Healthy debate in senate over privacy of public sector union contracts

It was a smallish room mostly packed with senate staffers who were mostly standing.

Senators filled the seats around the crowded table.

Democracy, as intended by the founders, broke out and leaders squared off over the issue of privacy in the negotiating of contracts for public sector unions.

It was a robust, articulate and passionate debate over Senate Bills 644 and 645, sponsored by Republicans, which would give the public insight and input “after” contracts are collectively bargained but “before” they’re enacted. Traditionally, the governor unilaterally, and in private, negotiates those deals and then hands the bill to the legislature, which must budget accordingly.

GOP senators insist it’s all about transparency, which has been a buzzword for Governor Tom Wolf.

“I don’t think it’s asking too much to allow the people of Pennsylvania, who are gonna have to pay for this contract, to have a couple weeks to have public comment on it,” said Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre). Corman insists the bills don’t give the public veto power over any contract the governor negotiates and he/she could move forward with the deal regardless.

Many around the cramped table agreed.

“The taxpayers in the state of Pennsylvania have a right to know what’s going on,” said Senator Scott Wagner (R-York) who doesn’t avoid fights with unions. “This bill doesn’t allow us to open up the negotiating process. We just want to know what this is gonna cost.”

Senator Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster) who is typically more diplomatic than Wagner also chimed in. “I think the days of hiding something from the public because they may disagree with it are long gone.”

But Democrats at the table began to bristle. They say the claim of transparency is just a smoke screen. They fear that Republicans are just trying to weaken Wolf’s negotiating power. Why, they asked, didn’t the GOP majority express the same concerns under Republican Governor Tom Corbett. Democrats also say that sensitive negotiating positions should stay private and fear that public input will inevitably lead to public complaints and possibly a scuttling of a hard-earned deal.

“The employees in the commonwealth will not get a fair shake with respect to what’s being negotiated because it’s being negotiated in a public setting,” said Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny). “That’s what I have a real problem with.”

Of course, in these days of transparency, arguing for more behind-closed-doors negotiations is tough. Corman sensed the moral high ground and seized it.

“You gotta be able to stand up and justify that contract you just signed. If you don’t think you can stand behind it maybe you shouldn’t have negotiated the contract.”

But other Democrats pushed back and accused Republicans of disguising their real intention which is union busting.

“You’re interested just because they’re union workers,” shouted Senator Christine Tartaglione (D-Philadelphia). She then pounded the table. “That’s the only reason it’s happening because they’re union workers.”

Fellow Philly Democrat Vince Hughes took it up a notch, also pounding the table. “This is a Koch Brothers move to break organized labor at the state employee level,” Hughes added that there’s plenty of transparency already, and that every public employee’s salary can be found on a state-run website.

Senator Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) is the prime sponsor of SB 644.

“This is not attacking unions, this is not attacking anything,” Folmer said earnestly. “This is just about making sure we know exactly how much of the taxpayers money it’s gonna take to do our budget. Because in the end, this isn’t our money.”

It was a healthy debate, but the democratic reality is that Republicans have a healthy majority. They passed both bills out of committee on straight party-line votes of 15-10. A Senate GOP Spokeswoman said they’re expected to be passed by the full senate, perhaps Wednesday.

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