Secretary of State Ross Miller tried Tuesday to force a public discussion of proposed prison budget cuts.
Gov. Jim Gibbons has directed 4.5 percent general fund budget cuts, which would amount to about $24 million coming from the prison system.
Miller put the issue on the Board of Prison Commissioners agenda saying he believes that panel has ultimate control over the Department of Corrections, its policies, administration and budgets.
"Clearly the authority to review and approve recommended budget cuts are within the authority of the Board of Prison Commissioners," he said reading from a prepared statement.
Miller said he tried to get a copy of the department's recommendations but wasn't provided them until Monday. He was told then, he said, that the recommendations are confidential and cannot be discussed in an open meeting.
Skolnik and Gibbons, who is chairman of the prison commission, cited the recent Carson District Court ruling upholding the confidentiality of state agency recommendations under "deliberative process privilege" which allows confidential communications between the governor and his agencies.
Gibbons said according to a 1996 Attorney General's Opinion by Frankie Sue Del Papa, the role of the commission is to provide "guidance rather than involving itself in day-to-day activities of the department."
He said the commission is "a policy board," with no role in development of the department's budget.
He said what Miller is attempting to do is "interjecting this board into the day-to-day administration of the prisons."
Josh Hicks, the governor's legal counsel, backed the governor's position, saying he has reviewed actions of the board well back in history and that the prison commission has never been involved in development of the budget or in cutting it back when that was necessary.
The commission reviews and approves regulations and policy for the prison system and occasionally makes recommendations on how to deal with issues faced in the system. But when the proposed budget is presented, it has been as an informational item, not an action item.
Miller argued the commission should get options for budget reductions from Director Skolnik, review them and choose which would be best for the state. He said that process should take place in an open and public meeting.
"I wasn't elected to this board to be a rubber stamp," he said. "We ought to be involved. We can clearly benefit from having this in a public forum."
That line drew applause from inmate advocates attending the meeting.
Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, the third member of the commission, said the extent of the commission's authority in these kinds of matters has never been discussed or studied.
"You want the board to have specific say in what the cuts should be?" she asked Miller.
He said they should select the options for department cuts and present them to the governor. He moved the commission reject whatever cuts Skolnik has proposed and call him forward to discuss the recommendations.
Masto said they should instead call another special meeting in a week or two to determine the commission's authority.
Masto said after the meeting since she sits on the commission, she will turn the issue over to senior deputies who will review the 1996 opinion "to see if it's consistent with today."
She said if that opinion stands, that is the rule the commission must abide by. If not, she said a new Attorney General's Opinion would have to be generated that might or might not back the governor's position.
She said the goal would be to have some answer in a couple of weeks.