Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2017

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Similar budget woes prompt Nevada rallies

As Wisconsin workers protest, politicians and public workers here wonder if they will go down same road or try another way

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Steve Marcus

Union electrician Vince Meamber attends a union rally at the Grant Sawyer Building Monday, Feb. 21. Nevada union members held rallies in Las Vegas and Carson City to show support for union workers in Wisconsin fighting to keep their collective bargaining rights.

Union Rally for Wisconsin

Hundreds of union members attend a rally at the Grant Sawyer Building Monday, February 21, 2011. Nevada union members held rallies in Las Vegas and Carson City to show their support for union workers in Wisconsin who are fighting to keep their collective bargaining rights. Launch slideshow »

Sun Coverage

Public employees rallied Monday in Las Vegas and Carson City in a show of solidarity with the Wisconsin government workers who have crowded the Midwest Capitol to protest proposals to roll back collective bargaining rights and limit pay increases.

The day invited comparisons between the two states, as Nevada Republicans promise to pursue changes to public employee compensation and bargaining rights similar to those being sought in Wisconsin.

For now, at least, Carson City is not Madison, in its level of support for unions or civic activism.

It’s not yet clear all that’s at stake for Silver State public employees. Lists of proposed changes to collective bargaining rights and compensation are beginning to circulate in the halls of the Legislature.

What is clear is that Nevada conservatives see this as their best chance in a generation to make changes to government pensions, health benefits and contract negotiating rules. And the issues promise to be a key bargaining chip for Republicans as Democratic lawmakers, who have typically been staunch supporters of the unions, desperately seek votes in support of a tax increase.

In Wisconsin, the Legislature is at a standstill over a proposal to scale back collective bargaining rights for public employees and tie raises to inflation, unless there’s a vote of the people. Tens of thousands of schoolteachers and public workers have camped out at the Capitol since last week to protest the proposed changes.

Democrats in the Wisconsin Legislature are on the lam to prevent Republicans from reaching a quorum to hold a vote.

The Wisconsin protests have added a wrinkle to discussions of those issues in Carson City, as Republicans seek changes to negotiating rules — called Chapter 288 — and rules on things such as teacher tenure. Namely: What if conservative lawmakers went too far as they take on public employee unions?

“There will be a revolt in this state if they trade out collective bargaining for a tax increase,” said Danny Thompson, executive secretary of the Nevada AFL-CIO, which organized Monday’s rallies in Carson City and Las Vegas. “We’re talking about taking this fight to the street.”

But Republicans in the Legislature don’t appear cowed by the possibility, however remote, that their actions might spur similar unrest in Nevada. If anything, they seemed inspired to push harder.

“I frankly question whether collective bargaining for any government employee makes sense,” state Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, said. “Some people in our state seem to think it’s a right. It’s not. It’s a privilege.”

The freshman senator had a copy of a Wall Street Journal editorial criticizing Wisconsin public employees for trying to “intimidate lawmakers and disrupt Gov. Scott Walker’s plans.” Brower described Walker’s proposals in the same language as the conservative editorial page: “eminently reasonable,” “common sense,” “modest reforms.”

In 2009, Nevada Senate Republicans negotiated concessions on public employee benefits, pensions and collective bargaining. In exchange, enough Republicans voted for a temporary tax increase to meet the state’s two-thirds requirement and override Gov. Jim Gibbons’ veto.

Some business groups expect a similar situation this year. Only they have the more popular Gov. Brian Sandoval in their corner and more Republicans in the Senate and Assembly.

Other than saying they will pursue significant reform to public employee benefits and collective bargaining rights, Republican lawmakers have remained relatively quiet on the details of the changes they would like to see. Some would like to scale back or do away with teacher tenure.

“We need to put it on the table and take a good hard look at it,” Brower said of the various proposals circulating.

The two largest chambers of commerce differ on what to do about collective bargaining. The Las Vegas Chamber supports changing the rules.

“The chamber wants to look at local government pay and benefits, and bring those in line with other states, and hopefully the private sector,” spokeswoman Cara Roberts said.

Click to enlarge photo

Hundreds of union members attend a rally at the Grant Sawyer Building Monday, February 21, 2011. Nevada union members held rallies in Las Vegas and Carson City to show their support for union workers in Wisconsin who are fighting to keep their collective bargaining rights.

She took pains to say it didn’t want to “demonize” anyone and wanted to work with the unions.

Tray Abney, government relations director of the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce, said “The chamber’s official position is 288 should not exist ... It doesn’t make sense that the people we elect have to go on hands and knees and beg unions for concessions.”

Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, had little to say, other than joking he would take his caucus to Hawaii if it finds it’s in the position of having to flee the state to prevent a vote from taking place.

Sandoval also has declined to take up the fight on collective bargaining. He elected not to pursue Gibbons’ bill eliminating those rights entirely but has not stated his position on how the law should be softened.

Sandoval has, however, proposed state workers take a 5 percent pay cut to replace the monthly furlough days they have been required to take since 2009. He also wants teachers and other employees to contribute more toward retirement and health benefits.

The governor’s senior adviser, Dale Erquiaga, said that rather than choose sides Sandoval is positioning himself as a negotiator in the debate over collective bargaining rights.

“He is truly the guy in the middle here in this conversation,” Erquiaga said. “Most people predict collective bargaining will be part of the final closing deal on the budget. So it’s logical for the governor, the guy who has to negotiate all those deals, to be in the position of arbitrator and negotiator.”

For many of the state workers and their supporters rallying on Monday in Carson City, they believed that the burden of balancing the budget during the Great Recession is being unfairly placed on their shoulders.

“It wasn’t state workers, teachers, or firefighters who caused this” recession, said Darlene Cobbey, a retired private sector worker living in Silver City. “It was the big corporations and the banks.”

As teamster Dennis Miller put it at the rally in Carson City: “This fight is only beginning.”

Sun reporter Joe Schoenmann contributed to this story from Las Vegas.

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