Economics

"Even bankruptcy may not be enough to break the grip unions have on the public purse"

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So says Steven Greenhut, author of our February 2010 cover story, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed about the (literally) bankrupt California city of Vallejo. Excerpt:

Yes, contracts are contracts, but bankruptcy is also bankruptcy

To permanently bring its spending in line with its tax base, however, at some point Vallejo will have to do something about its pensions. U.S. bankruptcy judge Michael McManus, as the National law Journal reported last March, "held the city of Vallejo, Calif., has the authority to void its existing union contracts in its effort to reorganize."

But when it came to voiding those contracts on pensions—a major driver of public expenses—the city blinked. The "workout plan" the city approved in December calls for cuts in services, staff and even some benefits, such as health benefits for retirees. However, it does not touch public-employee pensions. Indeed, it increases the pension contributions the city pays.

This week, the city did approve a new firefighter contract that trims pension benefits for new hires and requires existing firefighters to pay more into their pensions. But that contract doesn't touch existing pensions. Nor does it affect police officers or other city workers. It also leaves the city with a $1.2 million shortfall. "The majority [of council members] did not have the political will to touch the pink elephant in the room—public safety influence, benefits and pay," Vice Mayor Stephanie Gomes told me. […]

[B]ankruptcy [is] probably the most effective tool in the drawer for lowering pension obligations. But if officials are unwilling to demand pension concessions in bankruptcy, there will be few choices left to balance their budgets other than support from the state that itself is facing steep budget deficits, or local tax hikes that could undermine local economies and thereby drive down tax revenues over the long term. That's a sobering thought in what is an already struggling economy, and an argument for government officials to be much more stingy in granting pension increases in the first place.

Greenhut's timely book is called Plunder: How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.