Alabama-quality Services at New York Prices

The Sacramento Bee’s Daniel Weintraub is stunned, as I’m sure many readers of today’s LA Times were, by columnist Steve Lopez’s post-election endorsement of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s efforts to rein in public employee pension benefits:

Funny how when some people say this stuff, they are being mean-spirited and vindictive, but when others say it, they’re just facing an unpleasant reality. Oh well.

“This stuff” Weintraub refers to are patented Lopez barbs, usually reserved for Schwarzenegger and other suspected plutocrats, instead being aimed at teachers and firefighters. Here’s a sample:

Ticked off about your company yanking healthcare benefits in retirement?

Get a teaching job.

If you hadn’t already noticed, while the rest of us watch our retirement benefits shrivel up and blow away, public sector retirement deals are sweeter than ever. And we’re footing the bill.

Take the Los Angeles Unified School District, where teachers can walk away in their 50s with lifetime medical insurance for themselves.

And their spouses.

And their sons and daughters, up to their 26th birthday if they’re in college.

Are they kidding?

For LAUSD, the costs of providing such perks could be $11 billion over the next 30 years.  That’ll be just great for the kids.

Lopez cites Assemblyman Keith Richman’s observation that many California cities now fund “two police departments and two fire departments” — the one that’s out there working for us, and the other one that’s retired and living well with enviable perks.

I’ve been frustrated about this kind of thing for years. The Democratic party in California lavishes a disproportionate amount of the public dollars it controls to gratify the unions representing the workers who teach our kids, help the poor, sick and needy, and provide public safety. 

That’s not the same thing as actually helping the poor, sick and needy, actually teaching our kids, and actually providing public safety.  All it does is raise the cost for the same — often substandard — service. We get Alabama-quality public services at New York prices. To be sure, there are tens of thousands of skilled and dedicated public sector workers. It’s just that the state now is organized to serve them, rather than the other way around.

When Detroit’s auto industry tried to work it this way — giving autoworkers pay raises, while building substandard cars —  the results were, and are, economically disastrous, as today’s Ford news reminds us: Layoffs, plant closings, terminated product lines. 

But California’s governments can’t do what Ford did.  We can’t close San Diego and Tuolumne Counties and “lay off” the people who depend on government.  When the Republicans get their periodic opportunities to cut government back — when voters stage a “voter revolt” — they find it’s impossible to take away benefits from the non-working retired employees. Those benefits are locked in.  So it’s the working side of the ledger that faces the axe, leaving Californians less safe and with fewer public services.

It’s really pretty cynical.  The Democratic party baits voters like me, who want government to focus its resources on those who need its help the most.  They know when it comes to providing compassionate, activist government, they offer the only option.

So I keep voting for them.  But the Sacramento Dems are not much different from Republicans in Washington who take campaign contributions from corporate America and then write tax law changes that provide special interests a huge benefit. Only in this case, the special interest is government workers, whose unions fund their campaigns.

Lopez’s column suggests there’s a day of reckoning coming. But I don’t predict it will be soon. However you care to interpret last year’s special election debacle, one lesson politicians won’t miss is that public employee unions are the most powerful single entity in California. You can’t take them on unless you’ve got an equally overwhelming force behind you.  

Where that force will come from — in an era when businesses are giving up on California — is something I can’t see.


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