The failed effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker because of his hard stand on public unions has brought the issue of public benefits back to the forefront, but any discussions should start with head-to-head pay and benefit comparisons with people doing similar work in the private sector.
For decades it was understood that government paid less than the private sector for similar jobs. In order to attract good people, better benefits packages oftentimes were a prime incentive. Trouble is, these days with revenues down and governments running in the red, taking away money from programs and services in order to fund benefits packages or pension plans for public workers isn't something that sits well with a lot of people.
Wages in the private sector have been stagnant in some areas and in decline in other areas since the recession. Companies also shed a lot of workers, and month after month during the recession we heard reports of increases in worker productivity. The phrase doing more with less has impacted just about every worker who has taken on additional duties or responsibilities to accommodate downsizing or other cutbacks.
In Maryland, the legislature just agreed to a plan that will push a portion of the cost of teacher pensions back on to local governments. The money for that needs to come from somewhere, and with revenues on the decline, that means the difference will be made up whether through tax increases or through reductions elsewhere.
Maryland also made changes to the state's pension plan last year, increasing state employee contributions to their retirement and reducing benefits, as well as increasing the period for vesting from five to 10 years. These changes were made, if not with the approval of public unions, at least with their participation at the table as various options for reducing costs were considered.
Contrast that approach to Walker's approach in Wisconsin, where he pretty much drew a line in the sand and dared the unions to try and cross it. Democrats, who get a lot of backing from the unions, sided of course with them over the Republican governor, but they added to the growing divide when Senate Democrats refused to go to work at the statehouse for three weeks in order to try and avoid a vote on the topic.
If Republicans used that tactic, Democrats would accuse them of obstructionism. Oh yeah, the Republicans have used stall tactics in Washington and the Democrats have accused them of obstructionism. Just goes to show that one person's courageous stand is another person's obstructionism.
Walker, for his part, said after defending his governorship that he wants to mend fences. He's even proposed an outing of sorts, complete with burgers, brats and beer.
"I think it's important to fix things, but it's important to make sure we talk about it and involve people in the process," Walker said in an Associated Press story following his victory.
That's a good track to take. But it needs to go beyond lip service to the opposition. Gov. Martin O'Malley has perfected the art of providing lip service to Republicans here in our state. He always says he wants to hear their ideas and include them in discussions, but interestingly enough it seems that the laws enacted or decisions made always come back to something that was proposed by the Democratic majority. Go figure.
In truth, government at all levels could benefit if those in power worked under the philosophy of ensuring that opposition always had a seat at the table and all concerns were addressed. The best way to strengthen your own position, no matter what the issue, is to hold it up to scrutiny from the opposition. If it is a good idea, the opposition's points will help you bring it in to sharper focus. If it is a bad idea, it will be exposed as that quite early.
In Wisconsin and across the country, leaders need to bring together the stakeholders and take a hard look at public pensions. They need to look at how public sector pay, pensions and benefits compare to private ones, and they need to identify and eliminate the emotional arguments as they focus on the task at hand.
Walker could set the stage for a turnaround in how opposing parties and ideologies deal with each other. It will take both sides working together to mend the deep divide that has been created, but if it works there, perhaps Democrats and Republicans in Congress could use it as a model to change their own behavior.