(Sean Whaley/Nevada News Bureau) – A proposal by Gov. Brian Sandoval to transfer the state share of operating the mental health courts to the counties was rejected by Democrat lawmakers [on Tuesday], creating another $6 million hole in the upcoming two-year budget that starts July 1.
The party-line vote by members of the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees came after repeated testimony from advocates for the courts since the session began that they would close without continued state support because of fiscal problems facing the counties.
It was yet another in a series of party-line votes on the budget, with Republicans standing firm with Sandoval in opposition to increased spending.
Sandoval has proposed eliminating the $3 million a year in general fund state support for the courts operating in Clark and Washoe counties and Carson City. County officials would have to pick up the costs to continue the programs.
Rene Norris, chairwoman of the state Mental Health Planning Advisory Council, asked lawmakers in a letter to look beyond the general fund savings despite the economic challenges faced by the state.
Estimates provided to lawmakers suggest the cost of imprisoning mentally ill offenders to be two- to five-times the cost of the courts, she said. So the cut of $3 million a year in state general fund support could cost the Department of Corrections $6 million to $15 million, Norris said.
“We realize that, because of these challenges, some cuts to mental health services are inevitable,” she said. “However we strongly believe that the mental health courts must be maintained as a fundamental component to build upon when the economy improves.”
The vote to maintain the state support came from Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno, who said the courts are an example of a program working well in Nevada. If the courts close, restarting them in future years when the economy improves might never happen, he said.
“This just seems to be one of those great examples of something that we’ve all figured out how to do and do well,” Bobzien said. “We heard extensive testimony from the judges, both in Clark and Washoe, and we’ve got these amazing stats of just how successful the program is.
“But I think the one thing that I took away from the testimony that is most important is just the complexity of putting those programs together and the recognition that if this money goes, the county and the court representatives told us: ‘no more, we’re done, were closing the courts,’ ” Bobzien said.
He cited the statistics on the success of the program, including information from Clark County showing an 87 percent reduction in arrests while individuals are participating in the program, and a 95 percent reduction in arrests post-program.
“Those are success metrics on a large scale,” Bobzien said.
Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, who works in the Washoe County specialty court system, said the clients being served in the mental health courts have to be served by the state Division of Mental Health and Developmental Services whether they are in the court program or not. Eliminating the court program with its high success rate is ludicrous, she said.
Senior Washoe County District Judge Peter Breen, who testified in support of funding the courts in earlier sessions, called Sandoval’s funding shift a “death sentence” for the mental health courts.
Democrats on the two money panels have repeatedly voted in the past two weeks to spend more money on a variety of programs, from $660 million for public education to $90 million more for Medicaid-related programs. Even more funding may be proposed tomorrow when the budgets for the state’s higher education system are voted on by the panels.
Democrats have floated several tax proposals to generate the revenue to pay for the increased spending, but Sandoval has repeatedly rejected any call for new taxes to balance the budget. On Monday he vetoed the public schools budget passed by Democrats because of the higher recommended spending levels.
The veto provoked a lengthy discussion on the Senate floor Monday evening with lawmakers debating Sandoval’s proposed public education budget.