Report: Lift Shroud of Secrecy From Tentative Labor Deals

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CONTACT: Tim Hoefer

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New York’s Freedom of Information law should be amended to require greater public disclosure by government employers of tentative contract agreements with public-sector labor unions, according to a Policy Briefing issued today by the Empire Center for Public Policy.

“Multi-year deals on public employee wages and benefits typically account for much of the annual growth in local government and school district budgets,” the Policy Briefing says. “However, government officials routinely refuse to divulge important aspects of tentative contract agreements—including long-term fiscal impacts—until the contracts are ratified by both sides.”

“The resulting lack of public oversight on public-sector labor issues inevitably leads to more costly and less efficient government—in a state whose residents are already saddled with the nation’s heaviest state and local tax burden.”

The Policy Briefing paper provides examples of several recent situations around the state in which details of tentative labor contracts with potentially costly consequences were not widely shared until it was too late for meaningful public comment or review. It also highlights a 2006 Suffolk County grand jury report on school finance issues in eastern Long Island, which concluded that there had been “an abject lack of transparency regarding the issue for which school districts spend the overwhelming majority of their funds—salaries and benefits for their employees.”

Calling the grand jury recommendations “a good starting point for broader reform of FOIL provisions affecting collective bargaining agreements,” the Empire Center report recommended that advance disclosure of tentative contracts also include the following:

the net financial impact of all provisions, including annualized and cumulative costs of proposed changes in salary schedules, benefits and work-rules, compared to a starting “base year” estimate of expenditures in each category;

a breakdown of any savings attributed to union concessions or “givebacks,” with an explanation of the methodology used to produce these estimates;

proposed salary increases on an annualized and cumulative percentage basis, with a separate breakdown of average percentage increases including step and longevity increments; and

an estimate of the projected impact on taxes over the life of the contract — assuming no increase in state or federal aid to cover contract costs.

The Policy Briefing was written by Lise Bang-Jensen, a senior policy analyst with the Empire Center. She also posts daily updates at an Empire Center website that tracks public labor issues (www.NYPublicPayrollWatch.net).

The Albany-based Empire Center is a non-partisan independent think tank.