I’m not jumping on the bandwagon of dumping on government employees, which notion corporate funded “grassroots” organizations, anti-tax institutes and conservative writers have drummed into our ears. It is an admitted push to “privatize” civic services, so business can grab even a larger portion of our tax dollars.
I do admire the convoluted logic. That our local and state governments haven’t collapsed due to the many positions unfilled to save money is declared proof that state and municipalities were overstaffed (ignoring the valiant efforts of the remaining employees to fulfill duties above and beyond their job descriptions), while the inevitable service lapses caused by such undermaning are cited as proof of governmental incompetence.
The bandwagon drivers disingenuously say that since government services are offered equally to everyone, the benefits are thus equal. Sure, all residents benefit from free education and libraries, and the less-than-wealthy may benefit more from public hospitals and other social programs.
However, fire and police services, although benefiting all, give most value to businesses and homeowners (and their insurers, mortgage companies and real estate brokers) who have significant assets to protect from fire, crime and disorder, and much less to renters and wage earners.
The civil courts provide dispute resolution services virtually for free for litigants with sufficiently valuable disputes. Beyond costs for employees, governments spend massive amounts on infrastructure and service contracts, which indeed provide employment for many, but also significant profit for a few.
The privatizers contend that private enterprise could perform state and municipal services at lower cost. How? Government salaries are already less than private sector pay for similar jobs and qualifications.
This brings us to the crux. The big bugaboo for the government employee bashers is pensions, particularly the “unfunded liabilities,” or pensions whose future costs are not currently fully covered.
Yup, the small percentage of our population with no worry about retirement is apoplectic that some working stiffs might actually obtain a comfortable life in their old age. Privatizing would take care of that, and also eviscerate the unions, about the only formal groups left who go to bat for common citizens.
Admittedly, there is a problem with catching up on pensions after the losses of the greed-induced recession of earlier this century. Usually unmentioned in the bandwagon’s diatribes is that significant reforms were enacted in Hawaii in 2011 and 2012, which increased both government and employee contributions, lowered pensions for new employees, delayed vesting, and stopped pension spiking through overtime, bonuses and allowances.
A disproportionate portion of the current shortfall is due to police and fire employees, whose pensions cost about 50 percent more than other government employees, reflecting not only the nature of their work, but the strong support from conservatives for generous uniformed personnel retirements (which, in turn, reflects an understanding of the value provided to them).
The teachers and Kauai County employees whom I know are incredibly hard-working, dedicated to their professions and have an overt mission to help the county residents. I doubt their attitude could be shared by any “privatized” entity. Assuring these employees a decent retirement after several decades working for us seems a highly appropriate civic goal.
Like that guy in Tiananmen Square, we should stand up to those conservative think-tanks. Let’s support our public employees.
Jed Somit is a resident of Kapaa.