Threat of state employee layoffs still real as capital budget impasse persists

The Legislative Building is shown Friday, June 30, 2017, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) Ted S. Warren AP
The Legislative Building is shown Friday, June 30, 2017, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) Ted S. Warren AP

Hundreds of state workers are paid for by Washington’s construction budget. So when that budget never materialized in the Legislature this year, lawmakers feared significant layoffs were on the way.

Roughly two weeks since the legislative session ended with a divide over rural water policy and without a $4 billion capital budget, some state agencies and local colleges report they’ve hustled to keep most workers employed, mainly with money meant to pay for other things.

While that’s been good news for state workers, officials say the situation is temporary, especially with no hint lawmakers are any closer to passing a capital budget in the near future.

“At this point we’ve basically kept folks on with some reserves, but that is not a long-term solution,” said Joe Dacca, the director of state relations for the University of Washington.

The UW has roughly 125 employees at the university’s three campuses whose jobs are funded by the state’s capital budget, Dacca said.

They’re responsible for maintaining infrastructure relied on by thousands of students and faculty members.

They’re on-call if a water main breaks or gutters leak. They keep elevators in working and maintain heating, cooling and ventilation systems, among other duties.

“We’ve got all these big old buildings, and things happen,” Dacca said.

The UW is exploring how to keep its capital budget workers employed as long as possible, he said. Layoff notices have not gone out yet, and there’s no “drop-dead” date for when the university is out of options, Dacca said.

But that time is approaching.

“We’re getting dangerously close now to have to start making some hard decisions,” he said.

The state Parks Department has a more concrete deadline for layoffs: Sept. 30.

Agency spokeswoman Virginia Painter said 26 employees might be affected if there’s no capital budget by then. That includes layoffs for 16 permanent employees.

In the meantime, the agency has shifted the work of threatened employees to duties the department has money for, such as planning for maintenance projects. Department leaders also are offering to fill vacant positions funded with other money with employees at risk of being laid off.

The agency is still working to see if there are other ways to keep more employees, although Painter said the department has “been through it with a fine tooth comb.”

One state employer already has had layoffs.

The Evergreen State College temporarily reduced one project manager position and eliminated another in the college’s facilities department as a result of the capital budget impasse, according to spokesman Zach Powers. But worse layoffs appear to have been avoided for now.

The college rescinded 15 layoff notices late last month by using budget reserves to temporarily pay employee salaries.

The two affected positions at Evergreen are expected to return to full-time work once a full capital budget is passed.

The state’s Office of Financial Management could not report Monday how many layoffs have been made statewide, but OFM estimates more than 500 positions are connected to money in the capital budget that lawmakers agreed to but did not pass earlier this year.

Gov. Jay Inslee has asked agency directors to “do all they can to avoid or minimize layoffs,” said Jaime Smith, an Inslee spokeswoman. OFM is working with agencies to find ways to legally pay employees with other funds.

But, Smith said, “Different agencies will have different abilities to sustain staffing levels the longer they go without a capital budget.”

When lawmakers would approve a full capital budget remains unclear.

Republicans who control the state Senate have said it won’t happen until there is a deal to address the state Supreme Court’s 2016 water-rights ruling known as the Hirst decision.

That ruling requires counties to more intensively regulate the drilling of small wells out of concern they sap water used by fish, tribes and others with senior water rights.

The ruling has forced counties to grapple with new regulations, effectively halting construction for some rural property owners and making well drilling more expensive for others.

The GOP wants to effectively reverse the decision while paying to conserve water in other ways. They contend the regulations are too stringent for many counties to handle and worry costs would be passed onto homeowners.

Democrats who have a majority in the state House pushed for a temporary delay to the ruling while the two parties negotiate further. They didn’t agree to the GOP deal, in part, out of fear there would be too little scrutiny given to the effect of new household wells on water availability.

The side effects of that clash also have put some construction projects on hold, including $1 billion for K-12 schools. The Office of Financial Management estimated the budget would have created roughly 8,000 jobs in its first year had it been passed before adjournment.

But the potential loss of existing employees is also frustrating colleges and state agencies.

Aside from putting maintenance and upkeep at risk, Dacca said it can be “incredibly arduous” to lay employees off and hire them again.

Painter said Parks Department employees carry experience that isn’t easily replaced.

“We don’t want to lose people because, good God, that’s so much institutional memory and knowledge of the parks system and all of that,” she said.

Reporter Lisa Pemberton contributed to this report.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein