FARMINGTON – In 2010, two states flipped from blue to red in both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office: Maine and Wisconsin. We are hearing hints that the resemblance may be further enhanced in the near future.
The efforts of Wisconsin’s governor to head off a budgetary disaster by containing the pay and benefit costs of public payrolls is paralleled by measures being proposed by Gov. LePage. Worse, our governor supports, in principle, the idea of “right to work” legislation.
Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, warns us that his membership is on the brink of protests like those in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.
“We’re on the precipice,” he tells us. “We get flooded with calls every day from our members asking us when we’re going to take to the streets.”
Gov. LePage himself may not be at the brink of the abyss just yet. His spokesman says he has no imminent plans to include such measures.
But a threat in time is worth two in the bush, or something like that, and Mr. Quint knows what he’s doing. Legislation has been proposed that would make Maine the only “right to work” state in New England.
On one side, and on the surface, the issues are clear. The virtuous versus the wicked. Friends of the workingman contend with his enemies. Fairness opposes greed. The people confront corporate interests. We’ll be hearing a lot of this.
But these issues don’t apply to public-sector unions.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, the most union-friendly of all our presidents, explained the principle: “All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public-personnel management. The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people.”
Let’s make this clear. A unionized paper mill worker can get a pay or benefit raise only at the expense of the stockholder and consumer. The unionized government worker can get a pay or benefit raise only from the paper mill worker who pays taxes (among others).
Michael Barone, the longtime editor of the Almanac of American Politics, explains the key political factor: When unions were at their strongest, they included 38 percent of the private-sector work force. Now they are down to about 7 percent, while 36.2 percent of government workers are unionized.
And money from government workers’ union dues goes overwhelmingly to Democrats and is vital to the fortunes of the Democratic Party.
The state and country are now confronted with a huge mass of indebtedness. No one really has a clear idea of how it can be paid. So what can the government unions offer to their membership? Higher pay? More benefits? The money isn’t there.
Maine state workers are being offered a no-layoffs budget, the end of forced furloughs (which will increase their pay by 2 percent), and in return are being asked to retire later and contribute more to their insurance and pension plans.
The increase in the pension contribution will bring them up to about 5 percent from about 3 percent now. A paper mill worker is already paying 7.5 percent for a lesser amount of retirement income from Social Security and Medicare.
The governor could have proposed other measures. The largest expenditure in state government is education. Gov. LePage could have slashed local schools and higher education to get the money to balance the budget, laying off thousands in a recession, but instead he raised education spending by $63 million to replace vanishing federal money.
Some fiscal conservatives have complained he has not gone far enough, and should eliminate 3,900 jobs immediately. If the public-sector unions succeed in blocking the modest changes proposed by Gov. Le-Page, he may have no choice but to resort to wide-scale job terminations. This week’s actions restricting collective bargaining in Wisconsin have led Gov. Scott Walker to cancel the layoffs planned there, however.
Wisconsin public employees pay about $1,100 in dues. What can they expect for this money now? They may have a better return from supporting Democrats who promise to raise taxes for their benefit, but that looks like a long shot to me.
Forty-five states are facing deficits totaling more than $100 billion this year, with worse to come next year. Modest reforms now can avert disaster in the future. Public-sector unions should be thinking about that.