Did Gov. Jay Inslee's campaign get ‘millions' from state worker unions during contract negotiations?

Republican lawmakers have said it smacks of corruption that Washington’s governor can receive campaign money from state employee unions at the same time his office is negotiating those workers’ new contracts.

But just how much did Gov. Jay Inslee’s re-election campaign receive last year from unions that collectively bargain with the state?

Several Republicans implied last week that millions of dollars from state-employee unions benefited Inslee's campaign in 2016, during the same period when the Democratic governor's budget office was hammering out new labor contracts with those unions.

"He goes in the back room in secret with taxpayers' wallet, and then he negotiates salaries and benefits, at the very same time they're putting millions of dollars into his campaign," said state Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, in an interview last week.

Rossi made a similar comment during a floor debate on Senate Bill 5533, his proposal to ban state worker unions from donating directly or indirectly to any gubernatorial candidate. Two other Republican senators during the floor debate also used the "millions" figure to describe the scale of the problem the bill is trying to solve.

“All this bill says is the governor cannot take millions in campaign donations from the people that he is negotiating with because the governor isn’t supposed to represent them, he’s supposed to be representing the public whose money is being spent,” said state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.

Under state law, the unions and Inslee’s budget office renegotiate labor contracts every two years, before the Legislature meets to finalize the state’s new two-year budget.

While Inslee has certainly benefited from millions in union money during the course of his political career, fewer contributions from state-employee unions bolstered his campaign in 2016, when the governor’s budget office was negotiating a new salary package for thousands of state workers.

According to campaign finance disclosures, an independent expenditure group called Our Washington spent about $700,000 last year opposing Inslee’s Republican challenger, Bill Bryant.

Among the top donors to that group were political action committees connected to the Service Employees International Union, which gave about $460,000 leading up to the 2016 election. The Washington Federation of State Employees, the largest union of Washington state employees, gave $250,000 to the group.

Those contributions formed roughly half of the $1.4 million Our Washington raised during the 2016 election cycle.

Union groups that bargain with the state gave about $40,000 directly to Inslee’s campaign in 2016, making the maximum amount of union money that could be considered to have benefited the governor — either directly or indirectly — about $750,000.

By comparison, the total spending in the governor’s race last year came in at about $15 million.

Rossi didn’t return a reporter’s call for comment Friday. But he made it clear in his Senate floor speech last week that he thinks there’s a problem with state worker unions contributing any amount of money to help a gubernatorial campaign.

"All I'm saying, if you collectively bargain with the governor, you shouldn't be putting money in that campaign at the same time," Rossi said. "It clearly has the appearance of corruption."

The new labor contracts the governor's office negotiated with 38 unions last year will cost the state $500 million in the 2017-19 budget cycle, and include cost-of-living raises of roughly 6 percent for most workers.

The raises are the largest that state employee unions have negotiated since they gained full bargaining rights in 2004.

The contracts still must be approved by state lawmakers, who can either accept the agreements as-is, or reject them and send negotiators back to the bargaining table.

Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said that the only thing driving labor negotiations between the governor’s office and state workers is a desire to pay workers fairly and keep them from leaving for better-paying jobs.

"We've seen what happens when we don't adequately compensate our state employees — in the past couple years, for example, we've dealt with severe staffing shortages at (the Washington State Patrol) and Western State Hospital," Smith wrote in an email.

Smith called the contracts “modest and appropriate agreements to fairly compensate our hard-working state employees.”

Tim Welch, a spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, said the raises are necessary to help make up for years when state workers went without cost-of-living increases during the economic recession.

He said if it were true that donating to a governor’s campaign helped unions get a better contract deal, then his members wouldn’t have faced pay cuts and wage freezes under Gov. Chris Gregoire, whom the federation backed over Rossi for governor in 2004 and 2008.

Like Inslee in 2016, Gregoire was negotiating new contracts with labor unions when she sought re-election.

“What does it say when you make a political contribution and members get a 3 percent pay cut?” Welch said.

“It shows governors are working in the best interest of the state, in good times or in bad.”