Imagine for a moment that two premises are beyond serious debate: (1) That there will be another financial crisis within the next five years that will equal or exceed the severity of the one experienced in 2009, and (2) That the political power of public safety unions will prevent local governments from enacting pension reforms sufficient to avert a financial disaster when and if the next financial crisis hits.
What will these public safety unions do?
It’s distressingly easy for politicians to dismiss both of these premises, but since for the moment we’re not, imagine the following: Major European banks have declared insolvency because their debtors have all defaulted on payments, the Chinese stock market has collapsed because their export markets are shrinking instead of growing, and the deflationary contagion reaches American shores. Across the nation, speculative buying is replaced by panic selling. Housing prices fall, defaults accumulate, and the pension funds lose half their value overnight. In a cascading cycle reminiscent of 1929, deflation sweeps the global economy.
Meanwhile, pension reform has been limited to incremental adjustments to the pension benefits for new employees. Millions of retirees and active public safety workers still expect pensions that are roughly equivalent to the amount they made at the peak of their careers. But the money won’t be there.
How will public safety unions use their political power to address this challenge?
If the present is any indication, the solutions won’t be pretty. In San Jose and San Diego, public safety unions lead the charge to roll back local pension reforms enacted by voters. In counties across California, public safety unions lead the charge to undermine in court the reforms enacted by the State Legislature in the Public Employee Retirement Act of 2014. That’s all fine while the economic bubble continues to inflate. But what do we do when it pops? What do we do when there’s no money?
When challenging public safety unions to exercise their political power to advocate on issues other than law and order or their own compensation and benefits, a reasonable response is that public safety unions, like any government union, shouldn’t be involved in politics. The problem with that response is that they already are. Government unions, and their partners in the financial community, are a major cause of the economic bubble we’re experiencing. Their insatiable appetite for high returns, 7% or more, compels the financial engineering that creates unsustainable economic growth. When the crash comes, government unions will blame “Wall Street.” But in reality, they will share the blame, because they didn’t want to admit that their pension benefits relied on unsustainable rates of economic growth.
If there is another economic crash, public safety unions will face a choice. They can use their political power to strip away every remaining service that local government performs that isn’t related to public safety, raise taxes, and support “fees” on everything from green lawns to vehicle miles driven. They can support the creation of an authoritarian, oppressive state, raising revenue through rationing and regulating our water, energy, land use, home improvement, etc., at levels that make today’s annoying excesses seem trivial. They can hide behind environmentalism and egalitarianism to tax the last bits of vitality and freedom out of ordinary productive citizens. They can even hide behind faux libertarian ethics to charge exorbitant fees for rescue services, or profit from draconian applications of asset forfeiture laws. If they do this, it may be enough for them. But the price on society will be hideous.
There is an alternative.
Public safety unions can recognize that sustainable economic growth occurs when people have fewer impediments to running their private businesses. They can recognize that large corporations use regulations to eliminate their smaller competitors, and that excessive regulations of land, energy and water are the reasons that California has such a high cost of living. They can recognize that competitive resource development and cost-effective infrastructure development can only be achieved when the environmentalist lobby and their allies – the corporate and financial elites – are confronted and forced to accept less crippling restrictions.
Better yet, public safety unions can begin to recognize these political precepts NOW, before the financial apocalypse. Along with hopefully accepting more pension reforms instead of always fighting them, these unions can also protect their members’ futures by fighting for economic reform and more rational environmentalist restrictions. The sooner these reforms are adopted at the state and local level, the more resilient our economy will be when the economic implosion occurs. If pension benefit cuts are inevitable, because the money isn’t there anymore, with economic and environmentalist reforms the cost-of-living will also be cut.
America’s excessive public employee pension benefits have created a four trillion dollar monster, pension funds ravaging the world in search of high returns during the late stages of a credit expansion that has granted present growth at the expense of future growth. The day of reckoning is coming. Public safety unions can help prepare, for their own sake as well as for the sake of the citizens they are sworn to protect.
