Editorial: Let local governments opt out of collective bargaining

While it seems most of the legislation coursing through the halls of the Legislature in Carson City seeks to tap deeper into taxpayers’ wallets, one might actually reduce the cost of local government by allowing local counties, cities and school boards to end collective bargaining with public employee unions.

Assembly Bill 280, sponsored by Assemblyman Erven Nelson, a Las Vegas Republican, authorizes local governments to choose not to negotiate with an employee union and ends the requirement for binding arbitration that has proven so costly to many local governments and school districts.

Nelson testified recently about his bill, saying it will allow elected officials to regain control over the cost of government by allowing them to set the rate of salaries and benefits during public meetings in front of the taxpayers, instead of in secret negotiations. He noted this is how the state government works, because it does not allow its employees to unionize.

If a local government does agree to collective bargaining, AB280 would not allow any pay or benefit increases after a contract expires and before a new agreement is finalized.

Erven Nelson

Nelson pointed out that during the recent recession a number of government employees lost their jobs and services to taxpayers were cut because unions would not agree to reductions in pay and benefits. He added union requirements that layoffs be based on seniority instead of merit often resulted in better and lower paid employees being laid off.

“By providing another alternative to the governing body, jobs can be saved and services to the public can be retained,” Nelson testified.

“We should not be talking about raising taxes so long as government employees make more than the taxpayers who fund their salaries.” Nelson continued. “Government spending would fall by approximately $300 per resident if Nevada makes collective bargaining optional for local government employees and if they implement those changes. Limiting collective bargaining has worked well for Wisconsin. The state closed its budget deficit and realized enough savings to cut taxes as well.”

Nye County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen also testified in favor of the bill, saying his county has 400 public employee union members whose salaries and benefits have become unsustainable. “In the past 10 years, the county’s assessed valuation has declined by nearly $600 million and the opportunity to generate revenue from other sources have been either insignificant or not available to us,” Schinhofen said. Today total employee compensation consumes 80 percent of the county budget.

He said AB280 would allow the county to regain control of its spending on services for its 48,000 residents.

Former Storey County Commissioner Greg “Bum” Hess argued that in small counties with volatile revenue streams the governing body needs flexibility to set public employee pay rather than be bound by a collective bargaining contract.

“This bill, as you know, would not outlaw collective bargaining; it would merely empower each local government body to choose for itself whether or not to engage in the collective-bargaining process,” testified Nevada Policy Research Institute President Andy Matthews. “This is important because it would give citizens a much stronger voice in how local fiscal affairs are conducted. If the residents of Elko or Reno or Las Vegas think that their local government employees ought to be able to negotiate under collective bargaining laws, then they can vote to elect officials who will implement that policy. Residents who feel otherwise can vote for candidates who pledge to do the opposite.”

Of course, a number of public employee union representatives testified against the bill, saying it would make it more difficult for local governments to recruit quality employees. They also said unions have been willing to reopen contracts and negotiate pay reductions.

What is being proposed for the cities, counties and school boards currently works for the state, which is able to hire suitable employees at a pay scale with which both employer and employee agree.

We fully support and call for passage of AB280 to allow local governments to take control of their budgets for the benefit of taxpayers and not be forced to cede control of budgets to out-of-state arbitrators who don’t have to live with the result of their decisions.

A version of this editorial appears this week in 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.

R-J columnist reveals just who he is looking out for, and it’s not his readers

When one columnist lights into another for slighting some group, it can reveal just where that columnist’s fealty lies.

Take Steve Sebelius’ Friday column in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on one of its few remaining op-ed pages. He employs the column to unleash a full fusillade against Nevada Policy Research Institute in general and its president, Andy Matthews, in particular.

Sebelius — under the headline “Distortions, insults don’t solve problems” — claims “the erstwhile folks at NPRI have stretched the truth like saltwater taffy to create tasty-but-misleading info-chews, full of empty calories for the body politic. If truth is the first casualty of war, intellectual honesty buys it second. And this op-ed shatters any pretense of intellectual honesty by hurling numbers and invective at cops in the hopes of killing a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase now pending in the Nevada Legislature.”

Within a couple of paragraphs the columnist reveals symptoms of the Stockholm Syndrome, showing more sympathy for his news sources than the subscribers of the paper who should expect their dollars to buy honest reportage with their interests in mind. He brags of his acquaintance with an assistant sheriff, Ray Flynn, who he met while he was a cops reporter for the Las Vegas Sun. “I covered more than one SWAT event alongside Flynn back in the day, and I can testify he worked for his money.”

Most people work for their money. The question in this contretemps is whether the boss — the taxpayers — is getting a good value for that money.

Sebelius takes umbrage with the fact NPRI pointed out in a commentary accompanying the release of 2012 Metro police salaries on its website Transparent Nevada how many Metro staffers were paid “total compensation” north of $200,000, the amount that comes out of taxpayers’ pockets. He seems to think it is unfair to include the police department’s ample benefits and cashing out unused sick leave at retirement.

Matthews reported that more than 149 Las Vegas police employees made at least $200,000 in “total compensation” in 2012. But Sebelius huffed that R-J cop reporter “got the real answer: Just 17 employees made more than $200,000 in salary alone in 2012.”

I suspect he’d also blanch at the figures I came up with: “When you tally the total for each officer, you find 3,307 fetched more than $100,000 in tax dollars in 2012. That is 58 percent of all the salaries listed, which includes several hundred school guards drawing pay more in the range of less than $1,000 a year.”

The R-J news story went to the trouble to back out some of the compensation, though it is not clear just what, so it could report a smaller number: “1,134 employees of the agency’s 5,684 full-time and part-time employees received more than $100,000 in pay alone.”

Neither did Sebelius much care for Matthews comparing Metro’s dire warnings about “dangerous consequences,” unless the sales tax is raised to cover the cost of princely-paid cops, to the mob’s protection racket.

“Now, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is telling the public the same thing — pay up or face ‘dangerous consequences.'” Matthews writes. “Department bureaucrats want the Legislature to authorize a quarter-cent sales tax increase and give the department ‘flexibility’ in using the money. Originally in 2004, tax increase proponents had pledged that the ‘more cops tax’ money would be used to hire new officers.” (A version also appeared in the R-J.)

The R-J columnist also found it ironic NPRI fails to reveal its salaries and donations, while not bothering to publish his own.

Finally, Sebelius asks this series of questions: “Does the system need reform? Is the base pay for officers right (it starts at $45,500 per year)? Should officers who aren’t suffering a medical disability have to wait until age 62 to receive their taxpayer pensions? Should they contribute more to their retirement? Should the pension system be replaced with a 401(k)-style retirement plan for future retirees? Should we switch to a use-it-or-lose-it vacation/sick day policy in local government? And should we eliminate binding arbitration and make elected officials finally and fully accountable for approving each contract? These are all perfectly legitimate questions.”

Of course, not wanting to step on any toes, he doesn’t even attempt to answer any of them.

He concludes with this cliché about cops: “It’s a thankless enough job as it is.”

No, ample pay and substantial retirement benefits and early retirement are the taxpayers’ way of saying thanks. The question is: Are they being too generous for what they get in return.

In 2004, Metro salaries were ranked ninth highest in the nation — behind North Las Vegas, Henderson and Reno and a couple of others. And those are just salaries.