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EDITORIAL: Legislature must make bargaining transparent

One of the most urgent tasks before the 2015 Legislature is collective bargaining reform. The question isn’t whether lawmakers should change the way public employee unions negotiate for compensation and job protections, but how far they should go in rewriting state law.

Starting today, the Review-Journal will provide Gov. Brian Sandoval and lawmakers with 25 policy recommendations in 25 days. The series will conclude just before the Feb. 2 start of the biennial regular session. Our first proposal: transparency in collective bargaining.

Nevada law keeps union negotiations secret. As MIT professor and Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber infamously noted, a lack of openness provides a huge political advantage. Decades of closed-door talks have allowed the state’s local government workforce to leverage some of the most lucrative salaries and benefits in the nation.

How do secret talks benefit unions? Labor leaders and management begin each contract negotiation with an offer. The purpose of negotiations is to get the two sides to find common ground and, ultimately, meet somewhere in the middle on the money. Because all offers, counteroffers and discussions are confidential in Nevada — minutes can’t be made public, either — unions are free to start talks with outrageous, fiscally impossible demands to ensure the resulting “compromise” provides the kind of generous pay bump they were seeking all along.

Want a 4 percent raise? Start talks by demanding a 10 percent boost. Taxpayers will never know.

Considering these negotiations determine the greatest single expense of local government — personnel — it’s ludicrous that the citizens stuck with that bill aren’t privy to the discussions that set the price. Ever-growing payrolls put enormous pressure on government budgets and inevitably lead to calls for tax increases from unions and the elected officials who benefit from labor’s political and financial support. Indeed, across Southern Nevada, elected bodies are approving boom-era, multiyear contracts with guaranteed pay raises to unionized workers while bridging budget deficits with reserves.

Whether sunshine would provide a check on union greed remains to be seen. But if every demand and every argument in support of those demands were made public, there would be political consequences for bargaining units. What kinds of things do union negotiators say in contract talks? Comments made last year before the Local Government Employee-Management Relations Board by a lawyer for North Las Vegas police officers are instructive. He argued that the nearly insolvent city could afford pay raises for police. “There’s plenty of things that they (city officials) could do,” attorney Jeffrey Allen argued. “They could sell off assets, they could close a park, they could close a library. They could lay off non-public-safety employees. They could even raise taxes.”

Would you vote for officials who support this line of thinking? You need access to the collective bargaining process to decide.

Unions have one powerful argument against making the collective bargaining process subject to the state’s open meeting law: The Legislature isn’t subject to the law’s requirements, either. If lawmakers won’t impose transparency on themselves, labor will assert, how can they credibly force openness on unions? The Legislature absolutely should be subject to the open meeting law. (But that’s another editorial entirely. Hint, hint.)

Public-sector bargaining is completely open in Idaho and Minnesota. The 2015 Legislature should make sure Nevada joins them.

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