Friday, February 12, 2010

How to uncommit budget suicide

Governor Rell and the Legislature are back in Hartford, tackling yet another multi-hundred-million dollar state deficit. It is all too familiar. But this session can be different, if our political leaders confront reality, introduced by none other than the unlikely figure of Willie Brown, for decades a California liberal pro-union icon.

Last month, Brown wrote, "Over the years the civil service system has changed from one that protects jobs to one that runs the show. It used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for job security. Politicians expanded pay and benefits to private-sector levels while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages that pay ex-workers almost as much as current workers. Someone is going to have to get honest about the fact that 80 percent of the state, county and city budget deficits are due to employee costs."

That just about sums it up: Our leaders have to get "honest," or our state will never solve our permanent structural deficit. The budgetary meltdowns in California, New York and New Jersey are nothing less than a blueprint for the future of Connecticut if we don't heed Brown's call to get "honest," or as I say, to face reality.

When Brown was the Democratic Leader in the California House, he always voted to increase benefits and salaries. It was after he became Mayor (that is, executive) of San Francisco that he realized that the situation was untenable.

That's been the problem. The Governor is the executive of a state, while the Legislature gets to dole out the goodies. For most of these states, regardless of who the Governor was, the Democrats had the legislative power to push through huge contract increases for the state employees.

How bad is the problem? A report in USA Today found that the average (federal) government worker's pay is $71,206, compared with $40,331 in the private sector. So not only do government workers get great benefits and pensions, but now actually earn more money than their private-sector counterparts. And yes, they still have the vaunted "job security." The Stimulus, in effect an enormous transfer payment to government workers, has allowed the states to keep workers despite their red ink, so that public worker unemployment rate is less than 3%, and the private sector rate is over 12%.

If this were a private company, the response to these chronic deficits would be a fait accompli: amend the contracts, lay some people off, or go out of business. It would be up to the CEO to do the amending.

That brings us back to our budget talks. Governor Rell is retiring after this term. There has never been a better opportunity for our chief executive to tell the people of Connecticut the truth,which is that we simply cannot go on treating our state workers as if they were a protected class. They have to live in reality, as the rest of us do.

So far, she has tinkered around the edges of the Democratic proposals, which coddle state workers while we pay them with borrowed money. (I single out Democrats throughout because the civil service unions, such as a SEIU, AFSCME and CSEA, work closely with the Democratic Party. SEIU President Andy Stern, for example, has had more meetings with President Obama than any other official.)

As this is Rell's last budget go-round, I would love to see her take the process to the public, explain the stakes, and simply let the people put pressure on their legislators and force them to make the fiscal adjustments necessary to make our budget fundamentally sound. To get reality. Or as Willie Brown says, to get "honest." It would be a fantastic legacy of leadership to leave behind.

This column first ran in the Fairfield and Westport Minuteman newspapers on February 11, 2010. Link:

No comments:

Post a Comment