Newspaper column: Unionization of state public workers would fleece taxpayers

Unfortunately a Democratic proposal to allow state public employees to collectively bargain for wages and benefits, Senate Bill 135, survived this past week, passing out of a state Senate committee on a party-line vote, even after studies showed it will balloon the cost to Nevada taxpayers.

Since 1969 local government public workers have been allowed to unionize, but not state workers. As a result, according to an analysis of 2017 Census data by the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), local government workers here are paid 46 percent more than private-sector workers, the highest such wage gap in the nation. The nationwide gap is a mere 8 percent.

Among the 50 states, Nevada local government workers ranked fifth highest in pay, state public workers, even without collective bargaining, ranked 10th, while private-sector workers ranked 47th.

A study in 2014 by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research by Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine found that even when education and experience differences between state public workers and private-sector workers are taken into account, state workers in Nevada still are paid 29 percent more than private workers. This ranked ninth highest in the nation and was nearly triple the 11 percent differential found nationwide.

Giving state public workers collective bargaining rights is likely to result in an even greater imbalance. In fact, a study commissioned by the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce estimates the unionization could in two decades cost as much as $596 per Nevada resident a year, measured in inflation-adjusted 2012 dollars. This would amount to as much as $1.75 billion a year. The entire current general fund budget amounts to about $4 billion a year.

In a statement accompanying the collective bargaining cost study, Hugh Anderson, chairman of the chamber’s Government Affairs Committee, argued, “This report shows that allowing collective bargaining for state employees would add significant new ongoing annual costs to the state budget and would likely take resources away from other important priorities including education, human services, public safety, infrastructure, and health care.”

Nevada Democrats have identified SB135 as a priority this session and Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak said during his State of the State speech that state workers “should be empowered to bargain collectively in the years ahead.” A similar measure in 2017, facing a Republican-majority Legislature and Republican governor, went nowhere.

Unionization of public workers results in higher costs because taxpayers are largely shut out of the negotiations and only get to see the end result. The unions contribute to elected officials who support their demands, providing an incentive for elected officials to comply with those demands and get re-elected. Further, under Nevada’s collective bargaining law, if negotiations come to an impasse, an arbitrator is appointed to settle the dispute and the primary criteria for granting a union’s demands is whether the government entity has the ability to pay what is demanded even if other spending must be curtailed. That determination is usually in favor of the union.

NPRI’s Robert Fellner, the group’s policy director, testified against SB135, saying, “Collective bargaining for public workers is unwarranted because the public sector lacks any of the imbalances that collective bargaining in the private sector was intended to fix. While private-sector employers could theoretically profit by underpaying their workers, the public sector has neither owners, nor profits, over which to negotiate. Elected officials making decisions regarding public workers’ compensation do not have to pay for these costs themselves.”

As we have noted in the past, none other than the icon of progressivism, Franklin D. Roosevelt, pointed out in a 1937 letter the problem with collective bargaining for public employees: “The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people …”

The taxpayers need to inundate lawmakers in Carson City with demands that this grab for their hard-earned money be derailed.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Newspaper column: Bill would water down public school accountability

If your job is to make widgets, your supervisor will evaluate your job performance principally on how well you make widgets and how many.

But if you are a Nevada public school teacher, not so much. There is a bill wending its way through the halls of the Legislature in Carson City that would reduce the importance of the one thing teacher and administrator evaluations should be based on: pupil achievement growth — the only truly objective and measurable criteria.

When the law establishing educator evaluations was first passed in 2011 fully 50 percent of evaluations were based on pupil growth.

At some point it was reduced to 40 percent and now Senate Bill 475 proposes to reduce that to only 20 percent.

The bill would require that “instructional practice,” whatever that means, must account for 60 percent of the evaluation and “professional responsibilities” account for the other 20 percent.

Not that evaluations are all that rigorous already. According to the Nevada Department of Education, in the 2017-2018 school year only 25 out of nearly 20,000 teachers in Nevada were evaluated as “ineffective.” That’s 0.1 percent. Another 1.3 percent were pegged as “developing,” while 80 percent were rated “effective” and only 16.7 percent were rated “highly effective.” The rest were exempt from being evaluated.

The scores varied wildly from county to county. More than half the teachers in Storey and Eureka were rated “highly effective,” while less than 5 percent were awarded that rating in Lander and Pershing. In 12 counties there were no “ineffective” teachers.

