Members of the National Mail Handlers Union Local 305 march in the Charlotte… (Tom Pennington / Getty Images )
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You can see why union members who spoke at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday disdain a Republican Party that tries to trash the collective-bargaining process in states like Wisconsin and Ohio. But what’s frightening is to listen to thousands of Democratic activists, assembled for their convention here, who are so adamant in protecting their union friends that they show no sign of seeing the huge deficit storm that soaring public pension costs have put on the horizon.
Cincinnati firefighter Doug Stern addressed the convention early in the evening and got the delegates roaring with his short tale of leaving the Republican Party because of his dismay at its union-bashing way. One can’t blame him. The GOP and characters like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have gone overboard in trying to curtail bargaining rights, writ large, to get at the more finite problem of unmanageable retirement obligations.
But Democrats, terrified at rejecting the demands of their union allies, have helped inspire the backlash. They have allowed pension costs for towns, cities and states to spiral upward, with not nearly enough intervention. The retirement inflation cannot be sustained politically, since private-sector workers won’t continue to stomach retirements for government workers that far outstrip their own — particularly when it comes to firefighters, cops and prison guards.
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Firefighter Stern wowed the convention crowd in North Carolina when he cheered President Obama’s plan for hiring more public safety workers. That expansion may be popular with much of the public. Who doesn’t want more cops on the beat? But a public that knows the ultimate costs won’t support such expansions, especially if it knows it’s on the hook to help a battalion chief retire at age 53 with 90% of his salary.
Yet the talk about reining in retirement costs seems to be on the back burner for many Democrats — always a discussion for another day.
Even a relatively optimistic view of California’s public pension system anticipates that city and county retirement savings could face $500 billion in unfunded liabilities. That’s according to Stanford's Institute for Economic Policy Research. A journalist figured out the bottom line for California households and found the debt amounted to $30,500 for each, according to an essay in The Times by Marcia Fritz, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility.
More and more, local governments in California pay for workers no longer on the job. The fastest-growing portion of city and county budgets -- soon to consume 17% -- are pension costs, according to Fritz. Too many critics like to blame the pension problem on all public employees, particularly schoolteachers, whose retirement pay is typically not out of the ordinary or the real strain on the state. It’s in the public safety sector — police, firefighters and prison guards — that benefits have really run amok.
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“State prison guards and California Highway Patrol officers can retire seven years earlier than teachers with benefits that are 77% more valuable,” Fritz wrote. She went on to say that a 53-year-old CHP officer with 26 years on the job and a top salary of $140,000 would earn a retirement benefit worth $2.2 million. An FBI agent, in contrast, would get benefits worth $1.6 million. Something is wrong with this picture. And all of us pay, because Democrats who control government in California and other states need union support and can’t say no once they get it.
These workers are virtually untouchable politically because the public loves the idea of more police and firefighters and more prison guards to protect them from bad guys. Politicians who go against these workers do not get tabbed as financially judicious. They get targeted as “soft on crime” or “weak on public safety.”
So solid working guys like firefighter Stern can get big cheers at the Democrats political party. And they should be against losing their bargaining rights. But all of us should be against letting any group have its retirement pay unscrutinized. California and other states have to begin looking at later retirement ages, greater employee contributions and other reforms, or we’ll be paying less and less for the cop on the beat and more and more for the one who has gone fishing.