Updated Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 04:31 PM
Saying it cannot keep salaries frozen any longer, the University of Washington plans to ask the Legislature to lift a pay freeze on university employees and to help pick up some of the tab on an increase — as much as $75 million over two years.
Although some legislators are sympathetic, it's unclear whether the state could afford such a boost, or whether it would be willing to exempt universities. Washington is already anticipating a shortfall of at least $1 billion for the 2013-15 biennium.
The university made "an urgent request for salary flexibility this biennium" in a letter it sent to the Office of Financial Management earlier this year, as part of its biennial operating-budget request. The UW's Board of Regents will discuss the salary request at a board meeting Thursday.
The letter is not a formal request for state support, and the compensation scenario could change. In it, the university outlined two scenarios: One would give consecutive 2 percent raises in 2013 and 2014, and the other would give consecutive 5 percent raises over the same period. The 2 percent raise would cost $31 million, the 5 percent raise nearly $75 million.
The raises would not be across-the-board, however, and would likely be distributed based on merit, performance and other factors.
President Michael Young said he believes the UW is the only major research university in the country that has not given raises for four years in a row.
"The Legislature has to, at a minimum, lift the freeze," said UW Provost Ana Mari Cauce.
Gov. Chris Gregoire is reviewing the request. In an email, Jason Kelly, her acting deputy communications director, noted the anticipated $1 billion shortfall, saying it does not include "additional funding required by the court for a larger investment in K-12."
"The governor will have to weigh all the competing priorities before she presents her budget," he wrote.
State Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said he's sympathetic to the university and doesn't want it to lose quality employees. At the same time, there's a "reality constraint — I don't know if you've noticed, but we don't have any money."
The Legislature in 2013 must address a state Supreme Court ruling that Washington isn't meeting its constitutional obligation to adequately pay for basic K-12 education. That could cost the state as much as $2 billion more over the biennium, Hunter said.
Cauce said she believes the school is falling behind other large research universities, and the UW has lost some professors to other schools. "That ends up costing us a lot more than if we were giving raises," she said.
The UW has already negotiated a 2 percent salary increase, which must be approved by the Legislature, for 5,600 Service Employees International Union members, and it has put in place a 2 percent increase this year and next year for academic student employees working as teaching assistants and research assistants.
Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia and a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said he wants the Legislature to address compensation across all state agencies, and is opposed to giving just one institution flexibility.
Washington's two other major universities are also addressing the salary freeze.
In July, Western Washington University raised salaries for professors 5.25 percent this school year and 4.25 percent each of the following two years. President Bruce Shepard said the raises came after administrators cut programs, including little-used classes and concentrations.
Washington State University President Elson Floyd has proposed establishing a $5 million pool of money to give a one-time, 2 percent payment to all faculty, and to staff who earn less than $100,000 a year. Money for the payments would come from reallocated funds.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.