Lawmakers will have a greater role in the process of doling out billions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid dollars under a proposed budget amendment from the Governor’s Finance Office, although some wonder whether even more authority should be transferred to the Legislature.
The amendment, which was described during a joint budget meeting on Monday but was not brought up for a vote, would convert the account that includes federal aid dollars to an “executive budget account” — meaning it would go through the legislative approval process. Currently, the account is a “non-executive budget account,” largely administered by the Governor’s Finance Office with relatively little input from lawmakers.
Some lawmakers indicated the Legislature would like even more say in the spending than the amendment offers. If the arrangement is simply that the Legislature gives a yes or no vote on work programs (an agency’s plan on how to spend grant money), for example, then lawmakers are not actually the ones making decisions about its use and are only giving a rubber stamp of approval, they said.
“The Legislature will have more of a back end process than a front end process. And I think that's something that we are going to want to address in some fashion,” said Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas). “I believe the 63 people in this building should have an opportunity to have a conversation about what's important in our districts, and what's important to our constituents, and where the rubber really needs to hit the road with these dollars.”
The COVID-19 relief programs account will include not only the $836 million in CARES Act money allocated to the state, but also money from the late-December aid package (the Consolidated Appropriations Act) and the package approved in March (the American Rescue Plan). Nevada expects to receive $2.9 billion for state government from the most recent package, but six weeks after its approval still has not received guidance from the U.S. Treasury that will dictate how lawmakers can spend the money.
The holdup in the money meant for the state general fund is ongoing even as other awards drawing from the American Rescue Plan and directed at other sectors are being announced.
The federal government has made significant changes to its policies surrounding the COVID-19 aid since the money started flowing, including extending by one year a deadline that originally called for spending all CARES Act dollars by the end of 2020 and revising the requirements of who could receive rental assistance funds.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) said he thinks the Treasury learned from feedback, successes and mistakes of the past year and is trying to incorporate that learning through drafting better guidance on the front end.
“I'm assuming that's why six weeks later, we're still waiting on the guidance,” he said in the meeting.
Brooks said converting the account is the first step in a process that includes receiving the latest allotment of money, then the next is going through money committees and collaborating with the governor’s office to determine how it is spent. He said he expects some of that work to happen in this session, and some to happen afterward (legislative leaders have discussed the possibility of a special session to allocate the aid).
“The pandemic took place when we weren't in session,” Brooks said about the existing process of deciding how to spend the federal aid money. “We worked really closely together, but we didn't have the ability, short of a special session, to approve anything except work programs after the fact, whereas this is definitely a more collaborative way to do this.”
Asked for comment on a decision that will involve ceding more authority to the Legislature, the governor's spokeswoman Meghin Delaney pointed to a framework on how to prioritize spending the incoming federal aid that was recently released by the governor and Democratic legislative leaders.
"The Governor thinks it is critical to work closely with the legislature on this effort so the State can approach our recovery as a team and collaborate with local governments, school districts and other stakeholders to maximize federal dollars and avoid duplicative spending with other ARP funding coming into other entities in the State," Delaney said.
Assembly Republican Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) said she doesn’t think lawmakers have a solid grasp of exactly how much of the COVID-19 aid has been spent and how much is left over. She wants more than the reports the committee received Monday morning about how much has been budgeted, and said she hopes the changes in the proposed budget amendment will provide that level of detail.
“I really feel right from the start, we haven't had enough legislative input into where this money's going,” she said. “But I was glad that it got on the record from my members on the committee saying, hey … can we revisit where this money has been allocated? Maybe they haven't used it? How do we now use it maybe in a better direction?”
Updated at 5:30 p.m. on 4/26/21 to add comment from governor's office.