Washington state needs to bring more transparency to government labor contract negotiations.
WASHINGTON state is about to begin a massive remodeling project.
To fix its broken education-funding system over the next year, the state will knock out the walls of its tax system and might tear the roof off local bargaining of teacher contracts.
Lawmakers should add more windows while they’re at it. As part of the overhaul, they should increase transparency of state labor-contract negotiations and the Legislature’s budget process.
Since 2002, the governor has negotiated state labor contracts in secret. Finalized contracts are presented to the Legislature for inclusion in the budget — an up-or-down vote.
Negotiations should be more open so the public knows what’s on the table and what trade-offs are being made on both sides.
Given the huge influence of unions on state politics, secrecy gives rise to questions about how governors are influenced by political support they receive from unions they’re negotiating with behind closed doors.
As Gov. Jay Inslee campaigns this summer for re-election, he’s simultaneously negotiating 26 separate contracts affecting around 49,000 state employees and 46,000 publicly funded, nonstate employees.
Through a spokeswoman, Inslee said negotiations are not influenced at all by campaign support. But the fact remains that he’s negotiating with some of his biggest supporters to produce a contract that legislators won’t touch until after the election.
A dozen states have some form of disclosure during executive negotiations. They include Idaho, which last year passed a law making contract negotiations subject to its public-meetings and records rules.
Offers, counteroffers and minutes of Idaho negotiations are now public records and the public may attend negotiating sessions. Officials may still meet in closed sessions to formulate offers and receive information about a specific employee.
Republican efforts to pass a similar law in Washington have been unsuccessful in recent years, so the Washington Policy Center has floated an intriguing alternative.
Instead of fully opening negotiations, the state could require that proposals, documents and fiscal analyses be made available before and after closed contract meetings. This is modeled on a civic-engagement process used by the city of Costa Mesa, Calif.
More transparency would be especially important as the state begins fully funding the cost of basic education”
A similar approach could be used to increase transparency and public involvement in state budget negotiations, which typically involve an opaque flurry of last-minute, closed-door meetings.
More transparency would be especially important as the state begins fully funding the cost of basic education, rather than relying on a patchwork of local levies. That would necessitate more centralized bargaining in Olympia.
All sides will have concerns about local versus state control and priorities during this transition. The remedy is allowing more public scrutiny and participation during negotiations.
The coming year will be disruptive in Olympia as all corners of state government rebuild and enlarge tax and education-funding policies. Take the opportunity to make the place more transparent and bring in more sunshine.