Politics & Government

Republicans: State-worker contracts likely to be approved

Among the tens of thousands of Washington state employees hoping to see a cost-of-living increase for the first time since 2008 is child-support enforcement officer Patti Dailey-Shives.

“I’m actually taking home less now than I was in 2008,” after insurance and retirement contributions come out of her paycheck, Dailey-Shives said. She echoes the concerns of many state workers who say their pay has fallen behind.

Eight months after labor agreements with at least 50,000 state employees held out the prospect of raises, it remains no sure bet that the Legislature will fund the deals. But now a growing number of Senate Republicans are publicly predicting that the contracts negotiated by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration and public employee unions will be approved.

Even the GOP’s top budget writer has floated the idea of approving the contracts, although he wants to do so in exchange for changing the terms of future bargaining.

The uncertainty persists because 105 days wasn’t enough for lawmakers to resolve budget disputes, sending them into a special session now in its second week.

House Democrats wrote a budget that would raise taxes by nearly $1.5 billion over two years and that funds the contracts, giving most employees 3 percent raises in July and 1.8 percent raises a year later.

Senate Republicans called for no tax increases and proposed an alternative, smaller pay package that would give most workers flat $1,000 raises each of the next two years. The Legislature can’t impose that package on unions — only call for renegotiation. If administration and unions can’t agree on a new deal, the existing contracts and salaries would remain in place.

The alternative plan helps address income inequality by giving the lowest-paid workers proportionately larger raises, Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Andy Hill, its lead author, has said.

But it would make it harder to retain higher-paid workers such as in the medical fields, said Sharon Nelson, the Senate minority leader. Nelson, D-Maury Island, said the plan pits one group of workers against another in a scenario she compared with “Lord of the Flies.”

Republican Sens. Steve O’Ban of Tacoma, Mark Miloscia of Federal Way and Pam Roach of Auburn, predict the Legislature’s final budget will fund the contracts as negotiated. O’Ban said he “can’t conceive of a situation where we won’t” sign off on the contracts.

“It’s one of those hostages that will eventually get let go for some kind of minor concession,” Miloscia predicted.

The three Republicans stopped short of saying they would withhold their votes on the budget without approval of the contracts. A budget could not pass if any two of them joined with all 23 minority Democrats to oppose it in the 49-member Senate.

Hill, R-Redmond, said last month that Republicans would consider approving the contracts if Democrats agree to some changes in state policy on bargaining, such as making negotiations between unions and the governor’s labor-relations team more transparent.

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and the top House budget writer, said he is open to talking about the bargaining process, although not to adopting a Republican proposal to open up bargaining meetings to the public along the lines of what has been suggested by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

Hill suggested that transparency measures need not go that far and could include having a third party sitting at the bargaining table who could reveal details only after the negotiations are over.

“A closed-door deal with a major campaign contributor is really not a very open process,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said last week, referring to the unions.

The Legislature conducts budget negotiations behind closed doors. But Hill and Schoesler said that is a more transparent process because the public gets a chance to weigh in at hearings and watch committees meet in public to vote on budgets.

The prospect of funding the worker contracts raises a question for Dailey-Shives: “Where are they going to get the money, and what is going to suffer because of it?”

She wants more tax revenue, not spending cuts, as part of the deal. Dailey-Shives said she juggles more than 800 child-support cases at a time at her Tacoma office.

The negotiated raises are projected to cost the state general fund about $66 million more than the Senate budget plan. That price tag is a fraction of the overall budget of at least $37 billion. O’Ban said the relatively small difference in dollar figures is the reason the contracts will likely be approved.

Even without cost-of-living increases, most rank-and-file state employees have received longevity-based raises, while many managers have received raises since a pay freeze ended in mid-2013.