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Union contracts for AFSCME, state police approved; no payments likely until 2023

Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
Criminal JusticeState Government
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Nevada officials adopted a pair of state employee collective bargaining agreements Tuesday — each promising sizable pay raises for nearly 6,000 state workers.

But the 2-1 ratification of the contracts by the Board of Examiners (Gov. Steve Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford in favor, Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske against) will for now remain on paper, owing to quirks in the state budgeting process and unclear rules in the novel state worker collective bargaining system.

The board on Tuesday modified an agreement with AFSCME, which represents four bargaining units of about 5,300 combined state employees, and adopted a long-delayed bargaining agreement with the Nevada Police Union (NPU), which represents state troopers and other law enforcement.

Cegavske, a Republican, said she voted against the items because they have “no approved funding” at this time. Sisolak and Ford, both Democrats, noted their past support for collective bargaining rights and police funding before voting to approve the items.

Both agreements stem from arbitration discussions that occurred after the end of the 2021 legislative session, and both carry a sizable price tag — AFSCME’s modified agreement includes an estimated $26 million in cost of living increases, and the NPU salary adjustments and bonuses cost up to $1.7 million.

The decision was lauded by AFSCME Local 4041 President Harry Schiffman, who called it a “huge victory for Nevada state employees,” and by members of the Nevada Police Union, who rallied outside the state capitol before the meeting to urge a yes vote on the contract.

But those pay increases cannot go into effect unless approved by the Legislature, which adjourned last June and won’t convene until 2023. That’s according to a memo prepared by the state’s Division of Human Resource Management, which noted that funding for the covered positions and salaries were included in the state employee pay budget implementation bill approved by lawmakers in 2021, and that anything extra in terms of pay — even approved by an arbitrator — required “specific direction and appropriation by the Legislature.”

“The Executive Department does not have the authority to disburse any direct compensation without a specific appropriation by the Legislature,” the memo states.

It’s highly unlikely that lawmakers would approve the pay raises through the Interim Finance Committee, given various budgetary roadblocks and statutory limitations on use of the interim body instead of the full Legislature to implement pay raises for state employees. Instead, finance officials will likely follow the direction of the collective bargaining law and submit the amended pay increase to the 2023 Legislature for approval.

Lawmakers in theory could call themselves into a special session through a two-thirds majority vote — though the legislative branch has never exercised that option — but one called by Sisolak is likely off the table.

"As promised in the State of the State, the Governor plans to build raises into the comprehensive proposed budget that he is required to submit prior to the next legislative session," Sisolak spokeswoman Meghin Delaney wrote in an email. "The issue requires full budget discussions, which are not achievable in a special session."

Even before raises are paid, ratification of the agreement will finally give members of the Nevada Police Union a long-desired bargaining agreement after close to a year of acrimonious arbitration and conflict with the state.

The union was the only one of the seven recognized bargaining units that did not reach an agreement with the state before the end of the 2021 legislative session, heading to arbitration over issues including seniority, a body camera policy and compensation.

NPU President Matthew Kaplan said in an interview that the union wanted an alternative compensation structure that included bonuses for longevity and educational achievement to help the state compete with local law enforcement agencies that offer similar benefits, rather than a basic one or two percent cost of living increase across the board.

“We didn't just want the 1 percent incentive, just because we wanted it — we wanted to help the state do the right thing and become more competitive,” he said.

The union won an initial salary bump through the arbitration process, which the state  challenged in district court. The court ruled in favor of the union, directing the state to approve the contract at the Tuesday meeting retroactive to last July.

Even without the financial benefits, Kaplan said approval of the collective bargaining agreement would give state-employed police the benefit of standard working conditions regardless of location, which “should improve morale.”

Sisolak pledged in his off-year State of the State speech last month to raise state police pay in his next term.

Kaplan said that union members had “mixed feelings” about that commitment, saying that he was happy the issue came up but that current staffing levels are reaching crisis levels. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that more than 30 state police have left since January, and Kaplan said it often takes months to train new troopers.

“We're talking years before we can actually start getting people on the road,” he said. “And there's not enough time. It's an emergency right now.”

Nevada is new to state worker collective bargaining, and employees were previously barred from the practice that their local government counterparts have long used. Just months after his victory in the 2018 midterms, Sisolak fulfilled a campaign promise to expand collective bargaining to state employees by signing SB135, which passed out of the Legislature on party lines. 

A key change to the bill that was added in the final days of the 2019 session gave the governor the right to ignore negotiated salary demands between the state and bargaining units. 

The legislation created 11 different categories of state employees, grouped by general type of employment, that were allowed to form a union, file for recognition with the state-run Government Employee-Management Relations Board and ultimately begin bargaining and hashing out employment contracts with the state. Seven of those 11 categories organized and formed bargaining units ahead of the 2021 legislative session.

But the bargaining process runs on a different track from the normal state budgeting process — it requires negotiations to begin in the November before a legislative session, and continue until March before an impasse is declared and negotiators move to arbitration. 

The arbitrator is then supposed to come to a decision by March 15, after which the governor is supposed to submit budget amendment bills for any changes that will require money (such as changes to salary, or a need to add more full-time positions).

Local government employees were first afforded collective bargaining rights in 1969, and since the 1970s there have been multiple legislative attempts to extend those same rights to state employees. Although bills passed in 1991 and 2009, both were vetoed by the governor, preventing the practice until 2019.

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