State workers will get their raises under last-minute budget deal

Most Washington state employees would get cost-of-living raises in the form of three 2-percent hikes over two years under the budget deal the Legislature reached this week.

The compromise budget provides $618 million in the next two years to help pay for the state worker contracts Gov. Jay Inslee’s office negotiated with a group of unions last summer. That money also would provide rate increases for certain non-state employees, such as home child care providers and adult family-home providers.

Under the negotiated contracts, most state employees would get cost-of-living increases of 2 percent this summer, followed by another 2-percent increase in July 2018 and a third 2-percent increase in January 2019. Some workers would receive higher targeted salary increases.

An earlier proposal from Senate Republicans would have rejected most of the labor contracts Inslee’s office negotiated in 2016. The GOP plan would have instead offered workers flat annual raises of $500 each of the next two years.

Republican Senate leaders argued the labor contracts were too costly given the state’s other financial obligations this year, such as complying with a court order to fully fund public schools. Paying for the labor contracts as negotiated would have cost the state about $500 million over two years, but the GOP plan would have cut that price tag roughly in half.

However, the Republican plan most likely would have run into legal issues. State law says the Legislature can either approve state worker contracts in full or reject them entirely. There’s no option for the Legislature to offer lower salary increases as an alternative.

Democrats who control the state House pushed to include the contracts in the state budget from the beginning.

As a compromise, lawmakers agreed to give the Legislature a slightly bigger role when negotiating future labor contracts. Republicans in particular have been frustrated at being kept out of the loop during the negotiations between the unions and Inslee’s budget office.

A bill the Legislature approved Thursday requires the governor’s office to meet six times annually with the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations, which has been mostly inactive in recent years. While the bipartisan committee won’t be able to weigh in during the actual negotiations, Inslee’s office would have to meet with the legislative panel before negotiations begin, as well as after.

Senate Bill 5969 also would require Inslee's budget office to maintain a website where it posts all copies of contracts that require legislative approval. The website must include information about the cost of the contracts and whether there is a way for the contracts to be reopened.

The tentative contracts must also be easily searched and posted online within 45 days, according to the bill. The other information about the contracts must be posted by December, when the governor submits a budget request.

The budget deal lawmakers reached this week made approving the state worker contracts contingent on adopting those reforms.