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Originally published April 1, 2012 at 5:19 PM | Page modified April 1, 2012 at 8:20 PM

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Truth Needle: Teachers-union ad on health-insurance bill mostly true

A radio ad by the Washington Education Association says that part-time state senators get $850 a month for health-insurance benefits but the state spends only $384 a month on half-time teachers' insurance.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

Truth Needle rankings

We base our Truth Needle rankings on those used by Politifact.com, a fact-checking project by the Tampa Bay Times.

True: The statement is true and doesn't require any additional explanation.

Mostly true: The statement is true but requires explanation or additional information.

Half true: The statement is partially true but omits key details or takes things out of context.

Mostly false: The statement has an element of truth but ignores facts that would lead to a different impression.

False: The statement is false.

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The claim: A radio ad by the Washington Education Association (WEA), the statewide teachers union, says part-time state senators get $850 a month for health coverage, "but the state spends only $384 a month for health insurance for half-time teachers and school employees."

What we found: Mostly true.

The radio ad is part of a campaign by the teachers union against Senate Bill 6442, which would consolidate the purchase of health insurance for the union's members.

The union argues the proposal would not save the state money, as its supporters claim, and has been running ads in an effort to discredit the measure.

"If legislators really want to reduce out-of-pocket health insurance costs for school employees, they should fund educators' health insurance at the same rate they themselves receive as part-time legislators: $850 a month. In comparison, half-time school employees receive $384 a month," Rich Wood, a spokesman for the union, wrote in an email.

Let's look at the facts behind the ad.

• State lawmakers have a part-time job.

The Washington state Legislature has 147 members — 98 in the House and 49 in the Senate. A 2004 report by the Washington Citizens' Commission on Salaries, which sets lawmakers' pay, referenced research indicating the work done by legislators in this state is about 70 percent of a full-time job.

In odd-number years, they convene a 105-day regular session and in even years a 60-day regular session. However, lawmakers sometimes go into special session when they are unable to finish work during the regular sessions.

The Legislature has had special sessions every year for the past three years because of multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls. Lawmakers spent 150 days in session last year, including two special sessions, and are now in another special session after failing to pass a budget in this year's regular session that ended March 8.

On top of working during session, they handle calls and meet with constituents year-round.

"You put a lot of nights in, you put a lot of weekends in, you put a lot of time in during session," said Sen. Joe Zarelli, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee. "They're not typically your standard eight-hour days. There's no holiday pay, there's no time and a half."

Still, it's a citizen Legislature, and many lawmakers, including Zarelli, hold down other jobs in addition to being a state representative or senator. Zarelli is a self-employed business consultant.

• Although lawmakers are considered part-time workers, they get full-time benefits.

Under state law, legislators are eligible for the same health-care benefits that full-time employees receive. That means they qualify for the $850-per-month state contribution for health-care benefits. The state contribution fully pays for dental, vision, long-term disability and life insurance. It accounts for about 85 percent of state workers' health-insurance premium costs, on average.

But lawmakers aren't treated differently from other part-time state workers. All state government employees — except for K-12 employees — who work at least half time get full-time health-care benefits. K-12 employee health insurance is bargained at the district level.

Lawmakers also are considered full-time employees when it comes to pension benefits.

Again, that's the case for other part-time state employees, too, as long as they work at least 90 hours a month, slightly more than half time. They can be vested in a pension in the same amount of time it takes full-time employees, five to 10 years depending on the plan.

State lawmakers now earn about $42,000 a year. They also get reimbursed for living expenses while conducting official business. In the Senate, that averaged around $12,000 per member last year on top of salary, but only lawmakers' regular pay is counted toward the pension.

Many legislators in both chambers have taken voluntary salary cuts through the end of the current two-year budget in June 2013. Records show most of the reductions were 3 percent, the same cut state workers have received through unpaid time off.

State records also show that all but five lawmakers are enrolled in a state health plan and nearly three-quarters are enrolled in a state pension.

• The state spends $384 a month on health insurance for half-time teachers and school employees.

The state provides health-care money to school districts based on full-time-equivalent employment, which takes into account all the hours worked by both full-time and part-time employees.

The state now allocates $768 per full-time equivalent to districts, which equals $384 for a half-time teacher. What kind of health-care coverage that translates into is bargained district by district with the unions.

For example, Seattle Public Schools puts the state money in two health-insurance pools. Some employees choose benefits that cost less than the $768 per full-time equivalent provided by the state, or don't enroll in a health plan at all. That allows the district to put the unused money toward benefits for the remaining employees. (In addition to medical insurance, the state contribution goes for dental, vision, long-term disability and life-insurance coverage.)

The most a teacher can receive from the pool now is $831. Most, but not all, half-time employees get half of the benefit.

Wood, with the WEA, notes that although Seattle and other districts may provide more than $384 a month for half-time workers, that's still all they get from the state for those employees.

To wrap up, the WEA ad accurately describes legislators as part-time workers who get $850 a month from the state for insurance benefits. And the $384-a-month figure for the state's contribution to half-time teachers is a reasonable calculation.

But like most political ads, it lacks context behind the assertion: The health benefits lawmakers get aren't any different from those received by part-time state workers, other than teachers, and it's up to school districts to bargain what level of benefits part-time teachers and other school employees actually receive.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or agarber@seattletimes.com. Staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report.

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