Nevada lawmakers protecting benefits |

Nevada lawmakers protecting benefits

Geoff Dornan / Nevada Appeal

CARSON CITY ” Even as the state’s budget shortfall worsens, lawmakers went out of their way Wednesday to assure state workers they will do everything possible to protect their benefits.

“They deserve to know their retirement is secure,” said Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas. “The proposal to take that security away from these individuals, it’s not fair, not moral.”

“We’re not going to accept the draconian cuts proposed by the governor,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. “We’ll do our very very best to minimize the impact. We’re going to find a solution and a shared solution and not balance the budget on the backs of state workers.”

While they were joined by several other members of Senate Finance and the Assembly Ways and Means committees, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, warned the job won’t be easy, saying fiscal experts are warning that the estimated shortfall is growing beyond what it was when the governor presented the budget in January.

Buckley said$1.8 billion over the biennium is needed to restore core services in key areas. With revenues continuing to lag behind even the most pessimistic projections, she said after the meeting, the Economic Forum may increase the size of that hole by up to $500 million, bringing the total shortfall to $2.3 billion.

Buckley said Nevada could be looking at a 37 percent reduction from the budget approved by the Legislature in 2007.

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“Obviously, our state is the hardest hit in the nation,” she said.

“We can’t shut our schools and prisons and we’re required to provide health care by the federal government.”

She, like her fellow lawmakers, objected strongly to the governor’s recommendations cutting state worker and teacher salaries 6 percent, suspending step increases, merit pay and longevity payments and increasing the portion workers and retirees must pay for health benefits. One part of that plan would eliminate the premium subsidy for any retirees who qualify for Medicare. The plan would also cut the subsidy for all other retirees in half over the coming biennium and eliminate it for anyone retiring after June 30.

“I would like not to reduce salaries at all,” she said. “But economic conditions are dire.”

But she and the others objected most strongly to cutting benefits to those who have already retired.

“I don’t see how we can enact any of them,” said Buckley. “Basically it means we’re ending retiree health benefits.”

“You can’t change the rules after they no longer have the ability to go back to work to pay for health benefits.”

When all those cuts are added together, she said the reduction to state workers would be more like 13-15 percent instead of 6 percent.

Ways and Means Chairman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, said the cuts wouldn’t save as much as the governor hopes in the long run because “we’re going to get them on the back end.”

He said those retirees would end up in emergency rooms more and on welfare.

Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, agreed: “The worst thing we can do to some one is take away their health insurance.”

Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, agreed some budget items must be restored but said there’s no way they can afford to put back everything the executive budget takes from state workers.

“These items we just went through, they’re about $800 million,” she said.

Members of leadership have promised to spell out in greater detail exactly what the budget hole looks like and how they plan to fix it in the near future.