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In Defense of Public Spending

Nov. 11, 2009
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Every year at this time when budgets are being passed, conservative groups succeed in convincing a great many citizens that the primary purpose of government is to cut our taxes by doing less.

These groups have been so successful in recent years that few people even bother to examine their simple-minded economic theories any more. It is accepted as fact that everyone benefits from paying less in taxes because all that is eliminated is waste in government and a lot of overpaid government employees.

That’s why this year’s city and county budgets are chock full of manpower and service cuts in every department and additional furloughs and unpaid days off for those public employees who manage to hang on to their jobs.

Politicians, who receive very nice public salaries and generous fringe benefits themselves, seem to benefit personally by advocating throwing as many other employees off the public payroll as possible.

There are several major problems with such shallow economic thinking.

You may have heard we are just starting to emerge from the major economic disaster left behind by the Bush administration. We have now pulled back from the brink of another Great Depression and the economy is growing again.

The biggest drag on recovery, however, continues to be employment. The government just announced an October unemployment rate of 10.2%, the highest since 1983. We can only imagine how much worse it would have been if President Barack Obama had not succeeded in passing $787 billion in economic stimulus spending over two years despite angry opposition from the Republican Party.

Still, obviously it wasn’t enough. That is why the next order of business for Obama after health care reform will be even more government action to increase employment to put more of us back on the road to economic recovery.

So at the same time the federal government is spending our tax dollars to create more employment, what are our county and city governments doing in the name of saving tax dollars? Creating more unemployment.

Milwaukee’s only hope is that President Obama succeeds in creating jobs faster than County Executive Scott Walker and Mayor Tom Barrett can eliminate them. Walker, in particular, because he is running for the Republican nomination for governor as a no-tax-increase candidate, appears to be on a mission to eviscerate county employment.

The budget Walker submitted to the County Board not only would have eliminated nearly 400 county jobs next year, but it would have slashed pay and benefits for the remaining employees by 15%.

Of course, with Walker, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s for political show.

The way to eliminate jobs and cut pay and benefits for unionized county employees is to negotiate such reductions at the bargaining table with the county’s unions. Walker’s proposals were never submitted to the unions. Instead, in September, the county’s largest union reached tentative agreement with county negotiators on a two-year contract freezing (not cutting) pay in exchange for no layoffs and no privatization of county services.

That agreement fell apart after Walker unilaterally lobbed his proposal to fire hundreds of employees and slash the pay for everyone else into the 2010 county budget.

Those extreme proposals cannot take effect without agreement from the unions, which can be expected shortly after Hell County freezes over.

Assuming the county and the unions can’t agree—which certainly appears to be the case right now—the union contracts ultimately could be settled by an outside arbitrator whose decision will be final.

When union and management go to binding arbitration, both sides try to submit their most reasonable proposal to the arbitrator. Walker’s proposal is so extreme and unreasonable there is little chance an arbitrator would accept it.


Employees Needed

Reducing unemployment would never be a reason to keep public employees on the city or county payrolls if those employees were not needed. But the other fact ignored by anti-public-employee conservatives is that during hard economic times we usually need more public employees, not fewer.

With more people out of work, the need for food stamps, health services and other forms of public assistance goes up. So do public safety concerns.

Long lines of people desperately in need of human services get even longer. The situation becomes a crisis when public employees who provided those necessary services lose their jobs and have to get in line themselves.

The real purpose of government actually isn’t to cut our taxes. We pay taxes to government to provide services we need that we cannot provide for ourselves.

In a burst of irony, one of the few areas of new spending in Walker’s proposed budget was $400,000 for a new county office of economic development.

After slashing hundreds of full-time county jobs in his budget, Walker believes county government must start spending more—you guessed it—to create jobs.



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