Politics & Government

Court sides with governor on union pay raises

The state Supreme Court can't force a governor to budget for raises awarded to a public employee union, even though state law says the governor "must" include that money in her state spending proposal, justices ruled Thursday.

The court’s closely divided opinion is a victory for Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire. She was sued in late 2008 by the Service Employees International Union’s Local 775, which represents about 25,000 state contractors who provide in-home health care to people eligible for Medicaid.

The union, which is active in the state’s Democratic politics, was awarded pay and benefits increases worth more than $80 million in binding arbitration. But Gregoire refused to ask the Legislature to pay for those items when she suggested a new state budget in late 2008, citing a looming budget deficit.

In Thursday’s 5-4 decision, the state’s highest court said its power to order an executive’s actions couldn’t be unleashed on the governor’s budgeting decisions, because those choices involve political and policy judgments reserved for the elected official.

But even if the court had such power, majority justices said they wouldn’t have used it in this case, citing the uneven effect it could have in driving state spending away from other programs.

“The court may refuse to grant relief where private rights would be unwisely advanced at the expense of public interests,” Justice Jim Johnson wrote for the majority. “The recent severe economic difficulties faced by our state present circumstances dictating such judicial restraint.”

In a lengthy dissent, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said the majority not only misread the law, but clearly overstepped the boundaries separating state government’s three branches.

“The majority opinion means no less than that any governor may flout any law regarding any mandatory budget requirement and absolutely nothing can be done about it,” Madsen wrote. She was joined by justices Mary Fairhurst, Susan Owens and Richard Sanders.

A governor’s duty to budget for a union’s contract award is mandatory and ministerial under state law, regardless of any effects that decision may have on other areas of the budget, the dissenters said.

The minority also pointed out that a governor’s budget proposal is not binding, but merely a suggested blueprint that is subject to action by the Legislature and the governor’s own veto pen.

The majority’s assertion that it would have withheld a court order in any event was characterized by dissenters as “a declaration of power that this branch of government does not have.”

In a statement, Gregoire said she was pleased with the court’s decision.

“It is not in the interest of any of our citizens to start the difficult budget process with a proposal that neglects our true economic condition,” Gregoire said.

“Many people are being asked to make difficult sacrifices to ensure a smooth economic recovery.