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Originally published Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 8:56 PM

Union opposes governor's suggestion to cut benefits

Gov. Chris Gregoire's office on Wednesday asked union-represented government workers to consider cutting their health-care benefits to save the state money.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

quotes The unions don't want the cuts to benefits? Then just cut the staff. Read more
quotes Unfortunate but workable, now the state just needs to lay off 10% of its employees. ... Read more
quotes The state has blown it for years by giving unions too much. The answer isn't asking th... Read more

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OLYMPIA — Citing a looming budget shortfall, Gov. Chris Gregoire's office on Wednesday asked union-represented government workers to consider cutting their health-care benefits to save the state money.

The initial reaction from the largest state-employee union? Fat chance.

"We think she needs to look elsewhere," said Tim Welch, a spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, which represents about 40,000 government workers who get state health-care benefits.

The state is facing as much as a $2 billion budget shortfall. Gregoire plans to release an extensive list of proposed budget cuts on Thursday to plug the hole. Lawmakers are scheduled to go into special session late next month to rewrite the $32.2 billon two-year budget.

Gregoire's budget director, Marty Brown, sent a letter to a coalition of unions, primarily representing general government workers, asking them to reopen the health-care benefits agreement "in order to negotiate a reduction in the employer premium contribution."

"Because of the seemingly unrelenting pressure that the Great Recession has had on revenues and increased caseloads, state employees may be called upon yet again to sacrifice," he wrote. "The governor and I are confident that our employees will help us meet this challenge."

Brown said that under state law the Governor's Office can't force the unions to renegotiate the agreement because it runs through June 2013. Gregoire can only ask them to consider cutting benefits, he said.

The governor negotiated an agreement late last year with the unions that requires state employees to pay 15 percent of their health-insurance premiums, with the state paying the rest. Previously, workers paid 12 percent of the premiums and the state paid 88 percent.

In addition, state worker pay was cut 3 percent through unpaid time off.

In fiscal 2011, which ended in June, there were nearly 59,000 full-time equivalent positions in general state government — not counting K-12 and higher-education employees — down from more than 63,500 in 2009. About three-quarters of the workers were represented by unions.

The Governor's Office could not provide updated numbers on Wednesday.

State workers are the folks who staff prisons, collect taxes, issue licenses, run social and health programs, and perform myriad other services. Their pay and benefits totaled about $2.8 billion in fiscal 2010, or about 18 percent of the budget.

Welch said his union can't speak for the coalition of unions, but said the Federation plans to send Gregoire a letter "that asks her to convene a meeting of corporations that have benefited from corporate tax breaks and ask them to take a 3 percent rollback in their corporate tax breaks."

Union leaders have long called on lawmakers to roll back tax exemptions for corporations as a way to raise more money and reduce spending cuts. The governor, Welch noted, said last year that state workers had done their share to balance the state budget.

"I don't know how we expect them to work their hearts out if I break their back," Gregoire said when she released her budget last December. "There comes a point when they are so demoralized that they can't do the job."

Brown said times have changed since then and the budget is in much worse shape.

"We're asking something of everybody," he said. "Nobody is pleased about it. There's no stone we're not trying to look under."

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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