For as long as Nevada’s local government employees have had collective bargaining rights, there has been a single check against their unions’ demands for ever-higher pay and iron-clad job protections: the ability of management to lay off workers it can’t afford.
Now, thanks to a ruling from a rogue Reno judge, that flimsy protection has been torn down. And if the Nevada Supreme Court doesn’t quickly step in and squash the decision, already strained municipal finances face certain plundering by the public sector.
The decision at issue was handed down by Washoe County District Judge Lidia Stiglich this summer. The flat-broke city of Reno, through a months-long, publicly debated budgeting process led by appointed management and supported by the elected members of the City Council, was prepared to lay off 32 firefighters, close three fire stations and decommission a rescue truck. The firefighters’ union sued to block the layoffs in what amounted to a Hail Mary pass — when trailing by five touchdowns.
Under the state’s collective bargaining laws, several matters are settled at the discretion of local government employers and are not subject to negotiation, none more important than “the right to reduce in force or lay off any employee because of lack of work or lack of money.”
To say Reno has a “lack of money” is an understatement. As reported by the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Anjeanette Damon, the city has sold land at a loss to rescue bonds from default and might have to close a golf course; it barely has enough operating revenue to pay its bills; it borrowed heavily to fund projects including downtown’s train trench and bowling center; and it can’t fund its growing workers compensation and retiree health care obligations. The fact that the city lost a federal grant that had supported about 50 firefighter positions made the layoffs absolutely necessary.
But Judge Stiglich bought the union’s unsupported argument that the city was obligated to go through a lengthy administrative process before it could lay off the firefighters. She issued an injunction against the city blocking the layoffs, leaving Reno stuck paying firefighter salaries it can’t afford.
In August, the judge refused to dissolve the injunction, even after the union failed to initiate the administrative review process it said was required. So the city appealed to the Supreme Court. Last month, Southern Nevada’s local governments filed a brief in support of Reno’s appeal, saying Judge Stiglich “abused her discretion” and reached a conclusion “with no basis in law.”
“The weighing of the various needs of a city or county cannot be second-guessed by a judiciary, which is provided no standards by which to judge those competing needs,” the brief says.
Clark County commissioners discussed the case and the brief last month and how it could affect them. If the Nevada Supreme Court somehow sides with the union and upholds the injunction, it would leave local governments powerless to make reductions in force in setting spending priorities. Any union could fight funding-based layoffs by arguing that its members are more important than those who deliver other services. Any union could argue, as the Reno firefighters union did, that local governments don’t have a “lack of money” when they spend that money on something else — anything else.
Public safety unions across Southern Nevada have been aggressive in asserting that all other municipal services be cut before their workers make sacrifices. This year, a lawyer for North Las Vegas police officers argued before the Local Government Employee-Management Relations Board that the nearly insolvent city could afford pay raises for police. “There’s plenty of things that they (city officials) could do,” attorney Jeffrey Allen argued. “They could sell off assets, they could close a park, they could close a library. They could lay off non-public-safety employees. They could even raise taxes.”
Such decisions are the domain of lawmakers, not judges. If this injunction is allowed to stand, Nevadans and their elected officials can stop pretending that they have any control over government personnel costs. The rigged game that is public employee collective bargaining will be fixed for good.
The Review-Journal’s Hashtags &Headlines policy luncheon series resumes Oct. 20 — minus lunch. This discussion will be held over breakfast, from 7:30 to 9 a.m., at Texas Station. A panel of Review-Journal columnists with nearly a century of combined experience covering the state, including yours truly, will preview this fall’s election. Jane Ann Morrison, Steve Sebelius and John L. Smith will join me in discussing the most important races on the ballot and what they mean for the state. Tickets cost $35 and can be purchased online at www.reviewjournal.com/hashtagsandheadlines or by calling Karen Tarver at 702-224-5520. Hope to see you there.
Glenn Cook (email@example.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.