Despite Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's recall victory last week in a battle with labor groups, Washington's two leading candidates for governor say they're not interested in picking a fight over government workers' collective-bargaining rights.

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OLYMPIA — Pumped by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s recall victory last week, conservatives nationally are pushing to curb the power of public-employee unions.

But Washington’s two leading candidates for governor say they’re not interested in picking a fight over government workers’ collective-bargaining rights.

Labor groups mounted a recall campaign against Walker, a Republican, after he led efforts to eliminate union rights for most public workers. It was widely viewed as a referendum on collective bargaining — with Walker coming out on top.

Democrat Jay Inslee has positioned himself as the defender of collective bargaining, calling it a “fundamental right.” He and his supporters have tried to paint Republican Rob McKenna as another Walker. “I’m not going to let the virus of Wisconsin come into the state of Washington,” Inslee has said.

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McKenna, however, has repeatedly distanced himself from Walker and says state workers have no reason to fear him if he’s elected governor. He’s also called collective bargaining a right.

“Collective bargaining isn’t the problem in our state. It’s the people doing the bargaining who have been the problem,” McKenna said in an interview last week.

McKenna, the state attorney general, says he would be a tougher negotiator than Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire. His agenda in negotiations includes tying annual “step” increases in pay to performance rather than merely longevity. He also wants to close some retirement plans to new workers, which would require a change in law.

Inslee’s campaign did not make him available for an interview this past week despite repeated requests, and the former congressman has not proposed a plan for how he would approach state-employee compensation.

He opposes McKenna’s call to give state lawmakers more say in writing contracts. That change would take public unions a step back from the rights they won a decade ago, which mostly moved fights over compensation from the Legislature to the bargaining table.

Republicans say Tuesday’s results in Wisconsin are a harbinger of developments nationally and in Washington.

Kirby Wilbur, state GOP chairman, said Walker’s recall victory energized the party here and “gives us hope that maybe we can do the same thing in November.”

Political pundits, though, say Walker’s victory will have no effect in this state.

“Nothing has changed as far as the Washington state governor’s race is concerned,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Sabato said the Wisconsin results should not be extrapolated to other states. “Walker benefited enormously from the fact that a fair slice of voters, including some (President) Obama supporters, did not support recall and did not think it was merited and felt it ought to be reserved for malfeasance in office,” he said.

Chris Vance, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, predicts McKenna’s opponents will stop comparing him to Walker, because the election defused that angle of attack.

Winning message

But the state’s largest labor group, the Washington State Labor Council, still thinks it’s a winning message, said Jeff Johnson, the group’s president.

The council in an online newsletter tells its members, “Don’t let McKenna Wisconsin-ize our state,” criticizing his positions on collective bargaining.

Critics also point to McKenna’s votes against some union contracts while on the Metropolitan King County Council and to comments he made in 2010 about unions.

He was quoted as saying unionization of government workers is “dangerous,” a view he attributed to former President Franklin Roosevelt.

McKenna said last week he was making the point that public unions, unlike those in the private sector, can try to pick their own bosses. “The problem arises from elected officials who owe their political positions to the people they’re bargaining with,” he said.

He said that on the County Council, he voted to approve “hundreds” of union contracts and voted against only a handful out of worries that cost-of-living increases were too large. McKenna said unions and Inslee are “waging a campaign of fear” by portraying him as anti-union.

Bargaining approach

The candidates’ approach to government workers and collective bargaining will come up repeatedly in the gubernatorial campaign.

Under state law, the governor is responsible for negotiating contracts with state-worker unions. The Legislature gives final approval to contracts as part of the broader state budget, but can’t change the deals.

“There’s no question the next governor needs to be a little tougher with the unions in terms of concessions,” Wilbur said. “Pension costs and insurance costs have grown to such a point that they create this huge unfunded liability. We have to deal with that unfunded liability and … unions are going to have to come to the table and say, ‘You’re right.’ “

Records provided by the governor’s budget office show the proportion of the budget going to state-worker salary and benefits has remained relatively constant over the past 12 years at roughly 23 percent. The cost of benefits has grown during that time while payroll has decreased as the state workforce has shrunk.

As of June 2010, the state had a $4.4 billion unfunded liability in its older closed pensions for state workers and teachers, according to the state actuary. That number will be updated this summer.

There are about 57,000 full-time equivalent positions in general state government, which doesn’t include teachers or higher education. About three-quarters of the workers are represented by unions. They are the folks who guard prisoners, collect taxes, issue licenses and perform other services.

During four years of budget cuts, state workers have taken unpaid furloughs and have seen their share of health-insurance costs rise. Unions say those concessions show the collective-bargaining law is working.

The Legislature has eliminated automatic annual cost-of-living increases for retirees in the state’s oldest pension plans and scaled back incentives for early retirement for future workers.

Role of bargaining

Inslee has said the state’s fiscal challenges need to be balanced with the sacrifices state employees have already made.

Although he declined to be interviewed for this story, Inslee did talk to the Washington Federation of State Employees union last month about the state-government workforce and the role of collective bargaining.

In the interview, which is posted on the Internet, he told the federation he sees the current setup of bargaining as “the right model.”

“It makes sure the governor has to stand up and be publicly accountable for what he or she has done in that negotiation,” he said.

Inslee’s record in Congress shows he voted this year for a pay freeze for federal workers while opposing an attempt last year to cancel workers’ step increases.

Inslee hasn’t called for changes in state-employee benefits. He told the federation he wants to reduce the cost of health care overall by emphasizing preventive care, rather than arguing about the share paid by government and workers.

Open to amendments

McKenna contends lawmakers should have more input into the union contracts, such as the ability to offer amendments. He didn’t provide details and said he was open to ideas about how that could be accomplished.

His campaign website also calls for allowing lawmakers to amend or suspend contracts in a fiscal emergency.

McKenna would push for other changes. He wants to pay employees based on performance as well as seniority.

He said he would expand to all agencies performance-based bonuses that his office already uses, and would negotiate with unions to tie step increases to performance.

He also wants to make greater use of existing authority to seek bids from private companies to do work now performed by state workers. Unions would be able to compete for the work, too, and he predicted they would win in most cases.

In some areas, such as state workers’ compensation insurance, he sees a role for private firms.

McKenna wants to close pension-only retirement plans to future workers and put them in newer plans that are hybrids of pension and 401(k)-style accounts.

He also suggests employees’ share of health premiums could be increased from 15 percent to 25 percent — but he says his main goal for health benefits is to place employees in plans with medical savings accounts, lower premiums and higher deductibles.

He favors placing school employees in a state health plan.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or Brad Shannon of The Olympian contributed to this story.

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