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Commentary By Josh Barro

Congress Poised To Worsen State Budget Gaps

Governance, Economics Tax & Budget

As you have probably heard hundreds of times now, states face an unprecedented fiscal crisis. So why is Congress poised to pass a law that will make it harder to get their budgets into balance?

The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act would force states to allow collective bargaining for police, fire and other public safety workers. Currently, 21 states either prohibit collective bargaining for these employees statewide or allow localities to choose whether to bargain.

Collective bargaining has been a significant barrier to closing state and local budget gaps. At a time when private sector compensation is nearly stagnant, wage freezes are a sensible way to manage funding gaps--but they are often impossible where contracts are collectively bargained.

To see these effects, look no further than Fairfax and Montgomery Counties. Both counties have heavy populations of public workers and are governed by Democrats. But Virginia prohibits collective bargaining for public employees, while Maryland allows municipalities to choose to participate or not--and Montgomery is a collective bargaining county.

2006 was a good year for tax revenues almost everywhere, and Fairfax used the strong receipts to grow its budget by 6%. But Montgomery enacted a budget 11% above the previous year’s. At the same time, Montgomery teachers secured an amazing 26-29% pay increase over three years, also about double the rise in Fairfax County.

Those increases were unaffordable, and have come home to roost in the recession--this year, Montgomery had to cope with a $1 billion deficit, four times larger than the one in Fairfax. Fairfax closed its gap in part with an employee wage freeze, but that wasn’t possible in Montgomery County, due to collective bargaining.

The Metro riders who read this newspaper know what happens when governments lose control of employee compensation. Deep in the recession, an unelected arbitrator forced unaffordable 3% annual raises for WMATA employees--and the result is higher fares, fewer trains and buses, and more deferred maintenance.

Yet Congress is poised to force the WMATA-ization of Fairfax and other jurisdictions that don’t have collective bargaining for police and firefighters. This will lead to service reductions, tax increases, and further pressure for federal aid to state and local governments.

Collective bargaining also influences policies on employee discipline. Of course, most police officers and firefighters are dedicated public servants, but it’s important for governments to be able to respond when employees perform their jobs poorly. You like how Metro can’t fire bus drivers who assault police officers or kill people by running red lights? If you live in Virginia, this bill will make it harder to fire malfeasant employees of your local police force or fire department.

And to what end? Public safety workers are already doing better than their counterparts elsewhere in government and in the private sector. Over the last three years, total compensation is up 9.5% for public administration workers (a category that includes police and firefighters) compared to 9.0% for all state and local government employees and 6.9% for workers in the private sector.

Unionized government employees are in a unique position of privilege. When it comes time to decide the terms of their employment, they get to sit on both sides of the table--they fight hard to elect the public officials who then negotiate “against” the union. So it’s not surprising that their pay packages have been defying the recession.

There is no reason to think we need new legislation to prop up the salaries of public safety workers. Even so, union support for this bill is not surprising. What is surprising is that six Republican senators have signed on to co-sponsor it.

Those Republican senators all hail from states that already have statewide collective bargaining for police and firefighters. So their constituents won’t see direct impacts--but when rigid state budgets create pressure for more federal bailout dollars, taxpayers all across America pay the bill.

In this time of fiscal crises, the last thing states and localities need is another federal law that strengthens the hand of public employee unions. If Congress enacts the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act, we’ll know they’re more concerned about serving interest groups than states or taxpayers.

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner