Legislators strike deal on employee benefits

CARSON CITY -- Republican and Democratic negotiators have reached a tentative agreement on reforms to the financially strapped Public Employees Retirement System, according to Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera.

"We are down to a few words now," he said late Thursday.

Oceguera said the tentative agreement does not include a requirement demanded earlier Thursday by Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, that no pensions should be given to public employees before they turn 62.

"He may have budged on that," Oceguera quipped.

A new retirement reform bill is being drawn up by legislative lawyers and should be introduced in the Senate early today.

During a Thursday morning Senate Finance Committee hearing, Raggio said if Democrats want Republican support for a $780 million tax increase plan to balance a $6.8 billion, two-year budget, then they must amend Senate Bill 427. Raggio said they had to set the minimum age for public employees to collect retirement benefits at 62, the same as that of Social Security recipients.

"This has been a condition from day one for our members to support increases in taxes to fund the budget," he said.

But a source said under the tentative agreement, there are few changes to SB427. Negotiators agreed to add back a death benefits for spouses of firefighters and police officers that had been removed from the bill, he said.

Oceguera added that the agreement allows any public employee who works 30 years to retire at any age and receive full retirement benefits.

Now police and firefighters can retire at any age after 25 years.

As a North Las Vegas firefighter, Oceguera said he is concerned that the change might discourage some people from becoming firefighters.

But he added Democrats and Republicans have the same goal -- making PERS financially solvent forever.

The reductions in benefits will not affect existing public employees, only those hired after Jan. 1, 2010.

PERS Executive Officer Dana Bilyeu said that under state and federal laws, and in accordance with court decisions, legislators cannot reduce benefits to existing PERS members.

Bilyeu said PERS now has about $18 billion in investments. That is only 77 percent of what it needs to cover the liabilities of current members.

Legislators are rushing to pass the PERS reform bill, budget and tax bills and send them to Gibbons' office before 5 p.m. today. That will allow Gibbons the required five days to decide whether to veto the bills.

Legislators would then have time to override his vetoes before adjourning on June 1.

During the Thursday hearing, lobbyists for firefighters and police trashed SB427.

They asked if legislators want 55-year-olds fighting domestic violence suspects or running into burning buildings.

"Why do police and firefighters get to retire early?" asked David Kallas, a lobbyist for the Las Vegas Police Protection Association. "It is because of the job they do."

Kallas questioned the fairness of requiring a 30-year veteran police officer who is 51 work another 11 years without receiving an increase in retirement benefits.

"They will be going to work longer without gaining any additional benefits," Kallas said. "You are saying we should be thankful that we have jobs. We are thankful, but this is not fair."

Raggio said no one is more supportive of police and firefighters than he is.

He reiterated the changes Republicans want would not affect current employees and questioned whether new hires are really interested in retirement benefits.

But Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said more people ages 21 to 30 are considering careers in public service. He received an e-mail from a young man questioning whether he should take a such a job if retirement benefits are reduced.

Horsford also maintained that the reforms in the bill are substantial.

Bilyeu said the savings in SB427 are greater than under reforms advocated by Gov. Jim Gibbons' Saving and Government Efficiency (SAGE) Commission.

She said their actuaries have determined that PERS will save more than $142 million a year in coming years if legislators approve the bill.

But Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce President Steve Hill said the reforms in the bill do not go far enough. He said PERS now has a $7 billion unfunded liability.

Half of that liability must be covered by increased contributions by state and local governments over the next 30 years. Employees themselves pay the other half.

Hill estimated that an additional $600 million in contributions will be required over the next two years to draw down the unfunded liability.

This is money that otherwise could have been spent on other government programs, he added.

Contact reporter Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.