Op-Ed: More Transparency Needed in Governmental Contract Decisions

When I ran for public office, one of my top priorities was to increase openness and transparency at all levels of government to ensure that taxpayers know how and where their hard-earned money is spent.

One area where greater transparency is sorely needed involves the process of negotiating salary and benefits for government and public school employees. 

Collective bargaining negotiations are currently exempt from government transparency laws, despite the fact that those deals are ultimately paid by taxpayers and can lead to tax increases, strikes and other disruptions in the lives of Pennsylvanians. 

Public employers across the Commonwealth currently negotiate contracts costing billions of dollars without any public review or oversight and despite the fact that they have a direct impact on state and local government costs.

That’s why I have introduced 2 pieces of legislation that would require collective bargaining agreements and contract offers to school district superintendents and principals to be posted online for public review prior to their finalization. Opening these processes to the public will ensure that negotiations are done fairly and in the best interest of taxpayers.

 Senate Bill 168, which was approved by the Senate State Government Committee, would require any proposed collective bargaining agreement on the state and local government level to be made available on the public employers’ publicly accessible internet website within 48 hours. Senate Bill 592, which was approved by the Senate Education Committee, would establish a similar waiting period for the hiring of School District Superintendents, Principals and assistant Superintendents and Principals.

Under SB 168, an agreement would have to be posted online two weeks prior and thirty days following the signing of the collective bargaining agreement. Under SB 592, the details of the proposed contract would be placed online after an offer has been made for two weeks prior to the board approving the contract.

Requiring an online posting of the proposed collective bargaining agreements or the contract offer to an administrator is a straightforward reform to advance government transparency and ensure that taxpayer money is spent effectively.

As part of that push for greater transparency, I also cosponsored two bills that would remove the current exemption of collective bargaining from the Sunshine Act and add collective bargaining to the classification of information that is available to the public under the state’s Right to Know Law.

Every other governmental action has a mechanism for the public to weigh in with those making the final decision. Legislation, contracts, regulations, grant awards and road construction projects all have a period for public comment. I believe that contract negotiations and the hiring of superintendents and principals should as well.

Given the scope and costs associated with collective bargaining agreements and school administration personnel, it is only fair that the public should have every right to understand the decisions that are being made about how their tax dollars will be spent. Transparency is the cornerstone of good government. 

Increased transparency also benefits employees.  Many times employees are unaware of the demands being made on their behalf.  These bills will benefit all sides of collective bargaining negotiations and, like public officials, will make union representatives more accountable to their members.

Taxpayers have a vested interest in the negotiations between public employers and their employees and deserve the right to review contract agreements, after all they ultimately pay the taxes required to pay for these contracts.

Too often, news reports about a finalized contract with a superintendent or union includes the phrase “the exact terms of the contract were not immediately available.” The public has a right to access the materials and information being used to negotiate contracts.  These are discussions that affect the livelihoods of employees and taxpayers and they don’t deserve to be kept in the dark. I’ve yet to see a process that more transparency would not improve which is why I have introduced these two important pieces of legislation.

Senator Pat Stefano (R-32) represents all of Fayette, Somerset and parts of Westmoreland Counties.

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