SB475 further neuters the ability to weed out under-performing teachers. Existing law allows a school district not to renew the contract of a probationary teacher or certain administrators whose performance is found to be developing or ineffective.

It also requires post-probationary employees who are rated developing or ineffective for two years in a row to serve an additional probationary period.

SB475 would allow the contract cancellation of a probationary employee only if rated ineffective, and it removes the requirement for a post-probationary employee rated as developing to serve an additional probationary period.

As if this weren’t bad enough, Nevada Policy Research Institute policy director Robert Fellner reports that the state teachers union recently voted to seek to have student achievement growth to account for only 10 percent of evaluations.

My how times change. Back in 2011 the Nevada State Education Association lauded the bill that established teacher evaluation criteria and set up an oversight panel called the Teachers and Leaders Council.

In its 2011 Legislative Report Card, the union stated, “This creates a council to develop the new educator evaluation that will be based on a 4-tier structure highly effective, effective, minimally effective, and ineffective.

Another provision in the bill includes that 50% of an educator’s evaluation will be based on student achievement data. NSEA is in complete support of the Teachers & Leaders Council and pushed hard to get this bill passed and signed by the Governor.”

The bill was part of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s push that session to improve education in Nevada, which perennially ranks near the bottom of states for education performance.

Of course the union complained that funding was inadequate then as it does now, even though since 1960 Nevada has nearly tripled inflation-adjusted per pupil education spending from $3,556 to $9,165 in 2015, according to NPRI. During that time college preparedness scores have flatlined.

Fellner argues that such union efforts water down accountability. “This highlights why collective bargaining for teachers is so harmful: it perverts the democratic process such that the union’s interests dictate public policy, rather than student learning and well-being,” he writes, adding that researchers at the University of Texas recently found “unionization has a powerful negative influence on educational outcomes.”

Lawmakers expect as many as half of the bills introduced this session could die for lack of action this week. Let’s hope SB475 is one.

If not we encourage lawmakers to put the children first, as the teacher unions like to say, and nix this bill.

Failing that we encourage Gov. Steve Sisolak to live up to his stated standards of transparency and accountability and veto the bill should it land on his desk.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: Don’t allow police to scan cellphones after wrecks

Textalyzer allows police to scan cellphone (NBC pix)

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

     — Fourth Amendment

 The urge to dictate how other people behave or misbehave apparently is irresistible.

There are already laws on the books prohibiting drivers from using cellphones while driving unless a hands-free system is employed. Now the Nevada Legislature is considering a bill, Assembly Bill 200, that would allow police at the scene of an accident to use an electronic device to determine whether a driver was, in fact, using such a device at the time of an accident. The bill would allow the suspension of one’s driver’s license for refusing to comply.

A company called Cellebrite says it has created something it calls a Textalyzer — like a breathalyzer, get it? — that will detect whether a phone was in use. The company says the device would only determine a user’s activity and what type of activity, such as hands-free or not, and would not reveal phone numbers or text messages.

Distracted driving is, well, distracted driving. The hair splitting over the type of distracted driving is irrelevant. One could be changing the radio, eating a sandwich, combing one’s hair or yelling at the screaming brat in the back seat.

The result is all the same, as well as the responsibility as shown by the evidence at the scene of the accident.

AB200, despite all the reassurances to the contrary, is unnecessary and poses too great a threat to the right to be secure in one’s person and personal effects without a properly issued search warrant.

“We can’t give the government the power to peer into everybody’s digital lives indiscriminately, because that might create a bigger problem than the one we’re trying to solve in the first place,” NBC News recently quoted Neil Richards, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who’s an expert in privacy and civil liberties, as saying about the use of such devices by police. “The way to do it is if the police suspect a case of distracting driving, they go and they get a warrant and they compel the records from the service provider.”

Who is to say what an officer might extract once the phone is handed over.

The Nevada American Civil Liberties Union has expressed opposition to AB200. “The ACLU of Nevada strongly opposes AB200 which would allow law enforcement to utilize experimental technology that would infringe on the Fourth Amendment and privacy rights of Nevadans without obtaining a warrant,” The Nevada Independent has quoted ACLU of Nevada Policy Director Holly Welborn as saying.

