Apocalypse now? Don’t bet on it

Public employees and their unions have become so practiced in sky-is-falling rhetoric that their reactions to revenue shortfalls amount to stump speeches.

Could someone please use an adjective besides “Draconian” to describe potential budget cuts? If old, cruel Draco were alive today, his feelings would be hurt. His laws were a heck of a lot harsher than any proposed pay reduction.

But you stick with what works. And right now, the emboldened public-sector establishment has no reason to think it won’t get its way again.

State government, like the economy itself, is upside down. Gov. Jim Gibbons will use a special State of the State address on Monday to call lawmakers into special session. They’ll be asked to balance the $6.9 billion spending plan they passed only eight months ago. Tax collections for that budget, which runs through June 2011, are projected to come up $881.4 million short. With more private-sector job losses on the horizon, that figure will only get bigger.

Gibbons opposes tax increases, so he will ask lawmakers to balance the budget solely through spending reductions. He wants state government to live within its means. It’s the simple philosophy that got the Republican elected, and it’s the budgeting approach he has taken since Nevada’s economy went sour in late 2007.

He’d rather not put anyone else in the unemployment line. Most government workers have seen their pay continue to grow, even through much of this recession, so Gibbons wants to dial salaries back. Given the hardships faced by Nevada businesses and families, it’s not an unreasonable position.

In fact, legislative Democrats who’ve spent the past three years dismissing Gibbons as an inflexible, destructive moron are in agreement that spending reductions are unavoidable and further tax increases are impossible.

What’s next? Steve Wynn and Donald Trump becoming Facebook friends?

The unions and administrators aren’t interested in working with elected officials. Pay cuts would inflict all the pain on government itself. They know the most effective, tried-and-true method of preserving the bureaucracy is to shift the threat of that pain to the taxpaying public. Make voters squeal.

Last week, one by one, they practically dared lawmakers to lay off educators, close campuses and eliminate entire programs. They proclaimed their contracts unbreakable.

“We are all tired of the hand-wringing that there is no appetite for tax increases,” Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, told lawmakers on Thursday.

At the same meeting, Clark County School District Superintendent Walt Rulffes said he would have to lay off 2,322 teachers, and thereby increase class sizes by an average of six students, to meet the governor’s goal of a 10 percent funding reduction. That, or shorten the school year by 17 days. Dan Klaich, chancellor of the higher education system, outlined scenarios including the closure of every community college in the state and shutting down intercollegiate athletics at UNLV and UNR.

They weren’t confrontational, but they weren’t bashful about putting forward their most extreme measures.

They’re good students of the budget battles of the past 21/2 years. Gibbons’ recommendations have never carried the day — or even come close.

Time and again, Gibbons has requested deep cuts to state operations. Time and again, through special and regular sessions, the Legislature has come up with its own solutions to largely preserve the government — and the public employee salaries — it has built over the years.

Go back to the budget-cutting special sessions of 2008. The revenue shortfall for the 2007-09 biennium totaled $1.5 billion, almost twice the amount lawmakers have to deal with this year. Did lawmakers cut general fund spending by $1.5 billion? Of course not. They eliminated “one-shot” expenditures and found lots of money elsewhere. Operational funding was reduced by $400 million. Gibbons and lawmakers decided there was enough cash to preserve a 4 percent cost-of-living pay raise for all state workers, on top of the step raises most received.

Now recall the moaning and groaning of the 2009 regular session. After four months of hearings and back-room negotiations, lawmakers declared their $6.9 billion budget the leanest spending plan they could possibly pass. They had agonized over each line item, and they had passed huge tax increases to fund every last one of them. Nothing more could be cut, we were told. The tough choices had been made. The Clark County School District went ahead with step pay raises for teachers.

If you were Warne, Rulffes or Klaich, would you believe that when lawmakers convene at the end of this month, they’ll spend two or three days tearing apart an entire session’s work? That they’ll hand out thousands of pink slips and close college campuses as a send-off for term-limited Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley? With an election a few months away?

The betting line favors government. There will be cuts, but there will not be $881.4 million in cuts. Not even close.

The likely sources for this particular bailout are local government capital funds. Billions of dollars have been set aside by cities, counties, school districts and other entities to cover public works projects. A raid on these revenues would be a Band-Aid, but it would hold for a year.

Good teachers still enjoy a lot of public good will, and justifiably so. But as more and more voters deal with their own economic insecurity, they become less and less supportive of the idea that public employees — even teachers — should enjoy immunity from the effects of the recession.

The cries of a doomsday never realized are wearing thin.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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