Majority demands cheaper contracts

Senate leaders want unions to consider new labor proposal

Posted: Thursday, April 20, 2000

Some legislative leaders will ask Gov. Tony Knowles' administration to ask state labor unions to accept less expensive contracts, a senator said Wednesday.

``In general the Senate majority doesn't believe under the current fiscal constraints we have enough general fund money to fund the contracts the Knowles administration has forwarded to us,'' said Sen. Tim Kelly, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.

``We've developed a proposal that we believe, while less money, should be acceptable'' to public employees' unions, Kelly said Wednesday after a closed Senate majority meeting. ``We're costing out the proposal that's been developed.''

When asked what's in that proposal, Kelly, an Anchorage Republican, suggested a more appropriate question would be what's not in it.

``This proposal is one of subtraction, not addition,'' he said.

He added that the Senate does not want to inject itself into the collective-bargaining process. Senators will come up with a number they would find acceptable, rather than specific contract terms, he said. However, they will have calculated some changes that would get the contracts to that number.

He said calculations hadn't yet been made on what that number would be. He also wouldn't say what changes in the contracts might bring their total to that number.

Senators are working with members of the House on the issue, he said.

``A group of us have a pretty good idea of what we're willing to support,'' Kelly said. ``There are some legislators that will support the existing contracts, but I don't believe there's enough support for the existing contracts to pass by the end of this session in both bodies.''

The administration has said the contracts, which have been ratified by all but three of the 12 state labor unions, will cost almost $25 million, of which about $13.8 million would come from the state's general fund.

Bob Poe, commissioner of the state Department of Administration, said the administration does not intend to negotiate new deals with the Legislature.

State public employee relations law is clear that collective bargaining is to take place between the administration and the unions, Poe said.

``Nowhere in that law does it talk about anybody else being at that table,'' Poe said. What the law asks legislators to do ``is vote up or down the contracts,'' he said.

``We are not in any kind of negotiations with the Legislature on them and we don't intend to be,'' he said.

The administration has already said it's asking the Alaska State Employees Association to agree to a cap on the amount of sick leave that can be cashed out in one year. The new contracts allow members to cash out half their accumulated sick leave, in exchange for converting to an annual leave system that provides fewer total days off. Some legislators have expressed concern that change could leave the state facing a $22 million liability.

Poe said the administration asked for the change on its own, not because of prompting from the Legislature.

Kelly has said that change alone would not be enough to satisfy concerns in the Senate.

The ASEA has not yet agreed to go along with the cap in sick leave cash-out.

ASEA's 7,200 members, who have authorized a strike, are still in the process of ratifying the contract their executive board approved two months ago. Those votes are being counted this week, with totals expected today or Friday, ASEA Business Manager Chuck O'Connell said.

``Basically what we can't do is we can't change the contract in the middle of a ratification vote, and that's what we're being asked to do, and we just can't do it,'' O'Connell said.

After the vote, he said, ``maybe the opportunity will exist to do something.''



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