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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Secrecy Not a Good Thing

The Columbian
Published: January 19, 2016, 6:02am

At stake is millions — or sometimes billions — of your dollars. Well, it’s not all yours; it belongs to you and your neighbors and the good people of Spokane and Walla Walla and Kahlotus. Yet none of you will have any idea how it is being spent until you are handed the bill.

Sounds absurd, right? But that is the effective impact of secrecy surrounding state government negotiations with labor unions. Later this year, officials will begin bargaining over labor pacts for the 2017-19 biennium. These agreements will go to the Legislature for an up-or-down vote — no amendments allowed — and then will be folded into the state budget for the next two years. Citizens, meanwhile, will have no idea of what salaries and benefits are included for state workers until the budget is signed into law.

This process is anathema to the notion of accountable, open government. And it brings to mind a memorable and applicable quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a president and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” To paraphrase, the ultimate rulers are not public-employee unions and state negotiators — and the Legislature should take steps to limit the power they wield.

Last week, House Bill 2490 was introduced to remedy this overabundance of secrecy, with the proposal declaring that “collective bargaining sessions with employee organizations involving contract negotiations must be open the public.” This echoes similar proposed legislation from recent years — legislation that has failed to gain traction and has kept negotiations with public-employee unions exempt from the state’s Public Records Act.

The reasoning behind such an exemption is an assertion that secrecy facilitates negotiations by allowing each side to speak freely without revealing to the public its strategies or its bargaining chips. As The Columbian has noted editorially in the past: “While it is understandable that opening negotiations to the public might serve as a bit of a monkey wrench in the process, that concern is outweighed by the public’s right to know.” The public, after all, is footing the bill for the eventual salaries and benefits. And when pensions are involved, the public is being handed an invoice that will come due decades down the road; one need only look at Oregon’s crisis over its Public Employees Retirement System to understand the potential for long-term impact.

While providing public records of the negotiations would seem sensible and beneficial to the populace, it will not be an easy sell to lawmakers. Public-employee unions will not support anything they perceive as weakening their bargaining power because their commitment is to their members — as it should be. And many legislators and state officials receive political, electoral, and campaign support from labor unions — and therefore are reluctant to go against the unions. But the website for the state Office of Financial Management includes a total of 27 labor contracts negotiated between the state and unions ranging from the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, to the Inland Boatman’s Union of the Pacific.

Each of those was negotiated with your dollars at stake. While the Legislature will have final approval on contracts for state workers, the public should be privy to the process while it is ongoing.