Day Of Reckoning

Tomorrow is Election Day in Ohio, and the hoo-hah about Issue 2 finally will end. Unless there has been catastrophic polling failure — or Ohioans have been misleading pollsters for chuckles and giggles — Issue 2 will be defeated and the old collective bargaining rules applicable to public employees will be reinstituted.

Both sides have poured huge sums into the Issue 2 campaign, and anyone who regularly watches the news has seen more Issue 2-related ads than they care to remember.  The ads haven’t exactly been objective treatments of the relevant issues, either.  We had some friends in from out of town over the weekend, and after seeing countless Issue 2 commercials they were totally mystified about what Issue 2 was.  The only thing they knew for sure was that a yes vote or a no vote would effectively mean the end of civilization as we know it.

Whichever way tomorrow’s election goes, I suspect we haven’t seen the last of public employee-related initiatives on the Ohio ballot.  Those who want to cut government spending naturally are going to want to focus on public employee salaries, benefits, and jobs — and this election has shown that public-sector unions won’t be shy about mounting petition drives and spending significant sums to protect those salaries, benefits, and jobs.

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The Public Employee Pension Problem, From Sea To Shining Sea

It seems like every day brings a new story about how states across the country are struggling with public employee pension and health care benefit costs.  In Ohio the issue is at the forefront due to the upcoming vote on Issue 2, and I’ve written about the huge challenges confronting Rhode Island and Illinois.

Now California — which may have the biggest problem of all — is trying to work through the issues.  On Thursday Governor Jerry Brown declared California’s current system unsustainable and unveiled an approach that tries to deal with the inevitable effects of demographics.  Brown, a Democrat, proposes raising the retirement age for most government workers from 55 to 67, increasing employee contributions to 50 percent of pension costs, and moving the state’s system from a complete defined benefits program to one that includes a 401(k) component, where employee benefits depend on their contributions and the performance of investments they have selected.  He also proposes reforms to ensure that pensions are based on regular salaries, not on bonuses or overtime.  Public employee unions have been critical, arguing that they have recently given concessions and that any changes to benefits should be the product of collective bargaining.

From sea to shining sea, the handwriting is on the wall:  states and local governments eventually must grapple with meaningful reforms to budget-busting public employee pension and benefit costs.  The Ohio General Assembly attempted to do that with the legislation that is the subject of Issue 2.  If Ohio voters reject Issue 2 come Election Day, the issue is not going to go away.  Why not tackle it now?

I’ve Made Up My Mind On Issue 2

Early voting has has been underway for more than a week now on Issue 2, the issue dealing with public employee issues.  Today I got an email from Ohio’s Democratic Senator, Sherrod Brown, urging me to vote early against the issue.  I’ve going to wait until the election to vote, but the email got me to thinking about Issue 2.

After some reflection, I’ve decided I’m going to vote in favor of Issue 2.  I recognize that there are arguments the other way, but I’ve made up my mind.  Here’s why:  I don’t think the collective bargaining model works with public employees.  In the classic case, workers collectively bargain with bosses who own the business.  The bosses have skin in the game and an incentive to vigorously bargain with the employee’s union.  Our political leaders don’t have the same kind of skin in the game, however.  To the contrary, they may have been elected with the active support and contributions of public employee unions.  I also think that it is not unreasonable to ask public employees to contribute more toward their health insurance and pensions.  Many in the private sector pay 100% of the cost of both of those benefits, without any employer contribution.  Add to that the fact that there is a lot more job security in the public employee world, and I think that public employees have a pretty good deal.

I don’t believe that Issue 2 would solve our governmental budget problems by itself, and I defer to no one in my admiration for police officers and firefighters, but I also think we simply cannot afford to continue to expand the size, scope, and cost of our state and local governments.  Every police officer and every firefighter may be essential — but not every teacher is, and not every clerical worker at the BMV is, either.

If Issue 2 gives our leaders more flexibility to deal with bloated public employee payrolls and to avoid the kind of crippling, long-term pension obligations that are such a problem in states like California — or, for that matter, in countries like Greece — I think that is a good idea.  I’m going to vote for Issue 2 because I think it is the prudent thing to do.

The Issue 2 Gap Narrows

The Issue 2 ad barrage continues, and polling indicates the onslaught may be moving public opinion.  The question for Issue 2’s backers and opponents is:  how far, and how fast?

According to the latest Quinnepiac University poll, 51 percent of Ohioans say they would vote against Issue 2, and thereby repeal legislation that will affect collective bargaining and other work conditions for public employees.  That’s still a majority, but it reflects a significant shift in opinion since the prior Quinnepiac poll on that topic, which was taken in July.  In two months, the gap between those who favor repeal and those who oppose it has closed from 24 percent to 13 percent.

Although the news reports on the polling data are focusing on the erosion in the support for repeal, I’d say the odds still favor repeal.  Ads on Issue 2 have been running for weeks now and the people who were easily persuaded have already been persuaded.  In short, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked — and unlike a presidential election, there won’t be highly publicized debates or the possibility of gaffes that might have a discernible effect on voter preferences on Issue 2.  Unless there is some blockbuster ad campaign ready to be rolled out between now and the election, those who seek to uphold the public employee collective bargaining law probably will have to bank on voter turnout working in their favor.  Right now, the law seems likely to survive only if the fact of an off-year election, no statewide races, and a lingering recession operate to depress the turnout of Democratic voters.

