State Workers

Labor at odds with state plans

Labor groups took shots Tuesday at a Senate proposal to shutter many state agencies and functions one day a month to save state payroll costs over a 16-month period.

Sen. Margarita Prentice, the Senate Ways and Means chairwoman and sponsor of Senate Bill 6503, said she is undeterred and will move ahead with a committee vote on the measure soon. It could save $92 million in general-fund spending, $158 million overall, amid a $2.6 billion budget shortfall.

“I don’t know how we can avoid it. The situation is truly a genuine crisis, and they knew it. That’s why they didn’t give us more hell than they did,’’ Prentice said after the hearing. “We are in a horrible situation, and everyone has to pitch in.’’

One critic was Greg Devereux, the executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, who said state employees lost 4 percent in expected pay increases last year when agreed-to contracts from 2008 were tossed aside. Workers also saw less state money contributed to pensions and higher out-of-pocket costs for health care, so the additional furloughs would expand their pay losses to about 9 percent, Devereux said.

He warned that the furloughs could prompt court action, as other states’ furlough efforts have, including California’s. He instead recommends lawmakers look at an “easily accessible” $14 billion in tax exemptions, part of the $96 billion in transactions and assets that state tax codes exempt.

Republican Sen. Joseph Zarelli of Ridgefield disputed the idea that withdrawn pay increases represent a pay cut. But he criticized the bill because it did not make permanent reductions in state costs that would help with an expected budget gap in 2011-13.

Democratic Sen. Karen Keiser of Kent said she would want to exempt line workers who earn less pay, putting the furlough onus on those with more job flexibility and pay.

Among those testifying against the bill were university staffers from several colleges, who said it would be difficult to implement the bill, which is aimed at keeping classrooms open while staffers not essential to class instruction take time off. Terry Teale of the Council of Presidents, representing university presidents, asked lawmakers to let the institutions manage the cuts.

Jim Jesernig, representing a wheat growers association and other commodities boards, said those kinds of self-supported organizations should be exempt from the furloughs, and he warned that they need timely inspections to ship products.

Prentice intends to move a second measure, SB 6382, out of committee soon. It would extend the freeze on state employee pay raises from its Feb. 18 expiration to June 30, 2011. It also would extend a ban on cash awards for performance, which amounted to almost $2 million in 2008.

In related efforts, the House Ways and Means Committee heard comments on Proposed Substitute House Bill 2921. It would enact about $56 million in cuts, including $46.7 million in state general-fund programs.

Democratic Rep. Kelli Linville of Bellingham, who serves as the committee’s chairwoman and introduced the bill, said it would enact many of the cuts Gov. Chris Gregoire put into motion early last summer with an executive order to agencies.

The cuts are smaller than what House Democrats originally looked at, but they wanted cuts that would prove not so controversial, allowing quicker action, Linville said. There are a few things Gregoire sought to cut that the House isn’t going along with, such as the “Treehouse” program giving services to foster children, which Rep. Ruth Kagi has objected to, Linville said.

“We write the budget. We need to say if we agree or don’t agree with the governor on cutting the budget,’’ she said.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688