How the public employee unions took over California

{Photo credit Wikimedia Commons, Johnny Freak}

Former Wall Street denizen Michael Lewis is fairly dependable as a source of finance info that you need to know. Example: I enjoyed his essay California and Bust more than anything else I’ve read in the past 60 days. Michael delivers straight talk from Meredith Whitney, former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who explains why the Golden State has cratered, San Jose mayor Chuck Reed and [bankrupt] Vallejo city manager Phil Batchelor.

Being an optimist, I used to think that strong leadership could educate and persuade voters to vote for measures that benefit the public at large. I thought Arnold Schwarzenegger was giving California that kind of leadership. See what you think after reading Michael’s research. My take is that Schwarzenegger was that kind of leader, but both the unions and California voters just want their free lunch.

To give you a taste of why you need to read the Lewis essay, here are four excerpts on each of these participants:

Whitney: What Meredith Whitney was trying to say was more interesting than what she was accused of saying. She didn’t actually care all that much about the municipal-bond market, or how many cities were likely to go bankrupt. The municipal-bond market was a dreary backwater. As she put it, “Who cares about the stinking muni-bond market?” The only reason she had stumbled into that market was that she had come to view the U.S. national economy as a collection of regional economies. To understand the regional economies, she had to understand how state and local governments were likely to behave, and to understand this she needed to understand their finances. Thus she had spent two unlikely years researching state and local finance. “I didn’t have a plan to do this,” she said. “Not one of my clients asked for it. I only looked at this because I needed to understand it myself. How it started was with a question: How can G.D.P. [gross domestic product] estimates be so high when the states that outperformed the U.S. economy during the boom were now underperforming the U.S. economy—and they were 22 percent of that economy?” It was a good question.

Schwarze­neg­ger: Two years into his tenure, in mid-2005, he’d tried everything he could think of to persuade individual California state legislators to vote against the short-term desires of their constituents for the greater long-term good of all. “To me there were shocking moments,” he says. (…) “When you want to do pension reform for the prison guards,” he says, “and all of a sudden the Republicans are all lined up against you. It was really incredible, and it happened over and over: people would say to me, ‘Yes, this is the best idea! I would love to vote for it! But if I vote for it some interest group is going to be angry with me, so I won’t do it.’ I couldn’t believe people could actually say that. You have soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they didn’t want to risk their political lives by doing the right thing.”

Home of the Free . . . Lunch

A compelling book called Cal­ifornia Crackup describes this problem more generally. It was written by a pair of journalists and nonpartisan think-tank scholars, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul, and they explain, among other things, why Arnold Schwarze­neg­ger’s experience as governor was going to be unlike any other experience in his career: he was never going to win. California had organized itself, not accidentally, into highly partisan legislative districts. It elected highly partisan people to office and then required these people to reach a two-thirds majority to enact any new tax or meddle with big spending decisions. On the off chance that they found some common ground, it could be pulled out from under them by voters through the initiative process. Throw in term limits—no elected official now serves in California government long enough to fully understand it—and you have a recipe for generating maximum contempt for elected officials. Politicians are elected to get things done and are prevented by the system from doing it, leading the people to grow even more disgusted with them. “The vicious cycle of contempt,” as Mark Paul calls it. California state government was designed mainly to maximize the likelihood that voters will continue to despise the people they elect.

But when you look below the surface, he adds, the system is actually very good at giving Californians what they want. “What all the polls show,” says Paul, “is that people want services and not to pay for them. And that’s exactly what they have now got.”

(…) In Paul’s view, Arnold Schwarzenegger had been the best test to date of the notion that the problem with California politics was personal, that all the system needed to fix itself was an independent-minded leader willing to rise above petty politics and exert the will of the people. “The recall was, in and of itself, an effort by the people to say that a new governor—a different continued from page 183 person—could solve the problem,” says Paul. “He tried every different way of dealing with the crisis in services. He tried to act like a Republican. He tried to act like a Democrat. He tried making nice with the legislature. When that didn’t work he called them girlie men. When that didn’t work he went directly to the people. And the people voted against his proposals.”

