State Workers

Furlough vote readied

A move to shut down state agencies one day a month and give state workers furloughs to save money is on its way to an expected quick passage in the state Senate as soon as today.

A revised version of Substitute Senate Bill 6503 cleared the Senate Ways and Means Committee on a party-line vote Thursday, setting up a vote on the Senate floor.

Greg Devereux, the executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, derided the bill and warned in an interview that Democrats are playing with electoral fire. If unions sit out the 2010 elections, results could be similar to what happened when many did in 1994, the year Republicans stormed into control of the House.

Devereux wants lawmakers to repeal tax exemptions instead of cutting into worker pay. He said in an interview that union leaders are talking about running a citizen initiative that would “furlough” state tax exemptions once a month – in effect causing a once-a-month tax increase across the board on different interests.

He also warned that it would be “political suicide” for Democrats to shut down agencies, hitting workers with additional 5 percent pay cuts after already voiding 4 percent pay raises and boosting workers’ health care payments. Devereux recalled how labor did not campaign vigorously in 1994.

“State workers are not going to stand by and take it. … And I think a substantial amount of the labor movement will be with us,” Devereux said.

But lawmakers such as Sen. Margarita Prentice, the Renton Democrat who authored the bill, say they have no choice in light of a $2.6 billion budget shortfall.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said Thursday that he thinks the furloughs bill is appropriate, although there are exemptions he would want to see in the bill. That makes it likely that some version of the furlough measure will pass.

Republicans led by Sen. Joe Zarelli want a tougher version of SSB 6503 than what ultimately passed the committee. Zarelli offered to extend the furloughs into mid-2013, but Democrats rejected that on a 13-9 vote.

SSB 6503 would save about $69.1 million in its revised form, which lets state agencies figure out when to shut their doors and how to reduce payroll through mandatory and voluntary furloughs and other means. Also passing out of committee and headed to the Senate is SB 6382, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal for freezing pay and ruling out performance- or longevity-based bonuses for nonunion workers.

The House plans votes today on its own $47 million “early action” cuts bill, which puts into law many of the cuts Gregoire is enacting through an executive order she issued early last summer.

The amended bill exempts more agencies from mandatory shutdowns – in addition to prisons, college classrooms, liquor stores and facilities that tend to the ill. It now exempts state lottery games, Department of Revenue tax collections, commodity commissions for agricultural products, the Harborview and University of Washington medical centers, and others.

Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina said the reason for letting agencies design their own furlough plans is to avoid having closures on days that harm the organization’s mission. He said, for instance, that museums might want a different day than Friday, which can be a high-revenue day for a museum but is specified in the bill for several of the monthly closures.

An alternative proposed by Democratic Sen. Phil Rockefeller would have saved more than $100 million and suspended a 21-day notice requirement for bargaining workplace changes with unionized personnel.

“I think everybody is better off if we act sooner. This is one way to let the collective-bargaining process go to work sooner,” Rockefeller said.

He ultimately withdrew his proposal after committee Chairwoman Prentice led her Democrats into a closed-door huddle. The Rockefeller proposal appeared to catch some Democrats by surprise, and Zarelli tried to offer it as an amendment. Democrats rejected it on a 13-9, party-line vote.

“We have to come to grips with whether we have a fiscal emergency or not,” said Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, urging quicker action.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688