Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2017

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State employees protest salary cuts outside Sandoval’s office

Enough’s enough, say state employees.

As legislators begin to close the state’s next two-year budget, state employees today called for restoration of pay lost to several years of sustained salary cuts.

Meeting outside the Legislature with more than half of the state’s legislators, they asked Gov. Brian Sandoval to eliminate an existing 2.5 percent salary reduction that he plans to extend to 2015.

Legislative leaders have been in meetings with Sandoval to discuss state employee wages and benefits this week.

“He's willing to have that discussion with leadership and engage to try to help employees by restoring some pay and benefits,” said Jeff Mohlenkamp, Sandoval’s budget director.

Legislative leaders won’t disclose what they’re discussing with the governor, but they’ve said numerous times during the past few months that they’d like to do more for state employees than what the governor proposed in his budget in January.

The governor has already pledged to put $50 million toward state employees by restoring some pay raises and eliminating furlough days by July, 2014, Mohlenkamp said.

It’s unclear whether legislators want to fully eliminate the 2.5 percent salary cuts or just reduce them.

“We’re still working on it, and when you’re working on a deal, you don’t blow it by talking about it,” said Assembly Ways and Means chairwoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas.

Eliminating the 2.5 percent pay reduction would mean the state needs to spend $50 million in added payroll costs, Mohlenkamp said

Senate Finance chairwoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said legislators haven’t finished budgeting for the next two years, so that money is there. It’s just a matter of the governor and legislators agreeing how that money should be spent.

But it appears they haven’t quite reached a compromise.

Sandoval wants to exempt more businesses from paying the payroll tax. Currently, the first $250,000 in annual payroll for any business is exempt. Sandoval would raise that threshold to $340,000.

Legislators disagree that all Nevada businesses should get the higher write-off for the payroll tax, or Modified Business Tax.

“Many of my colleagues think we should not be reducing the MBT when we could put it toward education, for example,” Smith said.

Eliminating Sandoval’s proposed tax cut would inject another $25 million into the budget.

This week Sandoval’s administration walked back comments that the governor would like to make the 2.5 percent salary cuts permanent, as Mohlenkamp said during a budget hearing earlier this month.

Instead, the governor worried that he would be setting a false expectation for the pay reductions to go away after June 30, 2015, which may not be the case if the economy does not continue to improve or legislators and the governor pass a tax increase.

“It was not that he intended to make it permanent, but he didn't want to set an expectation that it would be restored as a matter of course,” Mohlenkamp said.

The governor’s office has been sending state employees an email response when they write to the governor about pay and benefits.

Sandoval said in the email that he will not make the cuts permanent

“Currently Senate Bill 483 extends the employee salary reductions until June 30, 2015, at which time they would expire and the 2.5 percent would be reinstated,” the email states. “The governor is not proposing to make the cuts permanent for state employees. As Nevada's economy is continuing to improve, the governor will continue to evaluate funding allocations for state government operations.”

Meanwhile, state employees in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 4041 spoke of the hardships they’ve endured since 2009, when the onset of the economic recession first led to benefit and pay cuts.

“The cuts have been excruciating to my family,” said Jen Cooper, an employee with the Nevada Department of Transportation.

Cooper said she lost her home, and her 19-year-old daughter is starting adulthood saddled with medical debt from an accident for which the family could not afford to pay medical bills.

Sheralynn Kern, another state employee, said that investing in state employees is investing in the economy because they’ll have more disposable income to spend at Nevada businesses.

Addressing legislators, the press, and labor union supporters, she said that pay and benefits isn’t a partisan issue.

“I’m a Republican from Douglas County,” she said. “Every type of person works for the state.”

They called on Sandoval to restore their pay and work with legislative leadership. But state employee union representatives say they don’t know the contours of that debate.

“They’ve been extremely tight-lipped,” said Keith Uriarte, with AFSCME Local 4041. “When you get down to the 11th hour, that’s when business gets taken care of, and we’re not quite there yet.”

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