The bipartisan budget that passed the Senate this week is stirring controversy with its call for greater furloughs for some 53,000 higher-paid state workers.
The proposal might be illegal and a violation of contracts that Gov. Chris Gregoire’s negotiators hammered out with several unions for 2011-13, according to the Washington Federation of State Employees.
Gregoire’s budget director, Marty Brown, has said in a letter to lawmakers that it is unclear whether the Senate’s real intent was to invalidate the contracts, which already call for 3 percent reductions in pay and hours worked for most state workers starting July 1.
The extra furloughs for higher-paid workers would be on top of those other pay reductions for workers earning more than $50,000 a year at state agencies and universities.
“It really is unfair. It hits some folks harder than others,” Tim Welch, spokesman for the state employees federation, said Tuesday. “That is why we agreed to the contract; it is fair and everyone takes the same sacrifice.”
But Sen. Ed Murray, the Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman from Seattle, said his intent was not to harm contracts but to make sure greater concessions were not forced on state workers.
“I was not trying to break the collective-bargaining agreement. I was trying to redirect the fire over that agreement,” Murray said. “It was my attempt to prevent that issue from coming up on the Senate floor by working with interested parties on an alternative. I believe our bill is written in a way that key people won’t be laid off.”
The Senate plan passed on a bipartisan 34-13 vote. It includes the additional layoffs, or unpaid furloughs that total two days a year for those earning $50,000 to $75,000, four days a year for those earning $75,000 to $100,000, and so on – up to eight days for those earning $125,000 or more.
The additional furloughs affect about 40,000 workers in the $50,000-$75,000 range, half of them represented by unions and half unrepresented. Smaller numbers would be affected in the higher income brackets – such as 1,000 non-represented workers earning more than $125,000.
The extra furloughs would save an estimated $61.9 million in all state funds over two years. That is on top of the $330 million anticipated from the governor’s proposal for a 3 percent cut for most state workers.
Brown, the Office of Financial Management director, criticized the extra furloughs in a six-page letter of concerns he sent Monday to Senate budget co-authors Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield.
He wrote that the extra furloughs “are applied unevenly to state agencies and may conflict with collective bargaining agreements. We are unclear if the intent is to reject the negotiated agreements or not.” He went on to say that basing the layoffs on salary will “adversely affect agency operations. Temporarily laid off staff include revenue officers, teachers at state institutions, toxicologists and chemists at state laboratories, wildlife enforcement officers, and physicians.”
“His comments are unfortunate,” Murray replied in an interview. He said Brown “knows better,” that the goal was to save the contracts from maneuvers that could reopen negotiations with labor.
Under agreements the federation and most unions reached with Gregoire’s Labor Relations Office, the vast majority of state workers can expect to see their pay reduced by 3 percent over two years beginning July 1. The workers would receive an equivalent amount of extra time off – roughly eight days a year – in what some are calling “prepaid” furloughs.
The Senate plan passed Monday evening calls for cutting about 1,529 full-time positions at state agencies and colleges through June 2013. That compares with the 108,293 full-time-equivalent jobs that the Office of Financial Management calculated were on the payroll in January. The reductions are a bit more than the roughly 1,000 that Gregoire’s December budget called for.
The Senate budget still has to be reconciled with the House’s version, which would cut about 170 fewer positions, and budget talks are expected to go well beyond Sunday’s scheduled end of the regular 105-day legislative session.
Democratic Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia doesn’t want to see the furlough provisions adopted. But Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County said the Senate provision for furloughs “has some merit.”
Brad Shannon: firstname.lastname@example.org/politicsblog