A Seattle Democrat earned a heaping of derision earlier this year for suggesting that people would die if the state didn’t send a tax increase to the ballot.
We were among the eye-rollers, but there’s something to be said for speaking the language of those in power.
So, at the risk of indulging hyperbole, let us suggest an amendment to state Rep. Eric Pettigrew’s good little reproach: People will die if the state doesn’t take on its employee unions.
Gov. Chris Gregoire, in releasing a plan to bridge a $2.6 billion gap in state revenues last week, argued that she had been unable to wrangle additional concessions from state workers. The result was an intolerable budget proposal that visits suffering on the poor and vulnerable without commensurate sacrifices from the state’s workforce.
Democratic lawmakers including Gregoire are now trying to make a case for buffering the blow to human services and higher education with higher taxes.
That’s a risky reflex in a recessionary period. Lawmakers should be looking for any way they can to avoid delaying the state’s recovery – and that means they should be looking at the unions.
We say “unions” because some state employees would be willing to make the same sacrifices that private sector workers have. They understand that the people they serve are suffering – and that holding onto a job during the worst economic decline since the Great Depression is no small feat.
But their union leadership refuses to budge. The unions won’t give an inch on pay and benefits, even if it means sending some of their members to the unemployment line.
They insist that workers pay no more than 12 percent of their health care premiums, a share unheard of outside of government work. They also repudiate any suggestion of pay cuts or furloughs. Instead, more than a third of state workers will be eligible for a pay increase of up t o 5 percent thanks to longevity pay.
The cost of the unions’ recalcitrance – and state officials’ inability to stare it down – is high. State Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, estimates that the governor’s agreements with state workers would cost $225 million the state doesn’t have.
That’s enough money to save Basic Health, state-subsidized health insurance for 65,000 of the working poor. It’s enough to keep 12,300 students from losing their state need grants to attend college. It’s enough to preserve preschool for low-income 3-year-olds plus provide levy subsidies for poor school districts plus check cuts to mental health and drug dependency serwvices.
These times call for shared pain – and bare-knuckled bargaining. State employee unions enjoy the upper hand because state officials have ceded to them.
It is irresponsible to ask taxpayers who are juggling pay cuts, furloughs, reductions in working hours and staggering health care costs to help preserve the position of state workers. It is a far worse offense to foist such a burden on the poor and sick.