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What Happens in Wisconsin... Facing similar budget woes, Oregon prepares to tackle its own union issues 

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Adalia McDonald is bracing herself for the coming storm. A unemployment specialist in Bend, McDonald, like a lot of state employees, isn't sure exactly what her job or her paycheck is going to look like next year as the legislature prepares to take up a budget that continues to hemorrhage cash amidst the recession-stricken economy. That's a concern for McDonald, who is trying to help put two kids through college while keeping up with her own bills. But McDonald, who will take 10 unpaid days this year to help the state pinch its pennies, isn't holding out much hope that she and her fellow workers will be spared significant hardship.

Call it a blowback from the Obama health care bill or lingering resentment over the bailout and stimulus spending, but state legislators from Ohio to Idaho put public employee benefits in the crosshairs as they went to work on state budgets this year. In Republican-controlled states, it's been an all out assault on state workers, with whom lawmakers have drawn a line in the sand that threatens to break the powerful political influence of traditionally left-leaning employee unions.

Here in Oregon, where Democrats control the senate and the governorship, the rhetoric has been less heated. But the debate over the role of unions, particularly public employee unions, is likely to inform how lawmakers divvy up the pain of a $3.5-billion budget shortfall over the next two years. Gov. John Kitzhaber submitted a budget proposal that asks public employees, from teachers to parole officers, to make sweeping sacrifices in pay and other benefits while picking up a larger portion of their pension contributions. Republican lawmakers have suggested that state employees also begin to pick up a portion of their health costs, as many teachers are already doing.

But if you're expecting a fight over the fundamental principles of unions like the one that has drawn tens of thousands of protesters to the steps of Wisconsin's capital building, don't hold your breath. Local legislators and political observers say that Oregon is unlikely to see the kind of brinksmanship that's been on display in other areas of the country. The looming debate over how to plug Oregon's gaping budget shortfall, however, is already creating a divide between public workers and lawmakers, who say they expect state employees to shoulder a significant share of the burden. For their part, public workers, many of whom are already taking unpaid "furlough" days, have acknowledged that they will need to make further sacrifices. Still, the budget proposal put forward by the governor is essentially a non-starter, said Keith Quick, a local union organizer with SEIU Local 503, which represents roughly 1,200 employees in Deschutes County.

"There's no way that we would settle for the governor's opening offer," Quick said, "I mean, members are not going to do that. They feel like they've been struggling to get by in this economy. To have them go further in the hole would not benefit the state of Oregon and definitely not benefit Central Oregon."

By Quick's account, state employees would be taking a roughly 20-percent cut under Kitzhaber's proposed plan, most of it in the form of additional health insurance premiums, which are expected to rise as much as 13 percent with the state capping its share at the current contribution. That's a huge hit to state employees in Deschutes County, most of whom are making under $40,000 in roles like highway maintenance workers and clerical support staff, Quick said. Add that to the fact that many state employees have mortgages to pay and there is a disproportionately high number of family members and spouses who are out of work due to the recession and housing collapse, he said.

Whether workers will be sufficiently galvanized by the ongoing protests in other areas of the country to force a showdown with the state over pay and benefits is an open question. However, it's clear that workers have been motivated by what they've seen going on over the past few weeks, Quick said.

"It's pretty amazing because members seem engaged with the union and unionism more than they ever have. When they get home from work they see it on TV and so, in a way, it's sparking a resurgence in organized labor," Quick said.

Whatever transpires in Oregon though, it's unlikely to have the kind of national ramifications that the debate has had in places like Wisconsin, which has served less as a budget discussion than it has a blanket referendum on unions. Despite a close race for the governorship, Oregon remains firmly in the hands of the Democratic Party. Also, the West Coast, in general, has bucked the recent trend of conservative victories that swept Republicans into power in places like Wisconsin. There, Gov. Scott Walker ran on a conservative platform that put public employee unions directly in the crosshairs. Since then, he has enjoyed Republican majorities in both arms of the Wisconsin legislature, allowing him to make sweeping policy changes that have reverberated across the country. By way of contrast, Kitzhaber, like nearly all Democrats, enjoys the support of public employee and labor unions and has been clear to endorse union members' rights to collectively bargain on issues like working conditions and job security, as well as wages and benefits. However, Kitzhaber was clear in his campaign that he expected public employees to take a hit while the state attempts to gain its financial footing. But that didn't stop unions from donating generously to his campaign, said Bill Lunch, a political analyst who teaches at Oregon State University.

Lunch said it came down to a choice of the lesser of two evils for unions when they looked at Kitzhaber's agenda versus that of his challenger, Chris Dudley.

"If you're a union leader, the choices you had in the fall of 2010 were not particularly appealing. It was: What level of pain amongst your members would serve them best?" Lunch said.

Kitzhaber's austerity measures have been well received by Republican state legislators, including Bend's legislative contingent, who say they are pleased with Kitzhaber's initial proposal. The biggest accomplishment they say is to put spending on par with revenues for the next biennium, rather than simply building off last year's budget.

"I have to give him an enormous amount of credit for doing what he said he was going to do," said Jason Conger, Bend's newly elected House representative.

Conger, a Republican, who ran on a platform of growing the economy by reducing taxes on individuals and businesses, said there is no appetite among his colleagues to take on the larger issue of union rights.

"I don't think there is any desire, nor are there the numbers to be able to make this a referendum on public employee unions. We're too busy trying to figure out how not to force school districts to cut days," he said.

But he said it's imperative for Oregon to look at some point at restructuring how it provides services and how much it pays for them. That includes taking a hard look at the role that unions play in the state of Oregon.

"I think it goes without saying that unions, particularly public sector unions, have a lot of political clout in this state and have an enormous amount of money and influence. I view unions as kind of similar to a company that has a lot of government contracts. It's an organization that exists to benefit itself, and if those unions have come to exercise a disproportionate amount of influence on the rest of the state, that's a problem. But that's not a discussion that's really timely right now," Conger said.

Senator Chris Telfer agrees. Telfer, a former Bend city councilor who ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer last year, said she doesn't expect any wholesale changes to the state's relationship with public employees as part of this budget. She said, however, that there's a need to modify the collective bargaining rules as they exist today to reflect what she sees as the realities of the 21st Century.

"I do believe we ought to look at our collective bargaining process and see if they're really bargaining - see if there is really negotiating that goes on," Tefler said.

"As a city councilor, I can tell you there wasn't really a lot of negotiating going on. I think we need to modernize our collective bargaining process. I would not want to take it away from employees, but I do think that we need to modernize," Telfer said.

By The Numbers

428% - the increase in federal public
employee salaries since 1969

632% - the increase in private sector
salaries since 1969

20 million - the number of state and local
public employees nationwide

$2.2 trillion - total U.S. state expenditures in 2010.

50% - how much of that money went
to wages and benefits.

35,000 - the total number of state employees in Oregon

$44, 695 - the median salary for Oregon state employees, excluding home health care workers.

Source: Oregon Politico, Sunshine Review

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