 

The Issue 2 Onslaught And The Firefighters’ Brigade

In Ohio, you can’t watch a football game without seeing commercials, pro and con, on Issue 2.  The ad onslaught, funded by well-heeled groups on both sides of the issue, has begun in earnest, and the election is still six weeks away.

State Issue 2 is a public referendum on various public employee issues.  A “yes” vote would uphold SB 5, legislation passed by the Ohio General Assembly earlier this year that limits certain collective bargaining rights of public employees, requires public employees to contribute at least 15 percent of their health insurance premiums and 10 percent of pension contributions, and make a number of additional changes.  A “no” vote on Issue 2 would overturn that law.

The big question right now is whether the flood of commercials will advance meaningful public knowledge about Issue 2 and its impact.  Would an affirmation of SB 5 cripple public employee rights and put public safety at risk, as opponents claim?  Or, would the approval of SB 5 give cash-strapped state and local governments the flexibility to save money while maintaining public services, as its proponents contend?

So far, the ads I’ve seen suggest that Issue 2 is all about firefighters and the staff members who work for Ohio’s 33 state senators.  Of course, that is not the case.  Firefighters are attractive subjects of TV commercials, but they represent a small fraction of the public employees who would be affected by SB 5.  According to an article earlier this year in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, there are nearly 650,000 state and local government employees in Ohio; in Cuyahoga County alone there are more than 76,000 local government employees.  In contrast, Cleveland, the largest local government in Cuyahoga County, employs 900 firefighters.

I’d like to see commercials that get beyond firefighters and Ohio Senate staffers and get to the heart of the issues on Issue 2.  Under our current scheme, how do public employees really fare versus those working in the private sector?  How much money could state and local governments reasonably expect to save if SB 5 is affirmed?  What abuses, if any, should cause us to change the current approach toward public employees?  If voters are to be informed about the merits of Issue 2, those are the kinds of questions that need to be answered.

The Wisconsin Recall Election, And What It Means For Ohio

Wisconsin’s big recall election showdown is over.  Democrats won two of the six elections to recall Republicans, leaving the Democrats one short of the number necessary to get a majority in the Wisconsin Senate.

Each side is spinning the results.  Republicans boast that they survived, despite an onslaught of union money, ads, and get-out-the-vote work.  Democrats tout what they say is an historic result in recalling two Senators.  In short, both sides think the election sent an unmistakable message to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the rest of the Wisconsin political establishment — they just disagree on what that message was.

Ohio is the next battleground.  In November, Ohioans will vote on Issue 2, which would overturn a law limiting public employee collective bargaining.  What do the Wisconsin results mean for that Ohio referendum?  I’m not sure they mean much of anything.  Wisconsin’s recall election necessarily raised questions about the individual candidates — one of the defeated Republicans, for example, had an affair that apparently hurt his chances — whereas Ohio’s Issue 2 will present a straight, up-or-down vote on the concept of limiting public employee collective bargaining.

Ohio polls seem to indicate that a majority favors repeal of the law.  Wisconsin’s relevance in Ohio, if any, may turn on the actual results of the Wisconsin collective bargaining law that gave rise to the recall elections in the first place.  If the results produce meaningful savings for local governments and school districts, as some argue is the case, that fact may resonate with Ohio voters who are worried about government spending and cause them to look more favorably on the idea of keeping the Ohio law on the books.

Recall Wisconsin?

Remember Wisconsin?  It’s been knocked off the front pages by more pressing stories, but earlier this year Wisconsin dominated the national news when Governor Scott Walker sought to reform public employee collective bargaining laws, Democratic Senators fled the state, and protesters occupied the Wisconsin Statehouse for days.

Today Wisconsin is back in the news, writing another chapter in the saga of the public employee collective bargaining law.  Six Republican Senators face unusual mid-summer recall votes today.  If Democrats can win three of those seats, the Wisconsin Senate will flip to Democratic control.  Proponents and opponents of the collective bargaining law have poured millions of dollars — at least $28 million, according to estimates — into advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts.  Polling data indicates that all six of the races are close, with turnout likely to tell the tale.  And who can predict how many voters will show up at the polls on a hot summer day?

In Ohio, there is special interest in Wisconsin because the Buckeye State followed Wisconsin’s lead in enacting a public employee collective bargaining law.  In Ohio, the fight will resume in November, when the electorate will vote on a public referendum on that law.  Wisconsin’s votes today could be an indicator of how the political tides are flowing.  I also wonder whether the recent national news about government spending, debt, and credit ratings will have any effect on voters.  Wisconsin Republicans have defended the collective bargaining law, in part, on the ground that it has meant savings for cash-strapped state and local government entities.  If recent events have made voters more concerned about government spending, that may work to the Republicans’ advantage.