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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.
Everyone supports public safety, but conservatives are a special case. In modern times, it was conservatives, reacting against the rebellious sixties and the lawless seventies, who supported law enforcement when it was fashionable for liberals to see them as pawns of a discredited establishment. It was also during the 1960’s and ’70’s that we saw public safety unions acquire far more political power and influence, a rise fueled in part by an entirely justifiable resentment they felt at how they were treated by the media and in popular culture.
It’s a different world now. The riots of the sixties and the crime waves of the seventies have been replaced by new threats. Now we have global terrorist groups with access to new technologies that can unleash destruction at a scale unimaginable a generation ago. We have organized crime of unprecedented sophistication; drug cartels, cyber criminals, modern-day slavery networks. The United States, statistically, is a safer place than it’s ever been, but it doesn’t feel that way, and continual reminders at home and abroad reinforce these feelings of insecurity.
Conservatives have traditionally focused on prioritizing law and order for good reasons. They understand that when crime directly affects an individual, often with tragic consequences, all the statistics that prove we are safer than ever become meaningless. Conservatives understand this without having to necessarily have personally experienced the trauma of crime or conflagration. Their empathy, powerful and enduring, extends both to the victims who need protection, and to those individuals who risk their lives to perform jobs in public safety.
Along with supporting law and order, however, conservatives also cherish the values of financial sustainability and organizational efficiency. Moreover, conservatives are as zealous as conscientious liberals when it comes to supporting individual rights and fighting corruption. And for these reasons, while conservatives may support the institutions of public safety and the individuals who work in public safety, they can find themselves objecting to the power and influence of the unions that represent public safety.
The challenge facing conservatives who support public safety comes down to this: The unions that represent police and firefighters have the same problematic essence as every other union representing government workers. They use massive amounts of taxpayer-sourced money – more than $1.0 billion in dues collected each year by state and local government unions just in California – to elect the politicians who they then “negotiate” with. There are no natural checks on how much they can ask for in pay and benefits, because unlike unions in the private sector, they don’t work for organizations that have to earn a precarious profit by convincing consumers to voluntarily buy their product in a competitive market. They are a monopoly. And, of course, they can use government itself to intimidate their critics, especially business interests who might otherwise oppose their agenda.
It’s hard to do, but conservatives who want to get taxes and spending under control in the cities and counties where they live are going to have to differentiate between their respect for men and women in uniform, and the agenda of the unions who represent them. They will have to confront a fundamental union premise, that pay and benefits must always rise, and can never fall to reflect economic realities and other service priorities.
If conservatives want to fight corruption, they are going to have to stand up to the unions who make it difficult if not impossible to discipline or fire that small minority of public safety employees – inevitably found in any large organization of any kind – who are criminals or incompetents.
And if conservatives want to slow the growth of government and the growth of burdensome regulations that have made California among the most difficult states in America to run a business or afford a home, they have to recognize that more laws means more law enforcement – for things that go well beyond public safety, yet represent more power and influence for public safety unions.
For their part, members of public safety unions, and their leadership, might try to remember that the issues where some conservatives may disagree with the union agenda are not as significant as the issues where they agree. And they might acknowledge that opposition to parts of their political agenda, or calls to restrict the bargaining scope of their union, or even calls to abolish their union altogether, do not signify a lack of respect, support or empathy for the men and women of law enforcement.
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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.
San Jose City Council Capitulates to Police Union Power, August 18, 2015
Can Unionized Police Be Held Accountable for Misconduct?, June 23, 2015
Pension Reformers are not “The Enemy” of Public Safety, April 20, 2015
Police Unions in America, December 9, 2014
How Much Does Professionalism Cost?, March 11, 2014
Conservative Politicians and Public Safety Unions, May 13, 2014
Itching to get rid of your crummy boss? Consider employing a private eye to tail him, tag his car with a GPS tracking device, and then attempt to nail him for drunken driving. If the mood strikes you, follow him to Las Vegas, or sic a voluptuous woman on him in a bar and secretly tape it.
