Northwest News

Senate GOP seeks to open union talks to public

Taking time out from their closed-door talks on budgets and taxes, state lawmakers voted in committee Tuesday to urge that negotiations with public employee unions be opened to the public.

Senators on the Ways and Means Committee met in public to hear testimony on Senate Bill 6126, which would make changes to the collective bargaining process, including making the talks public.

At one point, minority Democrats and majority Republicans retreated to separate rooms to talk in private before returning for public debate and voting. That’s customary in the Legislature, which has exempted itself from open-meetings laws.

The committee then passed the transparency proposal by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, on a party-line vote.

Republicans said the public and workers themselves would benefit from knowing what happens in closed-door talks between unions and management. Democrats said the measure was unnecessary and a distraction two days before the end of a 30-day overtime session with no budget deal in sight.

State employees negotiate every two years with the governor’s budget office for pay, health-care benefits and working conditions. The Legislature gets an up or down vote on the contracts, and lawmakers have been debating this year whether to approve contracts negotiated by Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration that would give most state workers raises totaling a bit less than 5 percent over two years. Workers have been without without general cost-of-living increases for six years.

Public-employee unions “can spend literally millions on a governor’s race,” committee chairman Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said. They “can make contributions to help someone get elected, which is fine, but then the same person who may have received those contributions is then behind a closed door negotiating wage increases? ... Isn’t that one reason why we might want to make these a little more transparent?”

John Lane of the governor’s budget office told lawmakers the process is already transparent because of the Legislature’s involvement. He said the public can access records from negotiations after the contracts are approved.

“I just don’t think you’re going to have serious discussions in public. It just doesn’t happen,” said union leader Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of Public Employees.

Hill said some states and cities have provided partial or complete public access to bargaining and others are considering it.