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Shouldn't California's State Workers Share the "Sacrifice"?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
For the last week, California has existed under a “State of Emergency” – at least, according to the California Teacher’s Association. The union’s invocation of “emergency” status has been intended to pressure state legislators into inflicting futher tax increases and extensions on the already-struggling residents of the (once) Golden State.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about the union’s routine demands for “sacrifice” from taxpayers is how little they’re prepared to ask of themselves and their fellow state employees. Drastic cuts to education – rightly deplored by parents and children across the state – are becoming necessary only because of the unions’ intransigent refusal to discuss or renegotiate state employee benefit and compensation packages. Indeed, the teachers’ unions have allowed more than 30,000 teachers to be laid off statewide over the last several years, rather than demonstrate any flexibility when it comes to pay and benefits.

For a sense of just how out-of-touch California’s education system has become, look at San Diego Unified School District, which boasts a $1.13 billion general fund. There, compensation and benefits for teachers and staff represent fully 93% of the operating budget – leaving only 7% to support student programs and operations. Out of every $100 of taxpayer money spent on education, only $7 of it actually reaches the children in the classroom. The rest goes for pay and benefit for grownups.

Nor, contrary to union claims, are teachers underpaid relative to the private sector. Again, take San Diego, where the average district teacher’s salary is 27% higher than the median salary in San Diego county, at $64,000. Along with free health insurance for him- or herself and dependents (with $10 co-pays), automatic raises based on years on the job (unrelated to merit or performance), tenure after only two years, and a 10% annual contribution to their retirement accounts from state and district coffers, teachers also get 16 weeks of paid time off. And still, teachers’ union leaders demand more. Perhaps they’ve forgotten: The state education system exists first and foremost to teach children – not to compensate adults (including the union bosses supported through teachers’ mandatory dues).

The same “me-first” perspective prevails across California state government unions. Even as California sinks ever-deeper into a fiscal quagmire, union bosses have tunnel vision: Their only priority seems to be to extract higher taxes from the much-maligned “rich” in order to keep the gravy train rolling. Not only does this approach overlook the fact that wealthy taxpayers are the most mobile (and can therefore most easily leave the state); it also ignores the manifold abuses of the system perpetrated routinely by far too many state government employees.

For example, recent reports in The Los Angeles Times revealed that California routinely cuts hefty six-figure checks to its workers when they retire, because state government managers routinely ignore official limits on government employees’ saved vacation time. Payroll records don’t even offer auditors the ability to detect how many state employees at the end of their careers simply stop working but continue to draw paychecks until their banked vacation time has been used up. What’s unclear is why those in government deem themselves exempt from the common sense rules of private sector workplaces – including the “use it or lose it” standard for vacation days.

Before government unions demand more taxes from the already-overtaxed workers in the private sector, perhaps union leaders should begin calling for the routine cost control and accountability measures that the private sector requires. Perhaps they, too, should start embracing reforms, from merit pay to meaningful performance review, aimed at ensuring that each state employee’s performance justifies his or her place on the state payroll. And perhaps they should start recognizing that their members are supposed to be serving the taxpayers of California – not the other way around. The many honest, hardworking state employees -- and the taxpayers who pay their salaries -- deserve no less.

If that day ever comes, no overhyped “state of emergency” protests will be necessary. A lean, productive, responsive state government is one that California taxpayers can, and will, gladly subsidize.

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