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Our View: City workers’ pay ought not be immune to recession

‘No one was spared the pain.”

Those words were spoken by Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, as the Washington Legislature skidded to the adjournment of its regular session.

The chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee was talking about the hurt that the severe recession has inflicted on all aspects of state government.

Thousands of jobs are expected to be lost as programs are cut. Those public employees who remain on the payrolls will forgo scheduled cost-of-living raises. Students will find it costlier to attend the state’s colleges and universities – if there are enough slots for them. Needy state residents will find less public assistance, health care or affordable housing. They feel the pain.

It would be worse were it not for billions in (probably) one-time federal stimulus money.

But the broad allocation of economic pain will reach well beyond Olympia, and it may get worse.

Last week the Spokane County Building and Planning Department announced a cutback in office hours that will begin next week. Officials approached the two unions that represent the 39 workers in the department with a proposed cutback in hours – from 37.5 a week to 32 – and a corresponding reduction in pay. The alternative the likely elimination of nine jobs. The workers absorbed the pay cuts.

Across the state, in Longview, firefighters accepted a two-year wage freeze. Theirs was the fourth city union to make concessions in the face of a $1.5 million budget gap. Only the city’s Police Guild is holding out for a better deal.

At Spokane City Hall, officials are launching a series of conversations with their own unions about the city budget in the context of today’s economic realities. Pay and benefit concessions need to be part of the discussion.

Painful effects are being felt throughout the private sector. Businesses have closed, employees laid off, wages and salaries trimmed. Unemployment is high, the economy is sluggish and the circulation of revenues, both public and private, is insufficient to sustain the employment and levels of service we’re used to.

The Legislature pragmatically refrained from counting on major tax initiatives that probably would have been an added brake on the economy, assuming pinched taxpayers would have approved them at the polls. All state programs have their disappointed advocates, and all public employees are understandably stressed by the bite out of their incomes.

But Linville is right. The pain has to be shared. Hats off to the public employees who understand that difficult truth.

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