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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Chris Cargill: Washington’s collective bargaining talks demand transparency

By Chris Cargill

By Chris Cargill

There’s a big mystery unfolding in Olympia, but it’s one as predictable as the sunrise.

Right now, behind closed doors, the governor and powerful state employee unions are secretly negotiating a pay and compensation budget for the 2023-25 budget. We don’t know what is being discussed. We don’t know what each side is demanding. But whatever they decide, we’ll have to pay for it. And there’s a chance new taxes could be demanded to cover the cost.

This process is secret. It dates back 20 years when former Gov. Gary Locke signed a bill that gave the governor exclusive authority to negotiate secretly with state employee unions. Before that, pay for state workers was debated openly in the Legislature.

Salary and benefits were determined through the normal public budget process.

But now, union executives no longer have their priorities weighed equally with every other special interest during the legislative budget debate. They come first.

Theoretically, the state could be offering more money than what the unions are asking for.

The likelihood is there is much to agree about, as Gov. Jay Inslee is “negotiating” with his own political allies. That’s not necessarily good news for taxpayers.

After all, its taxpayers who pay for whatever the governor agrees to. There is no oversight. The Legislature doesn’t get any say in the process. The media is left in the dark until the bill comes due.

It’s likely the governor is going to give out a very substantial raise. Afterall, he’s done it every time before, and state tax revenue is through the roof. There is a belief in Olympia that if the government has money, officials should spend it.

But if there’s enough for huge state employee pay increases, shouldn’t there also be enough for tax reductions for working families? The governor’s office says there will be no tax relief at all.

The entire process cries out for transparency. The majority of other states have a public process when it comes to state employee contracts. That doesn’t mean the public gets to do the negotiating, it simply means there is some oversight.

Since government-employee contracts account for such a large portion of public spending, they should not be negotiated in secret. Taxpayers provide the money for these agreements and they should be able to follow the process, holding government officials accountable for the spending decisions they make.

Union members should also be in favor of transparency. With it, they know exactly what proposals their union representatives are requesting and rejecting. Transparency benefits rank-and-file union members, providing information on how they are being represented.

Some local governments in our state have tried to adopt collective bargaining transparency, but they have been met with lawsuit after lawsuit. But not every union is opposed.

In 2018, Spokane County joined several other governments in requiring collective bargaining talks be transparent and open to public observation. The Public Works Guild proved the transparent process could work, saying there was “no reason to fear open meetings.”

It’s clear the governor and many union executives are, once again, on the wrong side of this issue.

Recent polling shows more than 70% of Washingtonians believe these talks should be done in an open way. After all, billions in public spending is at stake. Sunshine is never a bad thing.

Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director for Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization based in Seattle. Online at Members of the Cowles family, owners of The Spokesman-Review, have previously hosted fundraisers for the Washington Policy Center and sit on the organization’s board.