Contracts shouldn't be a political football

Posted: Friday, April 28, 2000

So here's the scenario: The Knowles administration spends months and months negotiating new contracts with state employees. The unions representing those employees agree to the terms. It appears the House is leaning toward approving them. Senate leaders, however, let it be known they're not crazy about the contracts and counteroffer, sort of. Union reps say ``no way'' and are willing to walk if the Senate doesn't approve what's on the table.

And of course this is all coming down to the wire at the end of this year's session. It's a classic standoff and who's going to blink first is still up in the air. If the contracts aren't approved, Gov. Knowles may call lawmakers back in for a special session.

A quick background: The new contracts call for union workers to get a $1,200 bonus this year, a 2 percent raise in 2001, a 3 percent raise in 2002 and increased contributions to health insurance. A revised version of Senate Bill 298, however, focuses on non-union workers. That proposal calls for an $800 bonus this year, the same 2 percent raise next year and a 2 percent raise in 2002 instead of 3 percent. It also would reduce the contribution to health insurance in the third year by $30.

While the Senate version deals with non-union workers, lawmakers say they'll offer union and non-union employees the same package, which they should. Let's not even get into offering different packages.

But what Senate leaders are doing is basically sending a message that they aren't too happy with the cost of the union packages, and that this proposed non-union package is what they're willing to spend for the union contracts. Senators involved in this legislation say their proposal would save about $20 million over the life of the contract.

For the past couple of years, state workers' raises have been half the rate of inflation. That means while their paychecks are bigger, the buying power is less.

The whole negotiating and approving process -- as stated in law -- can appear a little frustrating. What you have is a Democratic administration negotiating contracts that a Republican-led Legislature is supposed to approve or decline. In simple terms, you and Mom agree to your allowance, but Dad has to agree to pay it.

We could always change the law and have the Legislature negotiate the contracts -- but that opens up the bargaining process to a political Pandora's box. Maybe, it might be better to do a little more ``advise and consent'' and open the doors of communication between the Legislature and the administration. Would it hurt to have some Legislators sit in on negotiations and let it be known early what lawmakers will and won't approve?

Of course, the contracts always turn into a political football, especially when the administration is made up of one party and the Legislature of another.

However, we'd like to point out that we're pretty sure there are more than a few Republicans working for the state. So let's not look at this as a Democrat verses Republican thing, but rather as what's best for our employees and the state.

Let's fund the contracts as negotiated.

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