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Why liberal Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser voted for the GOP-led budget

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on April 6, 2013 at 10:36 am with No Comments »
April 8, 2013 3:49 pm
Sen. Karen Fraser
Sen. Karen Fraser

The decision on whether to support a Senate Republican-crafted budget Friday night came down to a simple home-district principle for liberal Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County: collective bargaining.

The two-year budget plan that sailed off the Senate floor on a bipartisan vote of 30-18 had money in it to pay for all of the state’s more than two-dozen collective bargaining agreements – as well as a wage increase for low-paid home-care workers who work privately but are paid by tax dollars through Medicaid. At the same time, Fraser said it was a flawed budget with too many questionable fund transfers and cuts to human services that hit the poor and vulnerable.

But for Fraser, a longtime advocate of state workers whose 22nd district takes in the epicenter of state government in Olympia, honoring contracts for state workers dwarfed all others. In statement issued after the vote, the Democratic Caucus chairwoman said:

“I cast my vote to pass this initial version of the budget in order to ‘lock in’ the principle that collective bargaining agreements with state employees will be funded. This is a major middle class priority.

“Collective bargaining is a tough matter, but, unfortunately, the legislative outcome is always a fragile matter. There are always strong efforts to attack, undermine, and not fund collective bargaining agreements for state employees. I have always opposed [these attacks]. By assuring they are funded in this version of the budget, I believe there is assurance they will be protected through the rest of the budget process this session, and in the future.

“I fully agree with ALL the Democratic amendments. They thoroughly demonstrate where this budget needs improvement and new revenues are needed.’’

Under the collective bargaining agreements, most state workers will see 3 percent increases in pay on July 1. Though it may feel like a raise, it is actually a restoration of pay to June 30, 2011, levels – and the “snap back” to earlier pay levels was built into the contracts that expire in June this year.

So Sen. Andy Hill, the Redmond Republican who led the Senate’s budget-writing exercise with help from minority Democrats, could not have avoided some pay increases even if he had tried to reject the more than two-dozen state contracts – some of which do spell out additional pay raises. All told, extra money in the budget to restore allocations for pay, including teachers and classified workers in public schools, or to give 5 percent (50 cent an hour) raises to  home-care workers is over $660 million in a $33.2 billion budget.

In an interview, Fraser noted that she has fought for state workers for 20 years. She said it also was important to support minority Democrats’ negotiators – Sen. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam and Sen. Sharon Nelson of Maury Island – who had protected the collective bargaining agreements, which in states like Wisconsin have been undermined in major partisan scrabbles.

“Having it in this budget I think it really establishes the principle that if you do collective bargaining, those agreements will be funded. And if somebody like me doesn’t vote to support that I think it undermines the principle,’’ Fraser said. “And it does amount to pay increases for thousands and thousands of people in this district. I don’t think they’d understand if I didn’t vote for that.’’

Fraser also said it is clear the budget needs to be changed through negotiations with the House, which puts out its spending plan next Wednesday, and with Gov. Jay Inslee, who has proposed $1.2 billion in new revenues.

“I believe this budget has all sorts of problems, especially the human services part and all these fund raids,” Fraser said. We need more revenue. This is what I’ve been telling people all along.’’

The Majority Coalition Caucus still has the upper hand in the Senate with its 23 Republicans and two maverick Democrats, including Majority Leader Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch. But Fraser said the dynamics are changing now that a budget is in play – and tax revenues are likely to be part of any final budget deal.

“The House, the governor and the Senate Democrats are going to put them in a big squeeze. So in the end I think they are going to have to support some new revenue,” Fraser said of the Senate Majority Coalition. “And we will appreciate them for that.’’

Besides revenues, the other big question is whether lawmakers can do all that and finish by April 28, the 105th and final scheduled day of session.

“You know magic can work around here. Deadlines operate as an incredible motivator around here,” Fraser said. “And they (the Majority Coalition leaders) have been emphasizing and emphasizing 105 days. So who knows? I wouldn’t say it’s impossible.’’

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