Patching a hole
Just days before Nevada’s legislators went home for the year, domestic battery program funding went south
The Nevada Legislature’s hallways are always busy in the closing days of a session, so the activities of a handful of women lobbyists got no more attention than usual. For those lobbyists, though, there was a last- minute chore they didn’t need.
“Domestic abuse agencies have been hit with a 25 percent cut,” said Paula Berkley, a lobbyist for the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence, during the last week of the legislature. “It came out of nowhere.”
In fact, while the abuse programs had no way of knowing it, it was a foreseeable problem that has been moving threateningly in plain view of state officials for more than a year.
In Nevada, domestic abuse shelter programs are funded by a portion of the marriage license fee. Those fees are collected at the county level, and the abuse portion is sent to the state, which then parcels it back to the local communities. More than a year ago, the number of marriages being performed in Nevada started a slow but steady decline.
That might have meant that the funds sent to the shelter programs also started going down. But it didn’t happen. Mid- or lower-level state officials continued funding at the same level in the apparent expectation that the numbers would recover, perhaps during the marriage-heavy months of May and June of 2006. But marriage license applications continued to decline well into 2007. To continue making payments to the shelter programs at the old level, officials used reserve funds that had built up during periods when the number of marriage licenses being taken out was high.
Then on the last day of May, a letter went out from the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) informing the shelter programs of the one-fourth reduction in funding. It was a shock. Sixteen programs across the state are affected, and they made their feelings at being ambushed known to the state.
“They just caught it,” said Amy Saathoff of the Committee to Aid Abused Women in the Truckee Meadows.
“Beginning July 1, we now have 25 percent less money for that fiscal year, and to CAAW the effect was $116,000,” Saathoff said.
It was also a shock to Mike Willden. He’s the director of DHHS and was not informed by his administrators before the letter went out from his agency—the Child and Family Services division—to the abuse programs. While he veils his language, he leaves a strong impression that there have been some stern discussions in his department of late. “Why they didn’t make an earlier analysis of the revenue versus expenditure situation, I guess that’s still sort of a mystery,” he says. “I mean, I’m not very happy to hear in the newspaper one day or calls from the advocates that, ‘Hey, we got these letters.’ “
Berkley went to work at the legislature in the closing days of the session and won supplemental funding of $203,250 to help make up some of the lost funds, but that is a temporary fix. It is about the amount needed for a fiscal quarter and was designed by lawmakers to keep the shelter programs whole until a more comprehensive plan could be proposed by Willden to the Interim Finance Committee, the panel that distributes state funds when the full legislature is not meeting.
Willden says another reason he needed an earlier heads-up from his aides was that if lawmakers had known of the problem in February or March, they might have been able to react more thoughtfully than just slapping together a last-minute appropriation. (What that might have been is uncertain, since—as one lawmaker pointed out—a governor’s veto awaited any attempt to replace the lost funds by raising the marriage license fee.)
Willden says his survey of the figures indicates that state administrators must have known of the downturn early in 2006. The amount produced for the abuse fund in fiscal year 2005 was $3,043,000 and in 2006 was $2,849,000. No one has been able to explain why weddings saw such a steep decline in this period.
Willden is expected to meet with representatives of the shelter programs this week and is preparing a package of steps that could be taken to mitigate the damage. Funding sources for that package, in addition to the legislative appropriation, could include:
• U.S. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds
• Unpaid marriage license fees (Willden says his initial checks on those fees indicate a gap between revenues sent to the state by the counties and number of marriage licenses issued)
• Community Services Block Grants in the Nevada governor’s discretionary fund that exists for unforeseen emergencies and funding
Willden is optimistic that he’ll be able to put a plan together that will work and get the shelter programs through to the 2009 legislature.
The depth of the cut in funding was so great that some of the shelter program officials have asked whether it reflects simply the downturn in licenses or is being used to recover funds that were paid out after the license numbers went south—particularly since 25 percent is a nice round number rather than the ragged percent that might be expected.
“That would be my question for them as well,” Saathoff said.
Willden says that is not the case. “The past is the past,” he said. “Whatever money they earned is what they got, so I don’t know of any recovery effort. Nobody’s ever talked about that.”
He said his administrators “went in and forecasted the revenue for FY ‘07, and they believe that the revenue will be about 2.5 or .6 million dollars.” From that, he said, they decided that a one-fourth cut would be appropriate.
He said that domestic violence programs “are one of the very necessary front line programs” that cannot be left unfunded.