December 29, 2014 2:22 PM
If late House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous saying that all politics is local has a corollary, it may be that politics is at its most substantive at the local level. While the people’s elected representatives in Congress—many from safe districts—trade ideological barbs, state and local elected officials often have to deal in the language of dollars and cents, as they weigh policy decisions that directly affect their constituents.
That in turn creates different conflicts than those found on Capitol Hill. And nowhere is that more visible than in the growing conflict between state and local Democratic elected officials trying to put their governments’ finances in order. As the Manhattan Institute’s Daniel DiSalvo explains:
Public sector unions create a genuine political conundrum for Democrats. On the one hand, they are genuinely powerful, and Democrats rely on their money and manpower during elections. Teachers unions, AFSCME, and SEIU are among the biggest donors to Democratic candidates and are organizationally braided into the party apparatus. However, public employee unions drive up government costs and depress productivity, weakening the state’s capacity to assist the poor and middle class.
There’s the rub. Insofar as public unions secure for their members better pay, more generous benefits, and work rules shielding them from management discretion government doesn’t perform as well—and, consequently, neither do Democrats. Therefore, some Democrats are under pressure to take policy actions their union allies oppose. But taking such action puts them at odds with the most powerful and best-organized segment of their coalition.
How does it happen that citizens of modest means suffer as public sector unions gain? A big part of the problem is that many states and cities have been providing more public services and promising to pay for them later by back-loading public employee compensation into retirement. And as the share of state and local budgets devoted to public employee pension and health benefits increases, the latter “crowds out” government spending on parks, education, public safety, and other services on which the poor and middle class rely. Democrats find themselves in the difficult position of defending governments that spend more but do less.
This conflict has been brewing for some time, as my colleague Trey Kovacs and I outlined three years ago, and the rift between government unions and pragmatically-minded Democrats only keeps growing wider, as pension underfunding has grown worse.
For more on pension reform, see “Best Practices for Reforming State Employee Pensions.”
October 7, 2014 9:41 AM
“Heads I win; tails you lose.” That essentially sums up the relationship the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) has long enjoyed vis-à-vis the Golden State’s elected officials. Now it is finally facing a serious challenge.
Last week, a federal bankruptcy judge ruled that cities must treat bondholders and pensions in like fashion. Judge Christopher Klein of the Eastern District of California said he would decide by the end of October how to apply the ruling to the bankruptcy of the City of Stockton, but it seems unlikely that pensions will escape cuts altogether, while bondholders are forced to take haircuts.
As The New York Times reported on the case:
Calpers is a powerful arm of the state, with statutory powers that include liens allowing it to foreclose on the assets of a city that fails to pay its pension bills.
Calpers had argued that if Stockton stopped making payments and dropped out of the state pension system, the lien would let it claim $1.6 billion of its assets. But Judge Klein said those statutory powers were suspended once a California city received federal bankruptcy protection.
“Why should I take that lien seriously?” he asked a lawyer for Calpers, Michael Gearin. “I may avoid it as a black-letter matter of bankruptcy law,” he said, referring to well-established legal principles.
He did not dispute that Stockton would be billed $1.6 billion to leave Calpers and said such a termination fee “can be seen as a golden handcuff.” But in bankruptcy, he said, Stockton could legally refuse to pay the bill because it arose from the city’s contract with Calpers, and contracts are broken routinely in bankruptcy.
“The bankruptcy code provides that the lien can be avoided and be treated as an unsecured claim,” Judge Klein said.
Judge Klein also said that Stockton had many options other than Calpers for retirement benefits: a private provider, like an insurance company; a multiemployer pension plan affiliated with a union; one of California’s county-run pension plans; or it could even offer no pensions at all.
Moody’s $2 Trillion Public Pension Shortfall Estimate Highlights Need for Better Pension Accounting PracticesOctober 1, 2014 11:12 AM
In a new report, Moody’s estimates the nation’s largest pension funds face a $2 trillion taken together. That’s a lot of money. But as significant as the size of the deficit is Moody’s criticism of how many pension funds have been managed, and pension fund’s reporting of their own liabilities. Bloomberg reports:
“Despite the robust investment returns since 2004, annual growth in unfunded pension liabilities has outstripped these returns,” Moody’s said. “This growth is due to inadequate pension contributions, stemming from a variety of actuarial and funding practices, as well as the sheer growth of pension liabilities as benefit accruals accelerate with the passage of time, salary increases and additional years of service.”
