By Sean Whaley,Nevada News Bureau: Gov. Jim Gibbons announced yesterday he is pursuing an initiative petition to subject labor negotiations between unions and local government entities to the open meeting law to give taxpayers access to the discussions.
Some Republican lawmakers welcomed the idea, saying the Democrat-controlled Legislature has been unwilling to consider such a proposal.
But a state Senate Democrat who will be serving in the 2011 session questioned from a practical standpoint whether the labor negotiation process would work if it had to be in the open and follow the very specific legal dictates of Nevada’s open meeting law.
Gibbons, in announcing his third effort to take an issue to the voters of Nevada, said he is going to the public because the Legislature refused to consider the idea at a special session held earlier this year.
“The objective of this initiative and this process is to open up those negotiations to public scrutiny,” he said.
“We’re taking nothing away from their negotiating abilities,” Gibbons said. “What we’re doing is saying if they are going to deal with taxpayer funds that those negotiations need to be open to the public so people can see, and watch, and understand exactly how those dollars are being spent and why.”
The proposal would repeal an exemption in state law allowing labor negotiations to be conducted behind closed doors. It would require collective bargaining proceedings to be subject to Nevada’s open meeting law, “just like any other meeting where public funds are discussed or spent.”
If Gibbons and his supporters can collect 97,002 valid signatures by a Nov. 9 deadline, the proposed change to state law would go to the 2011 Legislature. If the Legislature failed to enact the proposal, it would go to the voters in 2012.
The initiative effort will be operated independently of the governor’s office. A steering committee for the Gibbons OPEN Government Initiative has already been established that includes Gibbons and former state Sens. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, and Mark Amodei, R-Carson City.
Gibbons said he will work with mayors and other elected officials to ensure the measure has a fair hearing in the Legislature in 2012.
Gibbons said mayors have told him that closed-door negotiations affects their ability to negotiate.
State workers do not have collective bargaining.
When he discussed the initiative with Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman yesterday, Gibbons said the mayor was positive about the concept but said it would have to be reviewed by his staff first.
A spokesman for Goodman acknowledged he did discuss the idea with Gibbons but added that he has to see the proposal first, and run it by the city manager, before offering any comment.
Assemblyman Ty Cobb, R-Reno, said using the initiative process is the only way conservative lawmakers will get the issue heard.
“We’re not going to get any conservative issues of great substance through this liberal Legislature,” he said. “So going directly to the voters is a good idea.”
“I think it is a great idea in terms of public policy,” said Cobb, who is running for an open state Senate seat in Reno. “There needs to be a lot more transparency to that whole process.”
The Assembly Republican caucus in the special session that ended March 1 wanted such a law as part of a deal on solving the state’s budget crisis, but ultimately saw only a weak and nonbinding resolution on the issue win approval, he said.
Assemblyman James Settelmeyer, R-Gardnerville, said he too favors transparency in local government labor negotiations. By the time the public finds out what deals have been struck between labor and government management officials, it is weeks after the fact, he said.
“It would require both sides to discuss issues in a more rational way,” Settelmeyer said.
The lawmaker, who is running for an open state Senate seat in the capital region, said he has seen questionable examples locally of school teachers getting small raises while administrators end up with double-digit gains in the closed-door negotiation process.
Since the Legislature would not consider the idea, the initiative petition process may be the only way to go, although Settelmeyer said he would be concerned if too many issues ended up as ballot questions for voters who may not have time to read all the information.
State Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, said labor negotiations go on for months and applying the open meeting law requirements to the process, including meeting notices posted in advance, would not work.
He suggested the move by Gibbons was aimed more at his tough primary election race, a claim Gibbons denied when he announced his proposal.
“People at the negotiating table get mad at each other,” Schneider said. “They yell and scream at each other. Now you have them meeting in the open and having discussions on film. They would be all goody two shoes and nothing would ever get done.”
Schneider said local elected officials have the final say over such agreements and they are the ones who should be held accountable by the voters if the pay and benefit packages being negotiated are too generous.
Gibbons, who is trailing in the polls in the Republican primary to former federal judge Brian Sandoval, said he has been working on the transparency issue for months. But legislative leaders even rejected his request to draft a bill on the subject for the special session, he said.
Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, said there is nothing in the law now that would preclude a local government agency and collective bargaining unit to bargain in public if the two sides agreed to do so. She also noted that the Legislature in 2009 added an extra step to the collective bargaining process to give the public more opportunity to be informed about labor negotiations.
“Let’s allow the existing law to work,” Warne said.
She also questioned the timing of the Gibbons proposal.
“We believe it is a diversionary tactic on his part,” Warne said. “The real issue is the lack of funding for the public schools in Nevada.”
Brian Johnson, executive director of the Washington DC-based Alliance for Worker Freedom, said the organization always supports transparency, especially when it involves public sector unions where large amounts of taxpayer dollars are at stake.
But Johnson said an even better move would be to eliminate the requirement for collective bargaining altogether.
“Ideally we would not have mandated forced bargaining sessions,” he said. “When you have mandated bargaining, the unions always have the upper hand.”
Even so, Johnson said his group would support Gibbons’ proposal.
“Anytime we can get more transparency, it is at least a step in the right direction,” he said.
The Alliance for Worker Freedom (AWF) was founded in 2003 as a non-partisan organization dedicated to combating anti-worker legislation and to promote free and open markets.
Gibbons has had a track record of success in getting measures qualified for the ballot. He qualified a measure requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise taxes and voters approved it. He then got a proposal on the ballot requiring the Legislature to fund the public education budget before considering other spending requirements during a session. That too won voter approval.