Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers said Saturday they will do everything they can to restore at least part of the 2.5 percent pay cuts state workers have sustained during continued budget trimming.
Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, called the pay cuts and other reductions to state worker pay and benefits during the past three budget cycles “horrible.” State workers in her district have told her they qualify for food stamps. She said the cuts have forced workers to drop health insurance coverage they can no longer afford for their families.
The comments came in a discussion of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed budget maintaining the 2.5 percent pay cuts next year while restoring merit pay and cutting furlough days from six a year to three. When some extra money became available because of reduced costs in the employee benefits program, Sandoval decided to use it to eliminate the furloughs entirely in the second year of the biennium.
That would cost about $10 million and, overall, would reduce the total pay cuts state workers have seen from the current 4.8 percent to 3.65 percent in fiscal 2014 and 2.5 percent in fiscal 2015.
Lawmakers made it clear at Saturday’s hearing they favor using that money to do something about the pay cuts. And members, including Kirkpatrick said they’d like to go further than that and end or at least reduce the cuts.
Several lawmakers also objected to the projections that the Public Employee Benefits Program will have a surplus of $47 million by the end of the biennium. Kirkpatrick charged that two years ago, Jim Wells, head of PEBP, “came in here saying the sky is falling.” The result, she said, was huge changes in the benefits program including putting most workers on a high health insurance deductible up to $3,000 and reducing benefits.
“And the sky is not falling,” Kirkpatrick said. “We did make all these changes, but then we turn around in the interim and have some huge surplus.”
She added, “That money should be used to give them some better insurance options.”
Assembly Ways and Means Chairwoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, agreed the money should be used to benefit state workers, not put into other programs. That was a reference to the governor’s plan to use some of the PEBP savings to enhance K-12 education programs including all-day kindergarten.
The problem with restoring the 2.5 percent pay cut is that it would cost the general fund an additional $51.3 million during the biennium.
Kirkpatrick said she believes employees would much rather see more money in their paychecks than end the furloughs.
Senate Finance Chairman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said that at least with the furloughs, “if you’re going to get a pay cut, you get a day off.”
“The time is now that they get something this session,” said Kirkpatrick. “They get something this year.”
“Ditto,” said Assemblyman Randy Kirner, R-Reno. “Our state employees are underpaid when compared to similar counterparts in the counties and cities. If I had one of the other, I would do the pay rather than the furloughs.”
Kirkpatrick added that the suggestion that Sandoval wants to amend the legislation extending the pay cuts to make them permanent rather than sunsetted is even worse and that she won’t go for it.
“I want to make sure at the end of the day, the people who work for us, work for our state, if we’re going to put a couple of dollars, I want to make sure the couple of dollars is in their pocket,” said Assemblyman Andy Eisen, D-Las Vegas,.
Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, said lawmakers are “directly responsible for the pay and benefits of our state workers.”
Those workers in his district, he said, “talk to me about how they are on food stamps, how they can’t afford insurance or medications.”
“I can’t turn a blind eye to that,” he said.
Roberson said if lawmakers need to move money around to do it, “let’s figure a way to do it.
“If we need to come up with more revenue this session to help them, it’s day 90 of the session,” he said. “On a bipartisan basis, we’d better figure out how to do it. But I do not want to leave this session not figuring a way to do it.”
Director of Administration Jeff Mohlenkamp said he thinks the governor will be more than willing to talk about different ways to help state workers, who all agreed have been hard hit.