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Tuesday, September 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Transparency shouldn’t be gamed for political gain

The selective invocation of “transparency” underscores the reality of two political parties engaged in battle. So it’s up to the public to support see-through democracy across the board.

The latest salvo is SB 5533, backed by Senate Republicans. It would prohibit candidates for governor from accepting campaign donations from unions that bargain with the state. Over the course of two campaigns, Gov. Jay Inslee has collected nearly $200,000 from public employee unions.

Republicans are chafing at the new $732 million compensation package that would give most state employees a 6 percent raise through the 2019 budget year. In addition, 20 percent of those workers would get even larger increases.

Supporters of the bill, which passed the Senate on a 25-24 vote, say union contributions could lead to the public perception that the raises are payback.

It’s no secret that public employee unions favor Democrats or that Inslee has received those contributions. It is his job as governor to oversee collective bargaining with unions. If the bill had altruistic aims, it would’ve also cut off donations to candidates for any elected office. After all, each contribution could be construed as a potential conflict. But, of course, that would be unworkable.

The fact that contributions are reported is what matters. Trying to selectively prohibit them is pure politics.

The purported transparency of SB 5533 stands in contrast to the fate of SB 5153, which would shine a light on “dark money” contributions. Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, has made three attempts to close a loophole in campaign finance laws that allows nonprofit organizations involved in political campaigns to keep the names of their major donors a secret. Each time, the Senate Majority Coalition has blocked the bill.

In this case, the concern for public perception is shrugged off.

Republicans do have a good transparency measure – SB 5545 – which would open the collective bargaining process to the public. Unions don’t like the idea, and Democrats are balking.

Under current law, the executive branch conducts labor talks in secret, and then legislators vote up or down on the results. The public doesn’t know anything until the negotiations are completed. The bill would make proposed contracts public before an agreement is reached.

Lincoln County switched to open bargaining as a way to build public trust. The commissioners figured that if they governed out in the open, they would gain more support for a tax increase needed to hire deputies. It worked.

Payroll amounts to a huge percentage of any government budget, and the results of negotiations have a ripple effect across many services. Taxpayers should be able to get status reports on the negotiations, since they will ultimately pay for the contracts.

Transparency and open government are important principles. If broadly and fairly applied, they should be supported. If not, it’s the cynical thrust and parry of politics.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on “Opinion.”

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