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Republican governors target public employee unions

Several leaders at a San Diego conference frame unions as the enemy, and call for trimming pay and benefits for teachers and others.

November 19, 2010|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Diego — The main opponent mentioned at the Republican Governors Assn. conference here — described in terms ranging from misguided to downright evil — is the other party, the Democrats.

But running a close second are the public employee unions, particularly the teachers unions.

"Frankly," said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, "the public employee unions would stick a shiv in all of us if they could."

The biggest laugh of the Thursday morning session came when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made a joke out of a union's opposition to his proposal to require teachers to pay a portion of their health insurance costs.

"You laugh," Christie said. "That's the crap I have to listen to in New Jersey."

And among the lines most quoted and paraphrased among the governors was the comment in September from Scott Walker, now governor-elect of Wisconsin, regarding the need to trim the salaries and benefits of public employees: "We cannot and should not maintain a system where public employees are the haves and the taxpayers footing the bill are the have-nots."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, on a panel discussion titled "Saving America," included among his ideas setting salaries and benefits of state employees "within the framework of the taxpayers' capabilities."

Gingrich also included paying more for good teachers and firing "bad teachers before they can cripple the future of the children they serve."

Pawlenty, who may run for president, warned the newly elected to expect significant pushback from teachers unions when the issue turns to trimming benefits or connecting teacher pay and student performance.

Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval of Nevada said one of his first efforts would be to reform the teacher tenure system. "I think that's an issue that has to be taken head-on," he said.

Unless employee compensation is trimmed, the deficits looming in most states will remain, several governors said. "If you don't take on and solve that problem, you'll never solve your budget problem," Christie said.

Public employees are "over-benefited and overpaid," Pawlenty said.

Come January, Republicans will have 29 of the nation's governorships — or 30 if the GOP candidate in Minnesota emerges as the top vote-getter after a recount.

On Thursday, the second and last day of the governors' meeting, the association announced that its new chairman would be Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has had a series of confrontations with the Texas State Teachers Assn. In one, the union criticized him for "playing political games with Texas teachers and school kids."

To newbies who might be afraid of the political muscle of the teachers unions and other public employee unions, Pawlenty had encouragement.

"The public is on our side in this issue," he said.

One Republican governor who might have provided some strategy ideas from his own run-ins with public employee unions opted not to attend the conference: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger's no-show status and Republican candidate Meg Whitman's loss to Jerry Brown in the California governor's race is something of an embarrassment here. The colorful banner in the main ballroom at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront that highlights the names of states that will have Republican governors come January does not include California.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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