Too bare-knuckled for your taste?
It wasn’t for one police union in Costa Mesa, Calif., when a contingent of council members there pushed to reform the city’s pension system and outsource some city services to the private sector.
New documents released by county prosecutors reveal that in the lead-up to the city’s 2012 mayoral election, the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association pulled out all the stops, deploying investigators at the law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir to conduct “candidate research” against their political foes.
Needless to say, candidate research appears to have more to do with guerilla tactics intended to eliminate a target than poring over microfiche. Two private investigators employed at the law firm were arrested and charged earlier this month for their role in the 2012 events. Costa Mesa’s mayor (a council member at the time), his wife, and a second council member have filed a civil suit.
The police union has fired the law firm and claims the union had no role in directing the misdoings, but according to an affidavit filed by the Orange County district attorney, the two investigators, former police officers themselves, were carrying out services for the union at the time the alleged crimes occurred.
E-mail records unearthed in the civil and criminal investigations trace months of back-and-forth between union members on creative ways to solve their council problem, eventually leading to the decision to increase union dues in order to triple the retainer the union was paying Lackie for the aforementioned research.
In one particularly rich exchange, a union board member, a rank-and-file cop himself, wrote it was “time to expose [the] buffoonery and paranoia” of the then-mayor, who had remarked that he was receiving “stink eye” from officers while out on the campaign trail for another council member, the same candidate about whom the union’s private investigators later made a false DUI report. (Sounds as if the paranoia was justified.)
This might be reminiscent of a Hollywood plotline, but there are signs it may also be business as usual for police unions throughout the country. That now-defunct law firm employed by the Costa Mesa union was hardly a rare rogue outfit; nor were the two investigators, now fighting multiple felony charges, employees who had gone off the reservation. In its prime, the firm represented more than 100 law-enforcement associations in California and made no effort to hide its rough-and-tumble approach.
As detailed in a handy “playbook” on the firm’s former website, policeattorney.com (the site is now “under construction”), in order to be effective, a police union “should be like a quiet giant in the position of ‘do as I ask and don’t piss me off.’” Elsewhere, the firm advised clients encountering political opposition from elected officials or high-level bureaucrats to “focus on an individual . . . and keep the pressure up until that person assures you his loyalty and then move on to the next victim.”
I recently wrote about an episode in Phoenix, similarly uncovered during discovery in a civil lawsuit against the police union there. Dismayed by a new uniform policy implemented by the police chief, union officials likewise plotted over e-mail to hire a private investigator to trail the chief and “break it off in his a**” if he were found to be meeting with rival unions.
Incidentally, the Phoenix police chief was fired by the city manager last week after he broke his silence and held a press conference in which he blasted the police union for its negative influence on city politics.
In both Costa Mesa and Phoenix, details of these sordid activities of police unions have come to light only because of the subpoena power afforded to parties in civil and criminal proceedings. Outside these rare contexts, police unions are able to operate with absolutely no transparency because they are classified as private entities not subject to public-records laws.
This is troubling when we consider that police unions are associations made up entirely of public employees for the express purpose of advocating on various employment matters. They command an outsize influence in the area of policymaking, sometimes even securing contract provisions in which they have veto power over changes in department policy. They win contracts in which union operations — including lobbying, electioneering, or soliciting grievances against public employers — are almost wholly subsidized by taxpayers. And in states such as California, where right-to-work laws don’t exist, police unions have an assured stream of revenue for budget items like “candidate research” by virtue of all officers’ compelled dues from their paychecks.
Even though their might is made possible only by the abundance of taxpayer coffers, these groups are not subject to any transparency requirements whatsoever, which is how we arrive at episodes like that of Costa Mesa.
Without demands for increased scrutiny of police unions, whether by mandating transparency in negotiations, requiring police officers to account for their union activity while on the taxpayer dime, or other related reforms, the ability for these groups to engage in unsavory activity — and get away with it — will only grow.
