On Wednesday, state employee unions held a rally at the state Capitol to encourage Gov. Jay Inslee to agree to a secret deal for “meaningful” pay raises. The question for taxpayers is: What does “meaningful” mean? Because the talks are conducted secretly behind closed doors, we won’t know until the bill comes due.
These type of state compensation decisions haven’t always been made in secret. In fact, prior to 2002, all budget-related decisions were made during the public legislative process, allowing full transparency and the potential tradeoffs to be debated.
Since the secret collective bargaining law went into full effect in 2004, however, state union executives no longer have their priorities weighed equally with every other special interest during the legislative budget process. Instead, they negotiate directly with the governor in secret, while lawmakers only have the opportunity to say yes or no to the entire contract agreed to with the governor. No legislative amendments to the secret deal are allowed.
With the 2017-19 contract talks in full swing, what happened behind closed doors during the last negotiations?
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Nearly a year after the 2014 secret negotiations concluded, I finally was able to receive details on what offers the governor and unions were exchanging behind closed doors. These public records were only disclosable, according to the Office of Financial Management, after the governor signed the 2015-17 budget into law.
From these records, we know the unions were demanding, along with automatic step increases, a 14 percent raise (they received a 4.8 percent raise). How much exactly are they demanding now? We don’t know (neither do their members) and they aren’t saying other than to encourage the governor to provide “meaningful raises.”
Also during the 2014 secret negotiations, the unions asked the governor to allow state employees to be paid while not crossing the strike picket lines. This occurred after state grain inspectors refused to do their job at the Vancouver port over a local labor dispute that effectively shut down the state’s grain industry.
Though the governor ultimately didn’t agree to this provision, what similar type of union requests are now being demanded behind closed doors? How are taxpayers supposed to know what the tradeoffs are? How are lawmakers supposed to fully exercise their constitutional power of the purse and make budget prioritization via the public legislative process if they continue to be cut out of this process?
These negotiations should be subject to the state’s Open Public Meetings Act 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 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 make clear whether one side is being unreasonable, and would quickly reveal whether anyone is acting in bad faith.
Budget decisions potentially costing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars should not be made in secret behind closed doors.
Jason Mercier is the director of the Washington Policy Center’s Center for Government Reform. His office is in Pasco.