Melissa Griffin: When employee benefits are bad for all 

Debra Bowen.
  • Debra Bowen.

Can we all just hold hands for a minute and agree that there is a limit on what we can afford to pay public employees? On the generosity of tenure and work rules? On their retiree health care and pensions? Because I wonder if some public employee unions even understand the concept of finite resources.

June 5 was a big night for the history of public employee unions, with pension overhauls proposed in San Jose and San Diego and a recall against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker because he gutted public employee unions. I watched the election returns and the “analysis” offered to explain why Walker survived by a larger percentage than anyone predicted. Why did an exit poll show that a majority of Wisconsin voters nonetheless planned to support President Barack Obama? In fact, 18 percent of the people who voted for Walker also planned to vote for Obama.

One union advocate tearfully declared “democracy is dead” because his side was dramatically outspent and lost.

Oh, get a grip. Wisconsin voters are not automatons who do whatever corporate overlords tell them to do. Equally ridiculous are the conservatives who are already choreographing an awkward dance on the grave of public employee unions.

The simple truth is this: Folks who voted for Walker don’t necessarily hate unions or public employees. Ordinary, compassionate people are simply tired of seeing public services cut so that government employees can receive far more generous compensation and job security than the rest of us. Raising taxes is always an option, but that just means these folks expect bigger pay increases.  

In San Francisco, it was the progressive Public Defender Jeff Adachi who had the guts and inspiration to propose a massive public pension overhaul that forced local unions to come to the table and negotiate a compromise. Sick of seeing his own office’s budget cut, summer school classes cut and police academy classes cut all so The City could make ever-ballooning contributions to recklessly promised public pensions, Adachi epitomizes the fault line among liberals.

There are Democrats who want a strong social safety net and a level playing field for all citizens and are dutifully paying taxes to receive those benefits, but are seeing decreasing returns because so little is left of the pie once public employee obligations are removed. Their votes weren’t bought by the Koch brothers in Wisconsin, or San Jose or San Diego.

They all just held hands and agreed that there is a limit on what they can afford to pay public employees. And it had been reached.

The wit and wisdom of Debra Bowen

As California’s secretary of state, Debra Bowen oversees elections. As we get used to new legislative districts and a “top two” primary in the June 5 election, I jumped at the chance to see her speak at the Public Policy Institute of California on Tuesday. Smart, funny and blunt, Bowen won me over with gems like these:

When asked whether the new districts or the new primary explained the June election results: “That’s like asking whether it was the beer or the pizza that caused you to gain 15 pounds in college. It was probably both and some other things as well.”

On paid signature gatherers: “They’re like carnies. They follow the initiatives around the country.”  

When asked if this election produced unique results: “Bizarro results happen all the time. If they didn’t I’d be in Congress right now.” (Bowen very narrowly lost a congressional primary in 2011.)

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Melissa Griffin

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