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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Lingle seeks restrictions on binding arbitration

By Gordon Y.K. Pang and Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Last year, the Legislature gave back to the Hawai'i Government Employees Association the right to seek binding arbitration to resolve any stalemates at the bargaining table with government employers.

Now Gov. Linda Lingle has introduced a trio of bills designed to blunt what she believes is an unfair advantage that binding arbitration gives to the state's largest public workers' union. The administration has repeatedly argued that arbitrators tend to favor union positions while not properly considering the state or counties' ability to pay for increases.

The three bills would:

• Cap the amount HGEA units could receive through binding arbitration at 1.5 percent annually.

• Require an arbitration panel, when determining the issue of pay for any bargaining unit, to take into consideration the cost ramifications if a raise were to be applied to all other bargaining units, provide comparisons with private-sector employees and "comply with constitutional and statutory appropriations and budgeting provisions."

• Allow state deputy sheriffs, police dispatchers and state conservation and resources enforcement officers, all members of HGEA's predominantly white-collar Unit 3, to create a new, stand-alone "law enforcement" bargaining unit.

The bills are part of a package of 202 bills submitted by the governor to the Legislature this week that deal with the priorities detailed in her State of the State speech Monday.

The collective bargaining bills come on the heels of a politically charged fight last year over the issue of binding arbitration for HGEA. Binding arbitration had been repealed in 2001 for all government workers except police, firefighters and nurses. After the Democratic-controlled House and Senate passed the bill restoring binding arbitration for HGEA, the Republican Lingle vetoed the bill only to see it rejected by an override in both houses.

Ted Hong, the state's chief negotiator, said that raises put forth in HGEA's last stated position would cost the state $133 million over two years.

Hong said the arbitration award cap would give unions an incentive to negotiate.

"What we're trying to say is, look, if you want to go after a substantial pay raise in the environment of a good economy, the state's got a lot of money, then stay at the table with us, negotiate with us," he said. "Alternatively, if you want to go a safe-bet route, then you just go to arbitration knowing that you only get 1 1/2 percent at the most."

Hong said many private-sector labor agreements include a limit on arbitration awards.

Lingle's senior policy adviser, Linda Smith, said the bills would address some of the administration's concerns with binding arbitration, but that the governor would still like to see binding arbitration repealed.

"We are still very concerned about binding arbitration as a mechanism and really would like the Legislature at some point to take a look at the ramifications of the veto override that they did last year," she said.

Russell Okata, HGEA executive director, said he has yet to review carefully the details of each of the bills but said he was unhappy with the apparent thrust of the measures.

"What is troubling is the governor talks about cooperation with the Legislature but when she offers these significant pieces of legislation that affects 25,000 of the HGEA members, we would think the employer would at least give us the courtesy of consultation and discussion and we have none of that," Okata said.

Okata said that binding arbitration does take into consideration the employers' ability to pay, and that the state and counties have groused even in the face of positive economic indicators that show they can afford raises.

House Labor and Public Employment Committee Chairman Marcus Oshiro, D-39th (Wahiawa), called the bills "novel ideas that are certainly worth public comment and review" and said he plans to hold hearings on them.

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com or Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com. Or reach either at 525-8070.