Secret negotiations go against state’s tradition of openness

The Tri-City Herald took on the thorny topic of state employee negotiations last week. Judging by the main state employee union’s response, the paper hit a nerve. The union has its reasons for preferring the status quo, but they don’t align with the taxpayers’ interests.

14 years after Gov. Gary Locke signed a new collective bargaining bill, the law’s structural problems are obvious.

1. That the negotiations are conducted in secret flies in the face of Washington’s strong tradition of openness. Our laws requiring access to government records and transparent political spending were enacted by voters in 1972. The year before, legislators passed an open public meetings law to require that the public’s business be conducted publicly.

Carving out collective bargaining goes against that spirit of openness. Conducting these talks in secret is unnecessary. Governments in other states conduct open negotiations and they work just fine. Our secret talks suit the governor and the unions, but they cut against the interests of the public and their elected legislators.

2. The collective bargaining law keeps legislators completely out of the process of setting contract parameters for one of state government’s largest expenditures. That is true despite the fact that it is the Legislature’s job is to appropriate money for state functions under the state constitution. From the perspective of the people’s elected representatives having a say, especially given the Legislature’s constitutional duties, that’s a broken link.

The role left for legislators under the current law is to take an up-or-down vote. That’s it. The governor informs them of the negotiated amounts and they can approve them or reject them, but can’t amend or adjust them. In practice, legislators don’t even take a separate vote on the contracts. The negotiated sums are rolled into the budget vote, with no separate discussion or debate on the topic. That’s not fair to taxpayers.

3. I’m glad that the Herald noted one argument that you don’t see very often: that the collective bargaining law concentrates too much authority over the process in one person, the governor. The paper editorialized, “No one elected official should have that much power over such a significant amount of taxpayer money.”

The secrecy issue plays into that problem. If negotiations were public, perhaps this would be less of an issue. As it stands now, we don’t know key facts about the negotiations. Is the governor’s team negotiating firmly on behalf of taxpayers? Are the union’s demands reasonable? We have no idea, and neither do legislators.

Given the political considerations here, we’ve set up a system that people are bound to distrust. State employee unions spend big on state politics. In fact, they spent big to elect Gov. Inslee. The worry is that the governor – any governor – may be too cozy with the unions they are negotiating with. Shouldn’t the public have the right to see this process take place rather them slamming the door in their faces? It’s a matter of trust and integrity.

Our state has been a national leader in government openness and transparency. This approach to collective bargaining, with its closed doors, secret negotiations, and lack of legislative input, undermines those ideals. It needs an overhaul to put us back on the right track.
-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.