In other words, for years, many public pension plans have determined their contribution levels using discount rates based on overly optimistic projection on investment returns. That in turn, has led to pension plans using riskier investment strategies in search of higher yields—a strategy the California Public Employee Retirement System recently abandoned in the case of hedge funds.
July 30, 2014 4:12 PM
A new CEI study by economist Lowell Galloway and public policy expert Jonathan Robe demonstrates the harmful economic effects of unionization on a state-by-state basis.
Among the states most adversely affected by unionization, Michigan has suffered the most with a 23.1 percent loss in real per capita income because of unionization since 1964. Michigan is the latest state to abandon forced unionism by passing a right to work law, and Michigan workers are probably kicking themselves for not passing one sooner.
July 28, 2014 9:55 AM
Coauthored with Alex Bolt.
President Barack Obama spuriously claimed, "These so-called right-to-work [RTW] laws, they don't have anything to do with economics," when he futilely attempted to thwart Michigan’s enactment of a right-to-work law.
A new study by the Competitive Enterprise Institute demolishes Obama’s spurious claim by showing how RTW laws, which free workers from a mandate to join a union in order to be employed, benefit states. RTW laws produce better income, population, and job growth than in forced-unionism states.
July 21, 2014 12:17 PM
Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it appears that former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis may have violated the Hatch Act—which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity while on duty—by soliciting funds for President Obama’s reelection campaign during work hours.
The House Oversight Committee, chaired by Rep. Darell Issa (R-Calif.), broke the story when it released a voicemail of Solis calling a Department of Labor subordinate “off the record” to get help for Obama’s 2012 campaign. The release of the voicemail came as a result of a larger investigation into the Obama administration’s political activity during the 2012 election cycle.
July 1, 2014 3:53 PM
When you can’t win, change the players. That was essentially the strategy pursued by government employee unions in recent years. This week, it came to a halt.
Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in Harris v. Quinn put a brake on government unions’ efforts to expand the definition of “public employee” to any service provide who receives state assistance, such as home care workers who are paid by Medicaid. The Court ruled that “partial public employees” like home care providers cannot be required to pay for the costs of representation by a union—representation many didn’t ask for.
Today, the Court gave some home care workers who have been forced to pay dues a renewed opportunity to get those dues back. The Court applied Harris v. Quinn to Schlaud v. Snyder, a suit brought by a group of Michigan home care workers seeking class action certification in order to get back union dues taken from them unwillingly.
June 30, 2014 3:42 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn puts a brake on an ongoing effort by organize labor to expand the definition of “public employee” to just about anyone who receives any form of government assistance, such as home care workers paid by Medicaid (a phenomenon I pointed out in a 2009 Cato Institute study on public sector unions; see page 9).
However, the Court did not address the issue of whether government employees may be required to pay union dues in the first place. Workers who aren’t union members but work under a collective bargaining agreement can be required to pay “agency fees,” which are essentially dues in all but name.
That would have required revisiting the Court’s 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which upheld a Michigan law, “whereby every employee represented by a union even though not a union member must pay to the union, as a condition of employment, a service fee equal in amount to union dues.” Yet, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Court’s majority in Harris, offers some strong criticisms of Abood that could well open the possibility of future challenges to it.
June 30, 2014 3:20 PM
The Harris v. Quinn decision today by the U.S. Supreme Court is a major human interest story.
Congratulations to Pam Harris and her son, Josh, and family whose First Amendment freedom of association rights were vindicated.
In total, eight women petitioned for their rights before the Supreme Court against a state governor and two massive unions. What’s more, all eight of these women were participants in a Medicaid program that afforded benefits for their loved ones who have been ill.
Caring for chronically ill loved ones is a costly endeavor, financially, temporally, and emotionally.
In the Harris v. Quinn victory, thwarting Big Labor’s attack on these eight family women and the other women who predominantly provide America’s home health care and daycare (in the sister case of Parrish v. Dayton) is great news.