State Workers

Senate approves furloughs

Job furloughs for about one-quarter of the state government work force remained a piece of the majority Democrats' proposed budget solution Tuesday. The Senate approved a bill calling for 10 furlough days on a 30-11 vote, with the days to occur between July 2010 and June 2011.

Democrats have written Substitute Senate Bill 6503 to save nearly $50 million in state general fund spending on payroll over the next 15 months. The measure now goes back to the House, which previously rejected specified furlough dates in favor of general reductions in payroll done agency by agency to meet savings targets.

The two chambers also differ on how much new money to put into state workers’ health care plans to cover the effects of inflation on premiums.

Two Democratic lawmakers voted against the furloughs: Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County, whose district is full of state employees, and Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, who said a furlough bill should be structured to better shield low-paid workers.

Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield objected to the furlough approach, saying it would micromanage agencies. He appeared to side with the House’s approach, saying lawmakers should dictate the amount of savings, then “let labor and government go figure it out.” He said the furloughs are a temporary solution to a state budget problem that is not temporary.

“All this does is save a few bucks for the next 12-15 months,” Zarelli said.

One amendment offered by Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, would add nursing-home inspectors and surveyors to the list of exempted employees (State Patrol line workers, other public-safety workers, state revenue-collection workers and liquor store employees already are exempted). Another amendment would exempt student workers in higher education from the cuts, and another required $20 million of pay cuts from workers in the Washington Management Services corps.

An amendment from Sen. Joe McDermott, D-West Seattle, would put the governor’s budget staffers at the Office of Financial Management and labor-relations negotiators into the column of those required to take time off without pay.

Under the revised bill, general-government agencies in the executive branch could submit separate plans to Financial Management for achieving their proportionate share of the cuts and to set dates for workers to take time off. The bill also would let workers earning less than $30,000 a year use annual leave or shared leave to cover their pay in lieu of a temporary layoff.

As before, the layoffs would be subject to bargaining with agency unions to ensure the job reductions are doable.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said the two chambers have traded two substantial budget offers on each side, and it is “possible” the House ultimately would agree to a furlough approach more similar to the Senate’s. But she was unable to say whether it is probable.

In a related matter of interest to state employees, the budget negotiators are dealing with the furlough and worker health insurance payments as separate issues, Kessler said.

House Democrats face mutiny on the issue from South Sound lawmakers. Rep Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, said he intends to re-introduce his amendment that would require state lawmakers to cut their per diem expense reimbursements by whatever amount state employees lose in pay from furloughs.

Williams sent out an e-mail that noted the $90-a-day expense allowance for lawmakers already is larger than the $86.64-a-day starting wage for a laundry worker in state veterans homes.

“If legislators believe such workers can sacrifice a paid day of work a month, then they can damn well sacrifice themselves,” he wrote.

On a separate bill that has implications for state workers, the House also approved a bill moving the Department of Printing to the Department of Information Services. The bill also requires a number of efficiencies, and the whole change is supposed to save about $3 million. That is less than many Republicans and Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom wanted to save by abolishing the printer agency and selling off its assets.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688