Gov. Jim Gibbons plans to include a 6 percent cut in pay for state employees, including teachers, in his proposed budget, a source in state government confirmed Thursday.
Public employee and teacher unions reacted angrily to the news and said slashing salaries is not the answer to the state's historic budget crisis.
The governor is scheduled to propose a 2009-11 budget next week as part of his State of the State address, scheduled for Thursday. The state Legislature has final authority over budgeting, but the governor's budget provides the template that lawmakers work from in the 120-day session, which starts in February.
The governor's office refused to discuss the proposal. Gibbons spokesman Daniel Burns cited an obscure statute that he said requires that the executive budget remain confidential, though Gibbons has discussed many aspects of the budget he plans to propose.
"I can't answer that," Burns said when asked about the pay cut proposal. "I would be committing a crime."
Clark County Education Association President Ruben Murillo on Thursday said cutting teacher pay would hurt education in Nevada.
"If you want to drive teachers away, wreck the education system totally, demolish it -- take 6 percent away and see what that does," Murillo said.
"I believe there are ways we can work this out without cutting teachers and salaries. We have a high turnover of teachers every year in Clark County. It's hard enough to get teachers here as it is. If salaries are going down, who's going to want to teach here?"
Murillo said that the public generally thinks teachers should be paid more, not less. "If this is what the governor's proposing, I think the governor's in for a big surprise because I don't think the public's going to stand for it," he said.
The governor previously has said that state workers can expect no pay increases in the coming biennium, including merit, step and cost of living increases.
According to the latest revenue projection from the state's Economic Forum, if no new revenue is raised, the state will have $5.7 billion to spend over the next two-year budget period, down from the $6.8 billion budget that was approved in 2007.
Working with legislators, the governor, a Republican who has vowed not to raise taxes, already has cut nearly $1.5 billion from the current budget to make up a revenue shortfall.
According to financial analysts, every 1 percent of state employee pay costs the state between $20 million and $30 million per year. Based on that, a 6 percent cut could save the state $120 million to $180 million each year, or $240 million to $360 million over the biennium.
Dennis Mallory, chief of staff of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 4041, argued that the 6 percent salary cut sought by Gibbons would be the equivalent of a tax increase on state employees.
Gibbons has said repeatedly that he would not raise taxes on businesses or individuals because it would not be fair to burden them economically during a downturn, Mallory said. "But he is taking income from the bottom line of state employees, which in effect would be a tax increase on them," said Mallory, whose labor group has 5,000 state employees as members.
It's not that state employees aren't willing to make sacrifices, Mallory said. He said his board recently voted unanimously against requesting cost of living increases from the state during this economic period. But asking people to take a 6 percent salary cut is going too far, he said.
Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, indicated she would not support the proposed cut, which she said would jeopardize the state's ability to keep teachers and longtime employees.
"It doesn't make sense," she said. "I think we can come up with a better solution."
Buckley said a Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce study last fall showed that state employee salaries are right at the national average and that Nevada has the lowest number of public employees on a per capita basis of any state in the union.
"In some divisions, we have a 20 percent vacancy rate," Buckley said. "We need to keep the people we have."
The chamber study found state employees in Nevada received average pay 2.4 percent higher than the nationwide average.
Nevada local government employees, however, receive pay that is 31 percent higher than their counterparts across the country, according to that study.
Nevada State Education Association President Lynn Warne called the pay cut suggestion "irresponsible" and said it "shows a lack of leadership to seek to balance the budget on the backs of teachers and state employees."
Several studies, she said, have found that quality teachers are the key to quality education. Veteran teachers won't stay, and quality new teachers won't be attracted if they cannot make enough to support themselves.
"I believe education has already stepped up to the plate" in the budget crisis, she said, "slashing budgets in districts around the state. Already, entire programs have been eliminated. We're already paying our folks here in Nevada below the national average. All the research shows that without a highly qualified, energetic professional in that classroom, children don't learn."
Clark County Superintendent Walt Rulffes questioned whether 6 percent pay cuts would be legal because current salary levels are protected contractually.
"I don't see how that be can done, honestly," he said.
Rulffes said that the last governor who tried to cut salaries, Gov. Bob Miller, was unsuccessful.
Other Clark County school officials were worried about the consequences of such cuts. New School Board President Terri Janison said, "I'm very concerned. I don't think teachers, especially teachers with starting salaries, are at a level where they could begin to afford that."
Janison said the news was like a "punch to the stomach."
"I think it would just be devastating."
Las Vegas Review-Journal writer James Haug contributed to this report. Contact reporter Molly Ball at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.