When people think of Idaho, a handful of images come to mind: Our famous potatoes, Boise State University’s legendary blue turf football field and our wide open spaces comprised of unspoiled forests, mountain lakes and sprawling sagebrush-covered deserts.
Western independence is a premium commodity here in Idaho. A libertarian streak runs fairly deep. The state adores politicians who promise to keep government small and unobtrusive. Yet in stark contrast, for more than 40 years, labor unions have exerted an outsized influence on Idaho policymakers. In 1974, labor unions won the ability to negotiate contracts in secret with city and school officials. That means for decades, police, fire and teachers unions were able to huddle privately with local elected officials and determine how the bulk of tax dollars were spent. And those contracts gave away a lot — big health care benefits, big annual pay increases and plenty of overtime, sick leave and extra pay to pad the payroll. Because contracts were negotiated in secret, most taxpayers were unaware of the contract terms, and they weren’t able to raise objections when contracts gave away too much.
Fortunately, organizations like the Mackinac Center have been working tirelessly on a national effort to rein in the power of the unions. Mackinac created a tool kit containing policy recommendations intended to empower taxpayers over Big Labor. One of those recommendations was for government to conduct labor negotiations in the open.
In 2015, Idaho lawmakers followed that recommendation and changed state law to require open meetings whenever collective bargaining occurs. The measure passed the state Legislature unanimously after objections were raised to a similar proposal in 2014.
The breakthrough came when union officials indicated they were as unhappy with the closed meeting process as we were. Union officials complained that they were mistreated in private. They claimed that frank discussions were turned into bullying sessions by people in official, powerful positions. Still, they worried about private employee matters being aired in public. Local elected officials, on the other hand, said they wanted open meetings, but didn’t want to be at a tactical disadvantage when they considered a potential labor agreement or formulated a counteroffer.
House Bill 167 solved those problems. While the new law says all labor negotiations have to be conducted in public, a governing board can duck behind closed doors whenever there’s a need to discuss a specific employee “when the information has a direct bearing on the issues being negotiated and a reasonable person would conclude that the release of that information would violate that employee's right to privacy.”
To satisfy the concerns of local elected officials, the new law allows them to meet privately to consider a labor union’s contract offer or formulate a counteroffer. But those documents are subject to public disclosure.
Finally, the new law assures that no matter who is doing the negotiating, meetings will be open to the public. The requirement applies not only to the governing board but also to the governing board’s “designated representatives.”
I believe that the revisions made to Idaho’s open meeting law may be the best in the country. According to a 2013 Goldwater Institute report, most states require some level of secrecy for labor negotiations. Until Idaho’s law took effect on July 1, only Florida and Tennessee required open meetings for most collective bargaining sessions, and those laws still have limitations that fall short of Idaho’s new statute.
That means there’s a lot more work to do to make government — and especially the role of labor unions in government — more transparent. Still, Idaho’s new law is a great start, and a lot of credit goes to the work of the Mackinac Center for making the issue a national priority.