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Eye On Olympia

“An iron fist in a velvet glove”…

Dozens of Democratic state lawmakers last month sent a letter to a mental health center, sharply criticizing the agency's "hostile bargaining position" in negotiations with unionized employees.

"Your agency is funded largely through the state's budget," read the Sept. 22 letter, requested by Service Employees International Union 1199NW. "…As elected officials responsible for that budget, we call on you to change course and to negotiate a fair settlement" with workers.

Among the signers: local Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane.

The union and the company have since settled. But the letter has now spawned a complaint – not involving Marr -- to the state Legislative Ethics Board by a Kirkland businessman and former union organizer who labeled it "a classic example of an iron fist in a velvet glove." (The link above is to the political blog Sound Politics, which I think was the first to report on this.)

"I know how to read that," said Scott St. Clair. "It's a threat: If you want continued state funding, then play ball."

Some of the lawmakers, however, said today that the letter was simply meant to ensure that Olympia-based Behavioral Health Resources was actually doing what the Legislature intended when it approved large funding increases for community mental health and chemical dependency programs. A major reason why, they say, was to improve pay for front-line workers.

"I read it as `Hey, we wrote a budget, here's the clear intent, and you're ignoring that,'" said Sen. Eric Oemig, D-Kirkland. "I don't think that's a threat."

"Basically, the way I view it, it was kind of a `hey, guys, play fair,' letter," said Marr.

Although 34 lawmakers signed two nearly-identical letters, St. Clair's complaint only involves Oemig. St. Clair lives in Oemig's legislative district and is deeply unhappy with what he views as Oemig's "far left" politics, particularly over the war in Iraq.

Under a 2005 opinion issued by the ethics board, state legislators cannot use public resources to advocate "in a purely private labor dispute." Nothing, however, prohibits lawmakers from speaking out on such topics "absent the use of public resources and legislative office."

It's OK, however, for a lawmaker -- with public resources -- to advocate for a constituent in cases where a government official or government office is involved.

In this case, St. Clair says the ethics problem is clear: Behavioral Health Resources is a private business. And during contract negotiations, state lawmakers improperly tried to intervene. Among other things, the letter criticized Behavioral Health Resources for hiring as lawyers "an anti-union company that conducts seminars around the country entitled `How to Stay Union-Free' and `How You Can Make Unions Irrelevant to Your Employees.'"

"This is payback to union bosses," St. Clair said. In his complaint, he said Oemig was using his position as a senator "whose hands are upon the public purse strings to influence the outcome of those negotiations." Oemig, he says, was a "de facto collective bargaining weapon" for SEIU.

Oemig says the situation's not as black and white as St. Clair paints it. How state mental-health money is being spent, he said, is a legislative matter.

"We passed a bill to issue money and it had a clear purpose," he said.

It's also unclear how much lawmakers – who signed a separate signature page that was attached to the letter – knew what they were signing. The Senate version includes legislative letterhead, which Marr says he doesn't recall being there in the original. And although lawmakers in both the Senate and House letters list their legislative districts on those signature pages, nowhere did they actually write "senator" or "representative."

"I just don't think it's a really compelling slam-dunk case," said Oemig.

In retrospect, Marr said, maybe a little of the letter's language could have been toned down, and that it probably shouldn't have been on legislative letterhead.

But he said lawmakers should be free to raise issues of concern.

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