Las Vegas Sun

November 24, 2014

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STATE BUDGET:

Teacher salaries in Gibbons’ cross hairs

His plan has 6 percent pay cuts for educators, state workers, sources say

Gov. Jim Gibbons will propose state workers, schoolteachers and university employees take a 6 percent pay cut in the budget he will unveil next week, according to sources with knowledge of the plan.

The move is part of a spending plan that Gibbons’ staff has admitted will be painful to enact, but one that keeps the governor’s pledge not to raise taxes.

Reactions from the state employee union, teachers union, university professors and Democratic Assembly leadership were blunt.

Gibbons’ proposal is “despicable,” said John Jasonek, executive director of the Clark County Education Association, which represents the majority of teachers in the state’s largest school district.

“I would hope that he would step down as governor and let someone truly lead before he would make a request like that of teachers, many of whom can barely make it now on the pay they get,” Jasonek said.

“Teachers in Nevada are already some of the lowest-paid employees in our state,” Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley said. “To cut salaries is extremely bad for our state and our schools.”

The governor’s executive staff and outside advisers have spent the past weeks hashing out a two-year budget of $5.7 billion, the amount of tax revenue the state is projected to receive. Their target has been to cut roughly $2.3 billion from the budget that the Legislature approved in 2007.

A 6 percent cut in salaries would save the general fund $432 million over the next two fiscal years, according to Dan Burns, the governor’s spokesman.

Burns said he was not permitted, under state law, to talk about the governor’s budget before it is presented to the Legislature, when Gibbons gives his State of the State address on Jan. 15.

Yet partial outlines of the governor’s budget have gone out to department heads, budget analysts and constitutional officers in advance of the regular legislative session, which starts in February.

“There will be very, very difficult choices ahead for a lot of citizens,” Burns said.

Burns and Gibbons’ chief of staff, Josh Hicks, said the governor has tried to avoid layoffs.

“The largest expense for the state is personnel,” Burns said. “We have looked at everything we can reduce without having massive layoffs or drastic action like that.”

In July 2007, state workers got a 2 percent raise. In July 2008, they received a 4 percent raise.

Government employee pay has long been a target for conservatives in Nevada. The pay cut proposed by Gibbons, which the Democratically controlled Legislature still must vote on, would not affect the state’s highest-paid government workers.

A study by the Greater Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce last year found that local government employees, with the exception of teachers, made 131 percent of the national average. State employees made only slightly more than the national average. Nevada teachers made 93.5 percent of the national average.

The study also found that Nevada had the fewest state and local employees per capita in the nation.

Gibbons has talked about salary reductions as he’s discussed the state budget shortfall, and volunteered to be the first to take a pay cut. He makes $141,000 a year.

Gibbons has said he will not include any step pay increases — raises built into the pay scale for certain jobs — in his budgets.

Members of the state employees union earn, on average, $44,400 a year, said Dennis Mallory, chief of staff of the state chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“This is the equivalent of a tax increase, except it’s focused on one segment of the population,” he said. “It’s taking money out of our pockets.”

Burns called that analogy “a real stretch.”

“When you do not have enough money to pay them all, there aren’t a lot of options,” he said. “You’re either reducing the number of employees, or reducing the cost of those employees.”

Public employees have seen higher costs for benefits passed this year and university employees were told to prepare for a freeze on cost-of-living and merit pay, said Gregory Brown, an associate professor at UNLV and chapter president of Nevada Faculty Alliance.

“Taking money out of people’s pockets would have a seriously detrimental effect on the effort to build and maintain the university system,” he said.

Politically, cutting the pay of teachers is likely to be most troublesome for the governor. Teachers tend to have the public’s sympathies and their union is perceived as a more potent force than that of state workers.

A 6 percent pay cut for teachers “is entirely too much for a workforce that is already underpaid,” said Clark County School Board President Terri Janison.

Superintendent Walt Rulffes said he could not support a pay cut for teachers, many of whom will likely be asked to shoulder larger class sizes as a result of the budget. And given that teacher pay is set by a contract, a cut by the Legislature would be “fertile ground for a lawsuit,” Rulffes said.

In a 2008 survey, the National Education Association ranked Nevada 23rd in the nation with an average teacher salary of $47,710. For a rookie teacher, it would take four years and a master’s degree to reach $47,658.

Given that half of Clark County’s teachers leave the district within five years, many never reach the average salary level.

In 2007, Nevada’s starting teacher salary of $35,480 ranked 19th in the nation, according to the American Federation of Teachers.

“Everybody in the state has to have this discussion,” Janison said. “What any cuts are going to look like in the end, I don’t know. But I think all parties have to be at the table.”

Sun reporter Emily Richmond contributed to this story.

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