Battles over worker pay and workers’ compensation reforms helped fuel lobbyist spending that topped $23 million during the state Legislature’s nearly five-month sojourn in Olympia this year.
Data compiled by the state Public Disclosure Commission showed that the top three individual spenders were labor unions – led by the Washington Federation of State Employees at $626,481, Service Employees International Union Healthcare 775NW at $402,676 and the Washington Education Association at $382,609.
All three were heavily involved in efforts to fight for the interests of public-sector workers, including the federation’s defense of collective bargaining agreements reached with Gov. Chris Gregoire and its effort to win a new contract for medical interpreters.
The single biggest expenditure by the federation was $500,040 reported under lobbyist Dennis Eagle’s name.
“We spent about $500,000 on television, radio and Internet ads. They ran four weeks, basically through the month of February,” said Tim Welch, federation spokesman, who coordinated the media campaign. “It was probably 10 times as much as we’ve ever done before.”
That ad campaign helped put a face on state employees – showing a community corrections worker, an advocate for the developmentally disabled and a nurse at Western State Hospital. The ads aired in the Seattle, Spokane and Yakima areas at a time when labor contracts had come under fire in other states.
Some Washington Republican lawmakers sought greater reductions in state payroll costs. In the end, Washington agency workers will see their pay cut, state jobs eliminated and an agency consolidation plan that is expected to undo collective bargaining rights for workers in the state’s information services sector.
But the union avoided worse outcomes – such as closure of the Rainier School and other facilities for the developmentally disabled or even deeper rollbacks in pay and benefits.
“It’s an extraordinary amount. Our members will re-evaluate if they want to do it again. I think it was worth it, given the tough times we are in,” Welch said.
“I think we definitely mitigated the damage. A lot more people would not have services if we and others had not pushed in that way,” he said.
Other unions that spent heavily saw mixed results, too. SEIU Healthcare 775NW, which represents home care workers, lost a bid to get money for better training of people in their profession and to blunt cuts to the amount of chore services the state would fund for elderly and disabled people trying to live in their homes.
SEIU since has filed signatures for a citizen initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot that would for the second time tell lawmakers to invest in training.
The 80,000-member Washington Education Association, which represents public school employees, will see pay cuts of 1.9 percent for teachers in districts that choose to reopen contracts to cover reductions in state funding for salaries. But if the WEA lost that fight, it was able to save seniority protections for veteran faculty members.
The Senate approved one reform that would have let schools base their recession-driven layoff decisions this year on teacher performance instead of seniority.
Health care and business interests also were among the bigger spenders this year. The Washington Health Care Association spent $282,521 to help pass legislation that imposes a new fee on its own member nursing homes.
The nursing home lobbying effort was part of a financial maneuver backed by legislative Democrats and a few Republicans to bolster funding for nursing care. The higher fee paid by nursing facilities is supposed to capture additional federal matching dollars for the care of Medicaid clients and to result in a net financial gain for all but about four nursing homes statewide.
Without the extra nursing-home fee, nursing homes were facing millions of dollars in state cuts, and association leaders feared this could erode care and even force some operators to shutter their facilities.
Boeing also was a major spender, reporting $330,647 in lobbyist salaries and expenses, and the Association of Washington Business reported another $246,787. Both sought a major reform of the workers’ compensation system to lower pension costs for permanently injured employees.
The $23.43 million spending total over five months was slightly more than what the PDC has tallied over the same months in recent years. And despite the recession that slowed lobbyist activity in January, the five-month figures show a slight upward trend in spending since 2008.
Overall spending by all 41 major subcategories tracked by the PDC was $20.7 million through May in 2008. That rose to $23 million in 2009, which was a biennial budget year. Spending fell to $21.9 million in 2010, which had a 60-day regular session and a 30-day special session – all to approve a supplemental budget.
This year’s regular session ran 105 days and was followed by a 30-day special session as lawmakers struggled to close a more than $5 billion budget gap without raising general taxes.
The 2011 sessions produced an unusually high level of bipartisanship including a $32 billion two-year budget and the changes in the workers’ compensation system that the Washington State Labor Council fought bitterly.
The labor council, ranked No. 28 for spending this year, expended $84,774, including $70,749 for compensation and $14,024 on expenses. It also had pushed for a floor vote in the House and Senate on bills to close tax breaks for interest groups such as large out-of-state banks.
The council did win a vote in the House to close bank-tax preferences and use the money for public schools. But the measure failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority vote to move on to the Senate.