Pressure to raise wages keeps growing across America, and state government is no exception. The citizen board that sets pay for state elected officials in Washington recognized that pressure last week.
The Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials endorsed a draft plan to end a six-year pay drought for most elected state officials including state legislators.
The proposal would give raises totaling 11.2 percent over the next two years to all 147 state legislators. The raises would come in two steps and would lift a rank-and-file lawmaker’s base pay from $42,106 today to $46,839 by September 2016; legislative caucus leaders would continue to get more – topped by $55,738 for leaders of the Senate and House majorities.
That’s a substantial raise, but not out of line with cost of living increases since 2008. Smaller raises were suggested for the state’s judges, Gov. Jay Inslee, and other statewide elected officials. This proposal now goes out to the public for comment, and final adoption is scheduled in May.
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Unfortunately, the Legislature, which gave its own staffers raises of about 2.5 percent last year, still needs to ratify labor contracts for other state employees.
House Appropriations Committee chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, thinks adjustments are needed to retain a good state employee work force. But his caucus hasn’t formally embraced the more than two dozen union contracts that Gov. Jay Inslee’s labor office negotiated.
Under those agreements, most agencies’ workers would see 3 percent raises in July and another 1.8 percent in July 2016 – with some individual job classes getting even bigger hikes.
Hunter’s counterpart is Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, and he’s been evasive about pay. Hill says voters he met during his re-election campaign last fall did not put a high priority on pay raises for public sector workers.
Clearly raises won’t be cheap. The total cost for raising pay and maintaining health insurance benefits under the contracts for all general agency personnel, K-12 schools, universities and home care workers is over $800 million from the state’s general fund alone. The more than 40,000 affected home care workers are not actually state employees, but are paid through Medicaid, a state-federal partnership.
Hill’s caucus points out correctly that most state agencies – based on state human resources data – aren’t yet facing critical problems retaining workers.
Nearly two-thirds of state workers received at least a small longevity increase of 2.5 percent to 5 percent last year. And approximately a third of workers also were getting similar increases during the other years of the Great Recession. However, there was one two-year period when workers took 3 percent cuts in pay and in hours worked.
So far, only one lawmaker has weighed in on the subject of legislators’ pay. That was Sen. Sharon Nelson, the Democratic minority leader from Maury Island, who said raises would help ensure that the membership of the House and Senate reflect the “working class people” who make up the majority of the state’s population.
Nelson makes a fair point. But it’s also fair to ask what lawmakers themselves plan to do for the rest of the state workforce.
If pay raises are good enough for our elected officials, they must be good enough for the rank and file.