past Saturday. “I think at the end of the day … I’m hoping it’ll be fair.”
“If you don’t want to spend more in this account and move it to that account, that’s the Legislature’s prerogative,” said Dale Erquiaga, the governor’s senior adviser, at a press briefing earlier this week.
But Erquiaga later suggested that policy decisions “pitting urban against rural” would be bad for the state.
“I don’t think he [Sandoval] has given a carte blanche,” said Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Gardnerville, suggesting the governor would not sign a budget that overtly hammers rural Republican districts.
Given the magnitude of the governor’s proposed cuts, it is unlikely that any one legislator would be spared cuts to his or her district.
“As long as we’re not taking more than their [urban legislators’] share, everyone is willing to do their part,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon.
But what is “fair” is a matter of debate. Just like in Congress, legislators will try to do what they can for their districts. This time, though, that is less a matter of bringing home the bacon than it is of saving the farmhouse.
State entities, however, may have an monetary incentive to favor urban districts. Centralizing services in cities could save money while reaching the majority of Nevadans.
“We’ll offer fewer classes at fewer locations,” said Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Klaich. “In particular, this could impact rural locations that could suffer as our colleges focus on serving the greatest number of students.”
That pressure, however, does not mean rural legislators are pushing to be first in line to vote for a tax increase.
“Most of my constituents have indicated that in these tough times we have to make some cuts,” Settelmeyer said. “Most of them have told me they would prefer to make tough choices [over raising taxes].”
The cuts, though, still could become a bargaining chip. The governor has said he wants “shared sacrifice,” but the Legislature could end up with an Animal Farm scenario in which all cuts are equal, but some cuts are more equal than others.
***UPDATED April 23, 2011 to reflect that no NSHE entities are fully closing, although some satellite campuses may close.***