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March 9, 2011 at 9:43 AM

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State Sen. Zarelli introduces bill to reject union contracts

Posted by Andrew Garber

Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, has introduced a bill calling for the Legislature to reject contracts Gov. Chris Gregoire has negotiated with state workers.

Zarelli is the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee and a key budget negotiator this year. One Democrat, Sen, Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, also has signed on along with several Republicans.

In an interview Wednesday, Zarelli said he introduced the bill because he doesn't believe the contracts Gregoire negotiated went far enough in seeking concessions from the unions. The agreements the governor reached call for a 3 percent cut in pay through unpaid time off during the next two years.

She also proposed that state workers pick up 15 percent of their health-care premiums during the next two years, with the state picking up 85 percent. The state currently pays 88 percent of the costs, including for family coverage.

Zarelli made it clear that the bill does not affect the right of workers to collectively bargain. He just wants the governor to renegotiate the contracts and save the state more money. Zarelli didn't specify what terms he like to see in the contracts.

He does spell out his arguments for dumping the current contract:

Specifically, the legislature finds the following provisions contrary to the needs of citizens that depend upon vital state programs and taxpayers that expect lawmakers to best prioritize existing funds:
(1) Employee health care premiums, which limit employees to paying fifteen percent of the premium share, a percentage well below the private sector average;
(2) Step salary increases, which provide thousands of employees up to five percent annual raises over the course of the next biennium;
(3) Limitations on health benefit designs, which restrict innovations in health care delivery and attempts to bend the cost curve;
(4) Temporary salary reductions, which do not carry forward savings into future biennia; and
(5) Sick leave cash out, which costs the state budget millions of dollars at a time when those funds could be put to more urgent uses.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said he opposes the measure, arguing that allowing the bill to move ahead "will result in this place blowing up."

He noted that "in the Senate people can take control of the situation and pull things to the floor and challenge it in committee. There are ways to do that. But it's not my intention to hear the bill."

Democrats control the Senate, House and governor's office.

Zarelli said people may be open to the idea after the March 17 revenue forecast.

There's a widespread expectation that the forecast will show a drop in projected tax collections, which would make the state's nearly $5 billion budget shortfall over the next two years even worse.

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

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Andrew Garber
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Kyung Song
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Lynn Thompson
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Bob Young
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