In what has to be considered a new twist on what he tried two years ago, Gov. Brian Sandoval is moving to conceal what state agencies believe they need from the upcoming budget from both the Legislature and the public.
He inserted a new deadline in the budget instructions to agencies requiring them to report their agency requests a month earlier than in the past so they can be reviewed before the statutory deadline making them public.
“It’s frustrating and disappointing because we did go through this last budget cycle,” said Senate Finance Chairwoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks.
Two years ago, Sandoval and his staff simply refused to comply with the law mandating legislative staff and the public get a look at what agencies were asking for in their budgets. He gave in after an Interim Finance Committee meeting in which both LCB Director Rick Combs and the Nevada Appeal protested.
This year, the attempt to hide agency requests is a bit more nuanced.
“If it doesn’t violate the law, I think it sure violates the spirit of the law,” Smith said Friday.
Sandoval denies there’s any attempt to hide what agencies are seeking, but he and Chief of Staff Mike Willden made it clear what the Legislative Counsel Bureau and the public see this year won’t be what state agencies submitted Aug. 1.
In addition, Sandoval, through his budget office, has issued orders to all agencies not to include any “items for special consideration” — enhancements — in initial budget requests unless the governor’s office specifically authorizes something.
“Since there are no items for special consideration and it appears the budget is being filtered, what is one to think?” said Smith.
Smith said the issue isn’t a partisan issue. Republican lawmakers also need staff to have all the information necessary to advise them how to react to the governor’s budget.
“This has nothing to do with politics or partisanship,” she said. “It’s about the executive branch of government and the legislative branch of government along with the public having the information we need.”
Willden said the new deadline is “an attempt for a better result.” He said agency requests are replete with errors and need to be edited, refined and cleaned up before they become public.
“There are lots of (decision units) that haven’t been properly calculated,” Willden said. “It’s a building process.”
He said the budget office and the governor’s office need to go through those initial requests and fix any errors.
“We’re not trying to redact the requests,” he said.
But at the same time, he said some of what disappears from the initial agency requests will be those things “that don’t meet the governor’s priorities.”
“There are some programs that we don’t support,” Willden said.
That means this year, there will be few differences between the agency requests released in October and the final budget the governor submits to lawmakers.
Officials from several agencies said the Aug. 1 deadline was aimed directly at any enhancements or program expansions they wanted.
The battle isn’t new. Every governor has disliked the fact agency requests become public and tried to prevent agency officials from telling lawmakers what was cut from their original proposals. But lawmakers and advocates want to see those original requests so they can decide if the governor’s proposed budget meets the needs of different programs.
“I’m really frustrated,” said Smith. “We’ve been through many, many cycles of budgets without having these kinds of issues.”
She said not having the information “hamstrings our staff.”
“Legislators and the public certainly need to know what the real needs of the state are,” she said adding without knowing what agencies believe is needed fiscal staff can’t properly advise lawmakers what to do with the governor’s proposed budget.
“We have to react to this,” she said. “If we don’t have the information for our staff and the public doesn’t have access it’s kind of flying in the face of transparency.”
The issue is expected to come up when the Interim Finance Committee meets Aug. 27.