Our Voice: State labor negotiations need revamping

Closed-door contract negotiations between Gov. Jay Inslee and the Washington Federation of State Employees started last week, and once again taxpayers and legislators are left in the dark over how these talks might affect the future state budget.

In 2014, state employees received a 4.8 percent raise at a cost of $58.4 million, according to a report by the Washington Policy Center.

Many state workers are dedicated employees providing valuable services and our state couldn’t function without them. They should be compensated fairly.

But since it is public money paying their way, the public should be aware of how their pay is being negotiated.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.

State salaries and benefits are being hammered out in secret. Legislators will be able to approve or reject the final deal during next year’s session, but that is the only input they are technically allowed.

In addition, union members often only know what they are told by their representatives, so they also are kept in the dark about the give-and-take during contract talks.

This whole process is a recipe for suspicion, and puts the governor’s office in a position of bargaining with a labor union that can make campaign contributions.

No one elected official should have that much power over such a significant amount of taxpayer money.

Attempts have been made in recent years to change the process legislatively, but so far those proposals have gone nowhere.

We hope that next session, after this latest round of state employee contract talks, legislators will find a way to bring balance and openness to this lopsided system. They need to restore their authority over state employee pay so they no longer are cut out of budget negotiations totaling millions of dollars.

It wasn’t always this way. The shift came in 2002, when Gov. Gary Locke signed a bill intended to reform the state’s civil service laws. It went into effect two years later, and that was the first time state workers were able to negotiate salary and benefit increases directly with the governor’s office in private meetings.

The events leading up to the change included concessions on both sides of the aisle. The Republican at the time wanted the ability to contract with private industry instead of being forced to always use state workers. Meanwhile, Democrats wanted to appease the unions by allowing collective bargaining.

What we have ended up with since is an experiment that isn’t fair. Legislators used to be able to weigh state employee compensation in the context of the entire budget, line by line, and prioritize accordingly. Now, the state salary contract appears to carry more weight because it is set first.

Other states, particularly Idaho, have shifted to making public contract negotiations as transparent as possible. In Colorado, a proposition approved by voters in 2014 has led to open bargaining meetings between teacher unions and school boards.

If other states can find a way to lift the veil of secrecy over public labor talks, Washington should be able to as well.

Union representatives have their own interests at heart. Representing the taxpayer is a responsibility too huge for one elected official, especially when the process is a closed one.

Lawmakers need to find a way to open up state employee contract talks and take back the fiscal authority they gave away 14 years ago.