“Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government,” observed British philosopher Jeremy Bentham.
The American public, through the years, has agreed.
Having experienced concentrated political power and seen how its secret use and benefits could establish a permanently privileged class, America’s founding citizenry demanded the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, along with its system of checks and balances.
Subsequently, those same suspicions have long fueled a widespread distrust of governmental power. Americans, still today, disdainfully invoke images of smoke-filled rooms with closed doors where secret deals are made to privilege the few at the expense of everyone else.
Politicians from across the political spectrum have publicly catered to this sentiment in recent years by making increased “transparency” a top political buzzword. In the U.S. Senate, for instance, Tom Coburn and Barack Obama — two senators with vastly different views on most issues — partnered to sponsor a major transparency bill in 2006 that established an “online checkbook” for the federal government.
In Nevada, too, prominent Republicans and Democrats alike have sponsored major transparency legislation. A bill sponsored by Republican Assembly leader Pat Hickey in 2013 would have expanded the state’s Open Meetings Law. Similarly, Democrat state Sen. Tick Segerblom sponsored legislation to strengthen citizens’ access to public records.
However, despite the good-faith efforts by certain individuals, lawmakers have, for decades, hidden some of the most important political decisions in Nevada from the public’s eye.
Passage of the Dodge Act in 1969 — and its strengthening throughout the 1970s — is an important case in point. Through that legislation, state lawmakers gave unionized government workers the power to secretly bind taxpayers through their local governments.
Many states impose compulsory-bargaining requirements that force local officials to sign collective-bargaining agreements with recognized government unions. That obligation, in itself, gives unions leverage and power over these local officials.
Lawmakers in Nevada, however, went a step further. They’ve allowed unions to negotiate the terms of these agreements in secret by exempting the negotiating sessions from the state’s Open Meetings Law.
This secrecy is especially dangerous because, unlike with employers and employees in the private sector, incentives for unions and public officials are frequently aligned: Both want perpetually higher, taxpayer-funded pay and benefits.
Moreover, elected officials routinely depend on union support in order to win and retain office. They and top bureaucrats also gain prestige by presiding over larger budgets, and this prestige can be translated to higher office or responsibility.
These realities set the stage for government unions and elected officials to collude in the creation of compensation packages well above what comparable private-sector workers earn — even if it means taxes will need to be raised on private households to pay for the extravagance enjoyed by government unions.
The real backroom deals in Nevada, thus, are those that transpire between local elected officials and their electoral foot soldiers in the government unions.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Even among states with compulsory-bargaining laws, several still require negotiations to be held in an open, public forum.
Idaho’s collective-bargaining law, for instance, declares: “All documentation exchanged between the parties during negotiations, including all offers, counteroffers and meeting minutes shall be subject to public writings disclosure laws.”
Texas also requires that “A deliberation relating to collective bargaining between a public employer and an association . . . shall be open to the public and comply with state law.”
Similarly, Minnesota’s collective-bargaining law says: “All negotiations, mediation sessions, and hearings between public employees and public employers or their respective representatives are public meetings.”
Yet Minnesota also has some of the nation’s most exorbitant collective-bargaining laws. Not only is collective bargaining compulsory on public employers for every class of worker, but most public workers are explicitly granted the right to strike.
Union leaders in Nevada claim that transparency somehow undermines collective bargaining, but states like Minnesota demonstrate that a transparent collective-bargaining procedure still gives unions enormous power.
What transparency undermines is the ability of union bosses to conspire with local officials, agreeing to keep them in power so long as they agree to transfer ever greater sums from taxpayers to government unions.
Transparency in government forces accountability. It’s time Nevada lawmakers take a stand to promote transparency in what is the most significant financial procedure undertaken by local governments — the negotiation of collective-bargaining agreements.
In the words of Patrick Henry: “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
It’s time to end the backroom deals.
Geoffrey Lawrence is deputy policy director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit http://npri.org.