Illegal Immigrants or Public Employees: Who’s the Bigger Problem?

Posted: Feb 22, 2010 12:00 AM

Recently I delivered a speech that reviewed the first year of the Obama Presidency. While I tried to cover all the relevant topics over the past 12 months, a friend who attended later wrote me to express surprise that I had not spoken about illegal immigration.

He stated that he felt it was the nation’s most critical issue, and wondered why the subject seems to have been put on the backburner by many Republicans. I replied with sympathy for his position, but ultimately I’ve come to the conclusion that the most critical issue facing America – and the one driving our budget problems at the local, state and federal level – is public employee unions and their related costs. The debate began.

Game Change FREE

There is no question that the issue of illegal immigration has multiple aspects to it, many of which give rise to significant costs to the taxpayers. First, there is the overarching fact that even though laws are clearly being broken, our government passively condones the illegalities with very little enforcement. Second, illegal immigrants generate enormous public expenses: Public hospitals are stretched by emergency rooms being flooded with illegal immigrants, our school systems are fiscally challenged to educate their children, and our prisons are disproportionally populated by “undocumented” criminals. Finally, we seem to be unwilling to address the issue of anchor babies, which corrupts the concept of how to define an American citizen.

Despite all that, I still believe that public employee unions are still the greater threat to our society and our financial future. This country has been absorbing immigrants – legal and illegal – for decades, and we have generally adapted our economic realities and public expenditures in an appropriate manner.

But let us remember that it was not until 1958 that New York Mayor Robert Wagner signed into law the right of New York’s public employees to unionize. President Kennedy quickly followed, allowing federal employees to form their own unions. And now – 5 decades later – the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2009, for the first time, public employees comprise over half (51.4%) of all union members.

This shows that private employees have been rejecting unions for the past 50 years. Yet our public employees, who enjoy the protection of civil service, have been joining unions at a rapid clip. In 2009, thousands of private-sector union members were losing their jobs. At the same time, public union members were not only protected by the government, but the percentage of public employees who were unionized went up from 36.8% to 37.4%. That means they were getting jobs while private-sector employees were losing theirs.

The public employee unions and their excessive salaries and fringe benefits are crushing budgets across the United States. Nowhere is it more evident than in our largest state – California – whose budget has been out of balance for about ten years. Every time they supposedly reach a budget deal it goes haywire in short order, yet there is never an attempt to scale back the level of employees because too many state legislators are beholden to the public employee unions that fund their campaigns.

About 85% of California public employees are unionized. Meg Whitman, a Republican candidate for governor, recently asked her staff to analyze the last state budget whose revenues were at the present, recession-reduced level. They found out that it was five years ago, and at that time there were 40,000 fewer government employees. While private businesses would have scaled back their number of employees to balance their budget, the Legislature flatly refuses to do that and proposes to either raise taxes, borrow money, or get money from the federal government (which has to borrow the money themselves).

Los Angeles recently had an all-day City Council meeting to consider cutting back city employees. Not surprisingly, and largely due to the fact that at least 13 of the 15 members were elected with union money, they postponed addressing the estimated $200 million shortfall for 30 days and then proposed a series of tax increases. Mayor Villaraigosa, who is also supported by the unions, stepped into the breach and announced he was cutting 1,000 positions. That’s 1,000 positions – not 1,000 jobs – because he then stated that 360 of the employees could be transferred to departments unaffected by the budget crisis. Only in the bizarre world of union-controlled government could such a ludicrous proposal be made with a straight face.

Instead of confronting the bloated public payrolls and excessive medical and pension benefits, our elected officials continue to appease the employees who turn around and provide more money and workers at election time. Check your children’s classroom on Presidential Election Day and see how many teachers have called in sick to protect their investment in the Democratic candidate.

Our politicians just gloss over the issue. In his State of the Union Speech, President Obama proposed a new college loan program, and suggested that if students had not paid their loan in 20 years, they should be relieved of the remainder of the debt. As preposterous as that proposal seems, he then recommended that students who went into public service should be relieved of their debt after ten years – despite the fact that public employees have higher salaries, better medical plans and significantly better retirement programs. Mr. Obama needs to be reminded this is not the 1950’s, when people chose to work for the government to get more job security, but received lower pay.

Yes, illegal immigration presents challenges, but what the public employee unions have done to our government at all levels over the past 50 years makes the challenges of illegal immigration pale in comparison. Illegal immigrants do not fund and elect entire city councils, school boards, legislatures, Congressman, Senators, and even Presidents. When that happens we really will have to pray for America.