Since 1970, the Democratic Party has held substantial majorities in both houses of the California Legislature. During this time, a political machine has arisen in this state comparable to the Daley Political Machine in Chicago or Tammany Hall in New York : The public employee unions.
The public employee unions have aggressively used the power of the purse to buy influence in Sacramento. In the 2008 election alone, the public employee unions gave more than 38 million dollars to political candidates and were the single largest donor in at least 19 (of 80) assembly and 10 (of 40) state senate campaigns (1,2). Donations from the public employee unions totaling more than a third of a candidate’s total contributions were common in all of these races.
The results of this influence buying have reaped huge dividends for the unions. They have been able to run through appropriations which have afforded them far better salaries and pension benefits then can be found virtually anywhere else in either the public or private sector. Worse yet, many of California’s 450+ local governments, flush with cash from the dot com bubble of the 90s, adopted similar pension and salaries models to remain competitive with respect to attracting manpower. The results of this have been disastrous: numerous municipalities, such as Vallejo, have had to declare bankruptcy due to their pension and salary obligations. Countless others are being forced to eschew essential public services to ensure they are able to meet the obligations of these overly generous benefits (3).
Many former employees are getting very rich at the state’s expense. Over 9,000 California public retirees are collecting six figure lifetime pensions, some approaching $500,000 a year. With respect to salaries, more than 300 members of the California Highway Patrol and 200 members of the California State Water Board are earning six figure salaries. These salaries seem extremely generous for public employees, especially given the other benefits they receive, when compared to the median California income of $54,000 (4,5).
Public employees should be fairly compensated for the vital services they provide for the state: educating our children, keeping our streets safe, and countless other services. They are entitled to a fair wage and good benefits. However, one should not get wealthy from civil service and unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening and it is bankrupting the state.
The cost of paying this burden is bankrupting the state pension fund. CalPers (the California State Employees Pension Fund) paid out over 10 billion dollars in pension benefits last year alone and is tens of billions of dollars in the red. Trying to keep up with overly generous donations, it to gamble on over 20 billion in mortgage backed securities, much of which was lost in the stock market collapse of 2007-2008 (6,7). The State’s Legislative Analysis Office now estimates the state’s total unfunded liability from all its pension obligations at over 100 billion dollars, a burden which will carry onto California’s children for years to come (8).
Virtually everyone in Sacramento and city halls throughout the state is all too aware of the problem. What is seriously lacking in the incumbent party is the chutzpah to stand up to the unions and address the problem, as Bill Lockyer, the State Treasurer, summarizes quite succinctly here:
The Tea Party Patriots of California have banded together to promote a ballot measure to help end the madness: The Citizen’s Power Initiative. This constitutional initiative will change the political contribution rules for public employee unions to curb the power buying that is bankrupting the state. In the current arrangement union members must “opt out” and ask to not have their dues used for political purposes. This initiative would change the rules so that members would have the “opt in” process where they must be asked for their permission for specific contributions. This will require that the unions reserve their organizational resources for specific elections where their interests are directly at stake, rather than blanket contributions which only serve to buy power.
These restrictions already exist in over 40 other states and at the federal level. Public employee unions should be fully entitled to lobby and contribute to political causes in their interests; however, they should be subject to the same restrictions as private enterprises. Publicly traded companies that want to lobby and contribute to campaigns must set up a PAC and ask their employees to contribute to it. Unions should be no different.
To succeed, California tea partiers will need to collect over 650,000 signatures from voters across the state by May 29, 2010. These patriots need all the help they can get to make this possible. Please go to http://unplugthepoliticalmachine.org/ and find out how you can contribute to their effort. Even if you don’t live in California, this is an important opportunity for you to promote limited government and stop this madness before it spreads to your state.
Unless we do something to stop this, the pension and salary burdens upon the state will continue to get worse. Californians will get to look forward to another string of state bankruptcies, higher interest rates and continued shrinking reserves for essential services like education, roads and law enforcement.We must educate, empower and mobilize the thousands of citizens across the state to support this initiative, while we still have a chance.