Governor calls special session on employee contracts

Posted: Thursday, May 04, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Lawmakers have just enough time to recover from end-of-the-session parties to deal with the last unresolved issue of 2000: proposed contracts with unions representing more than 15,000 state workers.

Gov. Tony Knowles issued a proclamation calling legislators back to work even before they adjourned the regular session Wednesday night. The proclamation requires lawmakers at a special session at 4 p.m. Thursday.

They will be free to consider proposed three-year labor deals with 12 unions without linkage to other sticky issues debated during the 115 days of the regular session. Failure to pay for the increases called for in the contracts could prompt a strike.

The most opposition to the agreements in their present form is in the Senate. Sen. Loren Leman, a Finance Committee member, said he has not decided how he will vote.

''I'm not saying they're fatally flawed,'' said Leman, R-Anchorage. ''We, as more or less the board of directors of the state, ought to be raising questions and having answers.''

If legislators are satisfied with the answers, and can find way to pay for the contracts, Leman said, it's highly likely they'll approve the contracts.

All 12 unions were offered similar deals: a $1,200 lump-sum payment this year, a 2 percent increase next year, and a 3 percent increase the following year, and increases in the state's health insurance contribution.

''That is well within what other Alaskans have experienced,'' said Bob Poe, Department of Administration commissioner, who oversaw negotiations. Poe said the contracts are well below wage and benefit increases seen by workers in the Lower 48. The increases in wages and benefits would cost an additional $13.9 million in general fund dollars next year.

The House signed off on the contracts during the regular session in a bill that called for financing wage increases with across-the-board cuts to most state agencies. That approach was rejected by both Gov. Knowles and Senate leaders.

Leman said his first concern is the overall cost: $126 million over three years. He said lawmakers have been looking for ways to close the gap between spending and petroleum revenue.

''This makes it, for future years, that much harder,'' Leman said.

House and Senate Republicans also are trying to finish the last installment of a commitment made five years ago to cut general fund spending by $250 million.

''If there's another source of money out there, that would allay that concern,'' Leman said.

Leman also wants to learn the effect of switching the state's largest union, the Alaska State Employees Association, from a system of sick leave and vacation leave to a system that awards just personal leave, like contracts with other state unions. ASEA members could cash out some of their accumulated sick leave under the new arrangement.

Poe said the state received a concession for that part of the deal. Union members will receive seven to nine fewer total days of leave.

Poe said the new contracts are needed because the state is less able to compete for workers. He said wages of private sector Alaska workers increased 4.9 percent between 1996 and 1998 and wages of federal workers increased 16 percent, compared to .1 percent for state employees.

A wildlife biologist in the Department of Fish and Game can enter federal employ and make $15,000 to $18,000 more, Poe said.

''Same guy, same job, that much more,'' Poe said.

More state workers are failing to pass probationary periods, he said, indicating that the pool of candidates is less qualified than before.

He also said the state work force is aging. At the Department of Transportation, 41.5 percent of the work force will be eligible for early retirement in the next five years and 22.5 percent eligible for full retirement in the next five years. Poe said 10.5 percent of the DOT work force is eligible for full retirement next year.

ASEA business manager Chuck O'Connell, who represents 7,100 state workers, said he's hopeful the Senate will back the deals.

''It would appear to me that the focus of the Legislature is going to be on finding the funding source,'' O'Connell said. ''I think we're beyond the nitpicking of the contract.''

O'Connell said the contracts are a good deal for the state. For every dollar spent on members of his union, O'Connell said, only 48 cents comes from the general fund. The rest is paid from federal grants or receipts earned by the agencies.

If legislators reject the contracts, there is strong support for a strike among his members.

''Eighty-six percent of them said they would support the strike,'' O'Connell said.

He had no suggestions for where legislators should take the money.

''We have negotiated the price,'' O'Connell said. ''It's up to the boss to pay the price.''

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