OLYMPIA – When state employees faced pay cuts of about 3 percent earlier this year to help balance the budget, the state’s top officials talked about sharing the pain. They wrote a letter to the state commission that sets their salaries, requesting similar treatment.
But there was a problem: The commission, set up by a constitutional amendment, didn’t have the legal authority to lower pay, only to raise it or keep it the same.
The Legislature eventually passed a law that allows the nine statewide elected officials to cut their pay voluntarily by simply filling out a form. The Department of Personnel created the form and posted it online, and the head of the Office of Financial Management notified those officials it was there for them to use if they chose.
Gov. Chris Gregoire believes doing so “would be a powerful signal to state employees and all of Washington citizens,” OFM Chief Marty Brown wrote in a June 30 email to elected state executives.
But more than half the state’s top elected officials didn’t take a voluntary pay cut. They opted instead to give 3 percent of their pay to a charity of their choice.
Tim Welch, a spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, which negotiated 3 percent wage cuts through furloughs for its members, said giving to charity instead of taking a pay cut raises some questions about transparency and tracking the money.
“I can’t criticize them for doing that,” Welch said, because many charities are also hit hard by the economy and state budget cuts. “It is going to a good cause. But they have a choice our members don’t have.”
Gregoire and Treasurer James McIntire filled out the form in time to have their pay cut earlier this month, according to Personnel Department records. Gregoire’s pay was cut by about $425 a month, to $13,491, and McIntire’s by about $292 a month, to $9,453.
A spokesman for state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn said the education chief had also filled out the form and had his salary cut 3 percent for July 1-15, the first two-week pay period of the new biennium. The form, which would have been processed through a different system, wasn’t immediately available at the personnel offices, so Dorn’s office resubmitted it Friday. “His pay did go down 3 percent,” spokesman Nathan Olson said.
Lt. Gov. Brad Owen filled out the form late, so he didn’t take a cut that first pay period, an aide said. “I think it was just a matter of having access” to the form, spokesman Brian Dirks said, adding that Owen wasn’t in the office every day at the beginning of the month and didn’t get it filled out and signed until July 21. The cut should show up on his Aug. 10 paycheck.
Five others instead opted to donate an amount equal to that 3 percent of pay to charity.
“There was a whole lot of hoo-rah about (a pay cut) at one point in the session,” State Auditor Brian Sonntag said last week. “I signed the letter to the salary commission.”
But when the commission said it couldn’t act on the request, and the Legislature “horsed around” in trying to come up with a solution, Sonntag said he decided to make a donation equal to what would have been his pay cut to the Tacoma Rescue Mission, which helps the homeless in his hometown.
“I’m just staying with that” rather than filling out the form for the pay cut, he said. “I know this is going to a good cause.”
The pay cut keeps money in the general fund, which is used for a wide variety of state programs and wages. Sonntag said he’d be more likely to go with the voluntary pay cut if the money could be directed to programs he considers more worthwhile, like performance audits. It is, he agreed, an option state workers don’t have.
Attorney General Rob McKenna increased his deductions to the state’s Combined Campaign to equal the 3 percent, designating specific charities around the state, from the Boy Scouts in Seattle to the Second Harvest Food Bank in Spokane.
Secretary of State Sam Reed also donated 3 percent of his pay to local charities through increased payroll deductions to the Combined Campaign, spokesman Dave Ammons said. Reed was also concerned about undercutting the process voters approved with a constitutional amendment.
“The whole point of having the commission was so it wouldn’t be a political football with the Legislature,” Ammons said.
Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said donating to local charities through payroll deduction was a better option because his salary is paid from an assessment on insurance companies, not from the general fund.
“By simply requesting a 3 percent reduction in salary, that money would be refunded to insurers, most of which are based out of state,” Kreidler wrote to Brown, the OFM chief.
Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark also plans to donate 3 percent of his salary to charities, spokesman Bryan Flint said. Goldmark and his wife are discussing which charities will get the money.