“Pure politics” charge against Rossi’s bill doesn’t make much sense

If you read Smarter Government Washington, you know I think the way state government bargains with state employees is terribly flawed.

  1. It concentrates too much power in the governor’s hands.
  2. It cuts legislators out of the process, even though employee salaries are one of the biggest items the state funds. After the package is negotiated they can only vote yes or no, and no amendments are allowed.
  3. Legislators and taxpayers aren’t even allowed to watch contract negotiations. They’re conducted in secrecy, with no way to evaluate (beyond the final package) how well the governor’s team bargained on behalf of taxpayers.

This cozy, secretive process is more than a mere problem of “optics.” It’s a negotiation conducted without public oversight between one public official’s office and the unions – the same unions that donate a lot of money to that one public official’s campaign coffers.

That is an arrangement rife with problems, bad optics being just one of them.

A curious stance
Given all of that, I’m curious why the Spokesman-Review took it upon itself to editorialize against Sen. Dino Rossi’s smart legislation that would bar the unions that bargain directly with the governor from contributing to gubernatorial campaigns. After all, haven’t campaign finance rules always been justified on preventing corruption or “the appearance thereof”?

The paper called Rossi’s bill “pure politics” and wrote, “If the bill had altruistic aims, it would’ve also cut off donations to candidates for any elected office.” A couple of points to keep in mind:

  1. A law prohibiting all union donations to any public official would face a far greatly likelihood of getting tossed out on constitutional grounds.
  2. It’s odd to call Rossi’s bill “pure politics” considering that public employee unions favor not just Inslee or Democratic gubernatorial candidates, but legislative Democrats as well. To be dastardly “pure politics,” wouldn’t there need to be some sort of advantage for Republicans in targeting just the gubernatorial level?

Missing the point
The Spokesman-Review missed the point: the power our state’s collective bargaining law concentrates in the governor’s hands puts the relationship between the governor and the employee unions on an entirely different level, with inadequate checks and balances. It is fundamentally different than the regular appropriations process, where state spending is debated openly in committee and in the chambers, and all 147 legislators from every part of the state have a say.

The current bargaining arrangement makes for a governor-union relationship that is simply too politically and financially cozy. The paper also minimized the amounts of political money involved, writing that in 2012 and 2016 Inslee “collected nearly $200,000 from public employee unions” but ignoring the far larger amount those unions spent on independent expenditures for Inslee’s benefit (not to mention the “member communications” that don’t have to be reported).

The editorial board rightly bemoans the secret negotiations but whiffs on recognizing Rossi’s bill as a useful step toward overall reform. The reality is, we need to open up negotiations and give the Legislature a more meaningful role and reduce the appearance of impropriety. The Rossi bill, which passed the Senate, draws attention to the problems and makes a step in the right direction.
-Rob Mckenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.