Our Voice: State labor negotiations should be open to public scrutiny

Negotiations between Gov. Jay Inslee and state workers are underway, and that's about all the public is allowed to know about this major pocketbook issue.

Inslee's labor team and more than 25 unions are in secret talks this summer. The taxpayer is locked out of every aspect of the process, except for writing the check, of course.

Raises are a foregone conclusion. Inslee is beholden to public employee unions for helping put him in the governor's mansion.

Even before negotiations begin, the governor said he believes state workers and public school teachers deserve a "modest" boost in pay after six years without cost of living adjustments, the Olympian newspaper reported.

Dave Schiel, president of the Washington Public Employees Union, said in an interview that his union could seek a double-digit raise for the two-year contract period in 2015-17.

But those public remarks were made before face-to-face negotiations began between the state and union representatives. The start of talks triggered a nondisclosure rule for negotiators, a major weakness in Washington's sunshine laws.

Here's how Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, put it in a recent op-ed column.

"Imagine that the governor is holding a series of secret closed-door negotiations with a company that could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer expenses. Now imagine that the same company secretly meeting with the governor is also a campaign contributor. Also imagine that the Legislature is barred from changing the details of an agreement negotiated in secret with the governor and can only vote up or down on funding the final proposal.

"Sounds outrageous?

"You bet! Yet that is exactly what happens each time state and local officials in Washington negotiate pay and benefits with public-employee unions."

At first blush, labor talks that are open to the public might sound like a radical concept that would jeopardize progress. But it's working elsewhere. Several states from Georgia to Oregon require some transparency in labor talks.

In Florida, for example, negotiations between a public agency and public employees are open. Strategy sessions with just one side meeting are closed.

That makes sense. It's tough to negotiate if the other side knows beforehand what you're willing to settle for. But there's no justification for keeping the actual negotiations secret.

In fact, it would force both sides to take pragmatic positions because the public would know immediately if one side was unreasonable in its demands.

The public's interest is self-evident. These negotiation are about how our money is spent, and the amounts aren't trivial. If the governor's team agrees to just a 1 percent pay raise for all general government and higher education employees in 2015 alone, the first-year cost would be about $33 million from the general fund and $44 million from all other funds, according to the Office of Financial Management.

Over two years, the cost grows to $66 million from the general fund and about $154 million from all sources.

It may be time to raise salaries for state workers. A recent consultant's report found that 81 percent of Washington state employees earn less than their counterparts in the public and private sectors.

Some of the consultant's findings have been disputed by the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank. But even if the report is skewed in the employees' favor, six years without a raise warrants some discussion.

But that discussion should occur in the public eye, where voters can hold officials accountable. Both sides in the negotiations work for us. We deserve the transparency needed to hold all accountable.