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Collective bargaining fight again shaping up at legislature

By ThisIsReno

By Andrew Doughman, Nevada News Bureau: The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce is pushing for major changes to the state’s collective bargaining law for public sector employees.

In an amendment to another bill that already passed the Senate, the  chamber said the changes will alleviate budget concerns for local governments and save taxpayers money.

The chamber’s plan includes eliminating binding arbitration, allowing elected officials to create the final contract. Binding arbitration is the last step labor and management use when they cannot agree on a contract. A third-party group looks at both proposals and chooses one.

Sam McMullen, lobbyist for the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, said that these provisions make local governments more accountable to the contracts they choose.

The amendment would also allow local governments to renegotiate contracts automatically if revenues fall 5 percent or more for two consecutive years.

George Ross, also a lobbyist for the chamber, said that this provision would give government a tool to address economic downturns. Otherwise, he said, they could be contractually obligated to give their employees pay raises as the economy droops toward recession.

The amendment would also remove the eligibility of public sector managers and supervisors to negotiate their contracts and require newly negotiated contracts apply to the beginning of the prior contract expiration.

All of these changes, the chamber argued, would save taxpayers money.

The original Senate Bill 98, sponsored by Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, would require mediation prior to arbitration and free a third-party arbitrator from having to choose one of the final offers presented. It sparked no controversy and received a unanimous vote during a Senate vote.

The amendment came as a surprise to legislators. Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, called it a “kamikaze amendment.”

The chamber lobbyists acknowledged the short notice, but said they wanted to resurrect the issue after other similar bills died.

Ross called the Legislature’s session a “Where’s Waldo” hunt for money. He said state employees and teachers earn at or below the national average while local government employees – through advantageously bargained contracts – earn more.

“We know we can’t attack that totally and instantly in one or two years, but we’d like to attack the conditions that made that happen,” Ross said.

Others, however, said that the proposals would not be fair.

“If you have two people talking and one of them gets to make the final decision every time, that’s not a negotiation, that’s a conversation,” said Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce, D-Las Vegas, of the section of the amendment eliminating binding arbitration.

Rusty McAllister, a lobbyist for firefighters, said that ending binding arbitration “boils down to collective begging” for workers.

The issue of collective bargaining has been important this session as Democrats work against the clock to pass a $1.2 billion tax package by June 6, when the Legislature is scheduled to end.

Assembly Republicans issued a set of policy reform demands including collective bargaining that they say would need to be met before they consider taxes.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has also said repeatedly that he will veto a tax increase. Therefore Democrats need to stay unified and find two Assembly Republicans and three Senate Republicans to join them in voting to override the governor’s veto.

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce has also called for changes to the state’s collective bargaining laws as a precursor for their own endorsement of tax increases.

Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, said she would hold a second hearing for the bill since legislators were given no advance notice of the amendment.

That hearing seems certain to bring out the troops for what could be a testy hearing between public sector labor unions and local governments.

“I’m telling any local government official who is listening, you better get your representatives up here,” she said, calling for local governments to provide information to the committee. “For those local governments who do not get that to me by Monday, I will call you out so that the press knows who is not willing to give out that information.”