Sunday, May 13, 2012 | 2 a.m.
A budget is not just a plan to spend money. It’s a statement of priorities — a paper-and-ink manifesto of what an elected official or board believes is important.
In an ideal world, the budget matches a politician’s campaign promises. And if it doesn’t, the public can decide whether to vote the person out.
But what happens when a major portion of a public budget is put in the hands of someone who isn’t elected and isn’t subject to the decisions of an elected board?
Such is the case when a labor dispute heads to arbitration. And in the aftermath of two recent cases in which arbitrators were handed cases with multimillion-dollar implications, some are questioning where the accountability lies.
In Clark County, the school district lost an arbitration battle worth $63 million over teacher salary increases for education level and longevity. The district says the decision will force as many as 1,000 teacher layoffs — unless the state can swoop in with some federal money to reduce that number.
In Washoe County, an arbitrator decided last year the school district couldn’t require teachers to take a 2.5 percent pay cut to help manage its growing budget shortfall.
Both cases came down to the question: Does the district have enough money to afford the salaries at issue?
And in both cases, despite the fact revenues are plummeting, the arbitrator made the binding decision that the school district could afford it.
In Washoe County, superintendent Heath Morrison stipulated that the district had the funds but unsuccessfully made the case that the district needed to save the money — about $12 million over two years — to deal with looming future budget holes. Other employee groups in the district agreed to the pay cut, but the teachers decided to fight for their salaries.
“My frustration about the binding arbitration process is it really boils down to one thing, and that is ability to pay,” Morrison said on “To the Point,” the television public affairs show I host. “An arbitrator just looks at, ‘Well, you got the reserves.’ They don’t have to look at next year or the following year. They’re just looking at this year.
“They wield incredible influence, incredible power. There’s no ability to talk about what’s important for the organization in the long term. They make a decision and there’s no accountability for them because they are not elected officials. And we have to live with their decisions.”
So far, few have called for the outright elimination of binding arbitration. Such decisions can cut both ways, and teachers unions have been on the losing side of a fair number of them.
But the two cases highlight a growing call for changes to the arbitration system, giving arbitrators more flexibility to consider arguments beyond the immediate funding question, perhaps, or the ability to “cherry pick” from the offers presented by both sides rather than simply ratifying one of them in its entirety.
Union officials say sour grapes from the losing side isn’t enough to call the entire system into question.
“That the superintendents didn’t get their way and are in a snit over it is not a viable argument against a system that has worked well since the law extended binding arbitration to teachers,” said Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada State Education Association. “Binding arbitration works. It’s worked for a long time, and there’s no reason to believe it didn’t work in this case.”
Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County Education Association, said using an arbitrator to objectively evaluate arguments from both sides takes politics out of budget decisions that affect lives.
“I don’t believe anything needs to be changed with binding arbitration,” he said. “What needs to be changed is the ability for teachers to have a stronger voice. Give us back our right to strike.”
Dale Erquiaga, Gov. Brian Sandoval’s senior adviser, confirmed the administration had begun considering ways to address binding arbitration in the next legislative session. He pointed out the state was required to backfill local funding shortages to a certain extent.
“They’re now cost shifting to the state,” he said. “We can’t have their collective bargaining agreements cost the state. These (arbitrator) decisions have guaranteed that binding arbitration will be on the radar screen next session.”