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Labor talks will stay closed as House bill fails

Published March 6, 2013 11:05 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A bill that would have opened labor talks with government employee unions to the public was defeated Wednesday, but has supporters vowing that it is just the start of a larger effort.

"I'm not surprised, frankly, that everyone wants to keep their kingdom quiet," said Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, the sponsor of HB362.

"Transparency in collective bargaining, this is the start. You watch. This bill is back next session, not only that, but more government transparency. … I'm coming for you. This has got to stop. Not on my watch. Not anymore."

Rep. Kraig Powell, said if voters don't like the deals employees are getting, it's up to them to get involved, but opening negotiations is not the answer.

"The taxpayers are wimps. The taxpayers are not going to their local school boards and city councils and getting elected," said Powell, who said the Legislature is also to blame if it doesn't resolve problems in pension systems.

"I think the Legislature is wimps as well," he said, "if we aren't passing the pension reforms we need to to solve this problem and instead saying, 'We want to disrupt your [negotiations].' "

Heather Williamson, with the group tea-party group FreedomWorks, said it is ridiculous that the House Government Operations Committee defeated the bill and she and other citizens and members of the business community will launch an initiative to take the matter to voters.

"We're going to make this a ballot issue," she said. "We see this as an issue that needs to change and we're really disappointed that the committee decided to call us all wimps."

McCay's bill would have required that when the state, counties, cities, school districts and fire and police departments negotiate wages and benefits, the talks be open to the public.

Opponents argued that throwing open the doors on the sensitive talks would complicate the process and that the end agreement is available to be vetted by the public and voted on by a public body.

Rep. Jack Draxler, R-Logan, a former mayor, said he has been involved in labor negotiations and believes that closed-door talks "have served us fine up until now."

"What I've learned from these experiences is these negotiations can be delicate," he said, arguing that if talks with teachers, for example, are opened up, both sides would have to take a tough stance to placate their constituents.

"We will see, instead of an attitude of compromise that has to occur in these negotiations, we see the teachers union on one side posturing and saying, 'We've got to prove to our members we're really tough,' " Draxler said, and the other side taking a tough stance protecting taxpayers.

But McCay said seven states have opened collective bargaining and Utah should become the eighth because long-term pension commitments are being made on behalf of taxpayers in those talks without citizens able to observe. That has left the state with a $5 billion unfunded pension liability, he argued.

Jonathan Johnson, president of Overstock.com, said studies show that government employees make 43 percent more than private sector employees.

"This is not an anti-union bill, but a pro-taxpayer bill. I believe the reason government employees make more money is because there is a lack of natural balance in public employee collective bargaining," he said.

The committee defeated the bill by a 5-4 vote.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke