Politics & Government

State worker contracts moving forward, but $500 million cost could be a challenge

The state Legislative Building in Olympia is shown on Jan. 3, 2013.
The state Legislative Building in Olympia is shown on Jan. 3, 2013. Staff file, 2013

Deals reached this month between Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget office and 38 employee unions would give pay raises to thousands of state workers.

But at a time when Washington lawmakers are struggling to come up with billions to solve school-funding problems, the contracts’ $500 million price tag could be a tough sell in the Legislature.

The agreements ratified by the unions last week affect about 50,000 state employees, as well as 47,000 publicly funded non-state employees, said Ralph Thomas, a spokesman for Inslee’s Office of Financial Management.

If approved by the Legislature next year, the contracts would award the majority of the 50,000 state workers cost-of-living increases totaling roughly 6 percent over two years. Some employees would get additional targeted pay increases on top of the cost-of-living raises, Thomas said.

In a prepared statement, David Schumacher, Inslee’s budget director, called the contracts “fair and equitable agreements” that will help the state hold on to good employees.

“These agreements will give state agencies more tools for recruiting and retaining employees in today’s competitive economy,” Schumacher said.

These agreements will give state agencies more tools for recruiting and retaining employees in today’s competitive economy.

David Schumacher, budget director for Gov. Jay Inslee

The agreements include hefty raises for members of the Washington State Patrol, an agency that has struggled with recruitment and retention of troopers in recent years. Troopers’ pay would increase 16 percent starting in July 2017, followed by another 3 percent in July 2018.

Lieutenants and captains in the State Patrol would receive an even larger pay bump, with a 20 percent raise starting July 2017 and an additional 3 percent raise starting in July 2018.

While many of the workers’ increases would be paid out of the state general fund at a cost of $497 million, some contracts, such as those for troopers and ferry workers, would come mainly out of the transportation budget.

The negotiated raises for State Patrol troopers, captains and lieutenants would cost the transportation budget about $41 million over two years, according to estimates from the governor’s budget office.

This year, Inslee’s budget office will determine whether the contracts are financially feasible. If so, the governor will include them in his budget proposal in December.

After that, whether the contracts will be adopted in the state’s 2017-19 budget is up to the Legislature.

The state is expected to have about $41 billion to work with in its general fund, but lawmakers also must address a court order to fix the unconstitutional way the state pays for schools — a task that many estimate will cost at least $3 billion.

The state’s last two-year budget came in at about $38 billion.

It’s a ton of money — I don’t know where it all comes from.

State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, on the labor contracts negotiated by the state

State Sen. John Braun, a Centralia Republican who serves as the vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the cost of the contracts “has put us in a very difficult position” given the challenges the state is facing to fully fund schools.

“It’s about $500 million per biennium in general fund (money), but in total, it’s about $1 billion,” Braun said of the contracts, referencing the total effect on other accounts like the transportation budget, as well as federal funds.

“It’s a ton of money, I don’t know where it all comes from,” he said.

Braun said many of the contracts, including the one for general government workers that would award cost-of-living raises of roughly 6 percent, exceed the rate of inflation. He said he’s not sure whether such large increases are necessary.

State Sen. Karen Fraser, an Olympia Democrat who sits on the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations, disagreed, saying many workers are recovering from years of no raise or temporary pay cuts they took during the economic recession.

“I think having state employees do some form of catch-up with their underpayment of wages is really a huge priority,” she said. “How can you keep the best or the brightest if they are underpaid?”

Tim Welch, a spokesman for the largest union of state employees, said workers already are helping elect lawmakers in November who they think will be more likely to approve the contracts next year.

Members of his organization, the Washington Federation of State Employees, are going door-to-door and making phone calls to support candidates who they think will help the contracts get funded, he said.

“One of our major goals was to solve the problem of the revolving door in state employment,” Welch said. “We think these contracts go a long way toward doing that.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1