Gov. Jay Inslee will likely include pay raises for state workers, worth 6 percent over the next two years, in his proposed budget. The raises already have Republican lawmakers dubious. It’s the first skirmish in a coming budget battle.

Share story

Gov. Jay Inslee likely won’t release his proposed two-year state budget until next week, but the first fiscal skirmish with legislative Republicans has already begun — over planned pay raises for public workers.

Earlier this fall, Inslee’s administration released the tentative collective-bargaining agreements that his staff negotiated with 38 unions representing 95,000 public-sector workers and contractors.

The contracts, which require legislative approval to take effect, generally call for a 6?percent raise for state employees — 2?percent in the 2018 fiscal year, which begins in July 2017, followed by 4?percent in fiscal year 2019.

Those new proposed raises would go to about 78,000 workers, while about 17,000 more would get separate, job-specific raises.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Every state employee and contractor covered by the agreements would have a starting wage of at least $12 an hour, although under the recently passed Initiative 1433, the state minimum wage is scheduled to rise to $12 an hour in 2019 anyway.

The most eye-catching raises in the agreements would go to the Washington State Patrol, which is struggling with a shortage of troopers. State troopers would get a 19 percent raise over the two-year agreement, while sergeants, lieutenants and captains would get a 23 percent raise.

Starting salaries in the State Patrol — around $54,000 a year — are lower than at least nine other law-enforcement agencies in Washington. As of Nov. 1, the State Patrol had 113 vacancies out of 791 total positions in field operations — the officers who police the state’s highways, according to an agency spokesman.

The contracts were negotiated in private, but before Inslee can include any of the raises in his proposed budget, state law says his Office of Financial Management must certify that they are “feasible financially.” The raises total about $700 million of what will likely be a budget of more than $40?billion.

State law doesn’t define what “feasible financially” means, but it’s safe to say that Republican lawmakers and Inslee have different definitions.

Last week state Sen. John Braun, the lead Senate Republican budget writer, wrote to Inslee’s Financial Management director urging him to disapprove the union agreements unless the pay raises can be done without raising taxes or cutting other services.

This comes as a prelude to the bigger budget battle, as Inslee and the Legislature look for an estimated $3.5?billion to add to public school funding to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.

“Only certify the CBAs (collective bargaining agreements) if they can be funded within existing law and revenues without jeopardizing essential services to our most vulnerable,” Braun, R-Centralia, wrote to David Schumacher, director of the Office of Financial Management.

Senate Republicans had similar complaints about raises for state employees the last time a two-year budget was passed, in 2015.

“He needs to be making difficult choices here; it’s not just a giveaway,” Braun said of Inslee, noting that unions were major contributors to the governor’s recent re-election. “It starts to look, in my mind, a lot more like payback for the unions than it does good government.”

Schumacher declined an interview request and Inslee’s office declined to comment.

In December 2014, when Schumacher determined that proposed raises were “feasible financially,” he wrote that state revenue was increasing, and said the raises were important to maintain a quality workforce and recruit new talent.

The revenue forecast for that budget was 8.6 percent higher than for the previous budget.

The most recent revenue forecast for the 2017-19 budget is 6.7 percent higher than for the current budget.

Jason Mercier, a director with the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank, wrote approvingly of Braun’s letter.

“One thing to keep an eye on is whether tax increases are proposed if the budget also includes these pay raises,” Mercier wrote on a policy center blog. “If the proposed 2017-19 pay raises are determined to be ‘feasible financially’ that should mean the governor’s budget won’t have any tax increases at all, right?”

Over the last 45 years, state workers have generally averaged a little less than a 2?percent raise every year, although those raises have sometimes come irregularly.

The 2015 budget gave most state workers a 3 percent raise in its first year and a nearly 2 percent raise this year. Those were, however, the first pay raises in six years, as state revenue and wages stagnated with the Great Recession, even while workers paid more for their pension and health-care plans.

And compensation for state employees has declined from about 24 percent of the total state budget in 2008 to about 22 percent currently, according to the Office of Financial Management.

Tim Welch, a spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, predicted the agreements would be deemed feasible and would be included in Inslee’s budget.

“Without funding the contracts, we’re going to continue to see the revolving door,” Welch said. “Workers come to the state, they get trained, the state invests a lot of money, and then they’re hired away by cities, counties and private businesses for higher-paying jobs. The state should not be the training ground for private employers.”