A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

State ‘consolidation’ hides anti-union motives

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., Dec. 14, 15 or 16

A consolidation plan set up by Gov. Bruce Rauner and scheduled to be recommended to the legislature this month may sound alright, but unintended consequences threaten thoughts of making government more efficient. Plus, ulterior motives threaten everyday working people.

After all, consolidation hasn’t always worked with public schools, which when consolidated have decimated communities left without schools and have incurred higher transportation costs to bus students, who spend more time traveling.

A hand-picked Task Force appointed in February by Rauner to cut “unnecessary” governing bodies approved five proposals in October: consolidating townships overlapping municipalities; removing the 126-square-mile limit on township size; allowing county referenda to dissolve the township assessor position and replace it with an elected post; letting counties absorb townships; and an unclear promise of holding “taxpayers harmless from township consolidation.”

Rauner’s Executive Order establishing the Task Force made assertions with no supporting evidence, and there’s been little real fact-finding, some say.

Contradicting a de-centralized, anti-big government approach, the Task Force identified few examples of duplication of services, whether townships or park districts. Aside from vague pledges to streamline government, there’s been no real discussion of the rationale, so why the order from Springfield?

Thinly veiled intentions are evident in the drive to include Rauner’s anti-union provisions, and there’s a suspicion that another purpose could be to seize assets of townships, which operate with balanced budgets, meaning most have healthy treasuries.

Rauner may have overstepped.

“He misread his mandate,” David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said. “People were ready for a change, but the emphasis on attacking the labor movement, that really poisoned the water here.”

Through consolidation, Rauner wants to kill the Prevailing Wage law, which provides that building projects funded by taxpayer dollars must pay workers the prevailing wage for crafts for that county, as updated monthly by the state Department of Labor. Projects need not be union-built, but they can’t undercut communities’ wage levels.

Dating to the federal Davis-Bacon from the 1930s, states’ Prevailing Wage law is attacked for supposedly making projects more expensive. Opponents’ say eliminating the protection would make it cheaper to build roads, schools, etc. However, multiple studies show that lower construction wages tend to result in scant savings. Further, professor Robert Bruno’s 2013 UIUC report, “A Weakened State: The Economic and Social Impacts of Repeal of the Prevailing Wage Law in Illinois,” said that “indirect effects of repeal would result in about 3,300 net jobs lost … more than $44 million in lost state and local taxes, and roughly $116 million in lost federal tax revenue.”

The effect, the report said, would be “a redistribution of wealth from construction workers to the owners of construction firms.”

Newer research exposes the flawed criticism of one of Rauner’s biggest targets: public workers and their unions. Foes of public workers and their unions say public are overpaid. However, a new study – “Out of Balance? Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation over 20 Years,” commissioned by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security – sets the record straight. Using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the study shows that when education and experience are considered, government employees nationwide make LESS than their private-sector counterparts. State employees make 11.4 percent less in wages than comparable private-sector workers, and employees of city and county governments earn 12 percent less than their private-sector peers.

It’s worse in Illinois, the study says: State employees make 12.5 percent less than comparable private-sector workers; city and county workers make 13.3 percent less.

Rauner’s move is tied to his anti-worker “turnaround agenda,” backed by a handful of rich families, according to a recent Nicholas Confessore story in the New York Times.

“Only by disempowering the unions and making the state more hospitable to business, [his wealthy patrons] have argued, can revenue grow fast enough to fix its financial problems,” Confessore reported.

Casualties could be decent pay for working people, unions and grassroots forms of government such as townships.

“The talk of consolidation might sound good but would likely end up costing taxpayers more money,” said Bryan Smith, director of Township Officials of Illinois. “If townships and other smaller units of government are consolidated into larger units, the populations in which these larger units serve will drastically increase, thus raising, not decreasing, costs.

“Before any recommendations are made there should be briefing papers or research stating facts,” Smith continued. “To do anything less is a distortion of the public process.”

[PICTURED: L. Brian Stauffer photo of UIUC professor Robert Bruno.]

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