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Originally published Friday, April 27, 2012 at 3:01 PM

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Governor must drive harder bargain with state employees

Gov. Chris Gregoire soon begins negotiations on new state employee contracts. Here's hoping she drives a harder bargain that better reflects the state's permanently reset economic conditions than was done in the last two negotiation cycles.

Seattle Times Editorial

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ON Wednesday, the state begins negotiating with unions on contracts to begin July 1, 2013. The state needs to do a much better job this time than the last two times.

On Sept. 12, 2008, negotiators for Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Washington Federation of State Employees reached agreement on 2 percent raises in each of the following two years. A recession was bearing down, and a panic stirring on Wall Street. Three days later, Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering the worst financial crisis in 75 years.

The governor stuck with the raises. In December, the Office of Financial Management (OFM) said there was no money for them, and she called the unions back to the table. They sued, lost and agreed to cancel the raises.

• In 2010, negotiators agreed on a few contracts, but higher-ed and general government contracts were not reached by the Oct. 1 deadline. In November, OFM declared the deals financially infeasible. Gregoire asked that the employee share of health insurance premiums, then 12 percent, be increased to 26 percent, which was the average that year for family coverage among Washington's private employers that offered it. She settled for 15 percent, plus a 3 percent pay cut.

In October 2011, Gregoire asked unions to agree to pay more than the 15 percent for health insurance. They refused, and the share is still at 15 percent.

Now, after two cycles in which the state agreed to contracts it could not fund, the two sides begin again. This time there is a difference: Gregoire's team is negotiating contracts that will bind her successor.

For the sake of the next governor, and for Washington taxpayers who are paying for benefits better than their own, we hope she drives a shrewder bargain. After four years, it should be clear the economy has permanently reset. State contracts should complete that adjustment, as most of their private counterparts have done.

Another thing. The collective-bargaining law of 2002 says the Legislature can vote the contracts down. It never has dared do so. Legislators have avoided that choice by burying the contract provisions in budget bills.

From now on, contract provisions should be in a separate bill, with hearings, debates and recorded votes. That is about accountability to all the state's citizens.

Also, the 2002 law appoints legislative leaders to a Joint Select Committee on Employee Relations and says the governor's negotiators "must consult" with it. So far, "must consult" has meant sending advisory emails. That committee should be convened — for the first time — to set the Legislature's expectations.

The Legislature needs to take back a larger role in setting state employee pay. If this process cannot create contracts the state can afford, the Legislature should repeal the collective-bargaining law and take back the full authority to set state employee pay.

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