The looming bipartisan backlash against unionized government

August 27, 2014

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California Policy Center California Policy Center

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Whenever discussing politically viable policy proposals to improve the quality of life in California, the imperative is to come up with ideas that strongly appeal to moderate centrists, since that is how most Californians would describe themselves.

Unions are my cup of teaAnd there are two compelling issues that offer that appeal: making California’s system of K-12 education the best in the world, and restoring financial sustainability to California’s state and local governments.

While these two objectives have broad conceptual appeal, there is a clear choice between two very different sets of policies that claim to accomplish them. The first choice, promoted by public sector unions, is to spend more money. And to do that, their solution is to raise taxes, especially on corporations and wealthy individuals. The problem with that option, of course, is that California already has the highest taxes and most inhospitable business climate in the U.S.

The alternative to throwing more money at California’s troubled system of K-12 education and financially precarious cities and counties is to enact fundamental reforms. And these reforms, despite the fact that each of them arouses relentless, heavily funded opposition from government worker unions, are utterly bipartisan in character. They are practical, they are fair, and they are not ideologically driven.

Education Reforms:

* Faithfully implement the Vergara Ruling – abolish the union work rules that (1) grant teacher tenure well before new teachers can be properly trained and evaluated, (2) protect incompetent teachers from dismissal, and (3) favor seniority over merit when implementing workforce reductions.

* Streamline permitting for charter schools. These independent enterprises allow far greater flexibility to teachers and principals, creating laboratories where new best practices can rapidly evolve. Poorly performing charter schools can be shut down, successful ones can be emulated.

* Enable school choice, so parents can move their students out of bad schools. Start by aggressively promoting and supporting California’s 2010 Open Enrollment Act, that empowers any parent whose child attends one of the state’s 1,000 lowest performing schools to move them to the school of their choice.

Financial Sustainability Reforms:

* Roll back defined benefit pension formulas to restore viable funding and protect taxpayers. Adopting “triggers” that prospectively lower pension benefit accruals for existing workers and suspend COLAs for retirees, will preserve the defined benefit. One more market downturn will make this choice unavoidable – the sooner this reform is accepted, the more moderate its impact.

* Reform public employee compensation. The average total compensation for California’s state and local government workers (taking into account all employer paid benefits including retirement benefits and annual paid vacations/holidays) is now more than twice the median compensation for private sector workers. Typically, approximately 70% (or more) of local government budgets are for personnel costs. Public sector compensation needs to be frozen – or even reduced – until the private sector can catch up.

* Modernize and streamline public agencies. Introduce flexibility to job descriptions and eliminate unnecessary positions. Upgrade and automate information systems.

* Improve financial management and accountability. The public sector needs to adhere to the same accounting standards that govern the private sector. If anything, public sector reporting should be more standardized, and faster, than what is required in private industry – currently the opposite applies.

* Eliminate exploitative financing mechanisms: Outlaw capital appreciation bonds, revenue anticipation bonds, and pension obligation bonds, for starters. Nearly all of the “creative” financing instruments being foisted onto relatively unsophisticated city councils are short-term solutions that create long-term financial nightmares.

There are many other fundamental reforms that could rescue California’s K-12 educational system and rescue California’s state and local finances. But the ones listed here would be a very good start. And while there is plenty of room for debate over the particulars of each of these proposed reforms, there is only one powerful interest group that vigorously opposes all of them – public sector unions.

The reality of California’s unacceptable educational results and insolvent cities and counties will compel concerned citizens of all political persuasions to examine these issues over the next several years. And in that process, the inherent conflict between public sector unions and the public interest will become increasingly obvious. To survive, public sector unions will have to accept reforms that challenge their agenda.

They will have to accept meaningful pension and compensation reform. They will have to accept smaller, more efficient workforces. They will have to embrace individual accountability and reward individual merit in public education and throughout public agencies. They will have to abandon their symbiotic relationship with financial predators that pump cash into bloated, unionized public agencies on terms that are usurious to taxpayers.

To the extent public sector unions are not willing to attenuate their power and adapt their agenda to the public interest, their recalcitrance will invite a bipartisan fury from a betrayed people. Even in California.

Authored by Ed Ring, executive director of the California Policy Center

Published with permission

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