Thursday, July 5, 2012

Threading the needle on public unions

In a recent piece for PhillyMag, and more recently here, I've suggested that public unions bear more scrutiny than their liberal allies have generally given them. But I've also said—much, much less prominently, admittedly—that the problems afflicting municipalities these days can't be blamed solely on those unions. In my Scripps Howard column with Ben Boychuk this week, I flesh out the rest of it a bit with a look at the bankruptcy of Stockton, California.
Public unions aren't perfect. Too often, they act as constituencies to whom favors are owed rather than partners in building the cities they serve. Democrats are often loath to acknowledge such flaws, for a couple of reasons: a) Unions are a critical source of campaign funding; and b) You never really see Republicans biting the corporate hand that feeds them. Why alienate allies and disarm unilaterally? 
Public unions didn't solely create the problems faced by Stockton, or any other city facing financial trouble. They are, however, being asked to bear the brunt of the solution. 
Before the Great Recession started in 2008, many cities -- flush from a growing economy and a housing bubble that inflated their property-tax collections -- didn't bother preparing for the proverbial "rainy day," instead embarking on vanity construction projects and (like many Americans) digging themselves into a pile of debt. Stockton built a sports arena, for example, and paid singer Neil Diamond $1 million to open the city's new concert hall. 
Good times never seemed so good. That kind of hubris, however, really isn't the fault of municipal unions. 
Cities like Stockton also failed to do one other thing: save enough money to pay for the retirement promises they'd made their workers, hoping that economic growth and tax collections would somehow save the day. Mayors and city councils acted foolishly for decades, avoiding preparations for the retirements they knew would come. 
It may be that America's cities can only be saved with an act of pension sacrifice by municipal workers. Note this, however: When Mitt Romney's Bain Capital enjoys big profits but deserts workers in bad times, the firm is castigated. When local governments do the same thing, it's the workers who get blamed. 
Public unions deserve scrutiny, yes. But they shouldn't be scapegoated. Stockton dug its own hole.
Ben's take: "It's wrong to ask taxpayers to sacrifice a larger portion of their incomes and accept fewer services to pay for benefits that the vast majority of people will never have." You'll have to hit the link to read the whole thing.

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