Getting the Best Deal from Government

Note: This commentary was published in The Wall Street Journal.

If you’ve ever spent hundreds on a smartphone or thousands on a new car, you know what it’s like to hunt for the best deal. Yet when paying for state and local government services worth billions, Americans often hand politicians a blank check without ever knowing if they could get more for their money.

Year after year, elected officials behind closed doors negotiate labor contracts for 19 million state and local government workers. The result? Skyrocketing salaries, health-care costs and pension benefits are making services like public schools and policing unaffordable for taxpayers. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, compensation for government workers nationwide has grown 21% since 2000, compared with only 9% in the private economy.

Fortunately a growing list of states now shine light on secretive contract negotiations with public-employee unions—putting taxpayers back in charge. In April, Idaho’s governor signed a bill requiring open meetings and records in all executive labor negotiations. Colorado did the same last fall for public-school district contract talks. Similar legislation is advancing in Washington, and the Pennsylvania Senate passed two transparency bills this month.

The first of the Keystone State’s bills provides the public with independent cost estimates of the state’s government union contracts before ratification. Separate legislation requires such contracts to be made accessible on government websites at least two weeks before they’re signed. A similar bill awaits the governor’s signature in Nevada.

Giving the public advance notice and cost estimates on billion-dollar agreements might seem like basic reform, but it has been met with some opposition. “It’s simply anti-labor, anti-worker legislation,” Tom Herman, the president of Service Employees International Union Local 668 told the news website PennLive. Of course the union stands to profit from keeping the process secret.

To date, 12 states offer some kind of public access to the negotiating room. More state and local governments should offer a clear view of what taxpayers are on the hook for. After all, taxpayers supply the money to employ government workers, and labor contracts can be years- and even decades-long financial commitments.

It’s natural for people who hire representatives, like real-estate agents or attorneys, to monitor their performance—and the price at which it comes. The same should be done with elected officials who often have incentives to serve themselves rather than their constituents.

The public pension crisis facing states from California to New Jersey to Illinois is a great illustration of politicians and union leaders making backroom deals that taxpayers could never afford. Overly generous benefits aren’t the only concern: A conflict of interest exists when elected officials bargain with public unions behind closed doors.

Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf must negotiate contracts worth $3.4 billion with 16 labor unions by this summer. Six of these unions contributed more than $2.6 million to Mr. Wolf’s election campaign, and so the governor has a strong incentive to reward his financial backers.

Despite the state’s budget deficit, Gov. Wolf this week agreed to one-year extensions for two unions with pay increases and no concessions in health-care benefits. Taxpayers learned about the deals, which will cost $23 million more than the previous year, from a news release.

Surprisingly enough, transparency is beginning to garner support even among some labor leaders. When Maryland’s Howard County decided in 2013 to open talks for school workers, the head of the local teachers union, Paul Lemle, supported the change. “Great public schools are not built just with bricks, but with a good contract and good relationships between the school system and its employees,” he said. And in New Mexico, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation offered open contract meetings as a way for the public to understand union positions.

In the end, open collective bargaining is a growing national movement because it’s good government. Allowing public access to contract negotiations will tame spending and shift control back to citizens, where it belongs.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (, Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.