AJOC EDITORIAL: Gov’s union contract is a joke, and so is GOP response

Gov. Bill Walker has a funny way of showing that he’s looking everywhere for solutions to the state’s current $4.1 billion deficit.

In addition to reducing the Permanent Fund Dividend by redirecting earnings into paying for state government, he’s proposed raising taxes on oil and gas, fishing, mining, tourism, alcohol, cigarettes, fuel, and personal income.

He made a big show in January of claims he’s instituted a hiring freeze and restricted employee travel, although he couldn’t provide any estimate of how much money it would save.

Meanwhile, his Department of Administration was negotiating with the labor unions that represent about 87 percent of the employees covered by collective bargaining arrangements.

About 11,000 of the 14,400 or so employees covered by the current negotiations are members of the Alaska Public Employees Association and the Alaska State Employees Association.

Coincidentally, both unions endorsed Walker for governor in 2014. Also coincidentally, its members are giving up next to nothing in the contracts being presented to the Legislature for approval.

All together, the Administration Department estimates the current contracts tentatively agreed to will save a whopping $6.5 million in the next fiscal year from a couple furlough days per employee and a minimal contribution to the health insurance from the current 0 percent to 5 percent.

To put that in perspective, $6.5 million in savings represents about 0.5 percent of total state payroll of about $1.2 billion.

Zero-point-five.

Out of the total deficit, $6.5 million is 0.1 percent.

Zero-point-one.

In the accounting world these amounts are known as rounding errors.

Out of the $457 million in higher taxes proposed by Walker — which amounts to more than 10 percent of the deficit — $6.5 million is 1.4 percent.

The furlough days, minimal as they are, generate even less when Administration estimates that about three-quarters of employees will cash in leave rather than take an unpaid day.

What remains are escalating and generous pay increases for “merit” and what is simply known as a “step” increase of 3.25 percent every two years. The definition of merit, under the state’s current contracts, is “acceptable or better.”

Under this definition, according to Administration Commissioner Sheldon Fisher, about 95 percent of employees qualify for the 3.5 percent “merit” raise for each of their first five years on the job.

To be fair, the Administration has removed the cost of living allowance increases, or COLA, from the current deals. A 2.5 percent COLA for the current fiscal year totaled about $30 million, which the Legislature offset with a corresponding cut to executive branch budgets.

That is difficult to count as “savings,” though, as elimination of the COLA will be more than offset by the near-automatic merit and step raises still in the contracts.

It is also worth noting that the Consumer Price Index has increased by just 0.5 percent and 1.6 percent in Anchorage in 2015 and 2014, respectively, thanks largely to the collapse in oil prices that is driving the deficit.

The most fantastic statement in the Department of Administration’s presentation to the House Finance Committee on March 14 was from the slide titled “Bargaining Priorities” that read “Current fiscal climate requires modest reductions.”

Modest? We know Juneau is off the road system but until now it wasn’t clear that it is actually on another planet.

As usual, though, the Republican-led majorities are botching their response.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, introduced House Bill 379 that would eliminate the merit and step increases until oil reaches $90 per barrel for a full fiscal year. It would also change the qualification for a merit increase from “acceptable” to “good.”

This is in direct opposition to a legal opinion from the Legislature’s own attorneys that declared unequivocally it is outside the body’s constitutional powers to engage in collective bargaining, which Johnson’s bill clearly does with its specific requirements for a labor contract.

The memo concludes that the Legislature holds the power of the purse, and can simply refuse to appropriate money to fund raises if it doesn’t approve of them.

All it should take is some firm statements from legislators to the Administration Department that they will not fund raises if they’re included in a contract.

Instead they are taking what appears to be an unconstitutional path to achieve what they already have the power to do by other means.

It’s no wonder the majorities find themselves in their current mess.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jensen@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
04/20/2016 - 4:16pm

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