When, unbeknownst to us, the very groups we’ve entrusted to protect us from law-breakers become the law-breakers themselves, we’re in serious trouble.
Lucy Morrow Caldwell is vice president of client relations for High Road Stories, a holistic marketing campaign firm focused on free-market causes. She was formerly senior political advisor to the Goldwater Institute. This article originally appeared in National Review Online and is republished here with permission.
The first thing we have to understand is that without the law, we have nothing. It turns into a situation of savage against barbarian, of the powerful against the powerless. It turns into a situation of dog eat dog, unrestricted, without restraints or consideration of anybody’s humanity.
– Dr. Harry Edwards, POPSspot Sports Radio Interview, August 22, 2014
Police union spokespersons often suggest that media coverage of police actions is invariably negative. Where are the reporters when a cop performs a good deed? Whether or not the media is truly biased against members of law enforcement is debatable, of course, but as noted sociologist Harry Edwards points out, “without the law, we have nothing.” Given the penchant for many professional social commentators and activists to jump onto the latest anti-police brutality bandwagon with unequivocal pronouncements, Dr. Edwards’ measured response is helpful.
There are a lot of reasons that common criticisms of law enforcement are simplistic at best, if not unfounded. Those concerned about the militarization of law enforcement might have a different opinion if they were to contemplate a situation where armed gangs had no superior force to deter them. In a nation that is armed to the teeth, a nation where with a few permits, almost anyone can own a semi-automatic high-powered rifle or a .50 caliber sniper’s rifle, it is naive to think that law enforcement is not going to require bigger guns and thicker armor. Because without the law, we have nothing.
Similarly, while criticism of law enforcement rates of pay is a valid part of a difficult, necessary discussion regarding financial sustainability and economic fairness, it should not be waged out of context. And the context is this: We have higher expectations of law enforcement than ever before in history, and overall they have delivered on that expectation, with crime rates at all time lows in the United States. At the same time, crime itself has become far more sophisticated, with the necessity today for law enforcement to contend with cyber criminals, global terrorists, and drug cartels with almost limitless sources of cash. Finally, we value life more than ever; we value personal security more than ever. For all these reasons, law enforcement requires highly trained, sophisticated personnel who are also willing to risk their lives. As a result, the premium that society should pay law enforcement is higher than ever, and it should be.
If you want to criticize the critics of law enforcement, examples abound. For example, it is true that the actual statistics relating to law enforcement indicate it is far safer than many other dangerous professions. There are about a million sworn police officers in the United States, and on average each year about 100 of them die in the line of duty. This death rate, about 10 per 100,000, is significantly less than the death rate for many professions including roofing, fishing, logging, mining; even liquor store clerks have a higher on-the-job death rate than police officers. But this misses the point for two reasons.
First of all, members of these other professions aren’t standing between the average citizen and, as Dr. Edwards puts it, “a savage, barbarian, dog-eat-dog situation of the powerful against the powerless.” Even more significant, while statistically, police do not have nearly the riskiest jobs out there, they live with the knowledge that at any moment, a catastrophe that dwarfs the average mishap could befall them during their shift. Another 911 terrorist attack, or natural conflagration, or industrial accident that spirals out of control could, in one awful moment, take down hundreds of them who are standing their ground, protecting society. As they say in investment finance, “past results are no indicator of future performance.”
Critics of law enforcement also point out, as they should, that technology now enables the surveillance state, that members of law enforcement now have unprecedented ability to look into our private lives. While this is true, and a valid concern worthy of vigorous debate, it is again necessary to ask: Who will enforce the law, if only criminals – including criminal regimes – have the ability to hack? In past centuries, a lone madman might kill dozens, at most hundreds of people with their diabolical schemes. We now live in an age of asymmetry, where one mad scientist can conjure up a weapon capable of killing thousands, if not millions. In such an age, privacy is not only less feasible, it’s less important.
