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August 1, 2014

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The Legislature:

Firefighters want bigger piece of a smaller pie

Union leader, lobbyist unapologetic as he goes after more health benefits

McAllister

McAllister

This is the worst legislative session in memory, nearly everyone agrees. The fiscal crisis has made it nearly impossible to make progress on policy goals in areas such as education or health care.

There is one interest group, however, for whom the salad days continue, at least thus far.

The firefighters union and its lobbyist and president, Rusty McAllister, are moving legislation, heard in committee last week, that would broaden workers’ compensation rights for firefighters who develop certain types of cancers, which they assert are caused by on-the-job exposure to carcinogens.

They currently receive similar benefits for heart and lung diseases.

Another bill would reduce the wait for appeals when they’ve been denied benefits, which happens more than half the time. A third bill would eliminate a requirement that a volunteer firefighter with heart disease be younger than 55 to get benefits.

Lobbyists for local governments that are dealing with fiscal crises warn of exploding costs from the legislation.

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce released a statement to the Las Vegas Sun that was sharply critical of what the chamber says is a galling ambition during a deep recession:

“Taxpayers are suffering right now in one of the worst economic times in history,” said Veronica Meter, a spokeswoman for the chamber. “Now is not the time to increase benefits for anybody. Now is not the time to ask for more. It is outrageous for firefighters to ask for more, given their already generous salaries and benefits, especially at a time when Nevadans are struggling and hurting.”

Studies show that because of overtime pay, 523 of Clark County’s 770 firefighters earned more than $100,000 in 2007.

Despite the strong opposition from the chamber, firefighters have a consistent record of victory in Carson City.

“It’s tough to vote against the firefighters,” said state Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, after a hearing on Assembly Bill 521, the cancer measure.

So what is it, exactly, about firefighters that gives them so much more clout than, say, the teachers union?

“Teachers don’t have 4 1/2 days a week to screw with you,” quipped one lobbyist, referring to the firefighters’ unconventional workweek.

The firefighters, with 2,450 members statewide, are well organized and well funded. They gave $30,000 to Senate and Assembly candidates in 2008, and their international gave tens of thousands of dollars to Nevada Democrats’ successful effort to control the state Senate.

And, McAllister is a master at working the legislative process.

At last week’s hearing, for instance, he brought three firefighters in various stages of battling cancer to tell their stories.

McAllister balanced the personal with the empirical, marshaling data to support his case.

He referred to a University of Cincinnati study that showed the incidence of testicular cancer is 102 percent greater among firefighters than the general population; skin cancer, 38 percent higher; and prostate cancer, 28 percent higher. Although he had no evidence to warrant offering benefits for those with thyroid cancer, he said it was justified because he counted nine cases of thyroid cancer among 501 firefighters.

He also anticipated the opposition, pointing to another study that showed no conclusive evidence that firefighters are at greater risk for cancer than the rest of the population.

“The tobacco industry said the same thing” about smokers for decades, he said.

The bill, which would also reduce the number of years a firefighter would have to be on the job to qualify for the benefits, has what’s known as a fiscal note — a forecast of how much it would cost. Clark County estimates it would cost $1 million during the next two years. Henderson estimates its cost at $2 million.

Jon Coppelman, writing on the blog Workers Comp Insider, which is published by management consultant Lynch Ryan, recently wrote: “Virtually all municipalities operate under a ‘zero sum’ budget, where increased expenditures in one area (expanded coverage for illnesses under comp) become a net subtraction in another (municipal services, public safety, schools, water supplies, etc.).

Pursuing the types of policies McAllister is advocating, Coppelman concludes, “is an invitation to fiscal ruin.”

Sen. Maggie Carlton, the chairwoman of the Commerce and Labor Committee who heard testimony on the cancer bill last week, seemed persuaded by McAllister. She said high cancer rates are clearly a problem, and one she’s committed to fixing.

McAllister may not seem, on paper, like a candidate to be Big Time Lobbyist. Raised in rural Nevada, he fought wildfires for the Bureau of Land Management to help pay for junior college in Utah. He took the firefighter exams and joined Las Vegas department in 1984. It was a good-paying, steady job, he said.

But then he climbed the ranks of the union and was elected vice president of the southern district in 1996.

His first legislative session was 1999. What he knew from high school civics and a little political science didn’t prepare him. “I realized I had no clue,” he said.

He diligently attended hearings, even those not related to firefighter issues. “I wanted to go see what the procedure and etiquette were, the relationships between lobbyists and legislators, how legislators ran their committees ...”

In his second session, he secured benefits for firefighters with hepatitis C contracted at accident and crime scenes in the years before they used protective masks and gloves.

Soon enough, McAllister was working on issues that affected all injured and sick workers. He helped negotiate an agreement with insurance companies to give a cost-of-living increase for those on permanent, total disability, whose benefits would otherwise be eroded by inflation. For workers injured before the new law, he found a revenue source and got them lump-sum payments.

Business lobbyists have come up with a name for his aggressive posture and his string of successes: “The McAllister Effect” — his practice of pushing the envelope a little further with each session.

McAllister shrugs it off.

On the overtime issue, he notes that the policy of Southern Nevada governments has been to pay overtime rather than hire more firefighters, which would be more expensive.

“You don’t hire people, and then we work too much overtime and get pummeled for making too much money. I don’t know what the solution is,” McAllister said.

As for enhancing benefits now, during such a deep recession, he said in good times no one volunteered to offer fairer benefits.

“They weren’t coming to us saying, ‘You’re good guys, what can we do to help you?’ They opposed us then.”

McAllister also made a more emotional argument: “What cost do you put on people’s lives? We’re talking dollars, and we understand that. But we’re also talking about people’s lives.”

If nothing else, McAllister understands the essence of the Legislature: “The majority of what happens at the Legislature deals with money. Someone doesn’t have enough. Someone has too much, and someone else wants to take it.”

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