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State, employees’ unions continue parley as budget deadline passes

The state began the new fiscal year on July 1 without the 2008-09 budget—a not uncommon occurrence. But this year, the betting in the Capitol is for a prolonged stalemate that could last through the summer, which means paychecks for thousands of legislative employees are likely to be delayed.

Last week, the Assembly Rules Committee sent a note to staffers that included an announcement from Washington Mutual that the bank would accommodate its customers who are legislative employees by offering paycheck advances. To qualify, the workers are required to have had an account at Washington Mutual as of July 1.

“Advances can be made starting July 15,” the bank said. “WaMu may extend this offer to future delayed payroll amounts at its discretion.”

Delayed pay has happened before in the Capitol. Most workers in the state bureaucracy are not hurt by delayed budgets; those most affected are legislative employees, elected officials and appointees. If the budget delay continues, among the hardest hit will be state vendors, those who supply products and services to the state. The longest budget delay, over a $99 billion spending plan, occurred in 2002, when then-Gov. Gray Davis finally signed the budget 67 days late on Sept. 5, 2002.

The state also began the new fiscal year July 1 without contracts with a number of state-employee unions. The pacts expired, and discussions continue over new agreements. There was one unusual interruption: The discussions between the state and the 4,245 firefighters in one bargaining unit were temporarily put on hold as the firefighters went out to confront hundreds of blazes around the state. “Firefighting takes precedence over bargaining,” noted Lynelle Jolley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Personnel Administration.

The Highway Patrol’s contract, approved in 2006, runs until 2010. The contract for the state’s 31,000 prison officers expired two years ago and those workers have been operating under the terms and conditions that were imposed by the state in September 2007. The pact for the 3,200 state attorneys’ pact expired last year.

Contracts for the other bargaining units—the state has a total of 21 bargaining units–remain under discussion. The state has about 189,000 rank-and-file employees covered by union contracts or about 235,000 employees when supervisors, managers and exempt employees—typically political appointees—are included. When higher education, judiciary and legislative employees are tallied, the number totals about 340,000.

The contracts vary in length, but the beginning of the fiscal, July 1, is often viewed as target for the effective date of new contracts because it coincides with the latest state budget—a document that frequently wins approval after the deadline.

The prison officers’ agreement is projected at $240 million for the 2008-09 fiscal year, a figure that could change depending on the strength of final state budget, which has not yet been approved. In 2007-08, the price tag was about $260 million.

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