Measures 66 and 67: A Battle in a Larger War


Measures 66 and 67 are merely symptoms of a much larger problem in Oregon. It is the elephant in the living room that the state’s business and political leaders have chosen to ignore even as they fight the tax increases for the third time in the last eight years. It is the problem that they have chosen to ignore through a series of budget busting increases and a plethora of smaller tax and fee increases enacted in session after session.

It is the problem that I have been agitating against since this column’s inception in the Medford MailTribune in the spring of 2004. It is the problem that the January 15, 2010 Wall Street Journal editorial identified succinctly:

“The battle in Oregon is a case study in the political drama now unfolding in many states. Essentially, it’s about whether a state’s wealth belongs to its public employee unions or to everyone.”

The Washington Post columnist David Ignatius referred to it as:

“The political forces that generate deficits are just too strong: a Democratic Party in hock to public-employee unions . . .”

John Steele Gordon of Commentary Magazine in the October 10, 2009, editions noted:

“Public-employee unions are quickly becoming a major and, indeed, imminent threat to American democracy, but one that will be very difficult to correct.”

Dan DiSalvo and Fred Siegel of the Weekly Standard wrote:

“Public sector unions have become political powerhouses in New York, New Jersey, Washington, California, and a host of other states. They have become so powerful as to threaten the Madisonian system set up to constrain any one faction from overwhelming the public interest.”

The December 10, 2009 issue of The Economist spoke about the budget crises being faced by state and local governments:

“For years, public-sector workers have basked in an alternative reality. Nevertheless, as private-sector unions have faded, public-sector ones have thrived. In 2008 37% of government workers were unionised, nearly five times the share in the private sector (see chart), and the same share that was unionised 25 years earlier. Over that period, the share of unionised private-sector jobs collapsed from 17% to 8%. In 2009, for the first time, public workers comprised more than half of America’s union members. Democrats in particular have little incentive to anger workers, who are often their electoral foot-soldiers, and neither party wants to prod them to strike, since they hold monopolies. Those who defy unions do so at their peril. In 2005 Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, tried to curb the unions’ power. His effort was quickly terminated.”

And finally, Willie Brown, the former longtime Speaker (1980-1995) and former mayor of San Francisco noted:

“The deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life.

“But we politicians, pushed by our friends in labor, gradually expanded pay and benefits to private-sector levels while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages that pay ex-workers almost as much as current workers.

“Talking about this is politically unpopular and potentially even career suicide for most officeholders. But at some point, someone is going to have to get honest about the fact that 80 percent of the state, county and city budget deficits are due to employee costs.”

Each speaks of the political power of the public employee unions. Several speak of the financial consequences — the increasing burden on the state and local budgets from excessive hiring and benefits. And all acknowledge the absolute subservience of the Democrats to the desires of the public employee unions.

There is corruption inherent in a process where the public employee unions bargain with the politicians whose campaigns they financed and where those politicians then use your taxpayer dollars to reward the unions for their political support. It is made more so by the fact that the same politicians have agreed to use state and local government resources to collect the very funds that are used for their campaign finances from the employees who must belong to the unions in order to remain employed.

In Oregon, over $60 million is collected each biennium by state and local governments and school districts from their employees and turned over quarterly to the public employee unions. There is little organizing effort by the public employee unions because union membership is a prerequisite to retaining employment by state and local governments and the school districts. There is little bargaining effort because all of the state, local and school district governments are ultimately run by politicians who are beholden to the unions for financing their campaigns. Virtually all of the $60 million is available each biennium for politics and the union bosses are not reticent in spending it for precisely that purpose.

The point being is that Oregon business leaders are destined to fight this tax fight over and over and over again. They have won the fight the last two times and they may well win it again this time. However, until they are prepared to directly address the financial power of the public employee unions they will never win the war. The battle will be fought repeatedly until the business community losses. Then it will be fought anew at a higher level because the appetite for growth in numbers, salaries and benefits of the public employee unions is insatiable.

The question for Oregon’s business community is not whether they win or lose on next Tuesday but rather whether they are prepared to fight the real battle and restore a political balance now badly tilted toward the public employee unions.

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Posted by at 06:00 | Posted in Measure 37 | 22 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Darby

    There are no “civil” servants in Oregon. Just union members wanting to work less and less for more and more.
    That is it!

    • Anonymous

      That’s a very complex point-of-view you have there.

      • Steve Plunk

        Yet it seems appropriate. If you hit the nail on the head it only takes one blow.

        • Anonymous

          Well, Steve, I’m clearly in the minority here as I do have some respect for a good number of government employees.

          • anonymous

            They’re sheep, without the nuts to tell their union thugs to f-off.

          • Steve Plunk

            I actually have respect for some government employees as individuals but as a group that respect diminishes. Unions have sullied the reputation of public employees. It’s unfortunate but true. For me it when the corrupt Teamsters union started representing police officers. Later it was the teachers unions grabbing all they could while education suffered.

