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GOP’s ‘emergency’ call wouldn’t change much

OLYMPIA – Republicans have argued for weeks the governor should declare a financial emergency and reopen the contracts with the state employees unions, cutting pay and benefits to help balance the budget.

Workers in private industry all over the state are taking pay cuts and furloughs and paying higher medical premiums; state workers should do the same thing, they say. GOP leaders often look knowingly at the assembled press corps when they say this, realizing that newspapers have gone through multiple rounds of those changes.

“When you’re in good times, you bargain. When you’re in bad times, you bargain,” House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis said last week.

The law that gave state workers collective bargaining has a provision requiring a return to the bargaining table if such a financial emergency is declared, so it’s not like Republicans are pulling this out of their ears.

The amount it would save is in dispute. At one point, the GOP estimated the savings could be as much as $83 million for the two-year budget cycle. But that was for all state employees, not just the half paid out of the beleaguered general fund, and before nine months of the biennium was gone. A fiscal note last week on a GOP budget amendment estimated savings for fiscal 2011 to the general fund at $6.6 million, which isn’t chump change but also is about two-tenths of 1 percent of the shortfall.

Is the state in a financial emergency? With a general fund budget about $2.8 billion out of whack, one might answer, “No duh.” But is a gubernatorial statement that Washington is in a financial emergency without consequences? Seems it could prompt rating agencies on Wall Street to at least reconsider the state’s super-duper bond rating.

The state treasurer’s office hasn’t been asked to analyze such a hypothetical and isn’t about to step into it. Spokesman Chris McGann would only say the state “would, at some level, have to explain the context” of that declaration.

But suppose for a minute that Gregoire did exactly what Republicans wanted and declared an emergency. Nothing in the law says the state gets to go to the bargaining table and dictate terms. With an existing contract, both sides must agree to changes.

Most Republicans are huge admirers of small business and not terribly fond of unions, so it may be necessary to consider how bargaining works. In a business with no labor contract, a financially strapped owner can tell employees these are the new wages, health care deductions or work schedules; take it or take a hike. In an operation with a signed contract between management and labor, it’s not that simple. To get something one wants, one usually must give up something else.

(Full disclosure: As the former president of the small, independent union that represents editorial workers at The Spokesman-Review, I have negotiated agreements in tough times. It’s sometimes necessary, but never pleasant for either side.)

The state could offer fewer layoffs, a pretty standard carrot in tough economic times. Unions like to keep as many members employed as possible, and sometimes sacrifice everyone’s wages to keep more people getting some wages.

But the state employees unions already signaled they will accept layoffs to keep the contracts they have. Absent an agreement to change, the contracts stay in place, the Office of Financial Management says. That’s the annoying thing about contracts: Once signed, they force both sides to live with the terms until they expire, which in this case is June 2011.

The state wouldn’t get to tear up contracts and declare new terms any more than the unions get to walk off the job until they get a raise.

Spin Control is a weekly column by political reporter and Washington capital bureau chief Jim Camden. The blog has daily items, reader comments and videos at Spin Control.

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