Politics & Government

Should state worker unions be allowed to donate to the governor’s campaign? GOP lawmakers say no

Gov. Jay Inslee talks about his 2017-2019 budget proposal in December. The Legislature is considering limits on political contributions to campaigns for governor.
Gov. Jay Inslee talks about his 2017-2019 budget proposal in December. The Legislature is considering limits on political contributions to campaigns for governor. toverman@theolympian.com

Republican lawmakers in Olympia may try to limit the political power of state employee unions as part of a deal to approve new raises for state workers.

GOP leaders who control the state Senate say they’re disturbed that unions that bargain with the state can donate money to candidates for governor, the official whose budget office oversees their contract negotiations, even while those salary talks are underway.

With that in mind, the state Senate approved a measure Tuesday that would prohibit state employee unions — as well as other groups that collectively bargain contracts with the state — from making donations to gubernatorial candidates.

“It has the appearance of corruption,” said Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, a former two-time candidate for governor who sponsored Senate Bill 5533.

The Senate, which is controlled by a conservative majority of 24 Republicans and one renegade Democrat, passed the bill on a 25-24 vote, with all members of the Democratic caucus voting no.

Senate leaders said they would like to see the measure pass the full Legislature if they are to approve labor contracts that would provide about $500 million in salary increases and benefits for state workers and publicly funded non-state employees, such as home health care workers.

The labor contracts negotiated last year by Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget office would award most state workers raises of roughly 6 percent over the next two years, the largest increases the state has negotiated with state employees since they first gained collective bargaining rights in 2004.

According to Washington law, state lawmakers are allowed only to approve the negotiated contracts in full, or reject them — a limitation that has long rankled Republican budget writers, who have been unhappy that state lawmakers aren’t more involved in setting the details of the contracts.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia and the lead Senate budget writer, said he’s not saying Inslee gave unions a favorable deal because he received donations from them last year — but outsiders looking in could easily get that impression.

“When the process is this nontransparent and presents this bad impression to the public, we need to fix it,” Braun said, adding it’s something lawmakers need to look at this year as they negotiate a new two-year budget.

Inslee has included money for the labor contracts in his proposed new two-year budget for 2017-19, along with an additional $230 million to extend similar benefits to state employees who aren’t part of a union.

The governor did receive donations directly from labor unions last summer around the time his budget office was negotiating the labor contracts, including $3,750 from Washington’s largest state employee union, the Washington Federation of State Employees.

Tim Welch, a spokesman for the union, said the group’s donations to Inslee didn’t affect last year’s contract negotiations, nor have they persuaded previous governors to cut state employee unions a break.

Welch said he thinks Rossi’s bill is motivated in part by Rossi’s failed gubernatorial campaigns, something Rossi denied. Rossi lost twice to former Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat.

“Dino Rossi proposed it, and he lost twice for governor, and we supported his opponent. Come on, what’s really going on there?” Welch said.

Senate Bill 5533 also would prohibit political action committees that receive money from state employee unions from donating to candidates for governor, unless the union money is separated and not directed toward those campaigns.

During the floor debate Tuesday, several Democrats said they would prefer to discuss broader campaign finance reform measures, including limiting the influence of corporations and dark money in politics.

“If we believe there are appearances of corruption, we should go across the board,” said Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, who suggested also limiting the political influence of corporations that receive tax breaks from the state.

Democrats who control the state House are unlikely to take kindly to the Rossi proposal, especially if it is being used as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations.

State Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane and the chief House budget writer, said he worries the bill amounts to a restriction on free speech.

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said the governor doesn’t actively participate in labor contract negotiations and isn’t in the room when they take place.

In an email, Smith said the governor’s budget office “negotiates these contracts based on what’s needed to recruit and maintain qualified employees, period.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209