State pay cap
would work, but
it won't survive


The Lingle administration plan to ask next year's Legislature to put a ceiling on pay increases awarded by arbitrators of government labor contracts.

GOVERNOR Lingle has proposed that a ceiling be placed on pay increases awarded by an arbitrator to state and county employees to prevent severe cutbacks in state services. It is a sensible solution to the huge problem created by the Legislature in its special session last week, but it has virtually no possibility of being accepted. In labor parlance, it is a "giveback," which unions detest, and Democratic legislators are in no mood to irritate big labor in Hawaii.

The Legislature overrode Lingle's veto of a bill restoring mandatory arbitration of public labor contracts at the behest of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which represents 24,500 state and county white-collar employees. The 2000 Legislature, as Senate President Robert Bunda tellingly describes, had made the unions feel "betrayed" by enacting civil service reforms that ended mandatory arbitration and gave unions the right to strike. Labor prefers large, mandatory pay raises to the right to go on strike.

"Arbitrators never look at the big picture," says former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who proposed the reforms. "The idea that a panel of non-elected people will make decisions which may adversely affect the state's ability to serve the most vulnerable segment of our population is something I cannot buy."

The reforms retained binding arbitration for public employees considered critical to health and safety -- nurses, firefighters, police officers and prison guards. Experiences in negotiating with those groups has shown state negotiators what they can expect from the HGEA and from arbitrators of larger contracts: Unions will ask for double what they want, knowing arbitrators will give them about half that.

"We just had one union that asked for a 40 percent (pay) increase and ended up getting 20 percent over four years," says Ted Hong, the state's chief negotiator. "They knew they would get something in the middle, and they did."

Lingle is suggesting that a ceiling be placed on pay raises, possibly tied to the Consumer Price Index, but the HGEA-controlled Legislature is not about to agree to such an approach. Democratic legislators are more willing to betray citizens in need of government assistance than labor unions that bankroll their re-election campaigns.

The governor probably will face the choice of drastically reducing funds for social services or laying off significant numbers of state workers, the latter of which she pledged not to do in her campaign last year. The HGEA may force her to abandon that pledge if it directs the Legislature to reject the proposed pay cap. The union instead is likely to sacrifice some of their members in return for large pay raises for the majority.



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