The state House of Representatives appears poised to approve funding for state labor contracts.
An amendment to House Bill 52 appropriating about $31 million for increased pay and benefit costs for state workers passed the House on Saturday by a 25-14 margin. The bill itself is up for a vote today.
If the measure passes the House, it will still need to be voted on by the Senate, where senators have said there are not now the votes to pay for the contracts.
The bill directly affects about 22,000 state and university workers. Indirectly it could affect other Alaskans because employees may strike if the contracts aren't approved. Members of the largest of the state labor unions, Alaska State Employees Association, representing about 7,100 general government workers, has already authorized a strike if the Legislature doesn't fund the contracts.
State Department of Administration Commissioner Bob Poe said Saturday's House vote on the funding amendment is good news for the administration, which negotiated the deals and now is trying to get the Legislature to pay for them.
``I think it's encouraging news, but it's way too early to predict what's going to happen,'' he said. ``I think there's lot of challenges still out there to get these contracts funded.''
But, he added, ``That's a very important statement of support on the House side.''
The amendment calls for paying for the labor cost increases with about $19 million from the state's general fund and $12 million from other funds, including federal money.
The inclusion of general fund money is significant because when the bill first came out of the House Finance Committee, it didn't authorize any general fund spending, instead calling for all the money to come from unspecified ``other funds.''
House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder said it would be up to the administration to find the ``other funds.''
He and some others in the Republican majority do not want to spend general fund money on the labor contracts because their goal has been to cut $30 million from the general fund budget this year.
``This blows that goal right out of the water,'' Mulder said of the amendment made Saturday.
Despite opposition from Mulder and other House leaders, enough members of the Republican majority voted with Democrats to approve the amendment authorizing general fund and other spending for the contracts.
Rep. Bill Hudson, a Juneau Republican, was among those voting for the amendment, as was Juneau Democrat Beth Kerttula.
The bill would cover the first year of increased costs contained in the three-year labor contracts. The contracts provide $1,200 bonuses for most state workers this year, with 2 percent raises the next year and 3 percent raises the following year.
Also covered in the bill are non-union workers in all three branches of government and University of Alaska employees.
Senate President Drue Pearce, an Anchorage Republican, said Saturday she didn't know whether House Bill 52 would come up for a vote on the Senate floor if it passes the House. It will go to committees first, she said.
Sen. Tim Kelly, an Anchorage Republican, has been floating an alternative labor deal that he said would save the state $20 million over three years in employee contracts. The savings come by providing $800 bonuses this year, instead of $1,200; 2 percent raises in the final year, instead of 3 percent; and spending less on health benefits.
A bill applying that deal to non-union workers is being considered in the Senate. Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, tried unsuccessfully Saturday to amend it to provide non-union workers with the same package negotiated for union workers.
Kelly said it's not necessary to amend the bill now. If the Legislature decides to fully fund the union contracts, members will be able to come back and change the bill to provide more money for non-union workers as well. That bill has not moved out of the Senate yet.
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