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  • The Nevada GOP has posted the Workers' Rights Initiative online

  •   Union Dues Initiative Causing Divisions for Nevada GOP

    By David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, May 5, 1998; Page A04

    LAS VEGAS—The "Payroll Protection" plan has earned a place in the conservatives' pantheon of preferred issues, right up there with school vouchers, medical savings accounts and the flat tax.

    Republican leaders – including House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) – are urging passage of legislation to require written annual authorizations from union members for any political use of their dues. California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) is spearheading the battle for Payroll Protection in his state, and polls show it likely to pass on June 2.

    But here in Nevada, the same proposal, labeled the "Workers' Rights" initiative, has split the GOP from its business constituency and caused headaches for the Republican candidates in important campaigns for Senate and governor.

    Kenny Guinn, the businessman-educator who leads the gubernatorial polls in both the Nevada GOP primary and general election matchups, said: "I don't want to spend my time arguing about 6 cents a day in somebody's paycheck. This issue won't make me a better governor."

    The same disdain is expressed by Steve Wynn, owner of major hotel-casinos here and a spokesman for the gaming industry, Nevada's biggest employer. "This is a waste of time and a waste of energy," he said in an interview. "None of us in the gaming industry sees a reason to pick a fight with a union that has been very reasonable with us."

    Wynn was referring to the Las Vegas local of the Culinary Workers, an affiliate of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. Its 45,000 members make up one-third of union membership in the state.

    Caught in the conflict is Rep. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who is challenging Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) in a race the national GOP counts as one of its best pickup opportunities. Ensign has given mixed signals on the issue.

    The Workers' Rights initiative has been promoted and financed by a recent arrival on the Las Vegas strip: Sheldon Adelson, a developer building what promises to be the largest hotel-casino in town. Adelson, who refused interview requests, is described by another Nevada Republican as "rabidly anti-union."

    The political effort for the initiative is being run by Chuck Muth, a former state GOP executive director, and state party Chairman John Mason has made the initiative an official party project. No spending reports are due until this summer, but Muth said Adelson has supplied "a good portion" of the financing for the effort. "I don't think we could have moved forward without his support," Muth said.

    The origins of the Nevada battle, like that of the larger national struggle, go back to the $35 million barrage of labor political ads, financed by a dues assessment and aimed by the AFL-CIO at freshman Republican members of the House early in 1996. The ads, which did not explicitly advocate the Republicans' defeat but sharply criticized their voting records, were classified as issue advocacy, exempt from federal laws limiting contributions to candidates from business and labor political action committees.

    The ads infuriated Republicans, who had won support from 40 percent of labor households in 1994. They came up with the Payroll Protection proposal as a way of tying labor's hands in future campaigns and have launched an effort to pass it in Congress and as many states as possible.

    One GOP freshman targeted by AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington was Ensign, whose father, Mike Ensign, the president of Circus Circus, is well-liked by the Culinary Workers and other local unions. John Ensign inherited that goodwill and national labor leaders have acknowledged privately that it was a mistake to include him on their "hit list" without checking local sentiment. He won reelection by 6 percentage points, with financial help and tacit political support from the Culinary Workers.

    Now, Republicans say, he is squirming on the issue. On March 31, when Gingrich called up a federal version of Paycheck Protection for a vote that was certain to fall short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage under the special rules in that debate, Ensign voted with the party leadership. But Sig Rogich, a veteran GOP consultant who is guiding Guinn's gubernatorial campaign, said, "Before [the April 24-25] state convention, John Ensign was on the phone to John Mason, telling him to back off on Payroll Protection or it would cost him his [party] chairmanship. He's told everyone out here the party has no business being involved in it."

    Ensign did not return calls from The Post.

    Meanwhile, Reid, who like other Democrats is opposed to the initiative, said, "I wish they hadn't brought it up, but if it's on the ballot, it will certainly help me. It's caused an open split in the Republican Party and it will motivate Democrats to vote."

    Unlike California, where both the unions and their allies and the Wilson-led proponents of Proposition 226, the Payroll Protection plan, are engaged in a full-scale media ad war for a referendum now less than a month away, the Nevada struggle is still centered on collecting petition signatures.

    Muth said last week he expects to have the required names well before the June 16 deadline. As in California, professional signature-gathering firms have been hired to do the work. But state law requires sign-ups from 10 percent of the voters in 11 of the 16 counties. Because seven rural counties counted only 500 to 2,000 votes apiece in 1996, prospecting for signers becomes almost a house-to-house search. Unions did a mailing to rural counties warning people that if they sign, "your names will be turned over to the government." Muth called that apparent reference to the filing with the secretary of state "a scare tactic." He also collected affidavits reporting incidents of harassment and attempted intimidation in several locations.

    Labor has organized a coalition called Nevadans for Fairness, with popular Gov. Robert J. Miller (D) on the board along with several religious and civic leaders, to lead the fight against the initiative. It has budgeted $1 million to $3 million for the battle. And it has hired a signature-collection firm to qualify a countermeasure of its own, called the Full Disclosure Act.

    Along with such popular ornaments as a requirement that all campaign contributions be disclosed and no foreign money accepted, it would guarantee workers' rights to participate through their unions in politics. If both labor's Full Disclosure Act and the Republicans' Workers' Rights initiative are approved in November, the one with the bigger vote would become part of the state constitution.

    Dan Burdish, the state GOP executive director, said private polls show their initiative in front, but concedes it will cost "at least $2.5 million" to keep it ahead when labor mounts its counterattack. This, in a state where barely 350,000 people voted in the last non-presidential election.

    The political environment here is very different from California. Unlike its larger neighbor, Nevada is a "right-to-work" state where no one has to join a union to hold a job. The gaming industry – a principal source of jobs, taxes and profits – feels itself under threat from Washington and wants no wedge between employers and workers. Miller, who is retiring, aspiring Republican successor Guinn, casino owner Wynn and Glen Arnodo, political director of the Culinary Workers, all use virtually identical language: "We have a balance that works."

    Guinn's primary election opponent, movie producer Aaron Russo, wavered on the initiative in one recent debate but told Republican state convention delegates he would support it. Guinn, making his first race for political office at age 62 after serving as Las Vegas school superintendent and interim president of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and running a successful bank and utility company, is outspoken in his criticism of the initiative.

    Not only is he opposed to "more government regulation of business or unions," Guinn said in an interview, but "amending the constitution by initiative is a very dangerous precedent. It takes only 46,000 signatures to put an initiative on the ballot. What's to keep someone from proposing raising business taxes next? We don't want to be like California and we don't want outside groups coming in here and using us for their laboratory."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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