First terminate the unions

Posted: Aug 12, 2003 12:00 AM

If you weren't thrilled by Arnold Schwarzenegger's surprise announcement of his gubernatorial candidacy last week, you either have no heart or work as a lobbyist for a California public-employees union. His jumping into the race was an adrenaline shot for a recall effort that, if successful, will be the most bracing act of political hygiene since Theodore Roosevelt took on the meatpackers.

If you were to distill all that is worst about American politics into one man, he would have perfectly combed hair and he would answer to "Gray." A cautious political hack whose only strength is selling out to unions and trial lawyers, Gov. Gray Davis is Bill Clinton without the conscience, Al Gore without the charm.

It would be a mistake, however, to overpersonalize his failings. The populist upheaval in California is the result of a chapter in state government that will be compared to the robber baron era. It is a tale of how unions and trial lawyers can ruin a state's economy with assistance from a very willing governor.

Essentially a paid agent of the public-sector unions, Davis has increased the numbers of state employees and their wages and benefits. The $78 billion budget is up about $20 billion during the past four years. As indispensable Sacramento Bee columnist Daniel Weintraub has reported, Davis and the legislature approved -- after 45 seconds of debate -- a pension giveaway to public employees a few years ago that is now costing the state another $500 million a year.

Davis has forced tens of thousands of university employees to pay union dues as part of a push to extend the reach of unionism in all areas. He has done the teachers unions' bidding on nearly everything, working to choke off experimentation with charter schools. He famously asked the union for a $1 million political contribution during a discussion of policy last year.

The prison-guards union so tightly controls Davis, it might as well have him in lockup. Some prison guards make as much as $100,000 a year. Last year, even with the state in fiscal meltdown, Davis gave them a 34 percent five-year pay raise, with plenty of other goodies attached -- and got a quick $251,000 union contribution in return.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the California firefighters union has devoted major muscle to defeating the recall, which would potentially deprive them of a governor in their back pocket. A Davis-controlled commission, stacked in the union's favor, recently approved a change in the building code that will cost businesses hundreds of millions, but make more jobs for firefighters, plumbers and pipe-fitters.

Right alongside the unions are the trial lawyers. Their favorite boondoggle -- out of many -- is California's workers' compensation system. Journalist Jill Stewart calls it "the most Byzantine, backward, corrupt and wasteful system in the country." Davis has made it worse. In the past year, workers' comp insurance premiums have increased by 50 percent for some employers. Attorneys for workers' comp applicants made $226 million in fees last year, a $31 million increase from 2001.

All this makes for an economic disaster. For business, it means higher taxes, higher insurance premiums, higher legal costs and higher costs of doing business generally. No wonder the core of California's economy is being gutted. For the past 31 months, manufacturing jobs have been disappearing at a pace of 10,000 a month. If Arnold or anyone else is going to bring them back, he must destroy the union trial lawyer complex in Sacramento, Calif.

If successful, this effort would be a lesson to the rest of the country. Just as Mayor Rudy Giuliani's reformism in New York City provided a model for urban government across the country, a reform movement in California could usefully demonstrate how an aroused electorate can beat back the economic parasites on its government.

Thus the urgency of chasing Gray Davis from Sacramento. If you're an Arnold fan, you can yearn to tell Davis, "Hasta la vista." But a simple "bye-bye" would suffice.