Assembly debates health, welfare budgets

Some of the outrage over Gov. Brian Sandoval's original buffet of proposed cuts was gone Friday, four days after he announced $46 million in "add-backs" to health and human services programs.

Witnesses at a Friday meeting of the Assembly asked for more funding to rehabilitate delinquent teens, and others decried the potential impact of reducing reimbursements to hospitals serving Medicaid patients. But others thanked the governor's staff for softening the budgetary blow to the state's safety net.

"In my district, we're feeling good about it," said Assemblyman Harvey Munford, D-Las Vegas, who said he was relieved two welfare centers in his district won't be shuttered.

The governor's $5.8 billion budget proposal cut $1.6 billion from the general fund, and welfare programs, detention camps for teens and autism treatment programs were initially on the chopping block.

But revenue projections have improved in part because the federal government is picking up more of the tab for Medicaid.

Gov. Brian Sandoval announced $119 million in additional revenue in March and earlier this week presented a plan to apply some of that money to restore $46 million of imperiled health and human services programs.

Legislators are deciding which programs will be added back. Sandoval wants to consolidate three autism programs into one and has applied $2.4 million to the effort. Financially wracked counties - which expected to bear the burden of elder protective services, triage centers for people with mental illness, and other programs historically funded by the state - will have a lighter load. Representatives from Clark County said they expect to save about $8 million with the add-backs.

But other services, such as mental health courts, are still in jeopardy. Those specialty courts serve about 300 mentally ill people in Nevada, intercepting them when they commit low-level crimes, and connecting them with housing and case workers who help them stick to a medication routine.

Judges who work in the courts have been vocal in the months after the governor's budget proposed shifting the $6 million financial responsibility to counties. They say the program is a powerful investment with a track record for keeping offenders off the streets, and it would disappear without state support.

Health and Human Services Department Director Mike Willden said the program is far down on the priority list for add-backs, in spite of sympathy for mental health courts among legislators, because it's not considered a "core service."

Other legislators questioned why the relief was concentrated in health and human services, while education faces hundreds of millions in cuts and hasn't seen much salve.

"Why have we cut so deep into something that can really make the difference in someone's life?" asked Assemblyman Steven Brooks, D-Las Vegas.

Sandoval's chief of staff, Heidi Gansert, noted an Economic Forum meeting Monday; officials are expected to reveal new revenue that exceeds the predictions in the governor's budget, and much of it will likely go to education.


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