King County Council member Kathy Lambert (elected as a Republican in the pre-"nonpartisan" days) rolled out a package of new labor policies yesterday that would cut costs by reducing employee benefits. Lambert's proposal would eliminate the annual two percent minimum cost-of-living adjustment for county employees; require labor contracts to include a "reopener" clause for years when county revenue is flat or negative; increase employee contributions to health care costs; eliminate step increases; reduce wages and salaries; and impose furloughs, which are slated for elimination in 2010.

Already, Lambert says, the council has cut $150 million from King County's $621 million general fund; next year, the county faces an additional $60 million shortfall. "Either we’re going to have to lay a lot more people off because we’ve cut everything else, or we're going to have to have the employees work with us to make some concessions so that we can afford to keep them," Lambert says. "If there was any fat [in the budget] before, it's gone."

However, union members have been cool to any proposed concessions. Dustin Frederick, cochair of the King County Labor Coalition, says agreeing to Lambert's proposal—which must be approved by the unions—would be tantamount to giving up all bargaining rights. "From a collective bargaining standpoint, we would view this type of ordinance as almost a refusal to bargain," Frederick says.

"When we have a lack of funds [at the county] we lay people off. As opposed to using that tool, Kathy wouldprefer to lower or limit the overall compensation package for employees," Frederick says. "She's saying we should do more with less. We've talked about that in negotiations, and we don't agree with doing more with less."

Lambert acknowledges that the unions haven't shown much interest in her proposal. However, she thinks the number of layoffs that will be needed to make up next year's shortfall may convince them. "We've cut everything else we can," she says.

On Monday, King County Executive Dow Constantine—who proposed union concessions similar to Lambert's on the campaign trail last year—will roll out "a significant restructuring of the way the county conducts its labor negotiations" as part of a larger speech on his "reform agenda," Constantine spokesman Frank Abe says.