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Kitzhaber: Oregon worker bargaining will be tough

By Tim Fought
Associated Press Writer / September 8, 2010

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PORTLAND, Ore.—Democratic governor candidate John Kitzhaber says there will be tough bargaining ahead with state employee unions and he proposed Tuesday to put Oregon school districts in the same position with their teacher unions.

Kitzhaber said in new budget proposals that if he wins a third term as governor, he would seek to reduce projected increases in state worker compensation -- although he doesn't say by how much.

Then, Kitzhaber said, he would seek to peg the aid the state gives local schools to the outcome of the state-level bargaining -- but he didn't say how he would accomplish that.

Combined, the two proposals would forge a connection between the two largest components of state spending, pay for teachers and pay for state employees, as Oregon deals with a budget that has deteriorated over the past 18 months.

Republican Chris Dudley said Kitzhaber's proposals reflect timidity before public employee unions. Kitzhaber wasn't the first choice of large numbers of public employees during primary season, but they have rallied around him since then.

Kitzhaber was previously elected governor in 1994 and 1998.

His plan "maintains the failed status quo," said Dudley spokesman Jake Suski. It fails to address growing public worker costs or higher education reform and includes nothing about creating private sector jobs, he said.

Dudley has been more specific about what concessions he wants from state workers. For example, he has called for an end to the state's practice of picking up employees' 6 percent contribution to their retirement plan. Kitzhaber said only that "changes to the 6 percent pick-up" should be on the bargaining table during "tough collective bargaining negotiations."

Both Dudley and Kitzhaber have talked, both with a lack of specifics, about putting more state controls on the largest single chunk of state tax dollars. As things stand today, the state raises most of the money for school aid and sends it to local school boards, which are then free to bargain with their employees.

Kitzhaber said he would seek "to place some conditions on how state resources will be spent at the district level. In other words, while agreements will continue to be negotiated at the local level, the state will predicate its funding for K-12 on the compensation and benefit agreements with state workers."

Dudley said recently in a package of education proposals that state officials "will have to ensure that local school districts no longer negotiate salary and compensation increases that will exceed projected state revenue" -- and that may mean statewide or regional bargaining with teachers.

A spokesman for the union with the largest share of state workers as members said the difference between the two candidates' positions is that Kitzhaber acknowledges that state employees have, over time, given up wages in return for benefits, and Dudley doesn't.

"There has to be a proportionate change on the wage side to make people whole for any change on the benefit side," said Ed Hershey of the Service Employees International Union.

Bargaining for state worker contracts will be conducted this winter, as the Legislature is in session writing a two-year budget.

Calls for comment about the candidates' school aid positions were not immediately returned from Oregon associations of school boards, administrators and teachers.

Kitzhaber's budget proposals said that over the next decade the state has to emphasize spending that prevents social ills, such as addiction and crime.

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