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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Collective bargaining transparency, income tax ban sought by pro-business group at Spokane City Council

Spokane City Hall is seen in spring 2019. The Spokane City Council on Monday plans to hear two initiatives from a pro-business group: One would prevent the city from enacting a local income tax, and the second seeks to make collective bargaining open to the public. (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane voters may soon have the chance to bar the city from ever passing an income tax and require the city’s unions to make their negotiations public.

During their Monday meeting, Spokane City Council will hear two initiatives submitted by Better Spokane, a fiscally conservative group that supports business-friendly political candidates.

Better Spokane Director Michael Cathcart, who submitted the two initiatives and will gather signatures once they go through the process, argued that a law banning local income tax could act as an insurance policy in case a future state Supreme Court allows a tax.

He also said collective bargaining between the city and unions should be public because personnel is one of the city’s biggest expenses and taxpayers should be able to see the process.

Local union leaders called the initiatives political posturing, saying proposing tax and union initiatives during a mayoral race was about making a political point. Cathcart said there was “no special timing” behind the initiatives.

If voters approve the initiative, Cathcart said both the public and rank-and-file union members can see how city and union leaders are negotiating on their behalf.

“It’s a win-win across the board,” he said. “We know the public really wants transparency.”

County’s and school districts across the state have also changed their union negotiations. Spokane County voted to open up its contract negotiations in December and Lincoln County opened its negotiations in 2016. Several school districts such as Pullman, also require unions negotiations to be public.

Dave Kovac, secretary of Local 29, the city’s firefighter union, said opening up collective bargaining to the public would completely change contract negotiations. Instead of frank discussions between city and union leaders he said, public negotiations would take longer and the real conversations may end up happening outside of open meetings.

He said the longer negotiations take, the more likely they will end up in arbitration, which could increase the city’s legal costs.

“Nobody wants to see what a hot dog is made of,” he said.

Joe Cavanaugh, president of Local 270, which represents 1,000 city employees, said the city could potentially run afoul of state law by imposing new conditions on unions, like public negotiating, that are outside of the previously established rules of the collective bargaining process.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said Cathcart would have to gather signatures to put the union initiative on the ballot. As for taxes, the City Council just may want to approve the property tax initiative without sending it to voters, Stuckart said. He said he might bring it up for a vote Monday to clarify that Spokane is not planning on instituting an income tax.

“We’re never going to institute an income tax in the city of Spokane,” he said. “I’ve never had a conversation with anyone at the city about that.”

The Washington State Supreme Court has largely ruled that an income tax is unconstitutional, making the state one of seven in the country without an income tax. Seattle recently attempted to tax its wealthiest citizens’ income, but a judge struck down the tax, saying the state Legislature hadn’t given the city the authority to implement it. The case made it to the state’s highest court, but the court declined to review it and sent the case back to the court of appeals.

Mayor Candidate Andy Rathbun said he would oppose an income tax if someone in Spokane was proposing it, but he hasn’t seen any political discussion about implementing one.

“I don’t think it’s needed,” he said.

Mayor candidates Kelly Cruz, Shawn Poole, Jonathan Bingle and Jason Dixon said they supported banning income taxes. Chris Schroll could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Nadine Woodward, the most recent candidate in the race, said in a text Thursday that she had heard business leaders were concerned about an income tax and heard from business owners who say they would consider moving out of Spokane. On the issue of unions, she said she is generally in favor of transparency. She said she needed to discuss the initiatives with the community before taking a position on either.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how many Washington governments require unions to negotiate publicly. Several counties and school districts in Washington require union negotiations to be public.