            So the reputation is shot, the trust is gone. It’s going to take a good deal of work to earn the trust of the public back. Measures 66 & 67 are not going to earn back any trust.

          • eagle eye

            You mean like those firemen who rushed into the World Trade Center? You had respect for them?

          • v person

            Eagle, stop picking on these guys or you will end up with a “what have the Romans ever done for us” analogue!

            Let them think they don’t need government and can disrespect all who work for it. Its their religion.

          • eagle eye

            I don’t want to disparage anyone’s religion (unless they’re trying to blow me up). But I was listening to Lars Larson during lunch — my doctor advises me to keep my blood pressure up — and some guy came on talking about how government is full of parasites.

            For some reason, the image of cops and firemen getting absolution and blessings from clergy — presumably many of them were Catholic — before entering the burning towers, knowing they would likely not come out — sprang to mind.

          • Steve Plunk

            Eagle, I’m disappointed in you. Throwing out emotional arguments like that?

            Being a policeman or fireman is job like any other. There are jobs with higher risks of injury and death with workers providing a service just as a policemen might. Should we have a separate class of citizenship for police and firemen or are all citizens equal? I’m in favor of equality myself without special privileges for some. I believe doing the job you signed on for isn’t necessarily grounds for exalted status.

            In my lifetime I have seen “public service” become an excuse for low productivity and lack of accountability among many public sector employees. Along with “I could make more money in the private sector” these tired laments are long overdue for the trash. “Public service” is a job. Can make more in the private sector? Then go and let someone else have your job.

            v person, It’s not my religion but my observations. Don’t put words into the mouths of those who feel similar to me. We need government, limited government. Respect for those who in government will come when I get respect from them. A number of times in the last year I have been on the receiving end of that arrogant disrespect. Over the years it has come from planning officials, firemen, road crews, sanitation workers, public works employees, and more. They are not making friends out there.

            So when someone complains about the public sectors workers it often is based upon experience and facts.

          • v person

            Steve…the “religion” term is a way of returning the charge frequently made here that those of us who have accepted the evidence that the earth is warming are part of some religion.

            Put another way, it is a core belief you and other conservatives express that government employees are pretty low forms of life. I’m not going to convince you of anything. You are free to believe what you want. But my experience is that public workers have varying motivations, abilities, and attitudes. Some are talented and dedicated to their work beyond all reason. Others are stealing their paychecks. Most are somewhere in between.

            You say you have diminished respect for them “as a group.” Well…they are not a “group.” They are individuals with jobs to do and families to feed. And you shouldn’t disrespect some of them for what others of them might have done to offend you. I encounter the same folks you do day to day and I do not get the same level of animosity you seem to get.

            Beyond that, some of them really do have pretty dangerous jobs that require a willingness to sacrifice way beyond what the rest of us are willing to. And I’m not just taking cops and firemen. You spend a lot of time dissing ODOT. Did you know an ODOT worker was found dead the other day along I-84? Apparently slipped and fell while inspecting a bridge.

          • Steve Plunk

            v person,

            Throwin’ more of the weak stuff? Can’t debate what I actually say so you have to make up statements like “it is a core belief of you and other conservatives express that government employees are pretty low forms of life”? What utter nonsense. If you can’t argue your point without resorting to such sophomoric tactics then perhaps you should give up. I have stated expressly that my feelings are toward them as a group. Since they are a group, a union, it is an entirely appropriate way to treat them when discussing wages, benefits, and responsibilities. This is a public policy debate so taxpayers are a group, union members are a group, and so forth.

            Many occupations are dangerous and it is always a tragedy to have someone injured or killed but Eagle’s attempt to liken every public employee to New York firemen is reprehensible. The deaths of those people should not be used as an excuse for every public employee not pulling their weight. More weak stuff from people losing the debate. The professor uses the same refuge.

            Look you guys, 66 & 67 are essentially unnecessary tax hikes coming during a recession. The public employee unions are pumping huge amounts of money into campaign to ensure their nests stay feathered. The unions will eventually bankrupt the state and local governments through PERS obligations, wage demands, and benefits packages. The unions fall back and use the same tired excuses of being “servants”, “we could make more in the private sector”, and so on. Eventually people step up and say wait a minute, those excuses make no sense. That time has come and people like myself will call them on it.

          • v person

            “Since they are a group, a union”

            Not all public employees are union members Steve. I think anyone who supervises someone else is not in the union.

            And if taxpayers are a group, then that has to include public employees, union and not, who are also taxpayers right?

            “The unions will eventually bankrupt the state and local governments through PERS obligations, wage demands, and benefits packages.”

            We have no responsibility here? We the people passed 2 property tax limits (and a rollback) and shifted responsibility for school funding to the state, yet with no source of revenue. That didn’t bankrupt the state? And when we citizens voted to keep people in prisons longer, again with no source of funds to pay for this, that didn’t help bankrupt the state?

