Labor Union Conflict-of-Interest Question Hits Washington Governor

Published October 8, 2008

Labor unions in Washington state are pouring millions of dollars into the re-election campaign of Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) in hopes she will pour billions of dollars of taxpayer money into programs that pay state government workers.

This year’s gubernatorial race is a re-match of the close and controversial 2004 match-up with Republican Dino Rossi.

By the end of July, Evergreen Progress PAC, a new political action committee supporting Gregoire for re-election, had received more than $2.25 million in contributions.

The Washington, DC-based Democratic Governors Association has given her campaign fund $1 million. The National Education Association contributed $250,000, and the Service Employees International Union has given $495,000.

The state’s American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees affiliate has thrown in $200,000. Money from local public-sector unions and trade unions make up almost all the remaining balance.

Negotiation During Election

This year is the first time the potential conflict of interest has arisen. Since implementing collective bargaining for state employees in 2002, no governor has negotiated labor agreements while running for re-election.

When authorizing the 2002 bargaining legislation, legislators considered passing a prohibition on a governor’s receipt of campaign contributions from parties to negotiations. That amendment failed, as did an effort to open collective bargaining negotiation meetings to the public.

“If it seems a bit inappropriate for the governor to benefit personally from the same parties with which her office is negotiating, that’s just your conscience, not the law,” said Sonya Jones, director of labor policy for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

Pay to Play Politics?

This is not the only allegation of negotiation impropriety leveled against Gregoire this year.

In June the Seattle Post-Intelligencer broke the story that Gregoire’s campaign benefitted from $650,000 in contributions from local American Indian tribes. The money came shortly after Gregoire approved a major expansion of gambling that did not require the tribal-owned casinos to share their revenues with the state government. All other states with similar agreements have negotiated revenue-sharing provisions.

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) has since stated the governor followed state and federal laws during those negotiations, but the result still raises questions of an unofficial quid pro quo agreement between the parties.

Jones suggests an answer to the dilemma over simultaneously holding negotiations and receiving campaign contributions is to increase transparency of public-sector union finances and contract negotiation sessions.

“The public has access to collective bargaining sessions in other states, and Washington should not be an exception,” Jones said.

Scott Dilley ([email protected]) is a labor policy analyst at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington.