Lawmakers now have less than two weeks to pass a budget that includes tax increases if they want an opportunity to override Gov. Jim Gibbons' promised veto. And whatever taxes are hiked, whatever services are cut, whatever compromise legislation is attached to the spending plan, the result will answer one of Nevada's most consequential political questions: Just how powerful are the state's public employee unions, anyway?
For nearly two decades, they've played the schoolyard bully, shaking down anyone dumb enough to carry loose change and making those who dare to defend themselves squeal "Uncle!" in front of their friends.
They don't just have the ears of the state's elected Democrats -- they own everything in between.
Not even the worst recession in recent memory has brought government workers the kind of hardship being felt in the private sector, where unemployment tops 10 percent, retirement savings have been depleted and schedules have been slashed. Public employee pay raises and pensions remain guaranteed.
Last week, when the Legislature reached agreement on the framework of education funding, lawmakers celebrated that the K-12 budget was about $434 million larger than what Gibbons had proposed, but conceded that the plan likely would require teachers to take 4 percent pay cuts.
A chink in labor's armor?
Not so fast, declared the Clark and Washoe county school districts, whose elected boards and administrations are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Nevada State Education Association. Even though schools supposedly have been cutting to the marrow all year, suddenly there was plenty of fat that could be slashed to preserve salaries.
Clark County alone probably could come up with an additional $138 million in classroom and program cuts, including extracurricular activities, electives and remedial workshops, officials assured. Those class-size reduction mandates that have been championed by Democrats and educators as invaluable and untouchable? They're probably toast.
Lawmakers might yet grab tens of millions of dollars from Clark and Washoe county governments and force their commissions to take on their bargaining units yet again. Would you consider taking a slightly smaller pay raise? Pretty please? With sugar on it?
Union chiefs are stalking the corridors of the Capitol. They're fuming. They've moved past wedgies and arm-twisting and into full-fledged sleeper holds. They want their tax hikes, and they wanted them two months ago.
But the legislative Democrats they've put in office -- the ones they've raised money for, the ones they've walked neighborhoods for and told members to vote for -- have dug themselves a sizable hole.
Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley and new Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford have roundly condemned the rock-solid, no-new-taxes position of Gibbons and a stubborn contingent of Assembly Republicans. They've shut out lobbyists who have urged lawmakers to hold the line on tax increases, to have mercy on businesses that are barely staying afloat.
The Las Vegas Democrats have declared that "everything must be on the table" to avoid killing off essential programs and services. "Everything must be on the table" to prevent Nevada from becoming a Third World country and a national laughingstock. And anyone who says anything isn't on the table isn't welcome at their secret negotiating sessions.
The Nevada Constitution requires two-thirds support in each house of the Legislature for tax increases. The Democrats have exactly that margin in the Assembly, 28-14. But their Senate majority is 12-9, meaning they need two Republicans to sign on to tax increases, then vote to override a Gibbons veto.
There's no shortage of Republican senators willing to consider tax increases -- in fact, almost all of them supported the record tax hikes of 2003. But they've taken Democrats at their word that "everything is on the table." So in exchange for their votes for higher taxes, they're demanding reforms to the state's public employee retirement benefits and the local government collective bargaining process that could save taxpayers billions of dollars over the long-term.
Higher age and service requirements for full benefits. Cutting off new hires from retirement health care benefits. Public hearings on union contracts.
How are the unions reacting to this? Imagine a vampire opening his coffin to an August afternoon in Las Vegas.
Those inclusive, open-minded, bipartisan Democrats do indeed want everything on the table, and there can be no absolutist positions -- except when it comes to public employee retirement benefits and collective bargaining. Those are off-limits -- so say their masters in organized labor.
Never mind that personnel costs were driving governments toward bankruptcy long before the recession arrived, or that taxpayers are on the hook for upwards of $15 billion in unfunded, promised retirement benefits. From where will that revenue be extracted when the bill comes due?
Democrats are so lost in their government-first world view that they don't fully comprehend what they're asking of the GOP. Republicans aren't supposed to support tax increases. They win elections championing lower taxes, and they lose elections when they go the other way.
Democrats are asking Republicans to commit political suicide -- for the good of the state, of course.
Senate Republicans, many of whom are term-limited, are saying, "OK. You first." If Democrats sign on to public employee retirement reforms, they can start digging their own graves.
By the time all the back-room deals are struck, Carson City could look like Jonestown.
And the public-sector union bosses will be passing out the Kool-Aid.
Glenn Cook (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.