Politics & Government

State worker raises remain caught up in budget debate

The state may have already negotiated pay raises with about two dozen employee unions, but Republican leaders in the Legislature are casting more and more doubt on whether state workers will ever see that money.

Democrats, including Gov. Jay Inslee, have argued that paying for state worker raises should be a key part of the state’s next two-year budget. But three weeks into the 105-day-state legislative session, Republican leaders aren’t so sure.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler said that other priorities — including complying with a court order to increase funding for public education — should trump raises for state workers.

“Nobody said no raise, but we have to ask hard questions for the taxpayers, because we do have a legal obligation to fund education,” said Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Under the contracts negotiated between Inslee’s office and 23 employeee unions, workers on the state’s payroll would receive 3 percent raises in July, followed by raises of 1.8 percent next year. The raises would apply to about 50,000 state employees and about 40,000 other union employees that are paid by the state to provide services such as home health care and child care.

Lawmakers must approve the state employee contracts for them to take effect. If they don’t, Inslee’s negotiators and the unions must reopen talks.

Funding the pay raises and benefits for unionized and nonrepresented state workers would cost the state about $440 million in the next two years, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

Yet at the same time, lawmakers face court sanctions this year if they don’t increase funding for K-12 education, which budget leaders estimate could cost anywhere between $750 million and $1.5 billion in the 2015-17 budget. The school-funding obligation stems from the a 2012 ruling known as McCleary, in which the state Supreme Court gave the Legislature a 2018 deadline for fully funding public schools.

Inslee has said the state worker salary increases are necessary partly because state employees haven’t received an across-the-board cost-of-living increase since 2008. Inslee’s proposed spending plan would put about $500 million toward state employee salary increases, while also funding cost-of-living increases for teachers.

“The governor just thinks it is time,” said Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Inslee. “They’ve earned it, they deserve it.”

Yet Republicans question the governor’s assessment of how badly state workers have been doing. An analysis by the Senate Republican Caucus found that about 85 percent of workers who were employed with the state in 2010 were earning more in 2014, despite not receiving general cost-of-living increases in the past six years.

That Republican analysis, however, included overtime pay in its estimate of workers’ earnings, and didn’t account for whether workers were promoted during that four-year period. It also was based on a subset of fewer than half of state employees.

Many state workers are also entitled to step increases when they first accept employment, meaning that their income is ramped up over six years until they reach their full salary. The Republican analysis included the step increases, which roughly one-third of state workers receive each year.

“We have to ask the question, how much is enough?” Schoesler said. “And that’s a discussion we’ll be having.”

Tim Welch, a spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, said general cost-of-living increases are very different from step increases, which he described mainly as “an accounting tool.”

“State employees basically have their full salary withheld,” Welch said. “If the leadership of the state Senate does not like step increases, they should pay state workers their full salaries the minute they walk through the door.”

Welch said he thinks Republicans’ hints that they might not approve the state-worker contracts this year are just a negotiating tactic.

While Inslee released his budget proposal in December, House and Senate leaders won’t release their spending plans until after the state’s quarterly revenue forecast, which is scheduled to come out in March.

“What we’re seeing now is just rattling of sabers during a time when there isn’t much budget action going on,” Welch said.