In Our View: Shine Light on Negotiations

Contract talks between governor, public unions shouldn't be conducted in secret

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State officials and public-employee unions are using the classic "look, over there" trick as they reach into the pockets of taxpayers. Look, over there … and you might not recognize the subterfuge involved. Look, over there … and you might not notice that your wallet is being picked. Look, over there … because there's nothing to see here. That is what negotiations between Gov. Jay Inslee's labor team and 25 unions amount to under state law, which allows such negotiations to be held in secret.

The taxpayers of Washington deserve better. As Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, wrote:

"Imagine that the governor is holding a series of secret closed-door negotiations with a company that could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer expenses. Now imagine that the same company secretly meeting with the governor is also a campaign contributor. Also imagine that the Legislature is barred from changing the details of an agreement negotiated in secret with the governor and can only vote up or down on funding the final proposal.

"Sound outrageous?

"You bet! Yet that is exactly what happens each time state and local officials in Washington negotiate pay and benefits with public-employee unions."

The role of taxpayers in the process is reduced to nothing more than writing the checks despite having no knowledge of how the negotiations unfolded. Perhaps more egregious, the role of the Legislature is reduced to nothing more than giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to the final result — again without knowledge of the process. In a state that prides itself on open government, that is unacceptable.

When it comes to negotiations with public-employee unions, many states — including Oregon — require some openness in the negotiations. In Florida, for example, the bargaining is open, but strategy sessions involving just one side are closed. This makes sense as part of the art of negotiating process; but when both sides are meeting and discussing how to spend millions of taxpayer dollars, the people holding the pocketbook should be included.

Prior to the start of negotiations, Inslee said he believes state workers and public school teachers deserve a modest pay boost after six years without cost-of-living adjustments. Dave Schiel, president of the Washington Public Employees Union, said his group might seek a double-digit raise for the 2015-17 contract period. Yet that is the extent of the information the public will receive, now that negotiations have started.

According to the Office of Financial Management, if agreement is reached on a 1 percent salary increase for all general government and higher education employees for 2015 alone, the cost will be $33 million from the state's general fund and $44 million from other funds. But perhaps more important will be negotiations about benefits. While some have suggested that public employees earn less in salary than comparable private-sector jobs, excessive public benefits continue to be an issue.

Following a recent round of negotiations, the Washington Federation of State Employees told its members, "Management gave us their compensation proposal, after delivering a feel-good speech. Their initial compensation package was totally unacceptable and your team told them so." That kind of propaganda might or might not be accurate. Either way, taxpayers should have a right to determine that for themselves, instead of being told to look the other way.