With echoes of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's assault on collective bargaining still reverberating throughout the land, it was only a matter of time before the overheated rhetoric started boiling up from public employee unions here in Montgomery County. How could this be, one might ask, in this solidly pro-labor, one-party liberal bastion that we love to call home?
It seems that Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett is now being labeled a "radical Republican" by local union leaders, who suggested he should "don a cheese head," as reported this week in the Washington Post. Ike Leggett a radical Republican? On what planet? Apparently, his crime was to suggest that public employees increase their pension contributions by 2 percent of their salaries and contribute a bit more toward their own health insurance premiums.
Keeping in mind that county employees' total compensation has risen far faster than the rate of inflation for more than a decade, and their benefits are far more generous than most of us in the private sector who pay their salaries, labor leaders are on pretty thin ice comparing our situation to what is going on in Wisconsin. Leggett's suggestion should be seen for what it is: An inevitable adjustment of compensation levels to today's fiscal reality.
It's time to cool the rhetoric and look at the facts regarding our current fiscal crisis: Roughly 80 percent of the county's annual $4.35 billion budget is spent on employee salaries and benefits, with significant unfunded pension liabilities on top of that. There simply is no other place for Leggett and the County Council to go to find the savings they need, and in this economy tax increases are not an option as the utter failure of last year's "millionaires tax" clearly showed. It makes more sense to trim back on employee costs, as much as that hurts, and even if it means rejecting the most recent outcome of the collective bargaining process. The alternative is to eliminate completely new capital spending for roads and schools, increase class sizes by cutting teacher positions, close libraries and fire stations, or zero out entire social programs that have already been cut to the bone.
No one is suggesting we eliminate collective bargaining as a basic right, and Leggett is not sinking to Walker's level and bashing unions for everything that has gone wrong in our economy. This is about finding the right balance to keep good people interested in working for the public sector, and keeping their pay and benefits affordable to us taxpayers. The council needs to find that balance, and we can all do without the rudeness and incivility that we saw in Wisconsin.
Montgomery County is no Wisconsin, and to balance this budget, everyone is going to have to give a little. SOURCE: Germantown Patch