Three weeks into a new legislative session, top Washington lawmakers say it is too early to know if two dozen labor contracts negotiated by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire can be honored.
At stake is the pay for all of the state’s roughly 105,000 employees, including workers at colleges and universities. Total cost for the pay adjustments is about $238 million — much of that needed to end the temporary, 3 percent pay cuts of the past two years that affected most of the state’s nearly 60,000 general-government employees.
The projected pay hikes are part of a potential $1 billion shortfall facing the state for 2013-15, a deficit that also includes another $360 million outlay for cost-of-living increases for teachers.
Making the outlook a bit cloudy for budget writers is the state Supreme Court’s ruling last year that the state is underfunding public schools. This puts the state on the hook for potentially $1.4 billion more in spending.
So far, the Republican-backed majority in the Senate is insisting that no new taxes are needed to write a budget under those terms. At the same time, the Senate coalition’s leaders are refusing to say if paying state employees more after years of pay cuts and furloughs is a priority.
“We haven’t even had that discussion yet, whether we accept it or reject it,” Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said last week. “That’s a discussion we’ll have as we move into the budget. Historically, we’ve never had a choice. If you accepted the budget, you accepted the contract.’’
In the House, Democrats are also avoiding a firm commitment, although the mood is decidedly warmer to raising pay rates.
Two years ago, lawmakers knew 10 days into session that they would accept the contracts, says House Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina. This year is different, and a part of it is having a new governor who has yet to make clear his budget and pay priorities, as well as new budget leaders in the Senate.
Even so, spokesmen for major unions are not admitting to worry over getting contracts funded.
“They have been found to be financially feasible, and there is no logical reason to not fund them in the budget,” said Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees.
Welch said his union also is waiting to learn what Inslee proposes on health care. No deal was ever reached between Gregoire and 26 unions on health benefits, which means that employees would go on paying 15 percent of premium costs in 2014 if no agreement is reached this year. Under budget outlook documents adopted by the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, government costs for health care for state and public school employees are expected to rise by about $45 million.
Hunter said that despite the slow start, the contracts are one of the first things his team is going to look at when building its budget proposals, which won’t go public until late March.
Hunter’s caucus tends to support higher pay for public employees, and he said he worries about the effect of pay reductions on state employees. As their purchasing power shrinks after furloughs and four years without cost-of-living raises, Hunter said, some talented workers are going to greener pastures — in the private sector and even to local governments that pay better.
“We have not given people raises. And it’s beginning to be a problem. We are beginning to lose staff,” Hunter said.
In one recent presentation to committees, legislative staffers pointed out that Washington pays more than the private sector for low-skill jobs requiring low educational attainment, while better educated workers lag behind private-sector counterparts doing similar work.
Also hoping for more money are home-care workers who won an arbitration award giving 50-cent raises in each of the next two years — worth about 10 percent over the period.
The arbitration award is worth more than $125 million, by Office of Financial Management estimates. But the workers union, Service Employees International Union 775, wants additional funding to cover employees who do not belong to the union to avoid a two-tier pay scale in home care.
The union plans a caregiver lobby day in Olympia on Thursday and is bringing 400 of the low-paid employees who tend to the elderly, sick and disabled in their homes. Jackson Holtz, a spokesman for the union, said they have arranged more than 100 meetings with individual lawmakers.
“The last time there was a Republican Senate majority, they funded our contract,’’ Holtz said. “We’re still meeting with each legislator to talk about it and help them to appreciate what caregivers do and why it is they need a 50-cent raise.”Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/politicsblog