August 17, 2014 in City

Spin Control: Court ruling on pensions, longshoremen’s agreement bring relief

By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – If anyone heard some unusual sounds during the past week, chances are they were picking up collective sighs of relief, with some collective grumbling mixed in, for various events.

The biggest sigh, likely loud enough to be heard all over the state, followed Thursday’s Supreme Court decision that the state isn’t on the hook for bigger pension payments to some state workers and teachers after the Legislature changed the rules on them.

The ruling might be reduced to “the Legislature giveth and the Legislature taketh away” but don’t expect the workers and teachers to stick to the biblical phraseology and add “blessed be the name of the Legislature.” It’s a complicated case, because the state employee and public school teacher pension systems are complicated and depend on when a person started working for the state or schools, and which plan he or she is in. But the most senior of those employees, those who started before 1977, had a plan that is going the way of the woolly mammoth, a defined benefit pension plan.

In the 1990s, the pension fund was in fat city because investments were doing well, and the Legislature voted to give retirees cost-of-living adjustments in their pension payments; between 2007 and 2011, facing a projected shortfall in the pension funds, it voted to stop. The workers sued, saying the Legislature had broken the contract with them, and won a summary judgment in a lower court. The state was looking at an extra $7 billion over 25 years.

Already in a scramble to find an estimated $4 billion ordered by the Supreme Court over the next four years for public school kids, state officials were holding their collective breath in fear of another 10-figure order for pensions. But the Supreme Court said the law that allowed for the COLAs also allowed for the Legislature to stop them. Although the employee handbooks describing the pensions never actually said the Legislature could cancel the COLAs whenever it wanted, the court noted that it also didn’t promise they’d be there forever. In fact, the handbooks advised employees to “consult the statute for a further description of rights.”

Yeah, right, the average person might say. I consult the statutes when the sleeping pill isn’t working. But the Legislature has an army of people who spend their entire working days consulting statutes, and this time they knew what they were doing, the court said in a 9-zip ruling.

Earlier in the week, another sigh was heaved from farmers, grain exporters and dockworkers as a lockout at some of the Vancouver-area grain elevators was negotiated to a close. The lockout started in February 2013 in the midst of contract negotiations between the longshoremen’s union and some of the big elevators. United Grain said one of the workers sabotaged some of its equipment and locked union members out of its facility. The longshoremen set up picket lines. Everybody filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board. Federal and state grain inspectors, who are required to check the grain before it is exported, said they were afraid to cross the picket lines because of some reports of harassment. In October, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the Washington State Patrol to escort state inspectors into the grain facilities while contract negotiations continued.

A deal proved elusive, and last month Inslee ordered the patrol to stop the escorts. This generated criticism from grain exporters, the business community and some legislative Republicans who charged Inslee was siding with his union buddies and putting state workers at risk. That chant was quickly taken up by some editorial writers around the state, who had kept mostly mum about his earlier decision to use state resources to help a private enterprise and intervene on the side of management accused of an illegal lockout.

Whatever one may want to ascribe to Inslee’s motivations – one legislator filed a complaint against him with the Executive Ethics Committee for pulling the WSP escorts, but that was quickly dismissed – his first action didn’t help end the lockout. The second apparently did when coupled with the fact that the wheat harvest was starting, federal inspectors also refused to cross the lines, local law enforcement refused to provide escorts, and a mediator from Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service was able to get the two sides together and keep them together until they reached a deal.

The sound you heard is a sigh of relief from many involved. There’s also the sound of a clog breaking up in the wheat pipeline from the Palouse to the Pacific and points West. It’s kind of a giant sucking sound, but the good kind.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.


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