In Our View: Public Bucks, Private Talks

Deadline looms for negotiations with state-worker unions

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Facing the threat of an Oct. 1 deadline, officials for state-worker unions are intensifying their talks with Gov. Chris Gregoire's labor negotiators this week at Thurston County Fairgrounds near Lacey. At least two things are bothersome about these talks.First, they are conducted privately, despite the fact that ultimate decisions would lead to the spending of millions of public dollars.

Second, the biggest stakeholder in the talks is not at the table. That would be the taxpayer. Theoretically, taxpayers are represented by the governor's team, but as we've pointed out before, one flaw in Washington's collective bargaining system for state workers is that the taxpayers' intermediary could be sitting across the bargaining table from some of the governor's biggest campaign contributors.

On Wednesday, the Washington Policy Center renewed its call to put the Legislature back in charge of state employee compensation. In other words, replace the executive branch's secretive role with a more transparent authority exercised by legislators. The Columbian has advocated the same change, most recently in a May 1 editorial. To effect that change, though, would mean rewriting the 2002 law that allows the Legislature only to vote "yes" or "no" on state-worker union contracts negotiated privately by the governor.

No one knows for sure what will happen between now and the Oct. 1 deadline. That date, as The News Tribune of Tacoma reported Wednesday, is a statutory deadline "for getting an agreement to the Office of Financial Management in time for its next two-year budget plan." Adding to the urgency is the union representative's belief that 21 days are needed to ratify a new contract.

Adding to the intrigue, Gregoire is in the final four months of her second term before retiring. Whether her team gets tough with the union, or allows state workers to continue with far more comfortable contracts than are seen in the private sector, remains to be seen. It's possible state workers could continue working without a contract. We hope it's the former. But union negotiators are quick to recite sacrifices already made. As the TNT reported, our state in the past four years "saw its general-fund revenues rise over the period by 7.87 percent, yet state-employee pay was frozen or reduced by furloughs, except for increases for a minority of workers. At the same time, workers' share of health-care premiums rose to 15 percent and out-of pocket costs also went up for many." But we hasten to add that 15 percent is far below the average 26 percent paid in the private sector.

Neither side wants to reveal its negotiating cards. That's not surprising, but it's unfortunate for the taxpayers. As the WPC noted: "The current system undermines transparency and public accountability … . To put the Legislature back in charge of the budget so spending can be prioritized to serve the public interest, the 2002 collective bargaining law should be repealed … ."

The results would be something unions would instinctively deplore. Legislators would "have the authority to weigh all spending requests equally in the context of the priorities of all taxpayers and citizens and not be cut out of budget decisions totaling hundreds of millions of dollars." Similar reform has occurred in Indiana, where secret negotiations with state-worker unions have effectively ended.

We look forward to legislators retaking control and looking out for their constituents. That would require a level of courage unseen in Olympia for many years.