The vanishing 318

Gov. Jim Gibbons, who was on his best behavior during his first year in office, seems to have called a halt to it, returning to the harsh rhetoric for which he is better known.

Gibbons’ prison director Howard Skolnik and Public Works director Gus Nunez on Jan. 24 asked the legislative Interim Finance Committee (IFC) to cancel a 100-bed transition center in North Las Vegas that both men called unnecessary.

But some members of the committee suspected that the two were under pressure from the governor to sell cancellation to the lawmakers for budget savings rather than on solid evidence that it is not needed. The legislators asked for the housing plan that would demonstrate the administration’s case, and Skolnik and Nunez were unable to produce one, so the legislators deferred action until the next IFC meeting. Nunez said he needed a prompt answer because the contractor wanted to start pouring concrete. That raised questions of why the administration delayed until such a precipitous moment to bring the matter to the attention of IFC, which meets about every six weeks.

Skolnik’s case was not helped by his telling the legislators that he had shut down the Jean prison and placed female inmates in another facility “without legislative approval or oversight,” as Assemblymember Sheila Leslie put it.

Gov. Gibbons issued a scathing statement: “Some of the same people who criticize this administration for cutting operating budgets also voted against deferring construction of a facility that experts agree is not currently needed. I find that rather disingenuous. As I have said many times, Nevadans are already paying higher costs for utilities, gasoline and food, and they are shouldering the burden of other increased costs to support their families. I will not support additional tax burdens to fund the costs of government.”

The Nevada Legislature in earlier sessions provided for release of many inmates serving terms for nonviolent offenses, but a transition process was always part of the deal, and legislators are loathe for safety reasons to change it now. During the 2007 legislature, prison officials told the lawmakers that 339 female inmates would likely need the transition center, a number that has now suddenly dropped to 21, a shift that further fed the suspicions of the legislators.

After the IFC meeting, the Reno Gazette-Journal and KOLO News posted stories on their websites whose headlines reported Gibbons’ stance as fact: “Unneeded prison to be built anyway.” That angered lawmakers, though responsibility for the headline was probably elsewhere. It originally appeared over a story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The Associated Press rewrote that story, retained the headline, and sent it out to all its clients in the region, and so far, the same headline has appeared in the Elko Daily Free Press and sites for KTVN, the San Francisco Examiner, and other outlets.