State lawmakers arrived in Olympia on Monday for the start of the legislative session, and groups representing state workers were here too, ready to fight for their benefits, their salaries and, in some cases, their jobs.
About 75 members of the Washington Federation of State Employees visited the Legislative Building in an effort to persuade lawmakers not to make deeper cuts to their benefits than those they’ve negotiated with Gov. Chris Gregoire and to protest some of the state service cuts Gregoire proposed in her budget.
State employees are “really under the gun right now,” said Daniel D’Haem, who chairs the union’s internal organizing committee. “We are a target during a time like this for all the politicians who don’t like the labor movement in general.”
Tim Welch, a spokesman for the union, said the federation has two main objectives during the session: Hold on to the salary and benefit cuts negotiated with Gregoire when she wrote her budget proposal, and fight some of her proposed cuts to services such as the Basic Health Plan, programs for the disabled and juvenile rehabilitation.
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Welch said the Legislature would be able to save many of these programs by closing tax loopholes, including exemptions for property, business and sales taxes in the state. But he acknowledged that Initiative 1053, which requires two-thirds majorities of the Legislature or a vote of the public to raise taxes, could make it difficult.
Gregoire’s budget would eliminate the Basic Health Plan – a state-subsidized insurance program – and the staff that administers it; cut state disability support programs; and reduce the budget of the Department of Social and Health Services, among other cuts.
Gregoire’s proposed budget would temporarily cut employee pay 3 percent, require state workers to pay 25 percent more in health insurance costs and have employees contribute more to their pension funds. Through negotiations with the governor, Welch said, the union has agreed to pay and benefit cutbacks, pending a vote of its membership.
D’Haem said state workers are sacrificing enough.
“We’re afraid the legislature is going to take it further,” he said.
Alexander Park, a union member at the meeting, said he maintains the fire alarm system at Rainier School, a facility for developmentally disabled adults in Buckley. He said he had come to Olympia mainly because he was concerned about layoffs at the school.
“I have a lot of issues with the governor slashing and dashing us,” he said.
Lynette Powell, who works at Western State Hospital in Lakewood, said she had been caring for her 91-year-old mother recently and was worried about cuts to programs for the elderly and disabled in the state.
In a separate protest, a group including the Children’s Alliance, the AARP and local members of the Service Employees International Union wrote and sent petitions to Washington residents asking the Legislature to close tax loopholes. The group, called the Rebuilding Our Economic Future Coalition, delivered 28,000 signed petitions to House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown.
“It’s often said that we have to align our spending with our revenue, but how often is it said that we need to align our revenue with our quality of life expectations?” said Brown upon receiving the petitions. “You can’t have an above-average state if you have a below-average tax structure and an unfair tax structure.”
Any tax increase would likely be put to a public vote. Tim Eyman, who sponsored I-1053, said a ballot measure raising state revenue would be doomed to fail.
“I think voters would react to any revenue package on the ballot with dismay and disgust,” Eyman said. “It’s like, ‘What part of “no” didn’t you get in November?’”
Besides approving I-1053, voters last fall repealed taxes on soda pop and candy and rejected an income tax on high earners.
Though the results of their efforts remain to be seen, one thing protesters Monday said they know for certain is that this will not be the last legislators see of them at the Capitol.
“Today really is kind of a modest turnout,” Welch said. “We’ll be down here in green shirts pretty much all of the 105 days.”
Staff writer Jordan Schrader contributed to this report.