Time to spread the pain

Nevada governments are shaving hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses to balance their operating budgets, and at this point, the taxpaying public is in line to take most of the pain.

In advance of Tuesday's special legislative session, Gov. Jim Gibbons has proposed a four-day workweek for many state employees, which would result in reduced public access to some agencies.

The higher education system is poised to slash undergraduate course offerings. Public schools might have to increase class sizes.

The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District will buy fewer books and materials, and library hours could be shortened.

The city of Henderson might soon have to reduce the frequency of park maintenance. On Monday, the city will stop serving free coffee at its downtown senior center (although it's worth asking why taxpayers picked up such an expense in the first place).

Some of this should be expected. It's reasonable that reduced revenues should translate into some reduced services. Considering the severity of the state's budget woes -- the general fund deficit through June 2011 is estimated to be $887 million -- a four-day workweek might be a good solution for some departments, particularly if it reduces overtime.

But elected officials can't claim to be serious about reining in costs until they focus their energies on the root cause of their woes: out-of-control growth in their personnel costs.

The library district is on the hook for 7 percent pay raises to its unionized workers. Local governments are still handing out pay raises willy-nilly to bargaining groups -- no salary freezes, let alone salary reductions there.

A report delivered to Clark County commissioners revealed that almost a quarter of county government's total wages were supplemental pay -- $155 million worth of handouts on top of ever-growing base annual salaries. The same report said county firefighters received so-called "cost of living" pay raises that outpaced inflation by 32 percent over a 20-year period. COLAs for other county workers exceeded inflation by 13 percent over two decades.

Labor costs represent the lion's share of government operating budgets. At some point, elected officials and government administrators will have to not only reduce them, but keep them from growing.

The good times were very good, indeed, for the public sector. But the bad times have been pretty swell as well.

It's time to spread the pain around.