Democrats, Lombardo point fingers as state worker pay bill stalls
In early April, the state Senate voted to pass SB440, a bill that would give certain state employees including state police a retroactive 2 percent pay raise this fiscal year and appropriate $26 million to settle a pair of state worker arbitration agreements.
But more than a month later and the clock ticking to the end of the fiscal year in June, the bill remains in legislative limbo — a stall that Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsor, says has come because the governor's staff has indicated they are unable to implement it.
“We've heard now from the administration, they just can't seem to figure out how it is that they're going to identify these employees and pay them,” Cannizzaro said in a Thursday interview with The Nevada Independent. “To me, I don't understand why that is an insurmountable barrier.”
Her comments follow Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager’s (D-Las Vegas) comments to reporters Wednesday that “we've run into some logistical issues implementing some of the concepts in that bill,” but that a hearing could still come in the coming weeks.
In a statement, Lombardo spokesperson Elizabeth Ray said that, as a long-time law enforcement officer, Lombardo “understands public safety and has been aggressively engaged since taking office.”
“As he made clear in his State of the State address, Governor Lombardo proposed two-grade pay increases and significant cost of living increases for all public safety employees who were blatantly ignored over the past four years by Democrat legislators,” Ray said. “Rather than political theater that accomplishes nothing for our brave law enforcement officers, Democrats should quickly approve the Governor’s budget.”
But Cannizzaro argued legislative Democrats have yet to receive “good responses” from Lombardo’s office, and that “we've heard nothing from the governor's office on a commitment to actually do this.”
“[State workers] bargained for it,” Cannizzaro said. “They negotiated in good faith with the state over it. The state approved those agreements. And so you heard at the hearing in the Senate, and the neutral testimony from the governor's office came in and said, ‘Hey, look, we just don't know how we're going to be able to identify these employees.’ That should not be hard.”
The remarks come after the Nevada Police Union (NPU) announced this week that the state police (formerly the Nevada Highway Patrol) would cut overnight patrol hours in Northern Nevada as a result of “critical” staffing shortages. Union officials say its the latest example of pay issues befouling state police, who engaged in an acrimonious pay dispute with the state after the 2021 session.
Former NPU President Matthew Kaplan helped negotiate the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and said the state needs to fulfill its promises or it could risk higher vacancy rates.
“There needs to be good faith that the state honors the process,” Kaplan said. “And when judges rule in favor of the CBA, at that point there should be nothing stopping the funding of it. When employees see that we don't even get what we negotiate, they will lose faith in the state as an employer and do what they've done and continue to do — they'll go to counties and cities or just return to the private sector.”
Staffing shifts at the minimum levels does not allow the State Highway Patrol to fulfill its mission, he said. Highway patrols are designed to be proactive, not reactive, Kaplan said, and with only minimum staffing, peace officers won’t be able to reduce the number of crashes and deaths on the highway.
In the wake of that announcement, a pro-Lombardo political action committee criticized legislative Democrats for failing to fix state worker pay and staffing issues when they held unified control of state government in 2019 and 2021.
“Democrats had control of the government for four years and did nothing to help law enforcement or increase pay,” Better Nevada PAC wrote in a tweet. “Instead, they undermined them.”
Cannizzaro pushed back, saying that within the past four years, Democratic lawmakers were navigating the state through a pandemic that threatened the economy and forced lawmakers to halve the state budget. She said legislators had to prioritize where funding went, and are only now in a “unique position” to reassess budget issues under a massive budget surplus for this legislative session.
“The idea that somehow there was some magic pot of money that we were going to be able to give state workers across the board a raise ignores the reality of what has been happening around here for that period of time,” Cannizzaro said.
She added that as a whole, Democrats have been committed to investing in and retaining state workers by passing collective bargaining for state employees in 2019, using American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding to help cover furloughs and now working to offer cost-of-living raises and bonuses.
Cannizzaro also again criticized Senate Republicans, who voted en masse against SB440 last month.
“To not [appropriate the money] is to say to them, ‘We actually don't care that you are doing the jobs that you're doing, we don't care that you were asking for some modest increases, and we don't care that you haven't seen those for two years or so, we don't believe in the job that you're doing, and we're not going to fund that,’” Cannizzaro said. “To me that's unacceptable.”
During a floor debate over the bill, Senate Minority Leader Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) centered her opposition primarily on skepticism of any Democrat-led changes to the state worker compensation packages from the governor’s recommended budget, arguing in part that the different increases between state employee groups, especially unionized and nonunionized groups, created “unsustainable pay increases.”
“We must treat all our state employees fairly and equally,” she said at the time. “This includes retroactive raises between 1-3 percent for certain groups of employees without legislative appropriation. Our public employees need substantial raises while also providing parity, parity amongst these state workers.”
These negotiations come as just part of the broader budget reality — one in which the sprawling K-12 budget will take precedence as mandated by the state Constitution, and one which will likely be settled only after legislative money committees finish closing budgets this month.
“Assembly Democrats have consistently supported better pay and benefits for our state employees, who have gone above and beyond to make Nevada the best place to live and raise a family,” said Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Daniele Monroe-Moreno, who chairs the Assembly’s budget committee.
The fight comes as both parties have now grown bitterly divided over exactly how the state ought to spend its money on state workers in a bid to stem ballooning vacancy rates across multiple agencies.
The governor’s office had originally proposed a historic increase in cost-of-living of 8 percent in the next fiscal year and 4 percent the year after, on top of $2,000 in annual retention bonuses (to be paid in $500 quarterly chunks) and an additional pay increase planned for state law enforcement employees.
At least one piece of that plan has already cleared the legislative process. AB268 would distribute the first $1,000 of those bonuses, and — following a weekslong scramble over whether or not the bill would include higher education employees (it did) — passed unanimously through a legislative fast-track before getting the governor’s signature in early April.
Democrats have backed those increases and more, pushing for other increased compensation for state workers, including reducing employees’ Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) contribution rate by placing more responsibility on the state, funding for the state’s benefits program to provide more money for employees with state-supported health savings accounts and reestablishing longevity pay, a system that provides state employees with eight-plus years of continuous service semiannual payments starting at $75 and ranging as high as $1,175, depending on how long an employee has worked with the state.