California’s government runs perennial $10-20 billion deficits, resulting in tax increases and service cuts to residents, while state hiring continues, state employee pay rates are not cut (although total pay is reduced due to extra days off) and they receive benefits so generous that future unfunded pension obligations are in the $500 billion range by one estimate, in addition to billions of more dollars owed in lifetime medical care for retired state workers.
Contra Costa County continues to cut programs, including health, welfare and public safety – cuts totaling $155 million the past two years, another $34 million this year and possibly $78 million more next year – while paying an additional $59 million annually for retired county employee pensions and $63 million annually for retired employee health benefits, an obligation that totals $1 billion.
Many school districts and city governments have also been forced to reduce staff, programs and services, including closing City Hall one or more days a month, to offset budget cuts from lower tax revenue and reduced funding from other levels of government while engaging in tough negotiations with employee unions in attempts to hold the line on salary and benefits.
Meanwhile most of the poor, harried citizens whose taxes pay for all of this government largesse don’t receive any pensions or health care benefits provided by their company after they retire. Instead, many have taken pay cuts (without getting extra days off) and suffered decreased benefits, including reduced vacation time, limited contributions to a company health plan and nonpayment for holidays if they fall on a weekend.
Something has gone seriously out of whack when public servants are making out pretty well during the recession while the public they are supposed to be serving is suffering. Hardest hit are the poorest and most vulnerable among us such as abused children, the disabled and the elderly. A county official recently warned at a town meeting in Antioch that due to government budget cuts “at some point as a society, the costs we will pay in child abuse, child malnutrition, seniors being hospitalized – those costs will be quite enormous.”
While government employee pay and benefits are not entirely to blame for the current crisis – two years of economic downturn have taken their toll on everyone – they are a large part of the problem. The solution is to either continue raising taxes while cutting government services or reduce government employee pay and benefits to levels more comparable to those in the private sector.
Unfortunately, the public employee unions are powerful. Their endorsements and campaign contributions in the form of cash, campaign mailers, advertisements and volunteers are eagerly sought by politicians seeking election or re-election. Those politicians, once elected, then turn around and reward public employees with generous pay and benefit packages. It’s a cozy deal that works well for both parties, but which, unfortunately, sticks the rest of us with the large bill and service cuts.
Nothing will change until the public demands that candidates pledge to change the status quo not just for future government hires but current employees as well. Government pay rates should be reduced or at least frozen, pensions should be eliminated and replaced with 401Ks, and retiree health plans that go only to government employees should be eliminated as well. Those changes alone might be enough to eliminate much of the budget shortfalls, allowing taxpayers to keep more of their hard-earned money and the needy among us to receive vital care.
It’s time to return to government of, by and for the people, rather than of, by and for public employee unions.