King County is still $60 million in the hole for 2010, and that’s after $150 million worth of cuts in ’08 and ‘09. Addressing a budget deficit of this size will be painful, but some groups will undoubtedly be hit harder than others. The question is, who takes the bullet?

According to Republican King County Council member Kathy Lambert the answer is simple, if not easy: public sector unions.

Lambert proposed a policy yesterday (which is actually a reissue of a 2009 policy) that would curb public employee benefits and wages in recessionary times.

“With a very large percentage of our general fund being salaries, we’re going to have to make cuts there,” says Lambert, emphasizing that 80 percent of the county’s employees are unionized. “But rather than lay off people and contribute to the unemployment rate, let’s look at some of the easier things, like not doing cost-of-living raises because there is no cost-of-living increase during a recession, so that won’t hurt anyone.”

To save money only "during periods of flat or declining revenues,” Lambert's proposed legislation would:

• Eliminate the minimum annual cost-of-living adjustment for public employee salaries. The annual adjustment—currently two to six percent—is meant to keep public employee pay in-line with inflation, but Lambert argues that inflation does not occur during recessions, so the adjustments are unnecessary.

• Require all “new labor contracts to include a reopener clause” in any bad fiscal year. Basically, if economic seers predict flat or negative revenue in the upcoming year, unions will be forced back to the negotiating table, mid-contract.

• Include suggestions for further action, like eliminating the cost-of-living adjustment during a recession, cutting back salaries, increasing employee contributions to health care costs, and more unpaid furlough days.

Although Lambert’s position is theoretically non-partisan (since voters passed I-26 in 2008), her background is undoubtedly conservative and her past party affiliation was Republican. Despite this fact, her language in both the press releases and our interview was not antagonistic to organized labor, in marked contrast to many of her counterparts, who deem public sector unions an evil, roughly equivalent to Hezbollah.

There are elements of Lambert’s plan that will probably be necessary: more unpaid furlough days, alteration (preferably temporary) of the cost-of-living adjustment, and even wage cuts (again, preferably temporary). Her point about inflation during this recession is a good one—there isn’t any, which makes the cost-of-living adjustments temporarily superfluous. But the sweeping nature of her legislation poses risks, the predominant one being that it automatically sets organized labor up for the fall in all future downturns. With this law on the books, public sector unions will not only take the bullet this time, but every other time, too. Instead of looking at other options, like ending unnecessary tax breaks or addressing our regressive tax policies, we will just stick public employees with the bill, taking away the stability that draws many people to these jobs. Without that stability, fewer competent, high-skilled workers will want to work for King County.

Which isn't to say that Lambert's proposal should just be thrown out. Her non-confrontational position is to her credit, and her attempts to deal with this problem without mass layoffs is commendable. If progressive council members can compromise with her, especially on cost-of-living adjustments (which are unneeded right now) and more unpaid furloughs they could put the brakes on the deficit, without throwing public sector workers under the bus.

I have calls in with King Co. Exec.'s office, King County labor Council, SEIU, and the Teamsters.