‘We are on the precipice.” When President Barack Obama uttered this famous line in 2009 to describe a breakthrough on his health insurance reform bill, it was a mistake — a Freudian slip. But this exact phrase was uttered just a week ago, and more appropriately, by a top official of Maine’s public employee union.
A Republican takeover of the state government could soon turn Maine into New England’s only right-to-work state and end certain privileges that government unions currently receive through the withholding of dues from state employees’ paychecks.
Maine is just one more battleground in a larger war over union privilege, unfolding mostly in Midwestern states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. Unlike in the private sector, where unions and employers negotiate at arm’s length in their own interests, public-sector unions frequently sit across the table from their staunchest allies, officials who depend on union contributions and other forms of campaign help to gain re-election.
Decades of cozy negotiating have helped bring many state governments to where they are now — flat broke or at least close. They are weighed down by short-term deficits and nonsustainable long-term pension obligations.
Now state governments are fighting back, and the battle is being carried mostly by the GOP. But Republicans are not alone. In some states, Democrats have played or are playing key roles in curbing the power of public-sector unions.
In Wisconsin, many would say that Republican Gov. Scott Walker is responsible for the battle going on there. This is not true. It is a Democrat — former state Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, who made it possible. Decker had already been defeated in November when he fired the opening shot in this Badger State battle.
In December, during Wisconsin’s lame-duck legislative session, former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle was on his way out the door and desperate to gain approval for new contracts that would have saved the unions from most of the pain the state is now experiencing.
Democrats even sprung a disgraced assemblyman from jail (where he was serving a sentence for his fourth drunken driving conviction) so that he could cast the deciding vote in the state House. But the contracts fell one vote short in the state Senate because Decker unexpectedly balked and refused to back them.
“Now that the voters of Wisconsin have spoken,” Decker said, “I do not feel comfortable casting a vote in favor of these contracts.” Decker’s precise motives remain a mystery, but without his action, Wisconsin’s state and local governments would have their hands tied in dealing with their current budgets and future obligations.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has been fighting a similar but less acrimonious battle than Walker’s. After a year of fighting alone, and winning, he now has an ally in Stephen Sweeney, the Democratic state Senate president. Sweeney says he shares Christie’s goal of reining in public safety workers’ average $47,000 annual benefit package.
Although his proposal differs from Christie’s, Sweeney has set forth a serious enough bill that law enforcement and firefighters’ unions are enraged, and are staging Madison-style protests in Trenton this week.
Even in corruption-ridden Illinois, where Democrats control all elected branches of state government, union clout is crumbling in the face of math. Democrats have already raised taxes to the breaking point, yet the state is so broke that it is stiffing vendors. Its pensions are dead-last in the nation for solvency — only 54 percent funded.
Last year, the most powerful Democrat in the state — House Speaker Mike Madigan — ignored the unions and rammed through the legislature — in a single day — huge benefit cuts for new state hires.
This year, Madigan is talking about scaling back pension and health benefits for current Illinois state government employees, which would go far beyond anything Walker has proposed in Wisconsin.
When it comes to curbing public-sector unions, Republicans might have ulterior motives. To paraphrase Vice President Joe Biden, unions and trial lawyers are the only ones separating the Democratic Party from a state of perpetual irrelevance.
But the genuinely dire state of government finances has even some Democrats working to dismantle union privilege, and in Democratic strongholds like Illinois and New Jersey to boot. They, like the Republicans in the battle, realize that good politics is also good policy.
Columnist David Freddoso is The Washington Examiner online opinion editor.