Zarelli bill seeks to reject collective bargaining pact

Ridgefield senator wants state workers to return to table

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State Sen. Joe Zarelli introduced a bill in the Legislature Wednesday that would reject the collective bargaining agreement Gov. Chris Gregoire reached with state employees in December and urge both sides to return to the bargaining table.

Senate Bill 5870 declares that the Legislature lacks the funds to implement the negotiated settlement and says the agreement denies budget-writers “the necessary flexibility to properly prioritize competing needs within the budget.”

Unlike a bill Zarelli introduced earlier in the session, SB 5870 does not call for restricting or eliminating state workers’ bargaining rights.

The state’s top priorities during the current fiscal crisis should be providing for the education of children, preserving critical safety net programs, and protecting the state’s natural resources, the bill declares. Therefore, it says, the Legislature “rejects the governor’s request for funds necessary to implement the compensation and fringe benefit provisions of all collective bargaining agreements agreed to by the governor prior to March 1, 2011,” for the 2011-13 budget cycle.

The bill’s eight co-sponsors include Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom, who incurred his party’s wrath last year when he voted against his own caucus’s budget and the $800 million tax package to pay for it.

“It all comes down to dollars,” Tom said. “Seventy percent of what we do in government is personnel.”

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, “will not hear the bill,” said Jeff Reading, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown. The measure has been referred to the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.

So if it’s likely dead on arrival, why introduce it?

Zarelli, a Ridgefield Republican and the ranking Republican on Ways and Means, insists he’s not grandstanding.

“‘I’ve been saying since the governor got the agreement that it’s problematic,” he told The Columbian. “It creates a $400 million bow wave. We need something more permanent.”

Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, said Zarelli appears to be invoking a clause in the state’s 2002 collective bargaining law that says if the Legislature or the governor declares a financial emergency, the parties must resume bargaining and renegotiate their contracts.

“Basically, that is what the governor did in 2008,” Welch said. “The difference this year is that the governor agrees with us on the general government contract. We’re puzzled how a contract that has pay cuts and higher health care costs can be financially unfeasible. This is a contract that saves $330 million.”

About 74 percent of the state’s 64,000 general government employees are represented by unions.

Welch said he takes Zarelli’s legislative volley seriously, given attacks on the collective bargaining rights of public employees in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.

“I think with the events in the Midwest, we have our guard up,” he said. “I don’t think the Zarellis of the world are going to let this die.”

“It has nothing to do with the rights of workers,” Tom countered. “It’s clearly within the confines of the (state’s collective bargaining law) that you can reopen contract negotiations at times of financial crisis. If we’re not in a financial crisis now, I don’t know how you would ever define a financial crisis.”

State budget director Marty Brown defended the contract.

“State employees have agreed to make significant sacrifices during the next biennium, through salary reductions and by assuming a larger share of their health care costs,” he said in a statement. “Those sacrifices come on top of significant reductions already imposed on state employees during the current fiscal year — such as having to take as many as 12 unpaid furlough days.”

Brown said the governor’s biennial budget assumes nearly $329 million in savings resulting from “hard-fought negotiations with state employee groups” and reductions to nonrepresented employees.

“If the Legislature were to reject the contracts, there is no guarantee we would be able to reach new agreements, and the state’s ability to realize the savings from these negotiations would be jeopardized,” he said.

A spokesman for Gregoire said her office was still reviewing the legislation and would have no immediate comment.

Under the agreement Gregoire reached with the federation in December, the union agreed to increase members’ contributions to their health care premiums from 12 percent to 15 percent. The governor had sought a 26 percent contribution from workers. Union negotiators also agreed to accept a 3 percent pay cut for members in the form of additional furlough days beginning July 1.

But Zarelli’s bill declares that several provisions of the agreement conflict with the need to fund vital state programs, including:

• Capping workers’ contribution to their health care premiums at 15 percent, “well below the private sector average.” The typical employee in Washington contributes 27 percent of his or her health premium costs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

• Step salary increases, which the bill says could give thousands of state employees raises of up to 5 percent annually over the next two-year budget cycle.

• Limitations on how health benefits are designed, which could stymie innovation and the ability to reduce the costs of health care delivery.

• Temporary salary reductions that don’t carry savings forward into future budget cycles.

• The ability to cash out sick leave, which “costs the state budget millions of dollars at a time when those funds could be put to more urgent uses.”

The 2002 Civil Service Reform Act gives the governor exclusive authority to bargain with state employee unions, but the state constitution gives the power of appropriations to the Legislature, Zarelli said, and the 2002 statute requires the Legislature to take an up-or-down vote on the labor agreement.

The state faces a $5.7 billion budget deficit in 2011-13, and that gap could grow, Zarelli said.

“What we know is that when we get the next revenue forecast, we will be another $500 million in the hole,” he said. “The options are difficult. A big part of the growth we’ve seen is in benefits to state employees. All I’m suggesting is that they reconsider.”

If the Legislature fails to ratify the contract, the union’s existing contract, which is scheduled to expire June 30, would remain in effect for one year.

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.