October 19, 2010

Governors sometimes say the darndest things

We’re entering Day 57 of the wait for the state to come back to the Health Care Coalition Bargaining table with a realistic proposal (Hint: It shouldn’t include 117 percent increases or 26 percent premium shares).

While we wait, we’re always looking for signals from the other side. And Gov. Chris Gregoire herself yielded some clues (and confusion over facts) in an Oct. 14 interview with journalist Austin Jenkins on Inside Olympia on TVW, the state’s public affairs TV network.

The interview with the governor left the impression that all bargaining had broken down. “We’re still open to negotiations,” the governor said. But the truth is, while some of the Federation’s teams have filed their contracts to mediation or fact-finding, most have dates scheduled through the fall and even up to the Christmas season to continue the hard work on the contracts.

When the governor appeared to confuse the health care coalition bargaining with bargaining for State Troopers and others who have arbitration, Jenkins reminded the governor that “health care gets negotiated as an umbrella for everybody, correct?”

“Umm, pretty much, pretty much,” Gregoire responded.
All state employee unions negotiate in coalition on health care and the final agreement goes in all contracts.
“And the issue on health care – I’m not going to commit an unfair labor practice here and negotiate publicly – but the problem for me in health care is … the bill’s gone up by about $260 million. As I said earlier, I don’t have an extra penny. So the fundamental question is how do we pay for that? I don’t have the ability to pay for it. If I pay for it, then I lay someone off. I can’t provide the service, or I cut services to people, which ultimately lays someone off. So that’s the dilemma that we face.”
The cost for the 60,000 state employees bargaining in coalition is not $260 million – the governor chose to inflate the number by lumping in all state employees, including the 50,000 or so employees exempt or not in bargaining units. She also used the old tactic of making state employees the bad guys – if they maintain health care in the face of more than $1 billion they’ve already sacrificed, others will suffer. That’s why the Federation has argued for using health reserves – done this year to keep costs level in 2011 – and closing tax loopholes – similar to what the Congress did to fund the jobs bill.
Jenkins asked specifically if the governor is still asking state employees to pay 26 percent for premiums – a 117 percent increase over the current 12 percent.

“Again, I’m not going to commit an unfair labor practice here by publicly talking about this,” she said. “They chose to talk about it. We responded simply by saying we can’t afford the escalating cost of health care and therefore we’re asking them to help us get through the recession by paying more.” 
There are no ground rules in health care bargaining, so each side is free to talk publicly. That’s what the Federation did Aug. 24 after the state presented its 26/74 premium split plan. However, in responding to the Federation, the governor’s budget director [in the Aug. 26 Olympian] instead bargained in the media over the separate General Government compensation package, which had not yet even been discussed. The governor wanted a contract that freezes pay and step increases, he said. The governor’s negotiators did not present their compensation plan for discussion until late on Sept. 8. The General Government negotiations are governed by a contract article that places some restrictions on what can be said about what’s being said at the table – and certainly on what has not even been presented at the table.
The governor also seem confused about the Oct. 1 deadline in statute to submit any requests for any parts of the contract that would require new appropriations. But the answer actually came two years ago when the governor refused to submit a request, the Legislature then acted, and the Federation came back in the spring to revamp the tentative agreement. The only deadline that really matters is July 1, 2011, when the 2011-2013 contract needs to be in place. 
As you recall, a court found the governor guilty of an unfair labor practice for those actions in 2008.
 The governor also revealed her thinking on what happens if there is no new contract by July 1, 2011. The existing terms and conditions would continue for a year.

Jenkins: “And you’re saying that the state can’t afford that because that would be the same (88/12 health premium) split?"

Gregoire: “Correct.”

On furloughs, the governor actually showed signs of the old Gregoire who spent years fiercely defending state employees. Jenkins kept goading the governor about why she hadn’t laid off more than the 8,000 state employees she has.

“You know,” Gregoire said, “we’ve laid people off, we’ve furloughed people, this idea that we ought to take it out on the hide of every state employee, I simply don’t get. People didn’t get into public service to make money. They got in because they wanted to give back to their community. So they want a decent living for their families, so meantime, they are living under fear all the time now they’re going to lose their job just like anybody else in the private sector, fear they won’t be able to make their house payment or put food on the table for their family, just like the private sector. State employees in state government are no different today than the private sector. They’re under the same fears, the same pressure. The only thing is they get bashed more than the private sector."

But the governor shared her disturbing vision of a post-recession state government: 

“We’re not going to provide the same services we did. It’s going to have to be taken up by volunteers, by churches, by non-profits, by businesses, by neighbors, by friends. State government cannot continue to do what it’s done in the past.”

Watch the furlough exchange here:

Watch the contract exchange here:

That’s it for now.

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