State employee contract transparency bill introduced

About the Author
Jason Mercier
Director, Center for Government Reform

Later this year Governor Inslee will once again begin secret contract negotiations with state employee unions to determine their compensation terms for the 2017-19 budget. Once this deal is reached behind closed doors the legislature will only have the option to approve or reject the agreement in its entirety - no amendments are allowed.  

Under a bill introduced today, however, these binding state employee contract negotiations would no longer be conducted in secret. If adopted by lawmakers, HB 2490 (Addressing accountability and fairness in public employee collective bargaining) would require "Collective bargaining sessions with employee organizations involving contract negotiations must be open to the public."

This is similar to the reform considered last year by the Senate but not ultimately voted on (SB 5329).

Not only are public union contract negotiations conducted in secret but none of the records are subject to public disclosure until after the contract is signed into law (when the budget is approved by the Governor). Under a public records request released in installments through late last year we were finally able to learn that during 2014's secret contract negotiations state employee unions asked for: 

Though those union demands were not ultimately agreed to during the secret closed door talks, the public and even rank and file union members had no idea they were even made. Instead only these vague details were provided by union leaders while the secret negotiations were occurring: 

Compensation is the big issue that is in the spotlight. Some 98.11 percent of state agency members identified compensation as the No. 1 priority on the recent surveys. A lot of research went into the Compensation article. And, while we can’t give you details in writing, overall it’s a comprehensive article that aims to make up for lost ground. For instance, you haven’t gotten a cost-of-living adjustment in more than six years.

(details here)

Now, Gov. Inslee needs to stop worrying about the Seattle Times and nutty fringe groups. He needs to put into play what he’s talked about toward his state employees. It’s about respect and it’s time to show that. It’s time for Gov. Inslee to talk the talk and walk the walk.

(details here)

Would public knowledge that state employee unions wanted 14% raises and permission to not do their job if it required crossing a picket line have influenced the contract negotiations or legislative ratification? Perhaps. Either way, lawmakers responsible for approving these contracts and the taxpayers who are asked to pay for them should not be kept in the dark until the deal is done and it is too late to make changes. 

Ultimately these negotiations should be subject to the state's Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) or at a minimum utilize a process like the one used by the City of Costa Mesa in California to keep the public informed called COIN (Civic Openness in Negotiations).

Under this type of system all of the proposals and documents that are to be discussed in closed-door secret negotiation must be made publicly available before and after the meetings with fiscal analysis provided showing the costs.

While not full-fledged open meetings, providing access to all of the documents before the meetings would better help inform the public about the promises and tradeoffs being proposed with their tax dollars before an agreement is reached. This would also help to keep make clear whether one side is being unreasonable, and would quickly reveal whether anyone is acting in bad faith.

Discussing the need for the City of Los Angeles to use a COIN process the L.A. Times recently wrote

The premise is that the public deserves a transparent accounting and discussion of labor deals. Too often, contracts are negotiated in secret, ratified by union members and quickly rubber-stamped by elected officials, many of whom rely on labor unions for campaign contributions.

Closer to home the Spokesman Review highlighted the need for more transparency when it comes to public union contract negotiations: 

We’ve long advocated a public process for labor negotiations. It’s fine for teams to meet in private to form strategy, but once they engage each other, it ought to be in a public meeting, with minutes and pertinent information posted online in a timely fashion.

Many Spokanites were caught unaware that a labor dispute was percolating as the new school year approached. It shouldn’t be this way, but the Legislature chose to exempt labor negotiations from the Public Records Act. A bill to throw open the doors to an inquiring public has been introduced in the past two legislative sessions, but to no avail. Idaho recently passed such a law. Colorado adopted one via a citizens’ initiative . . . 

Contracts with teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees represent the lion’s share of spending by government. The impact on the public is obvious, so it has a right to know.

State and local employment contracts should not be negotiated in secret. The public provides the money for these agreements. Taxpayers should be allowed to follow the process and hold government officials accountable for the spending decisions they make on our behalf.


Sign up for the WPC Newsletter