Photo By DENNIS MYERS State legislators Debbie Smith (left) and Ben Kieckhefer spoke at a mining convention this week. She’s a Democrat, he’s a Republican, but they agree on the need for changes in the Nevada budget process.

For those who think government programs live forever, the work of the Nevada Legislature between its 2011 and 2013 sessions may be a surprise.

During last year’s legislative session, lawmakers enacted legislation sponsored by Washoe Sen. Ben Kieckhefer to create a panel to scrutinize state bodies and recommend whether to continue their existence.

The panel did not take quite the form Kieckhefer wanted. Instead of a free-standing Sunset Commission, his bill was amended to create a sunset committee under the Legislative Commission. (The Legislative Commission is one of two bodies that handles legislative business when the full Legislature is out of session.)

In addition, the bill was amended to change the phrase “all governmental programs and services” to “certain boards and commissions.”

At a meeting of the Legislative Commission last month, the chair of the sunset panel, Assemblymember Irene Bustamante Adams of Clark County, told her colleagues, “We identified roughly 170 entities that must be reviewed by the subcommittee over the next 10 years. … Thirty-seven entities were selected by the members during our first two meetings. … We reviewed 29. The other eight will be reviewed in future interims [the period between legislative sessions]. Of the 29 entities reviewed, we recommended terminating two boards, terminating one board and transferring its duties to another agency, continuation of seven boards with further recommendations, and 19 boards and commissions [be continued] with no changes.”

She said a state Committee on Co-occurring Disorders could be eliminated because it had accomplished its purpose—examining duplication and fragmentation in mental health services, and making recommendations to the governor and legislature. In fact, the Disorders Committee itself had recommended its own termination in July 2011.

The sunsetters also voted to eliminate a Nevada Commission on Sports, created to foster olympic, senior games, and Special Olympics activities, because it has been dormant for several years, and no one on the commission responded to requests for information.

The State Funeral Board—which now has the power to regulate funeral homes and burial businesses—will be changed to an advisory body and attached to the state Department of Health and Human Services, if the Legislature approves the sunset recommendation.

Seven bodies will be kept alive, with recommendations to the legislature for changes in them. Those panels are the Committee on Anatomical Dissection, Credit Union Advisory Council, Commission on Ethics, State Grazing Boards, State Board of Oriental Medicine, Well Drillers’ Advisory Board, and Board of Wildlife Commissioners.

No seat at the table

Kieckhefer was not made chair or even a member of the committee, something of a slap to the sponsor of the original legislation.

“It turned into the Sunset Committee of the Legislative Commission,” he said. “That’s what it became. It wasn’t necessarily my original vision, but that’s what it became. … I don’t know why they made the appointments the way they did. I would have liked to have been on it, but I wasn’t, so I focused on other issues this interim.”

He said his original idea was to examine state programs and whether they were succeeding and should be continued or shut down.

“It was something that I was struck with when I worked for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services,” he said. “I worked there for two years and what I found was that there was not an ongoing review of what government does, whether we’re doing things efficiently, effectively. If we create a program, do we ever actually solve a problem with it or is it just to meet an ongoing need? If we create it to solve a problem, once it’s solved, I would figure that it would go away. We just don’t have a regular ongoing review of the functions of our government—if they’re creating the results that we expect, if we’re getting the return on our investment—and I think that’s something that we need to do.”

A number of legislators over the years have had similar concerns. When Cliff McCorkle of Reno was a state senator and sat on the Senate Finance Committee—as Kieckhefer does—he was always frustrated by the line-by-line examination of agency budgets. He wanted to also scrutinize the agency’s functions.

“Instead of just looking at, say, a travel budget for an agency, let’s also look at what the agency is doing and how well it’s succeeding,” he said.

Kieckhefer makes similar comments: “I think a lot of the time we get lost in the numbers and one of the things that we are working on is transitioning to a more performance-based budgeting system so that I don’t worry about counting how many pencils the department gets but finding out how many constituents are actually being helped by the programs that we’re funding. I think we’re making progress in moving in that direction—that was a bill that, actually, Assemblyman [Debbie] Smith sponsored last year, and it’s something that the executive branch is implementing. So when we go into the legislative session in 2013, we are going to take a stronger look at a performance-based budget model that will help us make strategic decisions about where we allocate our resources based on the efficacy of the programs that we’re funding.”

He questions the shift in emphasis from examining programs to examining boards and commissions. He said he was less interested in the structure than in the functions being performed within the structure. And he said he never intended the panel to be used to fool with bodies that have statutory functions or are of such scale that the state clearly needs them.

“I was troubled by, frankly, some of the issues that it was dealing with at the start,” he said. “My vision was not to review the necessity of the Wildlife Commission [laughs]. You know, clearly, the Wildlife Commission is something we need. So I’m concerned that it didn’t really get the job done that I had envisioned when I originally sponsored the bill.”

He said that in the case of the Wildlife Commission, he believes some legislators were using the sunset panel to advance their own policy goals. State wildlife functions have been the focus of a war between groups who oppose the agency’s environmental duties required by law—sometimes federal law—and want a return to its traditional hunting and fishing concerns.

“I think that there were some more political agendas that were being brought to bear … particularly as it related to the Wildlife Commission rather than the purpose of the commission, which was to look at the role and necessity of these boards and commissions.”

He still would like to see a body that does what he originally intended.

“Not necessarily [scrutinizing] agencies, but the programs that those agencies implement. And more than looking to get rid of government programs, I want to make sure that what we’re doing is working. You know, so many times we look at our programs, and we evaluate whether or not they’re being effective by looking at how many people they bring in through the door, how many people we serve—not necessarily whether or not those people are actually being helped. Are we enrolling a lot of people but not effectively meeting their needs? And those are more the issues that I‘d like a sunset committee to explore. Are we actually effectively serving our constituents?”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...