California and New Jersey. Big state, small state. Opposite sides of the country. Exceptionally different states, but with some significant similarities. Especially politically.
In the past few years, both states suffered exceptionally bad economic downturns. And both states chose to toss out their corrupt Democratic machine governors and replace them with populist Republicans — Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chris Christie.
Now that their fiscal crises seem to be on the verge of utter collapse, both governors are proposing radical measures to save their states. And now, both governors are being threatened by the source of some of their respective states’ biggest fiscal problems.
In both states, some of the biggest expenses are the state employees. In salaries and benefits, they are massive fiscal liabilities. And especially in pension benefits.
Naturally, the unions representing these public employees are fighting back. After all, this talk about “cutting costs” is money that won’t be going into their voluminous pockets. And — as is typical of unions — they’re going the thug route.
In California, they’re making threats (slightly veiled) against Schwarzenegger and his family.
In New Jersey, they’re being slightly more subtle. They’re making “joking” prayers for Christie’s death, and the teacher’s union had a rather unique response to this week’s public vote on school funding. They decided that all students would have a mandatory homework assignment: to interview their parents about the election, if they intended to vote in it, and why.
Let’s put this in more descriptive language: you’re a parent. Your kid comes home and says that they have to ask you if you plan to vote, why you intend to vote (but not “how;” that should be readily inferred from the answer to “why”), and report that information back to their teacher — or the kid gets a failing grade on their ‘homework.”
The message is clear: screw the secret ballot; we’re going to find out who’s with us, who’s against us, and if you don’t tell, we’ll punish your kids.
That didn’t go over too well. New Jerseyans (New Jerseyites? Whatever) turned out in record numbers, and shot down hikes in school spending all over the state.
One solution I’ve heard batted around for both states has some appeal to me. The governors invite the heads of the public sector unions (who, to my mind, have no right to exist anyway, but they’re here and gotta be dealt with) and told that payroll and benefits and pensions are now combined into one single budget item. Then invite them to suggest how best to divvy up that lump sum — how much to retirees, and how much to current employees. And also have a chart showing just how big a percentage of the entire state’s budget that represents — it’s usually the majority.
This is not simply a game, or a way to provide political cover for both governors. It’s meant to send a simple message to both the unions and the public — the states simply don’t have infinite resources. There is only so much money to go around, and “taking it from the taxpayers” is no longer an option.
Public employees tend not to worry about tax burdens. They are the beneficiaries of increased state spending. They know that whatever they pay, they get at least a hefty hunk of it back. It all balances out, pretty much, for them.
Alternately, both states could just collapse financially. That’s never happened before, and the amateur political scholar is intensely curious to see how that would play out.
But it isn’t a simple theoretical exercise. Literally millions of people would suffer, and suffer badly, should that happen. And while I do believe that “people tend to get the government they deserve” and the voters of those two states have been enabling the scumbags (largely Democratic, but I’m certain a few Republicans played their parts) for years, I’d still hate to see that many people devastated by the all-too-predictable consequences of their decades of mismanagement and short-sightedness.
I only hope it’s not too late for those two states, and those two governors can achieve the nigh-impossible.
If not… what’s that old Chinese curse about interesting times?