State workers, police and firefighter pensions lose in the Senate GOP budget

It’s not the first time Senate Republicans have proposed rejecting negotiated pay increases for state workers, while offering flat annual raises that would be cheaper.

And just like before, alternate raises aren’t something lawmakers have the power to impose.

Leaders of the Senate majority have proposed saving the state about $250 million in the next two years by rejecting most of the labor contracts Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s office negotiated with 38 employee unions last summer. The plan from GOP leaders instead would offer workers flat annual raises of $500 each of the next two years.

But the state’s collective bargaining laws only let the Legislature approve labor contracts negotiated with state employees in full, or reject them entirely. Lawmakers can’t alter them, something that has irked Republicans for years.

“They have to vote the contracts up or down,” wrote Nick Brown, Inslee’s general counsel, in an email Friday. Lawmakers “can’t simply mandate their proposal.”

Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, said the GOP proposal would violate the state’s collective bargaining laws.

“To dictate the terms of negotiations is blatantly illegal,” said Welch, whose organization is the largest union of Washington state employees.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, say the flat annual raises included in their budget are just a suggestion that could help guide a new round of labor negotiations.

The contracts negotiated by Inslee’s budget office are projected to cost the state $500 million during the upcoming two-year budget cycle. If approved, the agreements would award most state employees cost-of-living raises of about 6 percent over two years, along with targeted increases for some workers in hard-to-fill jobs, such as at Western State Hospital in Lakewood.

John Braun, the Senate’s lead budget writer, said he is frustrated with the cost of this year’s collective bargaining agreements, the largest the state has ever negotiated with employee unions.

“We are completely free to offer funding toward a renegotiated agreement and offer suggestions,” said Braun, R-Centralia. “And that’s what you see in our budget.”

If the Legislature rejects the contracts, the unions would go back to the negotiating table with the governor’s budget office, and hammer out new collective bargaining agreements.

Negotiators wouldn’t be bound by the amount of money the Legislature includes in its budget, though.

Republican leaders, who control the Senate with the aid of one conservative Democrat, proposed something similar two years ago.

In 2015, they suggested giving workers flat annual raises of $1,000 each of the next two years to save money. Ultimately, the plan was abandoned, and lawmakers approved the state worker contracts as they were originally negotiated.

The Senate GOP budget would also save $109 million over two years by cutting the state’s contribution to police and firefighter pension plans. Now, the state pays 20 percent of contributions to the Law Enforcement Officers and Fire Fighters (LEOFF) Plan 2, while local governments pay 30 percent. The other half comes from employee contributions.

Under the Senate plan, the state would no longer contribute 20 percent, and the pension costs would be evenly split between local governments and the police and firefighters they employ.

Candice Bock, a lobbyist for the Association of Washington Cities, said the $109 million the state is saving would just be pushed onto local governments.

“The pension piece cannot be reduced, so they’re going to have to find that money elsewhere,” she said. “Maybe they’ve got it in their reserve fund, or they’re going to have to make cuts in their general fund to make that up.”

Police groups are concerned, too.

“What do you do — do you decrease training, do you not hire to fill vacant positions?” asked Carl Nelson, the executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs. “The potential outcomes are not good.”

Braun said other public employee pension plans are split 50-50 between the government that employs them and employees.

He said the state needs to be mindful of its money as it works to comply with a 2012 order to fully fund public schools, as well as provide competitive pay to troopers at the Washington State Patrol. Many troopers in recent years have left for more lucrative jobs working at local law enforcement agencies, State Patrol officials have said.

“When you have the state paying 20 percent at the same time many of our cities and counties are recruiting away our state patrolmen because they can pay way more, it cuts both ways,” Braun said.

“Why are we footing the bill for the folks that are recruiting away our good people?” he said.

The contract for State Patrol employees is one of the only labor agreements funded in the Senate budget.

Another pension-related measure in the GOP budget proposal would pay down about $700 million in unfunded pension liability associated with the Public Employees’ Retirement System 1 plan.

Making that payment now will save the state about $1.4 billion in actuarial costs over the next 10 years, Braun said, without increasing costs to cities and counties.

BY MELISSA SANTOS; msantos@thenewstribune.com

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