Law requiring state pay raises be “feasible financially” is toothless

Gov. Jay Inslee and his budget team spent much of 2016 negotiating pay raises with 38 unions representing state employees. The result was pay increases that average 6%, at a time when the state is scrambling for every penny to meet the McCleary order on K-12 funding.

The timing of these negotiations between the governor and some of his largest campaign supporters occurred during Inslee’s re-election campaign. That’s not the Inslee team’s fault, but it’s unseemly all the same.

Like many government reformers, editorial boards, and taxpayer advocates, I think it’s time to end the unfortunate practice of conducting secret negotiations behind closed doors. Under the current process, hidden from public view, citizens have no opportunity to see if the governor’s team bargained well on their behalf.

Legislators, too, are cut out of the loop. They can vote for or against the contracts but can’t observe negotiations, amend the pay raises or contribute meaningfully to the process.

Sen. Braun looking out for the taxpayer
One review, beyond the Legislature voting the contracts up or down, is built into the law. The Seattle Times reports, “The contracts were negotiated in private, but before Inslee can include any of the raises in his proposed budget, state law says his Office of Financial Management must certify that they are ‘feasible financially.’”

That sounds like a great idea, but the requirement is basically toothless.

  1. The entity that signs off on whether or not the pay raises are feasible is the Office of Financial Management (OFM) – the governor’s budget office. These are the same people who negotiated the pay raises in the first place.

Barring some calamitous drop-off in state revenues (which Gov. Gregoire faced heading into 2009, the only time these raises have been declared not feasible), the people who just got done negotiating these pay increases aren’t going to turn around and declare them not feasible. The default answer is always going to be “yes.

  1. “Feasible financially” isn’t defined in the law. There is no formula to check, no guidance about when the provision should or should not be triggered. Without a definition, the requirement doesn’t add up to much more than some nice words to reassure taxpayers and legislators.

Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia), who is now the Senate Republicans’ budget lead, sent the OFM director a letter asking that the raises only be deemed feasible “if they can be funded within existing law and revenues without jeopardizing essential services to our most vulnerable.”

Braun is a smart guy – in fact, he’s one of our SGW Bright Lights – and taxpayers are fortunate to have him on their side in the budget debates ahead. His letter sets the stage for the session to come; however, it’s likely to be ignored by OFM and Governor Inslee.

How could it be otherwise? The requirement that raises be “feasible financially” is just a paper tiger – toothless, and worth what it’s printed on. We can do better.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.