Editorials

Senate may be open to state worker contracts – with conditions

Anyone who thinks the Washington Senate’s opposition to labor contracts giving pay raises to state employees was cast in stone — or just a scurrilous attack on labor — may want to reconsider.

Whatever the motivations were in the GOP’s original budget proposal, the top Senate budget writer, Sen. Andy Hill (R-Redmond), indicated last week that he is open to funding contracts for state employees that would assure cost-of-living pay adjustments for the first time since 2008.

Of course, Hill said, there are conditions — or things his Senate Majority Coalition Caucus would want in exchange as talks resume today in the Legislature’s special session. Hill suggested that changes in collective bargaining policy may smooth the way to Senate acceptance of the pacts. These cost some $440 million from the state general fund if all are accepted.

Hill’s suggestions for compromise? One is that labor negotiations held behind closed doors could be opened to outsiders — perhaps lawmakers — for additional view. We’ve been in favor previously of more open negotiations — particularly after last year’s talks between Thurston County and its jail staffers led to a long stalemate and uncertainty about opening the new jail.

But we’re mindful there are risks with a wide open process letting the public in. Hill is talking about something more circumscribed.

So it wouldn’t necessarily mean a televised game show atmosphere with suddenly politicized negotiators constantly looking up at TV cameras before every utterance.

Hill said that legislators, or other outsiders, brought in to witness talks might not be allowed to talk publicly about what they saw in negotiations until after talks were concluded.

If so, that’s an avenue Democrats in the House should explore with the Senate GOP in trying to break through the wall of silence that lately has divided the chambers on tax and spending issues.

Until now, the Senate GOP has flatly resisted paying for contracts. Sen. Hill’s first budget proposal rejected the contracts and suggested giving every general government worker a $1,000 per year raise.

We ridiculed that proposal for good reason — it would be illegal under collective bargaining for lawmakers to impose rates of pay. Hill’s since regrouped, saying he was really offering a smaller pot of money than the contracts required — and it would have been enough for the $1,000 raises.

Whatever.

There is a practical reason — obvious to us, anyway — why Hill might be sounding a different tune.

There is uncertainty whether the Senate has votes to pass a budget that doesn’t pay for the contracts. Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, and others may not vote for such a budget, giving the Democratic minority enough support to block its passage or attach an amendment.

Labor groups often reject any changes in the collective bargaining rules, but they should find the patience to listen this time. While there are many good reasons to negotiate in privacy, the refusal to let the public know what has happened in closed-door negotiations — even after talks are concluded — invites questions and suspicion.

Hill also talked of giving the public a chance to weigh in on contracts. How this can be done without major amendments to the collective bargaining process remains to be seen, and Hill did not elaborate.

House Democrats should encourage the Senate and Hill to put down the rest of their cards and explain them. The parties might discover some common ground they haven’t considered before.

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