Politics & Government

Lawmakers can’t mandate $1,000 annual raises for state workers

Senate Republicans last week proposed a way to save on state worker pay raises: Reject the labor contracts the state has already negotiated and give state agency employees annual bumps of $1,000 each instead.

The only problem? The Legislature doesn’t actually have the authority to make that happen.

David Schumacher, the budget director for Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, raised that issue in a letter to House and Senate budget writers Wednesday.

State collective bargaining laws establish that employee unions must negotiate their contracts with the governor’s office, not the Legislature. Lawmakers have the authority to approve the contracts as a whole or reject them in their entirety, according to the law.

“The statute does not provide a framework for the Legislature to preapprove or set the fiscal parameters for negotiations,” Schumacher wrote. “Based on the state collective bargaining framework and other provisions of labor law, it is uncertain whether the employee compensation provisions in the Senate budget could be implemented.”

But Republicans insist their plan would work because they aren’t dictating the exact terms of the contracts. The Senate budget would set aside a pot of money large enough to fund annual $1,000 raises for state agency employees — or $95.8 million over two years — and send the governor’s office and 23 employee unions back to the bargaining table to negotiate any deal they’d like.

Under the contracts that Inslee’s office has negotiated, state workers would receive 3 percent raises in July, followed by another 1.8 percent increase next year. Both Inslee and the Democratic-controlled House have proposed two-year budgets that approve the contracts.

Republican leaders say the state would save $75 million over the House’s plan if the governor’s negotiators and the unions would agree on new contract terms that would stay within the Senate’s suggested funding level.

“We drive money out and we basically say, ‘This is the way we think it should be,’ ” Senate budget writer Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said Wednesday. “It is a policy guideline, or a recommendation, or a suggestion.”

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said that because the Senate budget avoids imposing specific raises on employees, it stays within the bounds of the law.

“We’re saying, we think there’s a better way, and here’s the money to do that,” said Braun, who is Senate Republicans’ leader on state employee pay issues. “We recognize that this a process.”

Braun and other Senate Republicans said the Legislature did something similar in 2003, when it rejected labor contracts for home health care workers. While rejecting the contracts, lawmakers approved enough money to cover pay increases of 75 cents per hour for those workers.

The union involved in that negotiation, however, maintains that the Legislature’s action in 2003 violated the law.

“We believe it was illegal in 2003 and what they’re proposing is illegal now,” wrote Adam Glickman, secretary treasurer for SEIU 775 NW, in an email Wednesday.

The state’s largest employee union, the Washington Federation of State Employees, also has said that the plan laid out in the Senate budget would violate the state’s collective bargaining laws.

Both the Senate and the House have passed their own proposals for a new state operating budget, but the two chambers have yet to agree on a final two-year spending plan.

In all, the Republican-controlled Senate is proposing to spend about $500 million less than the House on pay and benefits for state employees and public school workers.

Meanwhile, the House budget proposes about $1.5 billion in taxes that the Senate budget doesn’t include.

Lawmakers are in a 105-day session scheduled to last through April 26.