Public Sector Compensation – Some Perspective

With the conflict over public employee compensation raging in Wisconsin and likely to spread across the country, there are still misconceptions about how public employees are compensated (and how well), the role of unions in setting the levels of compensation, and the political aspects that typically are more significant than the economic aspects.

We at TAB believe that setting equitable compensation for public employees is as important to budget reform as finding and eliminating programs that have outlived their usefulness. Just as entitlements are the major challenge to the federal budget, state and local budgets are defined by their personal service costs.

The following is a list of facts (and some opinions) that we think will structure the debate in the coming months, both in faraway states like Wisconsin and Ohio, as well as in Tallahassee and at the county and municipal level all over the state.

  • Salaries and other compensation are the largest government expense at the local level.
  • Compensation dynamics are considerably different than the private sector. Providing government services is a monopoly where spending restraints (where they exist) are political not economic. Salaries are driven less by market forces than by what the taxpayers will accept.
  • Conventional wisdom that “public sector = lower pay and better benefits” is no longer true. Flush with cash from the mid-decade runup in property valuations, municipal and county governments have allowed their personal services expense to far outpace inflation.
  • Public sector unions have made a convincing case to local officials that they should share in the property tax windfall – both in salary today and in pensions to be paid in tomorrow’s dollars, and as long as the public wasn’t looking too closely, they didn’t feel ripped off.
  • With both their employees and their unions making the case that they should “share the wealth”, and no organized advocates for the citizens, local officials have often been tempted to take the path of least resistance.
  • Officials are further incented by the contributions and manpower that the employee unions can bring to their re-election campaigns.
  • When local pressure is not enough, public sector unions have been very successful on the state level to get statutes enacted that constrain local governments from resisting upward pressure on personal service costs.
  • It is only the current prolonged economic downturn that has shed light on how this whole system has gotten out of hand – when looking at ways to constrain spending, many are appalled and surprised at how their personal services costs have exploded, and how little they can do about it.
  • State level resistance to unbounded growth in public sector compensation, initially led by Chris Christie, and followed by many more of the Republican governors and legislatures elected in 2010 (including Rick Scott) is a potential game-changer.
  • Those municipal and county officials who would really like to restore sanity to public employee compensation have a small window of opportunity to get on the train before all this comes to a head this year.
  • They could start by supporting FRS reform as outlined by the governor, which if enacted would save around $60M at the county level.
  • Once established, FRS reform could be used as a blueprint for local pension plans.
  • FRS reform is not “draconian” and would still provide better benefits than the private sector.
  • For example, reduction in special risk accruals from 3% to 2% would return to the original concept – to provide an equivalent pension at 25 years for those in high stress jobs that other employees would get at 30 years.
  • Another area for reform is longevity raises – this is a public sector phenomenon that provides a rapid escalation in salary, irrespective of merit or performance. During economic downturn, local governments should have the flexibility to freeze or even reduce salaries as an alternative to layoffs, just like in the private sector.
  • As framed by the Wisconsin debate, the collective bargaining process by public employee unions is at the core of the problem. Pension and health care concessions in that state may fix this year’s budget, but next year (or when the economy improves) they will be back to the table to restore it. Once a mulit-year contract is in place (such as the PBC situation with PBSO and Fire/Rescue), necessary actions that would void the terms of the contract (such as a delay in raises) are not possible without justifiable economic distress – and maybe not even then.
  • A similar conundrum is about to play out in Tallahassee as the legislative committees to take up the Governor’s FRS reforms are already talking about “restoring” the status quo as soon as FRS is back to 100% funding. These same legislators, many of them Republicans, have already proposed that 5% is too much, the COLA must remain, and we can’t possibly mess with the special risk accruals. We can only hope that Rick Scott stands his ground.

Only by having an honest dialog on these subjects with all parties at the table – including the taxpayer, can we avoid the train wreck that is coming in public sector finance. Luckily, many have taken up the subject and it is being discussed in the media at all levels. If Scott Walker can round up his missing Senators and pass his collective bargaining reform, many states will initiate changes in their situations that would have been unthinkable only a year ago. Even if some compromise is made in Wisconsin, a line has been crossed and the battle has been joined.

Nothing less than the economic survival of the American Experiment is at stake.

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