By Kevin Mooney — Louisiana state representative Tony Ligi (R-Metairie) would like for taxpayers to have a seat at the table when public employee unions negotiate with government officials over the size and scope of their benefit package.
To this end, he reintroduced a bill in the current legislative session in Baton Rouge that would have subjected collective bargaining sessions to open meetings law requirements. This means any document created or presented during the sessions would be available to the public and the details attached to collective bargaining agreements posted on the Internet.
Last year the “Public Employee Bargaining Transparency Act” was blocked in the House and Government Affairs Committee in an 8-7 vote. This time around HB 89 made it to the House floor after passing the committee by an 8-2 margin with Reps. Jared Brossett (D-New Orleans) and Randal Gains (D-LaPlace) opposing the measure. Instead of risking defeat in what would have been a very close vote on the House floor, Ligi reached a compromise with the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and other opponents.
“The vote would have been very, very close,” he said. “There were some people who wanted to vote for it, but they had already put themselves in a tough spot by voting for the governor’s education package and they were under a lot of pressure. While it is possible that bill still would have passed in its original form, I didn’t think it would be good idea to risk walking away with nothing. So I settled on an alternative that still allows for public scrutiny and transparency.”
Last week the Senate passed legislation authored by Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge) that reforms teacher tenure (HB974) and another bill makes it possible to expand the number of charter schools while converting the scholarship program in New Orleans (HB 976) into a statewide option.
Ligi credits Gov. Bobby Jindal and fellow lawmakers for exerting the “willpower” needed to “buck the status quo” and implement “transformative” policy changes. But, at the same time, the votes on tenure reform and school choice drained away some of political capital needed to help pass his legislation, Ligi acknowledged.
“What we decided to do was to go with an amendment that took out the part relative to bringing collective bargaining negotiations under the open meeting law,” he explained. “But we were able to add in a provision that requires collective bargaining contracts to be viewed on the Internet at least five business days before it is voted on. I see this as a step forward.”
Les Landon, director of public relations for the LFT, said “barring further amendments” his organization is “okay” with the compromise, which passed the House unanimously.
“We are going to monitor it (HB 89) very closely to make sure there are no nefarious amendments,” he added. “But as it stands, we can support it. We see it as a reasonable compromise.”
Bill Wilson, president of Americans for Limited Government (ALG) called the transparency of public employee union contracts, “A small step toward real reform of a system that allows public employee unions to choose the elected officials with whom they negotiate through the power of their campaign contributions.”
Ligi initially advanced the idea of opening up contract negotiations to greater public scrutiny last year when members of the Jefferson Parish School Board, who were set to leave office, attempted to force through a contract before their terms ended. They were unsuccessful.
“While the new bill is not everything I wanted, it would certainly help prevent another scenario like the one we saw in Jefferson ,” he said. “At least the public will have the opportunity to review contracts and ask questions.”
Kevin Mooney is a contributing editor to Americans for Limited Government. You can follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinMooneyDC.