Guest Opinion: State contract bill helps firm up budget in Olympia

One of the last pieces of the budget puzzle snapped into place on June 27, sealed in Republican support for funding new state worker contracts.

It came when Democratic and Republican senators, and Gov. Jay Inslee agreed on a new bill giving lawmakers a better view of and louder voice in the process of negotiating collective bargaining agreements with state employee unions.

Under Senate Bill 5969, the Legislature’s long dormant Joint Committee on Employment Relations will be reinvigorated and the governor required to consult with this bipartisan, bicameral panel at least six times a year.

And in those years when new contracts are hammered out, the bill says the panel “must meet prior to the start of bargaining to establish parameters or expected outcomes that the governor may take into consideration during negotiation.”

It makes clear “internal bargaining notes” cannot be shared with the panel. But when collective bargaining is done, the governor or their designee must again sit down with the committee to review the terms and costs of the negotiated agreements.

Another provision requires the Office of Financial Management, which is the governor’s budget office, make sure the proposed agreements and their costs are posted only by Dec. 20. For those number nerds, the data must be easy to search through.

What is not in the bill are references to defining and determining the financial feasibility of contracts. That means the governor’s office will continue to complete negotiations then decide if contracts are “financially feasible,” in other words, can the state afford to pay them.

Republicans wanted language clarifying the meaning of financial feasibility. They’ve been concerned the impact of the $732 million state worker compensation package negotiated by Inslee’s team carries too big an impact in both the budget cycle starting Saturday and the one after that. When the GOP-led Senate approved its own budget plan in April, it did not fund the agreements.

This new bill is the result of weeks of conversations involving middle-of-the-road Democratic Sens. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens and Mark Mullet of Issaquah, Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish and Inslee’s staff.

Rossi has campaigned all year for restoring the role of the Legislature in negotiations, something lawmakers ceded to the executive branch in 2002. And, he ignited a political firestorm with the first bill he introduced in January to bar campaign contributions to the governor from groups involved in collective bargaining talks.

Meanwhile, as budget talks dragged on through two special sessions, Hobbs and Mullet realized the Senate Republicans would not fund state worker contracts without some kind of change in the process.

“There will be more transparency. There will be more legislative input and oversight,” Hobbs said of the bill. “This is something that needs to happen because the Legislature is in charge of the budget.”

It will build for a better partnership between the legislative and executive branches, Mullet said.

“I feel like two years from now the Legislature will feel like there is buy-in at the start,” he said. “It is a real substantial reform of the process.”

Rossi said he “woke everybody up” to the secrecy surrounding negotiations when he introduced his anti-corruption bill.

“This is a modest first step to do,” he said. “It’s really about transparency. We want the public to understand what is happening.”

On June 25, Republican senators reportedly relented on the financial feasibility language. Two days later, the bill emerged as a request from the governor’s budget office and Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, signed on its prime sponsor.

That’s critically important, too.

When leaders of organized labor learned of the progress of these negotiations last week, they didn’t like it. Having Inslee and Keiser — two of their most trusted allies — embrace the legislation may calm their concerns and provide a smoother path through the Democrat-controlled House.

It’s worth noting Rossi did not sign onto the bill. He declined to say why but it’s easy to figure out.

There’s enough tension bubbling among Democrats and their Big Labor friends on this legislation without having Rossi, a political villain to union leaders, associated with it.

At this stage, a Rossi bill dealing with labor matters might not make it past House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle and his caucus.

Hobbs, who is no hero of public employees either, focused on the benefits.

“It will strengthen collective bargaining agreements in the future,” he said, adding if the changes were in effect now “more legislators would have a better understanding as to why state workers deserve the increases in the contracts.”

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com Twitter: @dospueblos.

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