            I thought conservatism was about personal responsibility. Don’t you think citizens have any personal responsibility for demanding certain services from government while also cutting our taxes?

          • eagle eye

            “Eagle’s attempt to liken every public employee to New York firemen is reprehensible.”

            I did not do that, and for you to then say that “the deaths of those people should not be used as an excuse for every public employee not pulling their weight” is simply despicable. Especially given your oddly cold-blooded attitude to what they actually did that day in New York.

            I really am tired of you people trashing public employees, even trashing their unions the way you do is bad enough.

            If people are having having so much trouble making it in business, maybe that is their fault, not the government’s or the public employees’. Maybe they should try to do something at which they can succeed. If they think government employment is such a great deal, go for it.

          • retired UO science prof

            I remember them, eagle, and I have no hesitation to say that I respect them, and I don’t mind saying I got “emotional” about them too. I still do. If someone wants to say we have no civil servants in Oregon, I would just say I hope we have as good as those New York City firemen and cops. I hear they have unions there too.

            They were just doing their job? Actually, that’s what a lot of them said. But I would never go along with them. Any more than I’d say the guys in the Normandy invasion who were about to get their guts blown out were “just doing their jobs”. Anyone who dismisses them that way has something wrong with them.

  • Pinkie French

    it is not fair to tax people on money they dont make. Salem needs to wake up, they can and should do better. No on 66 & 67…or a bankrupt state within a few short years.

  • retired UO science prof

    So it’s “war”?

    One of the really bad things about this tax campaign is the increasingly bitter polarization between supporters of private and public interests.

    I always hate it when liberals say things like “Bush has declared war on the poor”.

    It’s hyperbole here too, but it seems equally unfortunate.

  • retired UO science prof

    Larry Huss notes:

    John Steele Gordon of Commentary Magazine in the October 10, 2009, editions noted:

    “Public-employee unions are quickly becoming a major and, indeed, imminent threat to American democracy, but one that will be very difficult to correct.”

    This sounds a little overwrought. An “imminent threat to American democracy”? Are they about to overthrow the government? Maybe those New York police and fire unions are planning the next 9/11?

    I recently dropped my subscription to Commentary magazine after many years. One reason was that they had simply become boring. But another was that they are increasingly publishing strident, extreme articles about mainstream American institutions and life. Kind of like leftist publications like the Nation and even the New York Review of Books.

    • v person

      One of my hypotheses prof, is that the right wing has exchanged places with the left wing with respect to radicalism. Left wing radicalism is pretty much a spent force in the US and has been for years. Who is it now that seems to want to overthrow government, or short of that upend long established institutions? Conservatives. Its an odd turn of events, though interesting to watch for sure. And interesting that Nixon and Reagan (other than the air traffic controllers) were pretty careful about not trashing union members. They needed them to beat up on hippies.

      On the other hand, if you read The Paranoid Style in American Politics, maybe it has always been this way (right wing radicalism) except for brief periods of relative quiet when they had real power.

      • retired UO science prof

        I see the left and the right as being pretty much on an equal footing, with acknowledgment of many differences of detail and style. Obama getting much the same treatment from Rush, Glenn, Michael Savage, etc as Bush got from the left. Corporations and even universities are treated as an “immiment threat” by the left; just listen to the rants in Eugene over PeaceHealth (now departed to Springfield) and the UO Riverfront Research Park. When it’s not the unions declaring war on us all, it’s the rich and the corporations making war on the poor. It’s the increasing polarization.

        While the unions did Nixon’s work, they needed no prodding from him.

        And Reagan used unions to beat up on hippies? That’s news to me. He never hid the fact that he had been an enthusiastic union president, nor that he was a 4-time FDR voter.

  • Oregon Independent

    The fact that these two measure may pass is not the fault of public employees unions. Unions are inherently self-serving and the proponents of the measures have run a smart campaign with crisp, concise advertising. Opponents… with their insipid television spots, developed by the same old PR and lobbying firms that seem to get the job every campaign, have essentially insulted our intelligence with staged scenes and bad actors delivering lines that could have been written by middle school students. Where are the real people? Phil Knight gave us the best argument against the measures in his Oregonian Op Ed, but who’s going to feel sorry for him? The real pain will be felt by small business owners and their employees across this state. True stories from real people would have made for much more effective messaging.

    In the larger context, the passage of these measures will only continue to demonstate how truly feable Oregon’s Republican Party is. The fact is, that year after year they have failed to develop a conherent or compelling case against the progressives that run this state. In 2010 it will be interesting to see if Republicans can attract independent voters like we just witnessed in Massachusetts. My personal opinion… there are no Scott Brown’s in the Republican Party or Oregon.

    Prepare for more pain…

    • current UO student

      Just a reminder: It is possible to split your vote.

      YES on 66 / NO on 67

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