Chuck Reed: It’s late afternoon when I meet Mayor Chuck Reed in his office at the top of the city-hall tower. The crowd below has just begun to chant. The public employees, as usual, are protesting him. Reed is so used to it that he hardly notices. He’s a former air-force officer and Vietnam-era veteran with an intellectual bent and the clipped manner of a midwestern farmer. He has a master’s degree from Princeton, a law degree from Stanford, and a lifelong interest in public policy. Still, he presents less as the mayor of a big city in California than as a hard-bitten, upstanding sheriff of a small town who doesn’t want any trouble. Elected to the city council in 2000, he became mayor six years later; in 2010 he was re-elected with 77 percent of the vote. He’s a Democrat, but at this point it doesn’t much matter which party he belongs to, or what his ideological leanings are, or for that matter how popular he is with the people of San Jose. He’s got a problem so big that it overwhelms ordinary politics: the city owes so much more money to its employees than it can afford to pay that it could cut its debts in half and still wind up broke. “I did a calculation of cost per public employee,” he says as we settle in. “We’re not as bad as Greece, I don’t think.”

The problem, he explains, pre-dates the most recent financial crisis. “Hell, I was here. I know how it started. It started in the 1990s with the Internet boom. We live near rich people, so we thought we were rich.” San Jose’s budget, like the budget of any city, turns on the pay of public-safety workers: the police and firefighters now eat 75 percent of all discretionary spending. The Internet boom created both great expectations for public employees and tax revenues to meet them. In its negotiations with unions the city was required to submit to binding arbitration, which works for police officers and firefighters just as it does for Major League Baseball players. Each side of any pay dispute makes its best offer, and a putatively neutral judge picks one of them. There is no meeting in the middle: the judge simply rules for one side or the other. Each side thus has an incentive to be reasonable, for the less reasonable they are, the less likely it is that the judge will favor their proposal. The problem with binding arbitration for police officers and firefighters, says Reed, is that the judges are not neutral. “They tend to be labor lawyers who favor the unions,” he says, “and so the city does anything it can to avoid the process.” And what politician wants to spat publicly with police officers and firefighters?

(…) “You start to ask: What is a city? Why do we bother to live together? But that’s just the start.” The problem was going to grow worse until, as he put it, “you get to one.” A single employee to service the entire city, presumably with a focus on paying pensions. “I don’t know how far out you have to go until you get to one,” said Reed, “but it isn’t all that far.” At that point, if not before, the city would be nothing more than a vehicle to pay the retirement costs of its former workers.

Phil Batchelor: Back in 2008, unable to come to terms with its many creditors, Vallejo declared bankruptcy. Eighty percent of the city’s budget—and the lion’s share of the claims that had thrown it into bankruptcy—were wrapped up in the pay and benefits of public-safety workers. Relations between the police and the firefighters, on the one hand, and the citizens, on the other, were at historic lows. The public-safety workers thought that the city was out to screw them on their contracts; the citizenry thought that the public-safety workers were using fear as a tool to extort money from them. The local joke was that “P.D.” stands for “Pay or Die.” The city-council meetings had become exercises in outrage: at one, a citizen arrived with a severed pig’s head on a barbecue grill. “There’s no good reason why Vallejo is as fucked up as it is,” says longtime resident Marc Garman, who created a Web site to catalogue the civil war. “It’s a boat ride to San Francisco. You throw a stone and you hit Napa.” Since the bankruptcy, the police and fire departments have been cut in half; some number of the citizens who came to Phil Batchelor’s office did so to say they no longer felt safe in their own homes. All other city services had been reduced effectively to zero. “Do you know that some cities actually pave their streets?” says Batchelor. “That’s not here.”

(…) Having failed to convince its public-safety workers that it could not afford to make them rich, the city of Vallejo, California, had hit bottom: it could fall no lower. “My approach has been I don’t care who is to blame,” Batchelor said. “We needed to change.”

(…) In August 2011, the same week that Standard & Poor’s downgraded the debt of the United States government, a judge approved the bankruptcy plan for Vallejo, California. Vallejo’s creditors ended up with 5 cents on the dollar, public employees with something like 20 and 30 cents on the dollar. The city no longer received any rating at all from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. It would take years to build the track rec­ord needed to obtain a decent rating. The absence of a rating mattered little, as the last thing the city needed to do was to go out and borrow money from strangers.

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Is there anything that can be done to break the stranglehold the public employee unions have on every level of American government? I used to believe that bankruptcy was the mechanism that allowed government to shed the un-payable obligations. Perhaps, but the Vallejo experience is not encouraging. And I keep remembering what happened to GM and Chrysler. If allowed a normal bankruptcy they could have re-negotiated the un-payable benefits under the supervision of the bankruptcy judge. But the American administration intervened, quickly taking almost 70% of what was due to the senior secured creditors and giving to the unions. Something similar is probably what will happen when cities like San Jose start declaring bankruptcy. But where does it stop?