Brown had vowed to save the state more than $500 million in negotiating the six contracts. But he came up $200 million short, prompting several Republicans to call for a return to the negotiating table.
Among those covered by the accords are state prison guards, who have a potential windfall when they retire. In the contract, the Brown administration removed a decades-old limit on the number of vacation days they can save during their careers. Those days can be cashed in at retirement.
Other workers' contracts limit vacation accrual to 80 days.
"There's no excuse for this," said Senate GOP leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga — just before lawmakers nonetheless approved the deals with a vote of 27 to 13. They now go to the Assembly, where passage is considered likely.
Democrats argued that the governor forced the public employees, who include administrative law judges, state attorneys, engineers and scientists, to make difficult concessions. They pointed to a new requirement that state workers provide from 2% to 5% more of their salaries toward their pensions.
Employees would also be required to take 12 days of unpaid personal leave during the next 12 months to save the state money.
The contracts "save money and help reduce the deficit," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).
But Republicans said the concessions fell far short of what is being demanded by voters. At a time when the governor wants Californians to pay more taxes, they said, he needs to trim the salaries and benefits of state workers further.
While acknowledging that the prison guards' contract is the only one that formally lifts the vacation cap, Brown spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford said in an email that the limit "is totally meaningless" because it isn't enforceable in understaffed departments.
"All state employees already get to cash out more leave than [the] cap allows," she said.
Corrections administrators acknowledge that they do not enforce the cap with prison guards because they don't have enough staff for their 24-hour-a-day operation to let employees take off the time they have earned.
In 2010, corrections led all state departments in end-of-career payments for unused days off, totaling $111 million, according to state payroll data. In all, 80 corrections union members got payouts exceeding $100,000 when they left state service last year. In most cases, those payments well exceeded the employee's annual salary.
For example, a $97,000-a-year parole agent received a $268,990 payment for unused time off, state records show.
Lawmakers have typically approved union contracts, which the governor negotiates, with little fanfare. But lately, Republicans have been raising concerns.
In May 2009, an agreement with 95,000 state workers represented by the Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, stalled in the Assembly for lack of Republican votes. The contract was postponed until after a special election in which voters were asked to approve a two-year extension of sales, income and vehicle taxes.
When that measure failed, upsetting the state's finances, the contract lingered for months until then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger negotiated a new pact that increased workers' contributions to their pension funds from 5% to 8%.
That contract won bipartisan approval in the Legislature in October 2010.