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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Billions At Stake As Washington Supreme Court Hears Pension Cases

File photo of the interior of the Washington state Supreme Court

Billions of dollars are at stake as the Washington Supreme Court considers a pair of pension cases. Oral arguments were Thursday.

Unions for teachers and state employees want the high court to restore two benefits that were nixed because of how much they cost.

These lawsuits were triggered by actions the Washington legislature took to reduce pension costs. In 2007, lawmakers repealed something called gainsharing. It was basically a bonus program if state investments out performed expectations.

In 2011, the legislature repealed the automatic cost of living adjustment – known as UCOLA - for retirees in the state’s oldest pension plans. The unions prevailed in the lower courts.

But Solicitor General Noah Purcell told the Washington Supreme Court that if the justices restore these pension benefits it will come with a hefty price tag.

“The plaintiffs in this case and in the companion UCOLA case are asking this court to order school districts, local governments and state tax payers to pay them more than $10 billion in additional pension benefits over the next 25 years,” said Purcell.

Attorneys for unionized teachers and state employees argue that the repeal of benefits amounted to a breach of contract and an unconstitutional taking of vested pension rights.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."