San Francisco's bold ballot measure
Some time ago, I griped about Paul Krugman’s spurious habit of equating deficit hawkishness with political regressivity. What Krugman, like many others of his political stripe, fails to perceive is that some people are deficit hawks precisely because they want to preserve a generous public sector. The sustainability of high-quality public services depends on a private sector vigorous enough to pay its share of taxes -- and the cost-effectiveness, actual and perceived, of government interventions. In other words, nothing threatens the political consensus for progressive government more than the widespread impression -- and reality -- that public employee unions have captured government. Public-sector unions simultaneously bankroll the Democratic Party and bankrupt the government programs for which the Democratic Party stands. This cannot go on forever.
Now comes a progressive political entrepreneur willing to make that argument explicitly in the very heart of Blue America. San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi is spearheading Proposition B, a city-wide ballot initiative that would force 11,000 public employees who currently pay nothing toward their pensions to contribute up to 10 percent of salary -- and to shoulder half the cost of their family’s health benefits. More than 77,000 S.F. citizens signed a petition to put this measure on the ballot, leaving the unions and their dependent politicians sputtering with rage. It has just survived a union court challenge, ensuring that voters will indeed have a chance to decide on it in November.
But Adachi’s logic is compelling. From a recent interview:
As Public Defender, my job is to provide legal representation for those who cannot afford an attorney. Our agency provides legal representation to about 25,000 people each year. We represent minorities and the very, very poor. In recent years, I have experienced firsthand the devastating impact of budget cuts on basic services and I began questioning why we were spending nearly a billion dollars on city employee pensions and health care costs when other basic services were being slashed or eliminated.
City worker pensions are very generous. A police or firefighter can retire at 55 years of age and get a check for 90% of his or her last year’s salary. Last year, one police officer earned $516,000 in a single year. He also retired that same year and will receive a $230,000 a year pension paid by taxpayers. That amounts to an $8 million dollar payout over his lifetime.
The costs of these pensions are going up. What a lot of people don’t understand about the way that government pensions work, is that if the pension fund loses money, the taxpayers have to make up the difference. Since the pension funds have been losing money over the past 5 years, taxpayers have had to pay more and more. Five years ago, SF was paying $175 million for retiree pensions. This year it’s nearly $500 million and is projected to be as high as $818 million within five years. At the same time, we are facing a $483 million deficit next year. So it’s eating up all of the money for other services that all San Franciscans rely upon.
This comes at a time when we have had to slash vital programs. This year was the first year we cancelled summer school for 10,000 kids in the public schools because we didn’t have $4 million to pay for it, yet we spent 100 times that amount to pay retiree pensions. Our parks budget was cut in half, and after-school programs for kids were cut severely. We are spending nearly 20 times more on city employee benefits than we are fixing our potholed streets.
Among all the other races in November, I'll be watching the fate of Proposition B closely. Whether it wins or loses, I don’t think we've heard the last of this issue, or of intra-Democratic arguments over the party’s Faustian bargain with public sector unions. How long, politically, can the party of government afford to be known as the party of government employees?
| August 31, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories: Lane | Tags: Charles Lane
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