Raises on the chopping block

Each month brings a familiar cycle in Carson City: tax collections fail to meet levels projected by the 2007 Legislature, and Gov. Jim Gibbons reduces spending accordingly. Now, after cutting more than $900 million from Nevada's two-year budget, Gov. Gibbons has put one of the state's most costly and generous appropriations on the chopping block: a 4 percent pay raise for state workers set to take effect July 1.

If the state's March revenues are as bad as officials expect them to be -- exact figures will be released soon -- Gov. Gibbons will consider calling a special session of the Legislature to reduce or eliminate the raise, which would cost taxpayers $130 million next fiscal year and become a compounding expense in the years beyond.

That Gov. Gibbons is weighing such a course is encouraging. Most state workers are already in line to collect "step" pay raises of about 5 percent this summer as a reward for an additional year of service. Most senior employees who have "topped out" on their pay scales collect longevity pay based on the length of their employment.

Coupled with the step increases, the 4 percent "cost-of-living" raise -- which has no relationship to the Consumer Price Index -- would allow most state workers, including teachers, to pocket pay raises of roughly 9 percent at a time when the taxpayers who support them are dealing with reductions in their income as a result of layoffs, schedule cuts and increases in health insurance premiums.

Lawmakers and public employees cannot argue with a straight face that Gov. Gibbons has already cut Nevada's budget "to the bone" when, far from facing a threat to their job security, many state workers are about to enjoy a nearly double-digit pay hike.

That said, a special legislative session should be an absolute last resort for the governor. Aside from the fact that even a brief special session would cost taxpayers nearly $100,000, there is some question about the governor's ability to limit the subjects lawmakers would be permitted to address. It's not unreasonable to think that lawmakers with different ideas about how to handle the state's budget deficit could initiate all sorts of political shenanigans and extend the special session by days, or even a week.

Fortunately, legislators would have one incentive to take care of business quickly: they can't accept campaign contributions from the time the governor calls a special session until 15 days after its conclusion. Early voting for the state's primary election begins in about two months, so lawmakers would much rather be out in their districts, pressing flesh and collecting checks.

If tax collections continue their downward trend and Gov. Gibbons determines a special session cannot be avoided, he should take two precautionary steps to cover his bases. First, he should make certain he has enough votes in the Assembly, where Democrats loyal to public employees have a commanding majority, and in the Senate, which Republicans control by a single seat. Second, to apply pressure on lawmakers reluctant to reduce state workers' raises, he should provide specific budget-cutting alternatives. If the Legislature won't rein in public employee compensation amid an economic downturn, Gov. Gibbons must detail how many workers will be laid off and which state programs will be eliminated instead.

A predictable amount of squealing is coming from the Clark County School District, but instead of the teachers union leading the cries, it's Superintendent Walt Rulffes. On Wednesday, he said the 4 percent raises were set in stone, and that if lawmakers rescinded even part of it, the district would be obligated to cover the difference through massive cuts to student programs. Such an argument essentially holds that the legislative branch of government has no control over the state purse, and that private-sector wealth is fundamentally the property of public employees -- they're just letting us keep some of it out their benevolence.

The Clark County Education Association was scheduled to ratify its 2008-09 contract, which includes the 4 percent raise, on Saturday. The contract still must be approved by the Clark County School Board. How can the school district be on the hook for a pay raise its own board hasn't even authorized? If the board's vote is strictly symbolic, why does it exist in the first place?

Mr. Rulffes' suggestion that 9 percent pay raises for most of his district's employees take precedence over school resources is indicative of the disconnect between bureaucracies and struggling taxpayers. These are hard times, and state workers might very well have to ease the burden on the people who provide their paychecks.