Politics & Government

UPDATED: Senate budget cuts state-worker pay by 3% in April

About 16,200 state employees not represented by unions would see their pay cut by 3 percent in April under the pending Senate budget plan that cleared the chamber's Ways and Means Committee late today [Thursday] on a voice vote with one Republican dissenter.

[Updates below to show final vote count and quote governor's budget director about potential computer costs outweighing benefits of earlier pay cuts.]

The pay-cut move would save about $3.4 million in general fund spending and $8 million in all accounts in the supplemental budget through June, part of a $394 million in cuts and fund transfers to close a $600 million short-term deficit.

The move, in effect, moves up cuts that Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed for workers covered by two-year union contracts that begin July 1, for unions that endorse them and lawmakers agree. Gregoire has wanted those cuts to be extended to about 90 percent of state employees in July to save more than $300 million over the two-year budget that faces a larger shortfall. (There are more than 100,000 state employees overall including higher education institutions.)

Senate Ways and Means chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said the idea came from several Republicans and Democrats.

"Our approach is, these are not decisions that in a better economic environment we would have chosen to take. But as we're cutting schools, as we're cutting people off health care and higher education, we felt we should cut more from state employees,’’ Murray said after the committee vote.

Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1086 should get a floor vote in the Senate tomorrow [Friday], Murray said after the committee vote. Only Republican Sen. Cheryl Pflug of Maple Valley voiced opposition.

Update: After the voice vote, two Republican senators, Michael Baumgartner of Spokane and Janea Holmquist Newbry of Moses Lake, signed in against the measure and Pflug did not indicate a position, even though she was the lone member to voice objections during the committee meeting. The final committee vote on the bill was 17-2.

In her comments to the committee, Pflug said she objected to cuts in funds to reduce class sizes in K-4 public schools and to what she felt was a closed budget process that mainly involved caucus leaders in negotiations.

Murray disputed that claim, saying the committee used new working groups that involved more lawmakers in discussions.

Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, urged fellow lawmakers to support the overall budget plan as a good step that he would have liked to have done quicker and earlier.

Despite the bipartisan support for the bill, it's possible the earlier pay cuts could run afoul of Gov. Gregoire, if not House Democrats. Gregoire has said previously that she did not push for additional pay cuts in the supplemental budget because state employees were already giving enough, and she believed it was wrong to ask for more from overworked employees already taking furloughs.

The proposed new cuts do exempt some employees. Most appear to be covered by certain contracts. One Senate bill summary described it like this:

Elected officials, State Troopers, and the employees of institutions of higher education, the State Printer, and the Marine Division of the Department of Transportation are exempt from the reduction. Calculations of final average compensation for the purposes of pension benefits are to be adjusted so that pension amounts are not affected.

We'll hear more tomorrow if the vote doesn’t get tangled with a more partisan dispute over cutting unemployment insurance rates for businesses and extending benefits for workers that have exhausted their 26-week coverage.

For background on the budget bill, here is a big-picture summary of Murray and Zarelli's amended version of Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1086 as it stood before today’s amendments. Here is a link to agency by agency details. And here is the budget bill in the version it was heard yesterday. And here is our story about the measure from this morning’s paper and links here and here to blog posts on the 2011 supplemental budget.

More up-to-date details on the amended bill should be available on this page before long.

Update: State budget director Marty Brown said the pay-cut moves might cost more than they save. "I don't think we can do it in the first place. It takes about $5 million of computer changes to save about $3 million" in the general fund, Brown said last evening. He also said that Gregoire doesn't understand making a distinction between represented and non-represented employees, asking one group to take a pay cut and not another.