A referendum on public employee unions

In what can only be described as an act of monumental political arrogance, Oregon’s public employee unions have cast Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Saxton as “Public Enemy No. 1.” In doing so they have made the 2006 gubernatorial election a referendum on the power of the public employee unions. This is no longer an election pitting Ted Kulongoski against Ron Saxton, this is an election pitting the public employee unions again Ron Saxton and Oregon’s taxpayers. So be it.

First, understand the power of the public employee unions. Each year, the state of Oregon forwards to the public employee unions about $14.5 Million withheld from public employee payroll checks. That means a war chest of $29 Million each election cycle and that is just money collected for the public employee unions by the state. Add to that an equal amount based on the sheer number of county, municipal, and school employees, and the figure becomes nearly $58 Million collected by government and forwarded to the unions to use as they see fit. Granted such amounts must also pay for recruiting, organizing and collective bargaining but since you have to join the public employee unions in order to work for all levels of government, the concept or recruiting and organizing exists in theory but not in reality.

Since the public employee unions are accountable to no one in how they spend their vast sums of money, one can safely assume that the vast majority of it is spend on politics – lobbying, political education, political research, polling, candidate recruitment and training, candidate support or opposition, ballot issue support or opposition – anything where a vote of the people could challenge their political dominance.

When the lobbying reports and campaign contribution reports are finalized and tabulated, the public employee unions are the largest spenders each election cycle. Add to that the army of “volunteers” that the public employee unions marshal each election cycle and you can see that this is THE political machine in Oregon.

So, how about their record of contributions to the improvement of life in Oregon? Art Towers, the political director for SEIU, states, “With Saxton as governor, it’s just going to be much more difficult for our members to provide the services the public relies upon.” It’s hard to tell whether that is a threat to withhold services if Saxton is elected, or just arrogance that the union really controls what services are provided. The public employee unions’ record of achievements is short and self-centered.

The public employee unions have brought us PERS which allows public employees to retire at age 55 with a taxpayer funded pension in excess of what they were earning while working. The net effect of that is to encourage public employees to retire early, and force the taxpayers to not only fund their exorbitant pensions but to also fund the replacement salary of the person who is hired to do their work. The PERS problem is so great that it was tagged at $13.5 Billion at the beginning of the 2003 legislative session. Today, state and local government units are paying an approximate 20% surcharge to fund this outrageous system. It’s hard to forget the picture of the laughing, partying recent retirees carried in the state’s newspapers.

Oregon’s public education system is in shambles. It is dominated by the public employee unions. Salaries, benefits, and work rules are dictated by the public employee unions. Oregon continues to pay more than the national average on a per capita student for K-12 education, and far more than neighboring states such as Washington, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. Yet it’s academic performance is mediocre at best based on national averages. Oregon has one of the highest drop out rates in the nation.

The public employee unions are staunch opponents of educational accountability and teachers merit pay. They are routinely in the vanguard to support higher taxes in order to increase the amount of money available to an inefficient educational system. To be sure, the public employee unions have two goals – increase the number of public employees hired and increase the pay and benefits of those employees without limits. As they achieve those goals they have more money to spend on political dominance. The public employee unions view government as their open checkbook.

In contrast, Ron Saxton, states simply and correctly, “My goal isn’t to run government so the bureaucracy is all happy. My goal is to run it so it meets the needs of the citizens.” And what about Ted Kulongoski? Well, in true pandering fashion, he has promised to spend more money and to veto any attempts to reform the abusive PERS system.

Maybe it is time to find out whether Oregonians want to run government for the benefit of the public employee unions or for the benefit of the citizens