Freedom Foundation

Senate Republicans Stand up to Government Unions

The Washington State Senate Majority Coalition Caucus this morning released its proposed budget for the 2017-19 biennium.

If enacted, the budget would reject funding for all but two of the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) negotiated by Gov. Jay Inslee and state employees’ unions last year. The Washington State Patrol CBA and the contract for Department of Corrections employees would both be funded as negotiated.

Instead, the Senate budget would grant state employees an across-the-board annual raise of $500 this year and another $500 raise in 2018, an approach reminiscent of the budget proposed by the Senate in 2015.

As negotiated, the CBAs would grant state employees 2 percent raises in 2017, 2018 and 2019, costing the state an additional $700 million in the next biennium and nearly $1.7 billion over the next four years.

The Senate argues its approach will save the state about $250 million this biennium. Additionally, by raising state employees’ pay by a fixed dollar amount instead of granting percentage-based pay raises, lower-paid state employees will see a larger increase in their pay relative to higher-paid workers, narrowing the income inequality that exists between state employees.

When asked about the funding of the CBAs at the press conference announcing the budget, Chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia) stated:

“When we looked at the collective bargaining agreements negotiated in secret by the governor during an election year, this is really a false choice between taking $1.7 billion dollars over the four-year balance off the table or having the money to invest in the priorities for the state. And I’m not saying that we don’t value our state employees, we just think that that’s a decision that should be done at the Legislature in the Legislative process.”

Sen. Braun also questioned the need for “unprecedented increases” in state employee pay “in an environment where our turnover rate—9.8 percent for the state of Washington—is considerably lower than the national average of 16 percent.”

He noted that, by funding the Department of Corrections and Washington State Patrol CBAs, the Senate budget invested in job classifications where high turnover is a legitimate problem and also pointed out other aspects of the Senate budget friendly to public employees:

“More broadly, we fund all the healthcare for all state employees, the increase in healthcare. We offer a $1,000 increase across-the-board for all state employees. We fully fund the pension system… So we think we’ve made some smart investments for compensation for our state employees.”

Sen. Dino Rossi (R-Sammamish), vice-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, reminded the audience that the Legislature determined the salary and benefits of state workers “from 1899 to 2004,” and it wasn’t until legislation passed in 2002 granted state employees collective bargaining rights and gave the executive branch primary power to set wages and benefits. Rossi also referenced the ongoing McCleary litigation, which resulted in the Washington State Supreme Court finding that the state was failing its “paramount duty” to amply fund basic education as required by the state constitution.

“Education is supposed to be the paramount duty—which means number one,” Rossi pointed out. “And on top of that, we all knew it was a McCleary session. So why was the first $1.7 billion out of the budget going for public employees? That’s the real question.”

In addition to proposing an alternate compensation plan for state employees, the Senate budget would end state funding for the controversial Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) at South Seattle College. The Freedom Foundation has called for an end to taxpayer funding for LERC since 2014 after uncovering how LERC works on behalf of labor groups like the Washington State Labor Council and Working Washington, engaged in unreported lobbying to increase its budget, and used state funds to participate in political protests.

When Senate Republicans proposed a similar budget in 2015, government unions went into full outrage mode, even arguing incoherently that the budget was “illegal.” It’s a safe bet they’ll do so again.

However, as the Freedom Foundation noted at the time, “It is high time to take the collective bargaining process off auto-pilot, out from behind closed doors and allow the elected Legislature to retake control over spending decisions. The Senate budget is a first step in that direction.”

Senate Majority Coalition Caucus Budget News Conference, Mar. 21, 2017: