The Columbian published an editorial today arguing against Gov. Chris Gregoire's half-penny sales tax, which she proposed earlier this week. The paper's central objection? State employees need to make more concessions.
Three weeks ago, Gregoire asked state-employee unions to again renegotiate their contracts, as provided for in times of economic emergency. This follows last year’s reworking of public-employee contracts, a negotiation in which Gregoire asked state workers to pay 25 percent of their health-insurance premiums, then settled at 15 percent — an increase from the previous 12 percent.
That was a significant sacrifice for public employees, but it appears inadequate when we consider that state support for higher education has been cut in half over the past three years — cuts that are mostly passed along to the public in the form of tuition increases. With K-12 funding largely protected by the state constitution, higher education has taken the brunt of budget cuts over the past couple years, and those are cuts that will be felt for generations in the form of a less-educated workforce.
Other state employees, much like the private sector, have suffered. But our leaders still have insisted upon treating reductions in their benefits as an afterthought, as a measure of last resort, as a tackling of union backers that are too big and powerful to beat.
Until Gregoire can demonstrate that state employees have sacrificed at a level commensurate with private employees, any request for a tax increase is a nonstarter.
Studies comparing private-sector benefits and wages to public-sector compensation are all over the map, though the Bureau of Labor Statistics found federal employees make 26.3 percent less than private-sector workers on average.
Gregoire addressed the issue of state workers head on during her Monday press conference. In fact, the back-and-forth with the AP reporter who asked her why "voters should be willing to sacrifice ... when state workers aren't willing to do the same" provided some great theater as Gregoire "went rogue" (as one spokesman put it), left the lectern to grab a poster board chart that was leaning against the wall behind her and hauled it out, snarling,"Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I don't know how you can say that."
Then she set the poster on an easel and pointed to a pie chart laying out the $10 billion in cuts that state government has made during the last three years. "Look at this. Look at this. Ten and a half billion dollars, y'all. Where is the biggest cut? Twenty-six percent of that has come from K-12. Nineteen percent of that has come from K-12 employee compensation. We can't assume they haven't stepped up. They have stepped up. But at some point, you need to understand, you have to have people do the job. You have to have people do the job."
She's right about that: Cuts to state employee and K-12 compensation-related budget items totaled about $2 billion the past three years, or about 19 percent of the total $10.4 billion in reductions, the second biggest target. (The figure drops to about $1.3 billion if you don't count the fact that the state has ignored I-732, the voter-approved measure that mandated cost-of-living increases for teachers.)
Along with pension changes, furloughs, and scuttled bonuses, the cuts include direct salary reductions—such as a $180 million hit to K-12 employees and a three percent cut, $180 million, for state employees.
They have given on their benefits, they have given on their pension, they have given on their salaries. They have done furloughs. And yet, and yet, they are constantly being bashed about the head and shoulders. No one says thank you for them doing the work that no one else can and no one else will. They do the work. That's what's going on in state government. It's time for us to step up and understand if we want protection, we need parole officers. If we want to educate our kids, we need teachers. And we can't afford to undermine the very fabric of our state.
Gregoire did note her exasperation that the state workers' health care union did not agree to reopen negotiations over health care benefits. "They're not coming to the table, and I can't force them to the table. There's no tool that a governor has to force them to come to the table. I asked them [unions] to come and they didn't. But I can't force them."
Last year, Gregoire hammered out a contract that upped state workers' share of premiums from 12 to 15 percent. She had originally wanted 25.Without the union, she can't change that 85/15 agreement, but she can change the amount that the state pays into the monthly worker health care plan—and her emergency budget proposes to do just that (without the union's consent) which she noted during her two-minute diatribe.
She's lowering the state’s monthly payment from $850 per employee to $825, saving the state $16 million. She believes she can lower the monthly commitment without changing the negotiated split because “utilization rates” have gone down. (Washington Federation of State Employees spokesman Tim Welch scoffs at Gregoire's reasoning, speculating that employees aren’t going to the doctor as much lately because their costs have already risen.)
Go to the 37-minute mark here to watch Gregoire explode.
There comes a time when you say --- because I'm going to lay of another 1,500 based on this budget---there comes a time when you say, what more? When the workload is bigger, when they're having to deliver the same level of services with less staff, when they've seen the seat next to them vacant, when they've gone on furlough … they're paying more for pensions, they're paying more for health care. I asked them to come to the table with me on health care and they said no. I understand that.
WFSE contributed $3,200 to Gregoire's last election. They did not contribute to her opponent Dino Rossi.