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THURSDAY, DEC. 9, 2010

Editorial: Workers’ benefits unhealthy for state

After telling state workers they’d need to pick up 26 percent of their health care premium costs to help cover a widening budget shortfall, Gov. Chris Gregoire last week settled for 15 percent, which is barely a bump from the current 12 percent.

Perhaps the problem is tied to looking under the wrong definition for “bargain.” Rather than embarking on a give and take process to reach a desired goal, she agreed to a smoking deal for state workers. And so the state will pick up 85 percent of the health care costs for workers, when the average for large private sector employers is closer to 70 percent.

That’s some bargain, all right.

Under this tentative agreement, the average state worker would begin to absorb this $27-a-month in 2012. Tim Welch, a spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, was certainly pleased, telling the Seattle Times: “Considering where we started in August, where they wanted our members to go from 12 percent to a 26 percent share of premiums, it was a substantial movement.”

Well, yes. When you consider that splitting the difference would have yielded an employee share of 19 percent, that is substantial movement – in the wrong direction. Oddly, this cave-in occurred after the governor learned that new revenue projections had dramatically dipped.

Still, Welch let it be known that “we’re not happy to have our members sacrifice more.”

In truth, they’ve given up much less than most workers. Co-pays and deductibles weren’t even touched.

The larger sacrifices will be made by the added number of state workers who will now have to be laid off and the taxpayers, who are expected to continue supporting the kind of health care plans they can only dream of for themselves. In addition, government service will decline more than it would have had the governor demanded a larger concession.

Because the governor’s office did not meet its targeted goal on employee benefits, the state will be forced to dip into insurance reserve funds to make up the difference. That is also an unhealthy choice.

The negotiations for health care benefits are just one piece of the overall employment compensation package. Still on tap is haggling over salaries. But this soft stance on benefits only increases the pressure to take a harder line on paychecks. Once the entire package is hammered out, the Legislature will have to vote on it.

Lawmakers need to send both sides back to the table if the overall package fails to reflect the budgetary and economic reality of the state of Washington and the declining ability of its citizens to cover the costs.

Thus far, the governor is off to a bad start.

We all like a bargain, but this is one that needs to be spread more evenly.

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