Monroe County Workers seek a fair contract! - Picture by Bess Watts
By REX SMITH EDITOR - Albany Times Unionhttp://www.timesunion.com/AspStories/story.asp?storyID=942964&category=REXSMITH
First published: Sunday, June 20, 2010
It's not stylish to say anything good about government these days, but you have to feel a little sympathy for public sector workers, who keep getting whipsawed by what they're hearing from us. They're our employees, you know, but as bosses go, we're so inconsistent that somebody should call in HR.
Fix the potholes, but don't tax me at the pump to pay for the patching. Slash health care spending, but don't touch mom's Medicare. Cut property taxes, but don't take away my kid's school programs.
And here's the best recent double-talk: Big government is bad, but government's response when oil spewed into the Gulf was too small. Wait! That doesn't mean we want laws to cut our reliance on oil, because that's big government meddling in the free market.
Nobody should be surprised by this, I suppose. Arguments about government's proper role consumed our Founding Fathers, gave southern states justification to secede before the Civil War, undergirded segregationists in the 1960s and provided a rallying cry for Ronald Reagan's political juggernaut (as well as his enduring legacy).
Nowadays it's even easier to attack the public sector as evil without worrying that anybody will object. Polls show that trust in government to do the right thing is at the lowest point in modern times. The numbers have mostly fallen since Lyndon Johnson was president, with some upward movement in the Reagan and Clinton administrations, followed by plummeting numbers during the last Bush presidency.
Here in New York's Capital Region, we have a good excuse for being of two minds about the proper role of government. We're as ticked off as the next guy about paying the highest state and local taxes in the nation. But you can't reduce the tax burden without cutting state spending, and that would make the loss of state jobs all but inevitable. We have about 110,000 state workers in this community, not including university system employees, and a state budget that slices very many of those jobs will hurt our local economy.
There's scant comfort to public employee unions in knowing that Gov. David Paterson signed an agreement not to lay off any workers until next year. Paterson is well-known for what may politely be called "changing his mind" about prior commitments, so layoffs may come sooner than he promised, and it's inevitable that job cuts will come at some point. Mainly, the delay gives union bosses a chance to preen in front of their members.
But the unions have a point in arguing that state government has gotten slippery about hiring "consultants" in place of state workers. The Public Employees Federation, one of the two main state work force unions, says spending on outside workers has grown by 30 percent over the last seven years, to almost $3 billion. The unions say the state generally pays outside contractors more than state workers earn.
Those contractors, remember, work for private sector companies that need to show a profit margin. Profit is good, but it's not one of the objectives of government. Here's a truth that's unpopular to hear in the era of easy anti-government rant: Rank-and-file government workers usually can do their work cheaper than for-profit contractors.
Let's be honest about what's usually going on when government turns over its work to the private sector: It is subsidizing private businesses. That's a valid policy choice, but we shouldn't pretend the so-called "free market" doesn't benefit from our tax dollars at work.
Some public benefit jobs, certainly, need to be done by private sector companies. Last week the Albany County Legislature voted to send repair business for the county's vehicle fleet to 14 private garages, at a cost of about $500,000 a year. Legislators concluded that the county shouldn't be in the business of equipping garages and hiring mechanics.
But there are pitfalls. As a young reporter, I covered a local government that suddenly moved all its auto repair business to a single, out-of-the-way garage. Digging into documents, I found that the garage was co-owned by the campaign treasurer for the public official in charge of the vehicle fleet. Each time a car was sent to the garage, taxpayers were billed for a lube job. The official eventually stood trial for bribery. A grateful editor may view this sort of corruption, which provides the raw material for our journalism, as the public sector's subsidy for newspapers.
There's chance for mischief wherever tax dollars are spent. But the reason we have government is to do jobs for us, and we do public workers and ourselves no good by blithely attacking government as evil. It isn't.