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State Seeks to Reopen Done Deals

Concerned about costly pay hikes for workers, officials scrutinize pacts with prison guards, the CHP and others.

March 22, 2004|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — After winning hefty pay hikes and other benefits in recent years, some state employees soon could face a reversal of fortunes.

Lawmakers are questioning the cost of a deal that former Gov. Gray Davis' administration made with state prison guards -- some of his biggest political donors -- and are scrutinizing the process by which governors bargain and legislators ratify such contracts.

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer's deputies are challenging a clause in the guards' contract that gives them broad protections when they become targets of internal investigations.

And earlier this month, a Superior Court judge blocked a key provision of a contract with Caltrans engineers -- and of pacts with other state employee unions -- restricting the state's ability to hire private firms. State employee unions generally oppose the use of private contractors; they threaten state jobs.

Additionally, the Legislature's chief attorney issued an opinion this month casting doubt on the legality of multiyear labor pacts that promise state workers automatic raises year after year.

The legislative counsel's opinion concerned a contract with the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., which represents state prison guards, but it also could apply to state firefighters, California Highway Patrol officers and engineers with multiyear contracts promising them boosts in pay and benefits.

"There's a groundswell against CCPOA that could affect us all," said Jon Hamm of the California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen.

Annual raises cannot be granted unless the Legislature makes annual allocations for them, the legislative counsel said. And with the state facing a $14-billion budget shortfall, lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are choking at the prospect of an automatic raise for correctional officers estimated at 11.3%.

Under the guards' contract, the pay hike would come in July and cost $230 million. The guards received a 6.8% raise last July.

Highway Patrol officers, who agreed to forgo 5% of their raise last year, stand to receive the 5% in July, plus the 7.1% increase they are expected to get the same month under the terms of their contract. Their combined 12.1% pay hike would cost $113 million per year, according to the state Department of Finance.

Firefighters would receive overtime increases costing about $14 million.

"Arithmetic is bearing down on them," said political science professor John Pitney Jr. of Claremont McKenna College. "That pay has to come from somewhere, and that means making cuts elsewhere or raising taxes. That ... takes some of the zest out of giving raises."

Schwarzenegger rejects money from public employee unions. Davis, by contrast, was negotiating with some of his biggest patrons when he forged the labor pacts.

State prison guards, engineers, Highway Patrol officers and firefighters unions representing 54,000 state employees contributed nearly $2.6 million to the Democratic governor during his five years in office. That sum included $1.4 million from the correctional officers.

The state engineers gave him $582,000 -- including $80,000 Sept. 25 and $150,000 Sept. 27, 2003. Davis signed their contract into law Sept. 29. A week later, he was ousted in the Oct. 7 recall.

Bruce Blanning, executive assistant for the 13,000-member Professional Engineers in California Government, declined to discuss the Davis donations.

Steve Maviglio, who was Davis' press secretary, said there was "absolutely no connection" between the September donations and the former governor's decision to sign the contract.

"There was a big wall constructed between union negotiations and the campaign," he said.

Lawmakers, for the most part, have focused on the prison guards' package. Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) -- both traditionally allied with organized labor -- have delved into the five-year pact with the 31,000-member union as part of oversight hearings on the prison system.

The deal, struck as Davis entered the 2002 reelection campaign, granted prison officers long-sought parity with the Highway Patrol and major urban police departments. The Legislature ratified the deal with only one "no" vote. Speier and Romero voted for it.

Depending on raises granted to local police in Los Angeles and elsewhere, prison officers' pay could rise by 37% by 2006, to an annual salary of more than $73,000 a year for a veteran guard. The Schwarzenegger administration recently estimated the combined cost of the deal at $2 billion. The Davis administration in 2002 had placed the price tag at $521 million over the life of the contract.

"The Legislature is embarrassed about how it let these hastily approved contracts take place," said Sen. Bruce McPherson (R-Santa Cruz), who sits on the prison oversight committee. "The cost factor

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