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Friday, February 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Key Democrats back state raises

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — Pay raises and benefits for state workers are apparently off the chopping block when it comes to dealing with a budget shortfall projected at more than $2 billion.

Gov. Christine Gregoire, House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown went before the Washington State Labor Council one by one yesterday and pledged their support for a collective-bargaining agreement projected to cost more than $180 million in the next two years.

Gregoire got a standing ovation at a labor-council conference, saying she supports providing money for raises and health benefits. "I'm going to fight for the collective-bargaining agreement," she told the audience. "Our state employees have gone four years with pay cuts."

Former Gov. Gary Locke negotiated an agreement with the state union for raises and health benefits. The Legislature can vote up or down on the contract. If rejected, it goes back for renegotiation. The contract calls for a 3.2 percent raise in the first year and a 1.6 percent increase the second year.

Gregoire also said she disagrees with critics who say the state's health benefits for state workers are too generous. "Why should the state, as an employer, be anything other than a model to the rest of the public and private sector about how you treat your employees?" Gregoire said.

Chopp, D-Seattle, told the council that House Democrats "strongly support implementing those contracts, to get the pay raises and health benefits that people deserve."

Brown, D-Spokane, told the audience not to pay attention to people who talk about having to boost taxes to pay for salary increases.

Dino Rossi, the former Republican state senator who ran against Gregoire for governor, often said the state shouldn't "raise taxes on people who are unemployed to give raises to people who still have jobs."

Brown said the raises are needed. "We're talking about barely holding our own here," she said. "Don't let anybody talk you into a false depiction of our budget situation."

David Groves, a spokesman for the labor council, said all three officials expressed general support in the past. But yesterday was the first time they all addressed a big crowd of union members and explicitly said "they're going to fund this contract."

"We think it's a commitment to state workers they need to hear," he said. "What they've done to state employees in recent years can't continue. It's no way to treat your employees."

Gregoire's office afterward said the governor also supports raises and health benefits for nonunion state workers.

The total cost for all state workers, union and nonunion, is projected at more than $300 million in the next two years.

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com. Seattle Times reporter Ralph Thomas contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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