Fighting public service ‘corruption’

Aug. 27, 2012

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO — During recent travels to Madison and Milwaukee for some research about reform-minded Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s survival of a union-backed recall, I found little residual anger among the friendly folks there, despite seemingly endless pitched political battles that divided families and led to angry water-cooler discussions.

Perhaps the central issue — Walker’s Act 10 plan that rolled back collective-bargaining excesses — has been resolved, or perhaps Wisconsinites simply got tired of two historic recall elections, legislators who bolted the state to avoid voting on legislation, endless national media attention and union protesters swarming the Capitol and screaming into their bullhorns.

Midwestern culture values community and “nice,” and the ongoing events in Wisconsin strained the social fabric. Californian residents, typically oblivious to events east of the Sierra Nevada, owe a debt of gratitude to the folks in Packer country. Had Wisconsin voters replaced their governor and other Republican officials, the message would have been heard nationwide: Pension reform, and efforts to rein in the public-sector union power at the root of the problem, would be dead for years.

Instead, Walker is becoming a national GOP figure. Another budget reformer from Wisconsin, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, is on the GOP presidential ticket. And Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, from Kenosha, will no doubt tout the Wisconsin reforms as Republicans gather in Tampa for their national convention.

Wisconsin’s Progressive political tradition rivals California’s, which only highlights the disparity between the two states as California’s leaders refuse to even acknowledge fiscal reality, let alone confront it in a serious way. Walker and his reforms were sparked by a $3.6 billion budget deficit, which is a rounding error in California budget terms. But his understanding of the core issue — the abuses perpetrated by the privileges and greed of public sector unions — may have stemmed from his stint as the county executive in Democratic Milwaukee County, where he had to clean up an ugly pension scandal where government workers were granting themselves outrageous bonuses.

Wrote Bruce Murphy in the Madison alternative weekly called the Isthmus, “In the bitter aftermath of the failed recall, there will be many blaming a vast right-wing conspiracy, out-of-state billionaires like the Koch brothers, and Gov. Scott Walker’s polarizing, take-no-prisoners style. But Democrats and unions might want to take a look in the mirror. For it was their willingness to abuse government benefits — with sweetheart deals benefiting only a minority of workers — that led directly to defeat.”

Sweetheart deals

In California, sweetheart deals are a daily occurrence. In San Francisco, police and fire officials are granting themselves half-million-dollar payouts as they leave government “service.” The ranks of the $100,000 pension club are escalating rapidly, even as Moody’s Investor Services warns of a coming tsunami of municipal bankruptcies across the state. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which has itself been through a disgusting “pay for play” scandal, believes that bankrupt Stockton ought to stiff its bondholders — the same ones that gave the city $125 million in pension bonds to help it make good on pension promises it couldn’t afford to pay — rather than trim the lucrative pensions received by city retirees.

Meanwhile, cities slash public services and the state’s leadership demands higher taxes even as they embrace costly new programs (i.e., high-speed rail) that will mainly benefit government employees and special interests.

The ongoing state parks scandal is a poster child for the problems here. As the San Jose Mercury News reported, “With state leaders scrambling to find out how state parks officials kept tens of millions of dollars hidden for more than a decade, California’s top finance officials Tuesday acknowledged what could be a far bigger problem:

“They have no system in place to account for $37 billion in ‘special funds’ scattered throughout state government. Instead, finance officials revealed, they rely on an honor system to track money that could be stashed away in untold accounts similar to the funds that turned up last week, sparking a scandal in the state parks department.”

Parks officials were allowing many parks potentially to be closed while they had money “stashed away” in hidden accounts. Thanks to this “honor” system, dishonorable state employees were granting themselves huge vacation buyouts, all done secretly, accounting for it through Post-It notes to “avoid a paper trail,” as the Sacramento Bee reported.

Serving themselves

This is the same basic storyline repeated across the state: Government is not serving the people, but the people within government are serving themselves. This touches on the nature of government, although overly large and unaccountable ones are more plagued by such corruption than others. As the free-market writer Frederic Bastiat wrote, “The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.” We should at least recognize the truth and not deceive ourselves about talk of “public service.”

These attitudes — the raiding of public treasuries for personal gain, the refusal to rein in unsustainable pension benefits that dwarf those earned by people in the private sector — reflect a “corruption” of public service, in the words of San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a progressive reformer. That’s what these debates are about, and what people in Wisconsin — despite the discomfort of it all — decided to hash out in a series of elections and budget reforms.

Unfortunately, Californians are steadfastly avoiding that needed debate. Perhaps voters here are still burned out from the 2003 recall election, in which voters booted a terrible governor and replaced him with someone not much better.

Or perhaps it’s a reflection of California “exceptionalism” — the idea that the normal rules don’t apply here, and that we can have everything without making any tough choices.

Either way, we need to learn some lessons from the Badger State and have our defining debate over unions, or watch helplessly as cities go under and services deteriorate.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is based in Sacramento. Write to him at: [email protected]


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  1. Edward Steele, Chief Investigator
    Edward Steele, Chief Investigator 27 August, 2012, 08:31

    This all amounts to a ton o whining because the repubs let the econ go south– end of story. I am enjoying watching the moron tax pledge repubs fall off the wagon one by one as they face the reality of the Bush depression.

    Reply this comment
  2. Hondo
    Hondo 27 August, 2012, 10:17

    I Wisconsin the republicans took over a 3.6 billion dollar deficit from the Dems who controlled all three branches in the state. The Republicans took over and balanced the budget without tax increases and lowered the unemployment rate.
    Kalifornia will lose the election for Obama. Kali is dragging down the rest of the country. And you can’t blame that on the republicans (Arnold was a rino and governed like a dem). You can’t blame Bush(tho I don’t like him either) for the failure of Kali to come out of a slump when the rest of the country (outside of Illinois) is doing much better.
    Hey Teddy, wasn’t that Bush on the grassy knoll?

