Nevada below national average in state salaries, spending | NevadaAppeal.com
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Nevada below national average in state salaries, spending

As the recession lingers and tempers grow short, an increasing number of Nevadans are complaining that the state’s public employees are overpaid.

In fact, Nevada is 33rd overall in per capita government spending, which matches the state’s rank in spending for public safety, social services K-12 and higher education – pretty much in the middle of the pack among states.

But that’s not the whole story. The numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show a dramatic difference between government spending and pay at the state level and per capita spending by local governments in Nevada. While state government spending is last in the nation, per capita spending by local governments is sixth in the nation.

Data on wages and salaries reveals a similar pattern. The per capita number for state government is just $604 while the number for local governments is three times higher: $1,833. That puts Nevada state government 41st among states for wage and salary spending while the state’s local governments rank 14th highest.

The same with revenues generated in each state: Overall, Nevada ranks 39th. But per capita state revenue is last in the nation at $1,793 while per capita local revenue is $5,473 – fifth highest.

The data support what some officials including veteran Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, have been saying for years: Local governments, particularly the two major counties, have more revenues and higher wages than state government and it isn’t fair to lump them together.

Local officials respond that the reason they raise and spend more is because of state laws and mandates – especially collective bargaining, which gives local government workers the right to binding arbitration, driving up salaries.

Raggio didn’t disagree.

“I’ve been saying that for a long, long time,” he said.

Raggio said personnel costs are often 80 percent of many local budgets.

He said state workers aren’t paid nearly as much.

“I think most surveys show state worker salaries are not out of line with the private sector.”

Raggio said lawmakers need to change some of the rules governing collective bargaining to give local governments more control.

“Until we do something to control local government spending and give them some ability to deal with that, it ain’t gonna happen,” he said.

Jeff Fontaine, director of the Nevada Association of Counties, said collective bargaining is “a game changer” because local governments are required to negotiate and, in prosperous times, “it’s hard to negotiate lower salaries and benefits when labor unions know you have the revenues.”

But he said that’s not the only factor.

“In addition to the salary expenses, you have to examine who is providing what services,” he said.

Fontaine said many of the services local governments provide in Nevada are mandated by the state.

“For example, indigent defense,” he said, adding that in many other states, the state pays for legal counsel for defendants who can’t afford it.

“The counties are mandated to take on certain programs and services,” he said. “In some cases Washoe and Clark counties. In other cases, all the counties.”

He also said state workers do make more than county workers in a number of Nevada’s small rural counties, so it’s not universal that locals pay better.

When state and local government spending is combined, the Census Bureau’s numbers show a national average per capita expenditure of $9,311 in fiscal 2008.

By comparison, Nevada governments spent $8,205 per capital that year. The state share of that total was $2,670. The local government share accounted for the remaining $5,535.

The overall data reported by the bureau is skewed by several states that spend far more than other states. On top is Alaska which spends some $5,000 more per capita than second place Hawaii and, at nearly $13,000, five times what Nevada spends. When local government spending is added to Alaska’s spending, the total is more than $18,000 – about $10,000 higher than Nevada. Alaska’s governments are also the nation’s champ at raising revenue, bringing in more than $22,000 per resident each year.

Nevada also is among the lowest states in the percentage of the overall workforce in state service. At just 3.4 percent, Nevada is 5th from the bottom behind Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado and Illinois.

An additional 8.1 percent of the workforce is employed by local government. Combined, that means 11.5 percent of workers are public employees – still less than the national average of 13.6 percent.