State lawmakers must decide whether to fund $440 million in pay raises for state employees, and Republican legislators aren’t happy about it.
OLYMPIA — Chief GOP budget writer Sen. Andy Hill makes no bones about it: He doesn’t consider $440 million in state-employee raises an essential part of the 2015-17 budget.
But late Tuesday afternoon in a Senate Ways and Means Committee meeting, Hill embodied the Republican Party leadership’s antagonism toward the union contracts that were negotiated and arbitrated last year.
Hill, who chairs the committee, cut off part of a state Office of Financial Management (OFM) presentation after it showed some state employees earning less than they would in similar jobs in the private sector. The comparison, Hill noted, didn’t take into account state benefits such as health care and pensions.
“I’m showing a little bit of frustration here, because if I wouldn’t have asked these questions, it looks like we’re underpaying our state employees compared to the private sector,” Hill said.
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After the meeting, Ralph Thomas, OFM spokesman, said Hill’s committee had the presentation in hand by late Tuesday morning and didn’t question it.
“We never got any request on ‘hey, you’re missing this,’ ” Thomas said.
The divide over employee raises, which lawmakers this session will approve, deny or disregard, has played out like this — a war of dueling numbers.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and OFM argue workers haven’t had a general increase in six years.
Republicans claim a new step pay increase authorized by the Legislature in the 2013-15 budget has given about 30 percent of workers a pay raise.
While the OFM presentation showed a range of Washington state employees — from financial to transportation workers — earning less than in the private sector, Republicans say the situation is better than that. They point to a 2014 OFM report showing state workers making about $54,700 annually — about $3,000 more than private-sector workers or public employees in other states holding similar jobs.
The employee contracts would give most state employees — who range from corrections officers to ferry and social-service workers — a 3 percent raise next budget year. State Patrol troopers would get a 7 percent raise next budget year, under an agreement that was arbitrated.
Between 1967 and 2008, state employees got a general wage increase of 3 percent every one to three years, according to state data. Since 2008, roughly the start of the recession, public employees have not gotten a general wage increase and some briefly took a pay cut through furloughs.
Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, said the pay step approved last budget cycle shouldn’t be counted as a pay raise. And because the state has fewer workers than in prior years, even while the state’s population has grown, public employees are “working their behinds off trying to do a good job” and “are still being overworked and underpaid.”
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, argued earlier Tuesday that some cost-of-living raises for teachers, previously approved by a voter initiative, were considered as part of the budget.
As for the contracts, “We have to ask the question, how much is enough?” Schoesler said.
Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, told The Seattle Times this month that Republicans may not be able to deny the pay raises.
“I don’t think the Republicans have the votes for a budget that doesn’t do the contracts,” said Hunter, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and House Democrats’ chief budget writer. “Just saying.”