Senate should do right by state workers

Investing wisely through our expenditures in education, transportation, research and development will help create opportunities for sustainable economic growth. To do so, however, we have to attract high quality employees to actually do the work.

The people who keep our neighborhoods safe, teach our children, care for our elderly and disabled, and maintain our transportation system, provide services that benefit all of us. Nobody gets rich doing those jobs, but they are an important part of keeping our communities healthy and our economy moving forward.

So, why do Senate Republicans insist on giving the people that work for us the short end of the stick?

In 2001, there were nearly 6 million people in Washington and 64,000 state general government employees. Today, Washington’s population has increased to slightly more than 7 million, but the government work force has been reduced to 61,000. It means fewer employees serving more citizens. Doing the job with less. They have earned our respect, not a kick in the teeth.

Last summer public employee representatives sat down at the bargaining table and worked out contract details that fit the distinct needs of their memberships. For most workers, the raises the governor agreed to would increase their pay by 4.8 percent over two years. This would be the first general wage increase since 2008. That’s the longest state employees have gone without a wage increase since at least 1960.

During that time the buying power of their paychecks decreased by 16 percent. In one two-year period, they took 3 percent pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs. Why, in a period of economic recovery, would we hit them in the wallet again?

But that is exactly what the Senate budget would do. First, it would cut the overall money that could be used to fulfill contractual obligations by $115 million. Then, instead of honoring the negotiated contracts, it simply offers employees a $1,000 raise, totally disregarding the diverse nature of the work force. This one-size-fits-all tactic is especially discouraging for highly skilled professionals such as engineers, biologists and psychiatrists also employed by the state.

Retaining highly skilled workers is already a problem, and the situation will only get worse if the state were to adopt the Senate budget. At the University of Washington, for example, we have lost and continue to loose high-quality staff due to stagnate wages and lack of competition with the private sector. UW Interim President, Ana Marie Cauce, has stated that if the Republican budget were adopted “thousands of our employees will not receive the wage increases they deserve.” This same dynamic comes into play across all our state agencies.

Another issue with the Republican’s budget proposal, and this is no small matter — is that it’s illegal. Regardless of how they slice it, their plan breaks the law. Collective bargaining is a right to which all workers have access, and public employees are no exception. The Legislature may approve or deny the contracts, but it cannot modify it or set constraints on the size of the funds. Doing so would limit the employee’s ability to bargain for fair increases.

The Senate proposal is so problematic that at least three Senate Republicans have said the contracts will have to be included in the final budget. They don’t have the votes to pass it in their own caucus, so why even propose it in the first place?

Here’s a hint, Washington has the most regressive tax system in the country. The lowest income bracket pays 16.8 percent of their income to state taxes, while the wealthiest one percent pay only 2.4 percent. Given the choice between correcting our unfair tax system and continuing to shortchange employees, they have chosen the latter. A choice that does nothing to strengthen our economy or rebuild the middle class.

Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, represents the 38th District in the Legislature.

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