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Jerry Brown falls short on union contracts

The California governor's explanation for why he didn't achieve the budget savings he projected from collective bargaining is not persuasive.

April 25, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Gov. Jerry Brown, left, and Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, center, attend a budget forum for residents in Santa Clarita.
Gov. Jerry Brown, left, and Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, center, attend… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

When Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a new state budget in January, he projected saving $515 million in employees' take-home pay through collective bargaining. He didn't come close and is being ripped by critics.

He particularly is being slammed for a contract his representatives negotiated with the politically powerful prison guards union.

"Union puppet." "Payoff." That sort of thing.

After all, the guards union — the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. — did spend nearly $2 million helping him get elected last year.

Brown naturally takes offense.

A public safety union that strongly supported Republican Meg Whitman — the California Statewide Law Enforcement Assn. — got basically the same contract deal as the prison guards, the governor's aides point out.

Brown told me that a few people have "tried to say there was something corrupt" in his union negotiating. But he loudly insisted: "I'm not a jerk, a clown or a crook....

"As God is my witness, I did the best I could."

Back to that budget proposal: Heading into contract negotiations with six public employee unions, the governor calculated $515 million in employee compensation savings for the total budget, and $308 million for the crucial deficit-plagued general fund.

The nonpartisan legislative analyst has estimated that Brown fell roughly $300 million short on total savings and missed by nearly $200 million in the general fund.

Different terms get tossed around. Brown had projected reducing "take-home pay" for the affected employees by 10%. The legislative analyst says he actually saved only 3.6% in "employee compensation costs." In the end, the Brown administration pegged "payroll savings" at 5% for the next fiscal year.

Whatever language is used, there's no question that the governor missed his stated target. It's the target that the Legislature had assumed he'd reach when they whittled the general fund deficit from roughly $26 billion to $15 billion in March, mostly by slashing healthcare and welfare.

If the proposed union contracts are ratified by workers and the Legislature, the deficit will be $200 million deeper.

Brown offered me an explanation for the $200-million budget miscalculation that I never would have imagined. It wasn't a miscalculation at all, he said. He just didn't want to place in the budget the real figure he was willing to settle for in collective bargaining. So he made up the projected savings targets.

"Here's the deal: You can't put your bottom line in the budget," the governor said. "It's a little awkward. Unions then figure out where you're going. You have no chance of getting that number."

OK, but what about the credibility of the governor's budget proposal? What else is phony in there? How about those tax extensions? Are they all really necessary, or just an opening bid in negotiations with Republicans?

A very dangerous precedent.

The six union contracts essentially are patterned after 15 negotiated last year by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brown said. He couldn't get tougher with unions than Schwarzenegger did, the governor insisted, because that would have amounted to "discrimination" against some.

Anyway, he said, "I've got to work with people. I'm not declaring war on employees. We can't just have everybody anxious and fighting. During the last administration, there was a lot of ill will."

The big picture, Brown said, is that the prison guards union is "collaborating" with him in trying to shift roughly 40,000 felons convicted of nonviolent crimes from high-cost state prisons to county jails. The union could have pressured Democratic lawmakers to oppose the so-called realignment, he said. But it's supporting the move, even though ultimately union jobs will be lost.

"I'll close some prisons down before we're through," he said, saving $1 billion annually.

But that would require the extension of a higher vehicle license fee to reimburse local governments for their added jail costs.

So far, no Republicans have offered to provide any of the two GOP votes necessary in each house to extend the higher income, sales and car tax rates. The same number will be required to ratify the union contracts, and there isn't any GOP enthusiasm for them, either.

"If the governor had hit the $308 million [general fund savings], he'd probably have gotten a couple votes for it," says Senate GOP Leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga. "I just don't think there will be any."

Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel), vice chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, says, "Personally, I think he needs to renegotiate.

"It appears that the governor is making sure he takes care of his friends at the cost and expense of people who really depend on government." The $200-million hole will result in more program cuts, she predicted.

Republicans are griping mainly about Brown's failure to achieve the payroll savings he projected. They're not carping about details, such as the governor's lifting of an 80-day cap on accrued vacation time for guards.

The Brown administration contends that won't cost taxpayers one dime because the cap isn't enforced anyway and can't be. Because of a staffing shortage and forced furloughs, guards aren't allowed to take all their vacation time. And there is no "use it or lose it" in state government.

There should be.

"In collective bargaining," Brown said, "it's fantasy to say 'I want it all my way and shut up.' [Unions] are big players and a big part of the equation. Just like Republicans are….

"Anybody can sit on the sidelines and throw spitballs."

Consider this a spitball.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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