With all the guns, non-lethal arms, body cameras and other devices police are forced to lug around, there is no need to add an expensive and as-yet unproven cellphone scanning device.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Newspaper column: Just say no to annual legislative sessions

Democrats in Carson City are beating this dead donkey again.

Ten of the 13 state Senate Democrats are pushing for annual legislative sessions instead of sessions every other year. Senate Joint Resolution 5 would amend the state Constitution, which currently calls for 120-calendar-day sessions in odd-numbered years, by establishing 90-legislative-day sessions in odd-numbered years and 60-legislative-day sessions in even numbered years. Similar measures failed in 2013, 2015 and 2017.

The measure would have to pass this session and again in 2021 before going to the voters in 2022. The voters nixed a similar measure in 1970 with 66.2 percent voting against annual sessions.

Currently lawmakers are only paid their $150-a-day salaries for the first 60 days of each session, though they receive per diem expenses for the entire session, which works out to about 96 working days. If SJR5 were to pass, they would receive salaries for 150 days instead of 60 days, essentially a 150 percent pay increase.

A fiscal note prepared by the Legislative Counsel Bureau estimates the change would raise the cost of legislative sessions from the current $20 million every two years to $33.3 million.

“Despite our tradition of biennial sessions it is time for a change. While this tradition made sense during periods when our population was much lower and our finances less complex, it no longer addresses the needs of a rapidly growing state with a multibillion-dollar budget operating in a global market,” state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse of Henderson said during a recent hearing on the resolution. “Our state simply cannot adequately address rapidly changing conditions, a complex budget and policy matters by meeting every other year. In the past 17 years alone, our general revenue fund has more than doubled. At the same time our responsibilities as legislatures have increased significantly.”

Imagine how much the revenue — taken from the pockets of hardworking Nevadans — would have grown if the voters had approved annual sessions half a century ago.

At the hearing state Sen. Heidi Gansert of Reno expressed concerns that annual sessions would make it more difficult for anyone but the well-off to serve. “How do we maintain a citizen Legislature where we have folks who come from all walks of life?” she asked. “This would still be part-time but you would have to take off every year, and so that would be a concern. Who would have employers who would allow them to do that or would this force in some cases only the more affluent to be able to afford to serve?”

Janine Hansen, state president of Nevada Families for Freedom, pointed out that under SJR5 the 60- and 90-legislative-day sessions could last for months if lawmakers meet only a couple of days a week. She pointed out that Utah, with a similar population as Nevada, has its lawmakers meet annually but for only 45 days each year, less than Nevada’s current 120-day sessions.

Hansen suggested the better way to allow lawmakers to handle the work load is to cut the number bills that may be introduced in half.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that in the early 1960s only 19 state legislatures met annually, while the rest met biennially. By the mid-1970s, the number of states meeting annually had jumped from 19 to 41. Today only Nevada, Montana, North Dakota and Texas still met biennially. Texas’ population is considerably larger than Nevada’s.

While Nevada does not have full-blown legislative sessions every year it does have standing committees of lawmakers who meet when not in session and are able to make funding and regulatory changes. The governor also has the power to call special legislative sessions, such as the ones called in recent years to dole out billions in tax breaks to electric car makers Telsa and Faraday Future. Just what we need more of, right?

NCLS points out in a list of arguments against annual sessions posted on its website that annual sessions inevitably lead to a spiraling of legislative costs — for the lawmakers as well as the staffers who must be brought together twice as often. Also, biennial sessions allow lawmakers to work with and associate with their constituents. Another argument is that there are enough laws already limiting people’s liberty.

Lawmakers should dump this expensive and counterproductive measure now.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Legislative building in Carson City. (AP pix)

Editorial: Bill would strengthen public records law

It is time to put some teeth into Nevada’s public records law.

Even though state law requires that all public records and books, except those specifically exempted as confidential by law, must be open for inspection and copying, government agencies have been flouting the law for years, refusing to turn over anything that might prove embarrassing to the agency or its bosses. Police refuse to release records. School districts and cities conduct investigations of misconduct and refuse to release the results. One coroner refuses to release autopsies, even to a spouse. The public employee pension system refuses to release the names and pensions of pensioners.

