Granted, the Dow is up 12 percent in October and headed for its greatest one-month gain in almost a quarter of a century (January 1987). But you won’t find Chris Gregoire packing any confetti bags, and legislators remain as gloomy as the governor.
Recent Dow gains speak to the distant past and a hoped-for recovery of the distant future. But the critical concerns of our state government speak to the present. Projected revenue for the 2011-13 biennium has declined and a $2 billion reduction in state spending must be formulated when legislators convene in special session in late November. That’s on top of $4.6 billion in cuts signed into law earlier this year.
Gov. Gregoire did the right thing Wednesday when she asked state-employee unions to renegotiate contracts, as allowed in emergencies. After all, we can think of no greater emergency for legislative budget-writers than the lingering economic crisis. Her announced goal was modest and clearly in line with what is seen in the private sector. It’s also needed by state workers to protect funding of their own beleaguered departments. Gregoire wants state workers to pay 25 percent of their health-insurance premium instead of the current 15 percent. That would save the state $52 million over the biennium. Last year, Gregoire wanted a 26 percent contribution; the contract finally settled on 15 percent, up from 12 percent.
But later on Wednesday, the Washington Federation of State Employees rejected Gregoire’s request. This is not surprising, but it’s aggravating considering draconian cuts occurring elsewhere in state government. Take higher education, for example. University of Washington President Michael K. Young wrote in a letter Thursday: “Over the past three years, state funding for the University of Washington has been cut in half.” That is difficult to explain in a state that aspires to increase high-paying jobs. “Despite 20 percent reductions in administrative budgets, over $30 million saved through greater efficiencies, and nearly 1,000 job losses, the UW has had to increase tuition steeply and limit access to the University in order to balance its budget. These choices are not sustainable,” Young correctly concluded.
It gets worse. Young adds that additional cuts prescribed by Gregoire on Wednesday in her preliminary budget would represent “a loss of two thirds of our public funding in the past three years.” At Washington State University, President Elson Floyd is no less alarmed: “This disinvestment in our future generations undermines the future of Washington state,” he astutely observed.
Other possible reductions include eliminating the Basic Health plan (medical care for the poor), cutting medical services to 21,000 disabled people and reducing funding in public education, supposedly Washington’s “paramount duty,” according to the state constitution.
Why, then, do state employee unions refuse to increase their health insurance contribution from 15 percent to 25 percent? They cite a 3 percent decrease in pay and a 3 percent increase in health care premium share, plus “significant furloughs and oppressively high workloads.” In the case of those first two changes, each amounting to 3 percent, we believe Young and Floyd would robustly cheer reductions of that magnitude at their universities.
As for furloughs and workloads, those problems have been exacerbated in part by the unions’ refusal to renegotiate contracts. True, contracts should be honored. But in emergencies, they should be renegotiated. And remember another type of contract, the social contract that compels Washingtonians to value education and take care of vulnerable citizens who are not equipped to take care of themselves.