- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - A bill pending in the Alaska Senate would strip state ferry workers of their cost-of-living adjustment.

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, said his goal is to get ferry workers in line with the rest of state, the Alaska Public Radio Network reported (http://bit.ly/MQUNYo).

The bill comes as marine transportation unions are negotiating contracts for the next three years. If the bill passes before an agreement is reached, Alaska ferry employees could lose $8 million in wages, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

The Alaska Marine Highway System is the only branch of state government that sets its minimum salary on Seattle’s cost of living. Alaska employees receive a cost-of-living differential. That difference can end up being $10,000 or more.

“My view is it brings more fairness and consistency into those contracts,” Dyson said.

Alaska ferry workers have enjoyed the cost-of-living differential for the last 40 years, allowing them to be paid more than those who do not live in the state. Because of ferry system serves communities ranging from Bellingham, Wash., to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, it is one of the few state agencies allowed to hire out-of-state employees.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, called the bill “troubling.” He worries it will have a chilling effect on bargaining between the marine unions and the state.

Ben Goldrich with the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association said cost-of-living adjustments have traditionally been discussed in bargaining.

Goldrich said he worries Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration is using the bill as leverage. The way the bill is written, it would go into effect immediately after being signed into law. That could put pressure on unions to accept a deal before then to avoid losing the cost-of-living differential during the upcoming contract period.

Dyson said the administration spoke with him about the cost-of-living differential.

Dozens of ferry workers came to testify before the Senate State Affairs Committee during a recent hearing. There was a nine-page list of names of people who signed up to oppose the legislation.

Dyson, who chairs the committee, allowed four to speak before testimony was closed to the public.

“We got a lot of work to do, and I doubt if any new information has come out,” he said. “So, we got to limit it somewhere.”

The committee has 30 other bills it’s assigned to hear before the legislative session ends, and he said people had the opportunity to offer written testimony or call in if they were not heard.