State worker collective bargaining agreements: Would the Legislature balk at funding?

The headline question – would the Legislature balk at funding the negotiated state collective bargaining agreements? – is perhaps unanswerable at the moment. But it’s likely to again be an issue when lawmakers return to Olympia in January, as we wrote here.

The News Tribune reports on the cost of the CBAs and the budget challenge ahead.

But at a time when Washington lawmakers are struggling to come up with billions to solve school-funding problems, the contracts’ $500 million price tag could be a tough sell in the Legislature.

The agreements ratified by the unions last week affect about 50,000 state employees, as well as 47,000 publicly funded non-state employees, said Ralph Thomas, a spokesman for Inslee’s Office of Financial Management.

If approved by the Legislature next year, the contracts would award the majority of the 50,000 state workers cost-of-living increases totaling roughly 6 percent over two years. Some employees would get additional targeted pay increases on top of the cost-of-living raises, Thomas said.

A senator likely to play a major role in the coming budget deliberations has questions, TNT reporter Melissa Santos writes.

State Sen. John Braun, a Centralia Republican who serves as the vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the cost of the contracts “has put us in a very difficult position” given the challenges the state is facing to fully fund schools.

“It’s about $500 million per biennium in general fund (money), but in total, it’s about $1 billion,” Braun said of the contracts, referencing the total effect on other accounts like the transportation budget, as well as federal funds.

“It’s a ton of money, I don’t know where it all comes from,” he said.

The story reports state budget director David Schumacher’s statement that the agreements are “fair and equitable,” providing state agencies “more tools for recruiting and retaining employees in today’s competitive economy.” 

And another key senator agrees the raises are justified.

State Sen. Karen Fraser, an Olympia Democrat who sits on the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations, disagreed, saying many workers are recovering from years of no raise or temporary pay cuts they took during the economic recession.

“I think having state employees do some form of catch-up with their underpayment of wages is really a huge priority,” she said.

Sen. Braun’s hometown newspaper editorially shares his concerns and offers a suggestion.

As the state emerges from the Great Recession, there are indeed good reasons for boosting pay for workers who have seen their wages frozen during years of financial challenges. The State Patrol, included in the proposed raises, deserves to see additional pay on par with those of their colleagues in other agencies. That’s a sentiment the Legislature has already codified in legislation approved last year. 

Still, it’s yet another reminder of the potential value in opening the state union negotiations beyond the Governor’s own budget office. The involvement of the public, and members of the Republican party, would provide a greater ability to reach a mutual compromise that would create a smoother road for the proposals during the upcoming legislative session. 

Add this to the list of items to be resolved in the closing hours of what’s expected to be a long, challenging budget session.