A bill to require that closed-door collective bargaining talks with state employees be open to the public will likely receive a vote by the full Washington Senate this week.
Split along party lines, the Senate Ways & Means Committee recommended Tuesday that the Republican bill go to the GOP-dominated Senate for a vote. However, it is unlikely the Democratic-controlled House will pass that bill, except if Senate budget negotiators insert this into the Legislature’s sluggish 2015-2017 budget talks.
The bargaining bill by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia and one of the Senate’s budget negotiators, would also require any employee raises to either stay within the state's four-year budget plan or not exceed 3 percent per biennium in overall additional costs for the state.
The background of this legislation is that the executive branch and the state's public employee unions negotiated a pay raise package worth an extra $583 million in the 2015-2017 budget. Normally, the Legislature approves such a package as a whole, or votes it down as a whole to send the administration and unions back to the bargaining table. However, Senate Republicans want to trim the pay package by at least $75 million in order for those salaries to fit into their $38 billion budget proposal for 2015-2017 without installing new taxes.
Republican lawmakers do not like the fact that the Legislature has no direct input into the contract negotiations between the administration and the state’s unions beyond approving or rejecting any tentative agreement as a whole. Also, GOP legislators dislike the lack of knowledge about what is being discussed in the closed-door negotiations with the state’s unions.
Ironically, legislative Democrats and Republicans do much of their own budget-related business, including negotiations, behind closed doors. Caucus meetings in which the majority party decides which bills will actually go to the Senate or House floor are closed to the public. Budget negotiations between the Senate Republicans and House Democrats are also closed to the public.
Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and chairman of the Ways & Means Committee, said one reason to open the executive branch-union talks to the public is because the state’s unions are huge donors in political campaigns, including gubernatorial ones. Open negotiations would give the public a look at a normally unseen financial relationship between the state’s unions and the sitting governor, Hill said. While he has not announced his candidacy, Hill’s name is floating around political circles as a potential challenger to Gov. Jay Inslee in 2016.
Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, argued the bill’s timing is poor because the Legislature is expected to enter a second 30-day overtime session on Friday to deal with the deadlocked talks on the main 2015-2017 budget, as well as the stalled transportation and capital budgets. He called Braun’s bill a distraction from the heavier budget disputes. “This seems to stir the pot further, to push the parties farther apart. … It’ll never get to the governor’s desk,” Hasegawa said.
The Senate Ways & Means Committee also held a hearing on the bill Tuesday. Seven labor-related representatives and an official from the state’s Office of Financial Management opposed the bill, mostly because of the open talks or because they were against locking any raises into a pre-set formula. The conservative Freedom Foundation think tank supported the bill.
The arguments against the bill included the fact that such openness is currently allowed, but most local governments and school districts and their unions choose not to make those talks public. “I don’t think you will have serious negotiations in public. It just doesn’t happen,” said Greg Devereux, representing the Washington Federation of State Employees.
Dan Steele of the Washington Association of School Administrators said: “We think it would impede the ability to have open communications" between a school district and union.
Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, said some school districts in her area have open collective bargaining talks with the two sides’ stances posted on a Web site — and the public appreciates that openness.
“The public is going to benefit from having greater insight into this process,” said Max Nelson, a labor policy analyst with the Freedom Foundation.
Even if Braun's bills passes both chambers and gets the governor's signature, that approval would be too late to affect the current budget talks.