The Pennsylvania Senate State Government Committee voted last week on three bills that will make public any proposed state or local collective bargaining agreement. The bills passed by a vote of 8-4. The bills also would remove the exemption of collective bargaining from both the Sunshine Act and Right-to-Know Law. Two of the bills were sponsored by state Sens. Ryan Aument and Scott Martin, both Republicans serving Lancaster County.
“Transparency” — at least when it comes to the machinations of government — tends to exist more as a cosmic principle than as a core value. Politicians talk about it, even promote it. But in practice, they find the people’s business is more comfortably conducted behind a closed door with a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging from the door knob.
Thus, when our state legislators make an honest effort toward practical transparency, such steps should be recognized and lauded.
“As legislators who firmly believe that secrecy breeds distrust and transparency is the cornerstone of good government, we believe taxpayers deserve to know and understand the deals that are being made when elected officials negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that will be paid for with their tax dollars,” wrote Aument and Martin in their co-sponsorship memo.
Public access to the collective bargaining process makes sense. A dozen states already require full or partial access to collective bargaining sessions of public employees.
States and labor unions negotiate contracts with billions of taxpayer dollars at stake. In some cases, the results of negotiations mean an increase in taxes. The public has the right to know the details of contract proposals before the bill comes due.
Unions typically bristle at efforts to open negotiations.
Last year, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law that requires the state’s Independent Fiscal Office to provide a cost analysis of a proposed labor agreement before it’s finalized. At the time, SEIU Local 668, Pennsylvania’s social services union, called the law an “attack on collective bargaining rights.” The AFL-CIO called the measure “anti-union.”
While we appreciate labor unions not wanting their demands made public, we simply don’t see transparency as a bad thing where the people’s business is concerned.
In March, the conservative Commonwealth Foundation wrote that it’s time for Pennsylvania to shed its well-deserved reputation for opaqueness — a reputation that is only enhanced when contracts are hammered out in secret.
We’ve written quite a bit in the last year about the lack of transparency in government at both the state and local levels — secret negotiations, employees hired without public input. The list is long.
But when it comes to collective bargaining, the stakes are simply too high to shut the public out of the process.
“Given the scope and costs associated with collective bargaining agreements, it is only fair that the public should have every right to understand the decisions that are being made about how their tax dollars will be spent,” Aument said in a statement in March to LNP.
We understand the mayor’s point of view. But we believe if we are going to err, it should be on the side of transparency.
Public access to collective bargaining does not have to be a barrier to negotiations, as unions claim. And the objection that transparency is an interference is simply wrongheaded, and it trivializes the role of taxpayers who, after all, pay the salaries of public employees.
We commend Sens. Aument and Martin for their leadership on this issue.
We now hope their colleagues in the Legislature will support openness over business as usual.
The former is certainly worth the effort. We already know how the latter has worked out.