A GUARDIAN GUEST OPINION
By STEVE EDGAR
Lots of recent talk from politicos about public employee compensation. I appreciate their concern and efforts to preserve this group’s compensation but a historical context is worthy of examination.
In recent years elected leaders have worked to ensure “compensation parity” with the private sector for public servants. This misguided effort ignores the very premise of public service as a career choice.
Historically, public servants have been employed at a lower pay rate/salary than similarly skilled private sector employees–blue collar or white, knowing that a more secure pension awaits at retirement. Also, retirement eligibility for the public servant is often at an earlier age, yet another perk in exchange for a lower pre-retirement wage/salary. A Wall Street Journal report notes as early as the 1920’s government began the process of defining lower wages for better retirement.
“The primary reasoning for the government’s incremental increase in generous civilian work force retirement programs was a rationale fueled by the theory that government workers, by working for the government, were not able to command the same high salary and wages that their counterparts in the civilian sector would be able to command. Thus, generous pensions became a balancing compensation package justified by supposed lower earnings during the prime productive years.”
Today, logic dictates that either public servant wages/salaries decrease to maintain the balance or the retirement benefits decrease to offset new higher wages. Either way a decrease in overall compensation is needed in these tough economic times. Some would argue its “unfair,” but if public service wages and benefits are tied to private employment rates, there can be no logical argument to keep public compensation packages higher than the private sector.
In the April 10-12 Weekend edition of the USA Today, Dennis Cauchon, reports, “The pay gap between government workers and lower-compensated private employees is growing as public employees enjoy sizable benefit growth in a distressed economy” As validated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “….total compensation for state and local workers was $39.25 an hour — $11.90 more than private business.” Almost $12.00/hour more than the private sector; 30% more on average. Also reported,“Last year government benefits rose .69 cents an hour versus .23 cents in the private sector. Labor costs account for about half of state and local spending, according to BLS and Census data.”
In the current legislative session, Idaho’s legislators started with an across the board 5% payroll cut for public employees but wound up at 3% with the JFAC siphoning $7.4 Million in stimulus money to cover some of the 3%! In a nutshell this means they did not adequately address the issue, in terms of scope, depth or length and next year we face the same issues without the stimulus money to cover our lack of determination. Governor Otter wanted 5% cuts and he was right to call for it.
Public service was never intended to be financially rewarding. It is supposed to appeal to the concept of “service to others” as a service organization responsible to the general public. Not the other way around.
Citizens determine their destiny and ultimately how they want their tax dollars spent—despite efforts of local government to deny them the right to approve debt. I believe in fair compensation but to think a public servant is better off in life, from an economic standpoint, at the expense of the citizens they serve is bewildering.
Illinois State Senator Chris Lauzen has it right when he says “…government benefits are unsustainable and unfair to taxpayers who earn less than civil servants. People will become angrier and angrier when they learn the difference between their pay and benefits and what we give to public employees.” Idaho politicos seem to miss this point.
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