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State employee union offers concession; Senate fires warning shot

Posted: Friday, April 28, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- The largest state employee union offered a concession Thursday and a Republican leader in Senate pushed a backhanded counteroffer that indicates a tough fight over new contracts for state workers could dominate the Legislature's final days.

The Alaska State Employees Union, which represents about 7,200 state employees, agreed to cap the amount of accumulated leave they can cash out at 75 hours a year.

The union's new contract allows members to convert half of their accumulated sick leave to personal leave, which can then be cashed out.

Senate Republicans had expressed concern that would leave the state facing a $22 million liability. The contract increases for 12 state employee unions were already expected to cost $25 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, including about $13.8 million from the state's general fund. That money must be approved by the Legislature.

Although Administration Commissioner Bob Poe said he doubted the leave would all be cashed out at once, the administration asked for the cap to spread out the financial impact.

''Certain people made it a political issue,'' said Chuck O'Connell, business manager for the ASEA. ''The administration came to us and we were able to reach agreement in a way that should satisfy everybody. The issue was kind of a red herring anyway and we've put it away.''

However, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tim Kelly, who originally raised the issue, said the concession is unlikely to sway enough votes in the GOP-dominated Senate to approve the contracts.

''The Knowles administration's contracts were negotiated by state employees for state employees,'' said Kelly, R-Anchorage. ''By signing that contract, they have committed the state to at least a $22 million liability.''

Kelly is backing an indirect attempt to reduce the overall costs of the contracts.

He's backing a bill that proposes paying the state's nonunion workers a different package than what had been negotiated with union workers.

Workers would get an $800 lump-sum payment this year instead of $1,200. A 2 percent raise in 2001 would be left intact, but a 3 percent raise in 2002 would be reduced to 2 percent.

It also proposes a smaller increase in contributions to health insurance by the third year of the contract -- $600, instead of $630.

The bill is a message that the Senate is unwilling to pay for the contracts as written.

''The message is if the votes aren't there on both sides to ratify the Knowles administration contracts that were presented to us, that this is a counterproposal I think would pass,'' Kelly said.

Applying the cheaper deal to all state employees would save $5.1 million this year, of which $2.5 million would come from the general fund, according to Legislative Finance Division calculations.

The bill passed the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday morning and could get a vote on the floor on Friday.

O'Connell said Kelly's proposal is not acceptable.

''During the course of bargaining we made literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of compromises,'' O'Connell said. ''Now we're being asked to compromise a compromise and we're not willing to do that under any circumstances.''

Gov. Tony Knowles also attacked Kelly's proposal, calling it an attempt to interfere with the administration's power to negotiate labor agreements.

''What the Legislature is bound to do by law is to vote this contract up or down,'' said Knowles, a Democrat. ''They are not in the negotiating process.''

The contracts will be a central issue as the Legislature moves toward adjournment. The agreements have more support in the House, which could attach the money to pay for them to an important budget bill and send the measure to the Senate, provoking a showdown.



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