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Mike Folmer: Openness and union contracts

Posted 5/19/15

 

Openness, transparency and accountability are key elements of my “Promise to Pennsylvania” – and words that sometimes echo through the halls of the Capitol. However, these words apparently have no meaning when it comes to …

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Mike Folmer: Openness and union contracts

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Openness, transparency and accountability are key elements of my “Promise to Pennsylvania” – and words that sometimes echo through the halls of the Capitol. However, these words apparently have no meaning when it comes to public sector unions.

This sad fact was recently demonstrated by deliberation and debate on a bill to give taxpayers more information on the costs of the Commonwealth’s union contracts.

So far this legislative session, more than 150 bills have been proposed in the Pennsylvania State Senate and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives with the stated goals of providing some form of “openness,” “transparency” and/or “accountability.”

Among these 150-plus bills is a call for “openness, accountability and scrutiny” related to any proposed privatization of the Pennsylvania Lottery. Another bill would require the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board make its procurement policies “more transparent and accountable to taxpayers.” Still another bill would require the state Department of Community and Economic Development to assess its economic development programs and penalize employers for “noncompliance” and impose “requirements for public disclosure.”

I believe the goals of “openness, transparency and accountability” should also apply to one of the biggest cost drivers of the state budget: collective bargaining agreements. This is why I introduced Senate Bill 644: Empower the Independent Fiscal Office to provide cost estimates on proposed contracts two weeks prior to their execution.

Once the governor and the unions have tentatively agreed to terms, I would like an independent set of eyes to assess the estimated added costs of employee wages, benefits, pensions and working conditions.

This year, 16 collective bargaining agreements could be signed by Gov. Tom Wolf and cover nearly 45,000 of the more than 72,000 state employees under his jurisdiction. Fourteen of these contracts were to expire at the end of June and are estimated to cost more than $3 billion. Over the next two years, four other contracts will expire and total another $1.5 billion.

If these contracts increase wages by just 1 percent, the costs to taxpayers will total approximately $45 million per year, with additional – and presently unknown – costs for employees’ health care and pension benefits.

The General Assembly needs this important information to pass a truly balanced budget. Otherwise, this year’s “structural deficit” will remain unresolved and will grow in future years.

More importantly, taxpayers who will be footing the bill of these agreements negotiated by others have a right to know the costs before they are signed.

Surprisingly, opponents of SB 644 claim it will inject the General Assembly into the collective bargaining negotiations, which are rightly under the purview of the governor. Opponents also say giving the Independent Fiscal Office two weeks to generate cost information is attacking unions. Perhaps most amazing of all, some allege that requiring such information is a secret plan of the Koch brothers to destroy unions! Nothing could be further from the truth.

Senate Bill 644 is about openness, transparency and accountability of taxpayer money. This is the very same reason why both the Senate and the House send a host of bills to their respective Appropriations Committees: Get a fiscal note so each chamber and the public know the costs of proposed legislation before voting.

During my time in the Senate, I’ve never heard anyone question the need for fiscal notes to get good cost information on bills before the Senate.

SB 644 seeks similar information from the Independent Fiscal Office two weeks before proposed collective bargaining agreements are signed. Two weeks – that’s all SB 644 seeks to give the Independent Fiscal Office to prepare cost estimates for the General Assembly and for the public to know what each contract will cost before they are signed.

The fate of Senate Bill 644 will demonstrate who is truly for openness, transparency and accountability and who isn’t. Mike Folmer is a Republican member of the Pennsylvania Senate. He represents the 48th Senatorial District, which includes Middletown, Royalton, Lower Swatara Twp., Highspire, Londonderry Twp., Steelton and the Swatara Twp. communities of Bressler, Enhaut and Oberlin.{jcomments on}

Mike Folmer is a Republican member of the Pennsylvania Senate. He represents the 48th Senatorial District, which includes Middletown, Royalton, Lower Swatara Twp., Highspire, Londonderry Twp., Steelton and the Swatara Twp. communities of Bressler, Enhaut and Oberlin.