May 10: Juneau Empire on state employee contracts:

Posted: Monday, May 15, 2000

It took a special session, but lawmakers finally approved -- and nearly unanimously -- new labor contracts with state employees. For that we say thanks.

Not to look a gift horse in the mouth or anything, but the issue is unfortunately far from over. The deal worked out last weekend merely funds the contracts for this year. We'll be facing the same battle next year and the year after. But at least we don't have to worry about threats of a strike, as one major union already had voted to do so if the contracts weren't funded.

The contracts have always been a political football and this year was no different.

Lawmakers waited until after the regular session to finally approve the raises and the administration miraculously found enough money this year at the 11th hour.

That, of course, is raising eyebrows -- the old who knew what (or where to find it) when.

Some key legislators think the administration was holding the funds back in reserve; sort of an insurance policy. Senate President Drue Pearce went so far as to say administration officials flat-out lied about some of the additional funding available. Key administration officials, of course, deny that, saying the funding wasn't identified until near the end of the fiscal year when they realized there would be additional leftover funds from certain programs.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. Yet we do think it's pretty ironic that the administration suddenly found some $30 million right at the last minute. Oh well, we're sure it will be quite the topic next year during the budget battle.

After all the smoke and mirrors, the $32.2 million spending bill covers union employees, labor contracts for University of Alaska employees, and similar increases for non-union workers in all three branches of government and the university. The contracts call for most employees to receive $1,200 bonuses in July, 2 percent raises next year and 3 percent raises the following year. It also calls for additional state spending on health care costs.

Republicans leaders, reluctant the entire session to fund the contracts for fear they wouldn't meet their goal of cutting $30 million from the state budget, tried to push through another deal that offered lower bonuses, and reduced raises and health coverage. Failure to pass that led to the special session.

To their credit, the unions agreed to two contract changes that probably ensured final passage. The biggest union agreed to cap the amount of sick leave members could cash out for the next two years. And all the unions agreed savings that might accrue in health care costs would be split 50-50 between the workers and the state.

In the end, it was another political compromise. No one got everything they wanted, but no one really lost out. The unions gave up a couple of points, but still got their raises and bonuses. Republicans approved the contracts and still boast they met their goal of cutting $30 million.

No strike this summer, so everyone's happy. At least until next year.

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