And when someone challenges the intransigence in court, the agencies hire lawyers and spend tax dollars to fight letting the taxpayers know what they are doing with our money. When they lose, they shrug it off and do it all over again, because there are no consequences for the agency or the decision makers.

Now comes Senate Bill 287, which would put some skin in the game for the agencies and the people who wrongly deny public records requests.

Should SB287 become law, if a court determines a governmental entity or the person making the decision on behalf of the governmental entity wrongly denies a records request, the requester may be awarded a civil penalty of not less than $1,000 or more than $250,000 per offense from the agency or the responsible party or both.

That part about making the responsible party pay up should grease a few skids.

Perhaps it also should specify that the agency may not reimburse the responsible party for the civil penalty.

A newly formed group called Right to Know Nevada sent out a press release via email recently supporting SB287.

Maggie McLetchie, an attorney who has represented the Las Vegas newspaper in a number of records lawsuits, was quoted as saying, “By ensuring that existing law is actually followed, Senator (David) Parks’ bill would reduce the need for expensive public records litigation, which is a good thing. The goal is to eliminate the need for costly lawsuits and to simply have the government be fully transparent and accountable to the people it serves, which is what state law already requires.”

ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Tod Story said, “While existing law already requires a response within 5 business days, we have experienced vastly different response times, not too mention fees, from governments across the state in response to the identical request. In fact, some agencies simply never responded to our request at all.”

The bill would also limit what an agency could charge for a public record to what it actually costs to produce it, excluding labor cost.

Passage of SB287 might actually put some meaning into the original law’s intended purpose: “The purpose of this chapter is to foster democratic principles by providing members of the public with access to inspect and copy public books and records to the extent permitted by law; The provisions of this chapter must be construed liberally to carry out this important purpose; Any exemption, exception or balancing of interests which limits or restricts access to public books and records by members of the public must be construed narrowly.”

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Newspaper column: Bill would shred Read by 3 law

A gaggle of Democrats in Carson City have proffered a bill that would gut Nevada’s Read by 3 law like a fish.

In 2015 lawmakers voted to require schools to have students who have not achieved proficiency in reading by the end of the third grade to be retained in the third grade for another year. It was modeled after a law passed in Florida in 2002 that quickly reduced fourth grade illiteracy.

The Nevada law is scheduled to take effect with the 2019-2020 school year.

When Florida’s law — dubbed Just Read, Florida — was passed the Nation’s Report Card, prepared by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or lack thereof), showed only 27 percent of Florida fourth graders were proficient in reading, 4 points below the national rate. In 2017, 41 percent of Florida fourth graders were proficient, 4 points above the national rate.

In 2017, only 31 percent of Nevada fourth graders were proficient in reading, 7 points below the national average.

In a 2011 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Jeb Bush, who was governor of Florida when the reading bill passed, explained the rationale for the proposition, “While preparing kids for college and careers starts on the first day of kindergarten, the first good indicator of their chances for success may come in fourth grade. That is when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. A Manhattan Institute study found that students who can’t read and yet are promoted fall further behind over time. Alarmingly, 33% of fourth-graders in America are functionally illiterate …”

Bush boasted that before the reading law was enacted fully half of Florida’s fourth-graders were functionally illiterate, but by 2011 fully 72 percent could read.

Assembly Bill 289 would emasculate Nevada’s law before it has a chance to even attempt to succeed.

First, the bill would require a parent or legal guardian to provide written consent for a pupil to be retained a grade regardless of reading proficiency.

Second, the bill would change the requirement for a pupil to be proficient to merely “performing at a level considered to be within the average range for a pupil enrolled in the same grade in which the pupil is enrolled …”  The law doesn’t state whether that average is for a given class, school, county or statewide. Nor does it contemplate that at any point that “average” might actually be above the reading  proficiency level. Fat chance of that if this bill passes.

In 2017 Democratic lawmakers were unsuccessful in an attempt to repeal the law outright. At the time, Gov. Brain Sandoval, an ardent backer of the original bill, put out a statement saying, “The Read by Grade 3 initiative placed nearly $30 million directly in classrooms in more than 300 schools across Nevada with a clear line of accountability and singular focus on developmental reading. The Governor will not compromise on the goal of ensuring every student in Nevada is reading at grade level by third grade.”

Facing a certain veto, the bill was never brought up for a vote. There is a Democrat in the governor’s mansion now.

