STATE Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, has one of the easiest committee assignments in Olympia. For 10 years he has served on the Joint Select Committee on Employment Relations, the panel of legislators that is supposed to advise the governor in negotiations with public employee unions. Every couple of years, members get a memo saying a deal has been reached. Never has the committee met, Honeyford says. “Actually, I’d forgotten about it.”
Business as usual, in other words. Washington is negotiating behind closed doors with unions representing some 50,000 state employees, and the process is as dim as ever. By Oct. 1, state officials will arrive at a deal without public scrutiny. Then lawmakers will be expected to ratify it without debate or even a separate vote, as part of their budget bill next year.
Criticism has been constant since a Democratic Legislature approved this dubious arrangement in 2002. Now reform is more urgent than at any time since the Wall Street collapse because a rebounding economy once again gives the state money to spend.
Gov. Jay Inslee, elected with huge contributions from the public-employee unions, has promised salary increases for their members. Whether he will do anything to rein in health-benefit costs is unclear. At a time when the state Supreme Court says K-12 education deserves more money, taxpayers might wonder how hard the governor is negotiating.
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Public-employee unions once battled in the Legislature against every other interest dependent on state spending, but this negotiation process puts them near the head of the line. These agreements are among the reasons for the disastrous run up in state spending during the bubble years of the 2000s. Some employees saw raises exceeding 25 percent during the 2007-2009 budget period, an obligation that had to be carried forward even after the recession hit and state tax revenues plummeted.
Regardless of whether unions deserve this elevated status, a simple reform offers a good starting point. Lawmakers should open the bargaining sessions, as suggested by last session’s unsuccessful SB 6183.
Labor officials suggest public attention would make agreement more difficult, yet 11 other states including Texas, Florida and Oregon open their negotiations to the public in whole or in part. Taxpayers deserve to know if the state is driving a hard bargain.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).