HARRISBURG — With billions of dollars at stake in upcoming state union negotiations, key lawmakers say they will look closely at legislation that would require public-sector union negotiating sessions to be open to taxpayers.
“Secrecy breeds distrust,” said Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster County.
“Taxpayers deserve at least the opportunity to be present when elected officials negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that will be paid for with tax dollars.”
The bill’s co-sponsors include Senate President Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County.
Sixteen union contracts will be due with the budget July 1, the largest of which is with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Its director and spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Aument said the bill, which he introduced last week, would apply to school districts.
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, chairman of the House State Government Committee, said he has had discussions with House members about legislation similar to Aument’s, to “make sure there are no sweetheart deals” made in private with taxpayers’ money.
The idea drew impassioned critics.
A spokesman for the state’s largest teachers union called Aument’s bill “a shocking double standard.”
“It’s hard to believe how legislators who negotiate multibillion-dollar budgets behind closed doors can suggest that local school districts should make their confidential negotiations public,” said David Broderic, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. “If legislators want to open every negotiation to whomever wants to see it, they should go first.”
Wendell W. Young IV, head of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 in southeastern Pennsylvania, called the proposal “ridiculous.” He questioned whether the Senate’s negotiations for health care and dental plans would be public.
“It would be extremely time-consuming and costly,” said Young, whose union represents state store clerks. “People would end up posturing. It would be extremely unproductive.”
“I think it’s crazy,” said Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County. “You can’t have labor negotiations, or any other kind of negotiations, in public. When at the bargaining table, both sides need to feel free to make offers that may or may be part of a final deal. You have to be free to make concessions, conditional on concessions from the other side.”
Said Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia: “It’s not at all clear it will result in lower costs to taxpayers. Unions might demand a 5 percent raise. If they are on TV, it’s tougher to retreat from that demand.”
Aument said his bill would allow private “strategy sessions.”
Still, Anthony May, a former top aide to the late Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey, took a dim view of the concept.
“Let’s take a ride down the old slippery slope,” May said. “Open labor negotiations? Why not open consultant contract negotiations? How about open legislative party caucus meetings? Or grand jury hearings?”
Republicans control the Senate and the House, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is negotiating with unions that represent about 59,000 state employees, or about 82 percent of the workforce. Several of those unions were among Wolf’s largest campaign contributors — another reason taxpayers should have a view inside the meetings, said Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank in Harrisburg.
“The governor has the opportunity to lead on this by opening up his negotiations with his biggest campaign contributors,” said Brouillette.
He said AFSCME, the PSEA, the UFCW, the Service Employees International Union and others “are looking for a good return on their political investments in Tom Wolf. It is up to the governor to demonstrate that he stands with the taxpayers and not Harrisburg’s wealthiest and most powerful special interests.”
Wolf will represent all taxpayers at the talks, his office said.
His spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan, said he has not read Aument’s bill and could not comment on specifics. He asked whether Aument is willing to introduce legislation to expand the state’s open records law to fully include the Legislature, whether he has called for the Legislature’s auditing to be open, and whether he puts his daily schedule online, as Wolf does.
“Is the Legislature going to put forth a proposal banning gifts for themselves?” Sheridan asked. Wolf imposed a ban on executive branch employees on taking office in January.
Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, who chairs the State Government Committee, said last week that he is considering a hearing on the broader topic of union contract negotiations. Folmer “is very much interested in Sen. Aument’s bill,” according to his chief of staff, Fred Sembach.
Sembach said Folmer would like public notifications on the time and whereabouts of union negotiating sessions, as local governments are required to do, but he is not pushing to open negotiations.
Folmer and other senators question the impact of any new contracts on the state budget, saying the Wolf administration has not provided information about the potential cost. Wolf submitted a $30 billion budget to the Legislature that did not specify employee pay increases.
Folmer is considering drafting a bill that would require the Independent Fiscal Office to review any proposed state contract for its financial impact before it can take effect.
Wolf, who banned no-bid legal contracts in January, last month issued bids for legal firms to represent the state in negotiations. Those bidders have been narrowed to a few law firms from which the Office of General Counsel will choose, Sheridan said.
Bidding for legal services is rare in state government. Contracts often have been awarded to politically connected firms and campaign donors.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.