Nevada’s State Board of Education this past August announced policies and standards that have already reduced the number of third graders who might be required to repeat third grade due to reading deficiency.

It was estimated at the time that 29 percent of third graders could be eligible for retention, though about half could qualify for what are called “good-cause” exemptions — for those with disabilities, English learners, ones who demonstrate reading proficiency through a portfolio of school work and those who were retained in earlier grades.

The board also adopted an alternative test for those who fail the primary test, and set the cut-off score on that test at a rather law 30th percentile.

“While initial data indicates a significant number of students may be retained in third grade, the good-cause exemptions ensure fairness in this process,” Steve Canavero, superintendent of public instruction, was quoted as saying in a press release at the time. “I can’t emphasize enough, the goal of Read by Grade 3 is not to punish anyone, rather the goal of this program is to enhance a student’s ability to read successfully — thus ensuring success throughout his/her entire academic experience.”

AB287 would greatly reduce the chance of success.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: BLM cooperating with states on grouse protection

A greater sage grouse male struts for a female. (Pix by Jeannie Stafford for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

This past Friday the Bureau of Land Management released its Record of Decisions on how to protect greater sage grouse across a number of Western states, including Nevada.

The BLM backed off Obama administration plans that would have hampered mining, ranching and oil and gas exploration, saying its goal now is to align BLM plans for managing sage grouse habitat with plans developed by each state.

The areas affected in Nevada include Battle Mountain, Carson City, Elko, Ely and Winnemucca.

“The State of Nevada thanks the Bureau of Land Management for incorporating our concerns and respecting the Greater Sage-Grouse habitat plan developed cooperatively by Nevada state agencies and local stakeholders,” said Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak in a statement conveyed by the BLM. “In particular, Nevada appreciates the BLM’s commitment to compensatory mitigation as an integral part of the success of Nevada’s habitat management plan. We look forward to working closely with the BLM Nevada Office and the Department of Interior leadership to ensure the revised habitat plans are fully successful.”

Compensatory mitigation would allow developers to pay for methods that reduce impact on sage grouse habitat rather than simply being barred from using the land.

In December, then-Gov. Brian Sandoval, according to The Nevada Independent, issued an executive order telling the state’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Council to require energy and mining companies to offset the impacts of their activities on sage grouse habitat by using a conservation credit system.

The BLM had decided it did not have the authority to make such credit systems mandatory, but the new order supports each state’s plan and authority for compensated mitigation.

Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said in a statement, “The plan amendments adopted today show that listening to and working with our neighbors at the state and local levels of government is the key to long-term conservation and to ensuring the viability of local communities across the West.”

Brian Steed, BLM deputy director for Policy and Programs, was quoted as saying,  “Since the very beginning of this effort, all partners have maintained the need to conserve the sage grouse and avoid the need to list the species as threatened or endangered. We also share a commitment to conservation that does not put the West’s communities at risk and which balances between regulation and access. We believe that the better outcomes for the species under these plans will demonstrate the value of coordinating federal and state authority.”

The BLM will monitor grouse populations and maintain “trigger” points that will require action of some sort. The land agency stated that in Nevada the state’s planned responses to triggering will follow the state’s strategy rather than automatically applying pre-determined response measures.

Of course, environmental groups forecast doom and gloom.

“This could drive the greater sage grouse to extinction and forever damage the American West,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release. “Trump and former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt are blatantly rigging the system to benefit oil and gas operators. This will spell disaster for the vanishing sage grouse and for hundreds of species that depend on unspoiled public land.”

Lest we forget, early explorers of Nevada in the 1820s and 1830s never mentioned seeing sage grouse — not Jedediah Smith, not John Work, not Zenas Leonard. Nor did Joe Meek, John Bidwell, John Fremont, Charles Preuss, Heinrich Lienhard and James Clyman.

Nor did the first wagon trains in the 1840s. Not until settlers brought in horses, cattle, oxen and sheep, which fertilized the soil and ground the vegetation into the ground, while also improving water sources, did the sage grouse population grow into the millions.

Human activity actually caused the birds to thrive. Fires and lack of predator control have caused the grouse population to dwindle somewhat.

Common sense and cooperation between the federal land agencies and the experts in each state can keep the grouse from returning to a more “natural” population level prior to the arrival of settlers.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.