Gov. Jay Inslee is running for re-election, but at the same time he is negotiating with state workers on a new labor contract.
That could be viewed as a conflict since public employee unions carry a lot of political clout. On the other hand, it’s the governor’s duty to bargain with the various labor units.
Transparency could help allay suspicions, but labor talks are locked down in Washington state, and they’ve been granted an exemption to public meetings law.
In the current Washington Federation of State Employees contract, there is this section (highlighted by the Washington Policy Center):
“Confidentiality/Media Communication. 1. Bargaining sessions will be closed to the press and the public unless agreed otherwise by the chief spokespersons. 2. No proposals will be placed on the parties’ web sites. 3. The parties are not precluded from generally communicating with their respective constituencies about the status of negotiations while they are taking place. 4. There will be no public disclosure or public discussion of the issues being negotiated until resolution or impasse is reached on all issues submitted for negotiations.”
In short, these talks are none of the public’s business until they’re a done deal. Never mind that the public picks up the tab.
It’s no secret that unions prefer secret negotiations, and they usually support Democratic candidates. Recent bills to open up the process have fallen along party lines, and failed.
By the same token, Republicans want to lessen the power of unions, and since they rarely get union support, it’s easy for them to call for transparency. But while politics is at play on both sides of this issue, the Republicans do have the better argument.
There is no value added in keeping the public in the dark on negotiations that commit the state to huge expenditures. The Legislature itself is limited to voting “yes” or “no,” which means a large portion of the budget is decided before lawmakers even get started. Other states, including Idaho, Colorado and Pennsylvania, have opened up the process.
About two dozen employee contracts that would cost nearly $600 million were included in the governor’s budget for the 2015-17 biennium.
The last raise for the Washington Federation of State Employees, in 2014, cost $58.4 million. That was a 4.8 percent increase. However, unions sought raises that would’ve amounted to $331 million, according to the Washington Policy Center. Under current law, that’s a detail that could only be discovered after the fact.
Would the unions be that aggressive if each offer (and counteroffer) were posted for the public to see? Under a transparent process, the governor could demonstrate that he isn’t merely rolling over for the unions.
Instead, we’re saddled with a secret process that allows suspicions to fester. Only sunlight can heal that. The Legislature should throw open the blinds.
To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on “Opinion.”
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