Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget secretary’s refusal to say how much state employee labor agreements currently being negotiated are anticipated to cost next year has sparked calls for changing the state’s public employee collective bargaining process.
Two Republican senators on Monday began seeking support from their Senate colleagues for separate pieces of legislation that would shine the light on a proposed labor contract’s cost or terms before the deal is executed.
Neither proposal sits well with the Wolf Administration and union leaders who see it as a partisan attack or an attack on worker rights.
This latest flap grows out of an exchange that took place last month between Senate State Government Committee Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, and Budget Secretary Randy Albright at a Senate budget hearing.
Folmer pressed Albright for details about the amount included in Wolf’s $29.9 billion general fund budget proposal to cover the first-year anticipated cost of the labor agreements being negotiated with 14 state employee unions. Albright’s responses were limited to voicing cautious optimism that the contract terms would fit in the governor’s proposed budget.
Folmer, who appeared somewhat frustrated by that response, indicated on Monday the $3 billion to $4 billion price tag attached to the state’s labor costs demands a better answer.
“Those are cost drivers in the budget and in order to have a balanced budget, you got to have all the numbers,” he said. “It’s not like they are trying to protect the creation of the atom bomb here. Those are tax dollars paying for those contracts.”
To force more openness, Folmer is proposing to introduce legislation that would require the state’s Independent Fiscal Office to provide an analysis of the annual fiscal impact of a proposed labor agreement with state employee unions prior to the contract’s execution.
Separately, Sen. Patrick Stefano, R-Fayette County, on Monday began circulating a memo seeking support for legislation that would require state and local governments to provide a two-week public notice of a proposed labor contract prior to its execution as well as posting the terms for 30 days afterward.
A similar measure that would have required school districts to provide public notice of teacher contract terms and cost before and after a school board vote passed the state House in January 2014 by a 102-98 vote. That bill, however, died due to inaction in the Senate Education Committee, which Folmer chaired at that time.
Stefano also was “disturbed by the lack of transparency coming from the administration on the state level negotiations,” said his chief of staff Ben Wren. “Coming from the business world, he felt this is an opportunity to allow transparency for the taxpayer in how to have a say on contracts being negotiated on their behalf.”
But Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan finds it interesting that this Republican push for openness of state employee contracts comes after a Democratic governor took over.
He said Albright told the senators the negotiations with the unions are ongoing and there are no final details yet to share. When there are, Sheridan said the contract terms will be made available.
Turning the tables on the senators, Sheridan said, “Are they going to subject themselves to Right to Know requests? Are they going to open up the legislative audit process to the public? Are they going to ban gifts? … This proposal is partisan.”
Union leaders echoed that sentiment as well as offered that they see it as another Republican attack on unions and an attempt to take away power from the governor, who is granted the authority to negotiate state employee contracts.
“If the governor comes to terms with a union, whoever the governor may be, they have to be accountable to the Legislature for funding these contracts,” said Dave Fillman, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 13, the largest of the state employee unions.
“It’s another one of these issues of what is really broken with the system that has to be fixed. … They didn’t do this when [former Republican Gov. Tom] Corbett was governor. They just want to take out some revenge on Governor Wolf and I think it’s unnecessary.”
“Negotiations just cannot be put into the court of public opinion,” said Tom Herman, president of Service Employees International Union Local 668, the third largest state employee union. “There are professionals that do this for a living that in good faith represent the commonwealth. The commonwealth actually needs to have some faith in its own people, particularly since these proposals are all looked at for cost prior to any agreement.”
Besides that, he suggested it’s ironic that senators want public accountability of negotiations prior to an agreement being executed yet they don’t open up their closed-door caucus discussions even though those discussions are about spending tax dollars too.
“Are they going to open them up? I don’t think so,” Herman said. “It’s simply anti-labor, anti-worker legislation.”
But Matt Brouillette, president of the conservative-leaning Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, sees Folmer and Stefano’s proposals as in keeping with Wolf’s calls for a more open and transparent government.
“Without these reforms, Governor Wolf will negotiate billions of taxpayer dollars with his largest campaign contributors behind closed doors and in secret,” he said. “I would expect him to support these changes to the state’s contract negotiations process, especially when we know that AFSCME, SEIU, UFCW, and other government unions are expecting a return on their political investments of millions of dollars to the governor’s election efforts.”
Sheridan said the governor will make sure “any agreement is done in a way that does not burden taxpayers.”