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Editorial: Taxpayers left in dark during state’s labor talks

Both candidates for governor of Washington have promised big increases in education spending without raising taxes, but whether they can deliver may be partly out of their hands.

At present, the governor’s office and more than two dozen state labor unions are negotiating possible salary increases for the next two years. After hashing that out, health care benefits will be negotiated. All of this must be completed by Oct. 1 so the Office of Financial Management can produce the next two-year budget plan.

Or, workers can go without a contract and take their chances with the next governor.

Labor costs are an enormous part of any government budget, and there’s a good chance new contract terms will be decided before either Rob McKenna or Jay Inslee takes office. The amount the state can spend on K-12 education, universities and colleges, health care and other services is partly predicated on how much it spends on its employees.

If you didn’t know these momentous negotiations are under way, don’t feel bad. They’re kept under wraps, and that poses a significant problem.

In 2002, the state Legislature passed a collective bargaining bill that allowed state workers to negotiate their pay and benefits with the governor’s office. The Legislature takes an up-or-down vote on the package. Before that, unions would hold rallies, lobby lawmakers and generally campaign for raises, but they didn’t have a seat at the table. “Collective begging” is what some labor leaders called it.

Now that they have a seat, it’s become obvious that one other entity is missing: taxpayers. Those who cover the paychecks don’t have a say in how large they will be.

The current negotiations aren’t going well, according to an article posted Wednesday by reporter Brad Shannon of the Olympian. Greg Devereux, head of the Washington Federation of State Employees, offered that assessment, saying unions are seeking cost-of-living increases. He didn’t divulge more details. The governor’s office declined to comment.

Because of the impact on taxpayers and the state budget, collective bargaining sessions need to be held in public. The Evergreen Freedom Foundation has been advocating this for several years. Bob Williams, the foundation’s president, has aptly summarized why this is imperative:

“Both sides’ initial proposals are developed in secret, they are exchanged in secret, they are modified and traded in secret and they are resolved in secret. And just when you’d think that at least the final deal would be put before taxpayers, that doesn’t even happen. Isn’t it interesting that the agreement is subject to a ratification vote by the union members, but the taxpayers get no such say?”

One of the reasons for opening up the process is that in government negotiations, the “employer” side of the table may be occupied by a leader who is to some degree beholden to labor interests. Under the current rules of secrecy, taxpayers may not have an advocate at the table – and may never know it.

At the very least, the public ought to be able to gain insights into the discussions before they’re handed the bill.


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