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November 23, 2014

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State workers rally for 4 percent pay hike

The mercury surpassed 100 degrees Friday afternoon, yet temperatures continued to rise as about 150 state workers got fired up alongside Washington Avenue to protest proposed cuts to the state's budget. Dozens sweated their lunch hour away, rallying for a previously promised but now-threatened cost-of-living adjustment.

With the state facing a $250 million deficit, many government employees said they fear the governor will renege on the raises.

The message to Gov. Jim Gibbons was clear: Don’t put workers' 4 percent cost-of-living adjustment on the chopping block. The governor said earlier this week he wouldn't propose cutting the raise for state employees -- a move that could save the state about $130 million.

With a bottle of water in one hand and a picket sign in the other, dozens of state employees left the comfort of their air conditioned offices and joined the noon hour protest near the front gate of the Grant Sawyer Building, 555 E. Washington Ave.

The rally was organized by the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union. Representatives from other local advocacy groups, including the Associated Students of the College of Southern Nevada and several UNLV students, also joined the effort.

Aaron Shepherd was one of those who took to the picket line. He has worked for the state for four years and serves as an administrative assistant to the secretary of state. The engaged 25-year-old has a mortgage and said he is feeling the pinch as prices for everything from gas to groceries continue to rise.

"I can't even (afford to) get to work without the raise," he said.

Terry Sanchez shares Shepherd's concerns. After 18 years with the state, the 51-year-old licensing examiner's $38,000 salary is topped out. She said the cost-of-living adjustment is her only hope for a raise, adding that inflation has put her under considerable financial stress.

"Especially with the rising cost of gas, it means even more," she said. "I live in Pahrump. Gas alone is costing me $150 a week."

AFSCME organizer Lalo Macias said the protest was the group's way of saying "enough is enough." He said government workers are dealing with the same price increases at the pump and grocery store check-out line as everyone else.

"They pay just like any other working-class family in Nevada," Macias said.

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UNLV student body president Adam Cronis was another vocal protester. He took to the picket line with about 20 other UNLV students in what he called "the first step" in a long budget fight.

The possible 4 percent cost-of-living adjustment is just part of what could be on the chopping block: The university has been asked to brace for a possible 14 percent reduction in state funding. UNLV officials have warned that such a dramatic cut would be "devastating" to programs, students and staff.

Yet the focus on Friday was fixed upon AFSCME in what seemed like a coalition-building display of solidarity.

"We're all behind you," Cronis assured the crowd of protesters between the blasts of passing vehicles' horns. "We're going to make our presence known."

Gibbons spokesman Ben Kieckhefer said Friday evening that the protest, while well-intended, was unnecessary.

“The governor stood firm on his desire that state employees and teachers get those pay raises and that hasn’t changed,” he said. “It hasn’t even been a subject during the special session.”

Kieckhefer said the pay increases will go into effect unless the legislature takes action against the hike, adding that no bills challenging the pay increases have been introduced.

The protest was held in conjunction with a second rally at the state legislature. As picket lines formed simultaneously in Las Vegas and Carson City, state lawmakers were working toward a deal.

Macias said he didn't have high hopes for the governor’s special session, saying it took lawmakers 120 days to draft the current budget that got them into the situation in the first place. He said the union is looking for long-term solutions, not temporary fixes.

"They're always saying 'this tax structure is broken, this tax structure is broken," he said, but no one has ever managed to fix it.

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