    Reply this comment
  3. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 27 August, 2012, 10:45

    There is enough blame all around…it’s Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield and Collin Powell’s fault.

    CWD loons never get. OBAMA is right. Colonialists are ruining everything. I saw it in the new movie Obama’s World in 2016.

    Reply this comment
  4. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 27 August, 2012, 11:15

    Teddy is the reason we have these problems, lots of troughj feeding, self serving Teddys.

    Reply this comment
  5. Edward Steele, Chief Investigator
    Edward Steele, Chief Investigator 27 August, 2012, 11:25

    Uhaul— when in doubt– pack n ship—–well said—–Although the CWD is waaaaay better without the annoying race/hate speech of the beezytool…

    Reply this comment
  6. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 27 August, 2012, 11:54

    Prop 30 is DOA. Support for Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax hikes is a lot softer than it appears, and the reason may be that his main selling point – that a no vote means a $5 billion cut to education – lacks the punch it once packed.

    The most recent poll by Policy Analysis for California Education and the University of Southern California showed that 55 percent of voters surveyed supported Brown’s call for a quarter-cent sales tax hike, plus an income-tax increase for individuals making more than $250,000 and couples topping $500,000.

    However, when the 1,041 respondents were told the three arguments that tax opponents are likely to make – that the Legislature just “voted to spend billions on a high-speed rail to nowhere, raised salaries for their senior staff and just found millions of dollars in unspent funds” in the Parks Department – support dropped to 49 percent.

    And here’s the twist – education, which Brown portrays as the tax hike’s main beneficiary, now comes in fifth on the list of voters’ concerns – behind the economy, jobs, the state budget deficit and ending “wasteful government spending.”

    Reply this comment
  7. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 27 August, 2012, 11:54

    Beezy’s demise was truly unfortunate. He is missed.

    The habitual striking out against dutifully elected representatives leads to the Scarlett Letter for fringe players

    Reply this comment
  8. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 27 August, 2012, 13:13

    CWD needs to bring Beelz back 😉

    Reply this comment
  9. Edward Steele, Chief Investigator
    Edward Steele, Chief Investigator 27 August, 2012, 13:39

    Rex the Poodle— Looks like you got the old boot over there at Cal Pensions! Oh my!

    Reply this comment
  10. BobA
    BobA 27 August, 2012, 16:14

    Newsflash to everyone:

    We, Joan & Jane Q public, deserve to get screwed by the politicians, public employees and the special interest groups that line up to stuff their face in the public trough.

    Nothing, absolutely nothing is going to change anytime soon until people stop voting along party lines and start paying attention and considering the consequences of who and what they’re voting for.

    As far as I’m concerned, the difference between the 2 major parties is the difference between who kisses you before you get screwed and who kisses you after you’ve been screwed. Either way, we’re still getting screwed and the political hacks are pimping out the tax payers to the highest bidders like cheap 5 dollar whores.

    I don’t know about anyone else but I don’t want to be kissed and screwed by politicians, public employees, special interest groups or anyone else.

    Isn’t it time we, John & jane Q public, told the politicians to kiss our asses and go screw themselves? Until we do, they’ll keep screwing us until we’re all broke, homeless and hopeless while they and their friends laugh themselves all the way to the bank –with our money.

    Reply this comment
  11. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 27 August, 2012, 16:27

    LOL….Teddy, looks like YOU got the boot over there at Calpensions, I just POSTED!, I sure didn’t see any of YOUR comments tho 😉

    Dont worry lil buddy, Ed will let you back on once you learn how to behave yourself.

    Reply this comment
  12. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 27 August, 2012, 17:49

    Whst is this calpensions about? Maybe I can help out!

    Reply this comment
  13. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 27 August, 2012, 18:28

    Teddy, Ed banned you at CP 🙂

    Reply this comment
  14. NTHEOC
    NTHEOC 27 August, 2012, 20:17

    Hondo says:
    In Wisconsin the republicans took over a 3.6 billion dollar deficit from the Dems who controlled all three branches in the state. The Republicans took over and balanced the budget without tax increases and lowered the unemployment rate
    Wrong again Hondo!! The GED educated,tea party puppet gov,AKA Scott walker did just what the Koch bros and the other string pullers that got him elected guided him to do. And that is Give huge tax breaks to big business and change law and regulations to fit their needs that in return created giant budget deficits!! So then it was easy to go blame the teachers and other public employees for these deficits and just balance the budgets on their backs!

    Reply this comment
  15. Ted Steele, Janitor
    Ted Steele, Janitor 27 August, 2012, 20:36

    LOL Hmmmm Poodle—- not seeing you up at CP LOL Join beezyboob on the scrap heap!!


    As our former Commander in Chief said……MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

    Reply this comment
  16. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 27 August, 2012, 22:41

    Teddy-I had Ed ban you at Calpensions. Ed said you’re a pain in the a**!

    Reply this comment
  17. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 27 August, 2012, 22:41

    Oh, and Ed banned your sock puppets too!

    Reply this comment
  18. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 27 August, 2012, 23:27

    What is this site……wsnt in. Podt the site please.

    Reply this comment
  19. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 28 August, 2012, 00:10

    Teddy, youre banned there.

    Reply this comment
  20. Ted Steele, Janitor
    Ted Steele, Janitor 28 August, 2012, 06:51

    LOL—-ah ha—– U haul and Queeg– be my guest over at Cal Pensions— you’ll enjoy it since I booted the rif raf

    Reply this comment
  21. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 28 August, 2012, 10:46

    LOL..when they do an IP ban Teddy- your gimmick accounts get banned too 🙂

    Reply this comment

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