Politics & Government

Senate budget would reject state worker contracts, offer smaller pay package

To help balance the budget with no new taxes, leaders of the Republican-controlled state Senate want to reject labor contracts that Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s office has already negotiated with state employees.

Compared with the two-year spending plan unveiled last week by the state House, the budget proposal that senators released Tuesday would bank more than $400 million in savings by not approving the contracts, as well as by spending less on teacher salary and benefit increases.

Under the contracts negotiated between Inslee’s office and 23 employee unions, workers would receive 3 percent raises in July, followed by another 1.8 percent next year.

But Senate Republicans are looking at a different approach: giving every state worker a flat $1,000 raise for each of the next two years. That plan would save the state about $75 million in the 2015-17 budget, Senate budget writer Andy Hill said Tuesday.

Part of the goal is to give the lowest-paid state workers a greater percentage increase in their pay than highly paid employees, said Hill, R-Redmond.

“Really, what we want to get at is wage inequality,” Hill said. “We believe this really impacts the workers who are boots-on-the-ground, providing the customer service.”

The state’s largest employee union, however, said it doesn’t think the Legislature has the authority to offer an alternative to employee contracts. Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, said state law lets the Legislature only ratify contracts or reject them — nothing in between.

“They can reject the contracts and say, ‘Go back to the table and bargain something else,’ ” Devereux said. “That’s not what they did.”

The Senate plan runs counter to what has been proposed by House Democratic leaders and Inslee, who are looking to fund the contracts in their entirety. In addition to covering about 50,000 state employees, the contracts would apply to about 40,000 other union employees paid by the state to provide services such as home health care and child care.

State employees have not received cost-of-living raises for six years, though some have received step-pay increases.

The Senate budget released Tuesday would also save $40 million by no longer extending health care benefits to state workers’ spouses who have access to health care through another employer.

The House and Senate budget proposals are even farther apart when it comes to pay and benefits for teachers and other school employees.

The Senate plan would award annual cost-of-living adjustments based on inflation, as voters approved with Initiative 732 in 2000. School employees wouldn’t, however, receive the larger raises advocated by Inslee and House Democrats, who proposed giving them the same increases state workers would receive under the negotiated contracts.

Not providing school employees with the extra raises would save about $150 million over two years.

The Senate budget also omits $200 million included in the House Democrats’ budget to boost health benefits for K-12 workers.

The state teachers union quickly criticized the Senate budget for failing to do enough to improve school employee compensation. The state has not funded annual cost-of-living adjustments for K-12 public school employees since 2008.

“Clearly, after six years of no COLA and increases in health care costs, the Senate budget fails to address the issue of adequate pay,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association. “Merely reinstating a small COLA in the next two years is just not enough.”

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said lawmakers are still looking to address the state’s unconstitutional reliance on local levies to pay for school employee salaries, which is one of the problems the state Supreme Court identified in the McCleary case.

A plan to shift some of that financial burden to the state would most likely address concerns about school employee salaries and benefits, said Dammeier, who is the vice chairman of the Senate education committee.

Lawmakers are in the middle of 105-day legislative session scheduled to last through April 26.

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