State Workers

Furlough bill moves on to Senate

Majority Democrats narrowly approved a state-worker furloughs bill Friday, brushing aside objections that it requires only one in four state workers to take 10 unpaid days off in the next year.

The measure, which is aimed at saving $45 million in general operating costs and at least $75 million from other funds, now goes to the Senate for approval of House amendments. The bill is considered likely to pass before the April 13 deadline for the 30-day special session, because the Senate also is banking on the savings, which in effect trim many workers’ pay by about 3.8 percent.

Labor unions fought the measure, and allies including Democratic Reps. Brendan Williams and Sam Hunt tried to delay the vote, arguing it was premature. Williams and Hunt wanted to see how much state workers must sacrifice in the form of higher health care premiums once the supplemental budget is completed in the next week.

“I think the bill is a bad idea,” Hunt said in a floor speech in which he noted that state workers already are paying about $1,100 more out of pocket for health care this year because of last year’s budget cuts. “It makes some state employees more equal than others.”

It took Democrats all day before pressure from House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, delivered the crucial missing votes for passage. But the intra-party skirmish was only a small part of the longer-running battle between House and Senate Democrats to write a budget and come up with $800 million in new revenue to avoid deeper cuts.

The final tally was 50-38, with five Democrats and all Republicans present voting against it; the 10 absent lawmakers included Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, and Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis.

Democrats turned back several Republican amendments, including one from Rep. Mike Armstrong of Wenatchee to reopen state-worker contracts and cut all employees’ pay by 1.75 percent.

An amendment from Rep. Charles Ross of Naches would have saved between $9 million and $22.3 million by requiring all workers to give up one floating holiday.

But those changes required lawmakers to reopen contracts with about 25 unions that Gov. Chris Gregoire bargained with last year. Democrats have refused to open that door, which could lead to even more take-backs of benefits and pay.

Also rejected was Williams’ amendment to lop lawmakers’ own expense reimbursements in the same proportion as the mandatory worker layoffs are expected to hit legislative staffers – costing them potentially more than $1,000 each next year.

The “per diem” expenses amendment failed, and Williams initially failed to win a roll call vote on it because only 13 members stood to demand one. Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera of Camas was among those who argued that lawmakers should share in the pain but did not stand to insist on the recorded vote. Hunt and Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County did stand with Williams.

Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, criticized the cuts as punishing workers for a financial crisis they are not to blame for, and he suggested lawmakers look harder at closing more of the 150 tax exemptions he said have been approved since 2001.

Devereux also said the federation might sue to overturn the law if some state workers are subjected to layoffs while others similarly situated are not.

As passed by the House, the furlough bill would exempt employees in the departments of Corrections, Health and Revenue; the Attorney General’s Office; liquor-store workers; those in public-safety roles such as state troopers; classroom instructors at universities; and fee-supported workers. It would let agencies come up with alternative plans for reaching the savings targets but also would set 10 days from July 2010 to June 2011 when layoffs must be taken if agencies don’t approve plans.

The bill also would let workers earning $30,000 or less a year use vacation leave or shared sick leave to avoid the pay cuts.

Democratic Rep. Pat Sullivan of Covington said it is a fair way to spread the burden of budget cuts. He also rejected Williams’ push to cut lawmakers’ expense funds, saying the House already cut its expenses by 10 percent when it reduced the allotment from $100 a day to $90 last year.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688