Gov. Chris Gregoire and her labor negotiators are finally getting serious about state employee health-care benefits, seeking to increase the employee contribution to health premiums. It's about time.

WITH the state of Washington facing its third year in a row of multibillion-dollar budget deficits, it is difficult to imagine state employees not giving a little — or even, a bit more.

Labor negotiators for Gov. Chris Gregoire told state and higher-education employees last week that state workers must increase their contribution to health-care premiums from the current 12 percent to as much as 26 percent or reshape their health-care benefits package.

The governor, at long last, has it right. The health-care proposal could save $268 million by bringing state employee benefits more in line with the private sector — a must-do for the next round of budget cuts.

The state can no longer afford deluxe benefits, which allow employees to pay just 12 percent of the premium cost. Private-sector employees pay as much as 20 to 30 percent of their premiums.

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A jump from 12 to 26 percent is indeed sizable from one year to another, but it is necessitated in part by how long it has taken government to get serious about reining in costs.

This is a nasty recession. The economy will not miraculously come roaring back. News in recent days suggests either a double-dip recession or a very slow march back from the bottom.

Union leaders estimate the change would mean a pay cut of about $2,316 a year for a worker with full family coverage, and in certain cases, result in a pay reduction of about 8 percent.

The recession is hard on everybody, but the state is dreaming to think it could move into another hellacious budget year without addressing expensive employee costs.

“We don’t have any money,” said Gregoire’s budget director, Marty Brown. The governor said at a news conference she wants a contract that freezes pay, including “step” increases that reward those who boost their experience.

The changes are painful and overdue. The governor needs to hold her ground. State employees need to get real about the Great Recession.