Which brings us to the issue of police brutality, police killings of unarmed citizens. This issue isn’t going to go away, because just as the lives of police officers are valued now more than ever, so are everyone else’s lives. It is worth pointing out that because police must react to situations, meaning that an aggressive citizen bent on doing harm always has the element of surprise, there will be mistakes made by police, in accordance with their training, that have fatal, tragic consequences. Nonetheless, many training protocols must change in order to reduce incidences of brutality and needless killing, and some police are indeed bad apples. What else can we do to prevent tragic, obviously avoidable deaths at the hands of improperly trained or genuinely malicious police officers? Notwithstanding more recent examples, how do we prevent another death like that of Kelly Thomas, an unarmed, mentally ill homeless man who in 2011 was beaten to death by six police officers in Fullerton, California, because, in a panic, he attempted to flee? Why weren’t any of these officers convicted of wrongdoing? Why couldn’t these officers simply hit Thomas in the legs with their batons, rendering him unable to flee? Why did they have to hit him repeatedly in the head? Who defends training protocols that permit police to perform what, in the opinion of many who watched the video, was a cold blooded, sadistic murder?
And here is where the question of police unions comes into play. Because police unions, like teachers unions, are using far too much of their substantial influence to protect bad apples. Police unions also play an overly aggressive role in negotiating pay, and, especially, benefit packages for police officers that are simply not affordable, no matter how much they might actually deserve them. Police unions, along with firefighter unions and other local public employee unions, exercise far too much influence on elected politicians who are dependent on them for campaign support.
Reform is inevitable, both in terms of requiring police to wear body cameras, and in terms of downsizing their defined benefit formulas so their pension funds can remain solvent. The march of technology, the power of activist citizens, and unavoidable financial realities guarantee these reforms will occur. The real question is at what point will America’s citizenry recognize that public sector unions – most definitely including public safety unions – are fighting to protect their power and privilege at the expense of human rights and taxpayer rights?
President Kennedy once said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Here in America, we are all Kelly Thomas. If this homeless, marginalized individual can be brutally killed by police officers merely for the crime of attempting to flee when he was in fear for his life, then none of us are safe. There is law in such a nation, but there is no humanity.
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How Police Unions and Arbitrators Keep Abusive Cops on the Street, Atlantic Monthly, December 2014
Conservative Politicians and Public Safety Unions, May 13, 2014
How Much Does Professionalism Cost?, March 11, 2014 (The Kelly Thomas Story)
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There’s a deep seated frustration and anger among the rank and file due to their low pay.
Det. Tyler Izen – President, Los Angeles Police Protective League, July 28, 2014, KTLA Channel 5
Low pay, of course, is relative. It’s very difficult to objectively determine what a police officer should be paid. There aren’t jobs in the private sector that are easily compared to police work. As a result, police officers typically compare how much they are making in their city to how much other cities are paying their police officers. The problem is no city wants to pay the lowest rates, which creates endless rounds of wage and benefit increases. But a city as big as Los Angeles doesn’t have the option of matching what a much wealthier, much smaller city may pay. Too many billions are involved.
Despite the difficulty in determining what may be a fair rate of pay and benefits for police officers, this very sensitive debate has to be waged. Because without debate, there can be no limit – how do you put a price on safety and security? How do you put a price on enduring the stress and the dangers that come with police work? You can’t. In that context, a fair wage will always be far more than any public institution can possibly afford.
Calculating Average Total Compensation for LAPD Officers
So how much do Los Angeles police officers make? This information is not easily found. Every year California’s cities are required to report to the state controller the individual pay and benefits for all of their employees. The most recent 2012 raw data for cities can be downloaded here. The information can be sorted by city, then by department. Within police departments, by sorting records by the reported pension benefit formulas, sworn officers can be differentiated from administrative police personnel. There is even sufficient data to eliminate records for officers who have not worked the full 12 months in the year being analyzed. Using all of these techniques, we were able to determine that the average LAPD pay and benefits during 2012 for full time sworn officers was $110,285. But the state controller’s numbers are grossly understated because they don’t include how much the City of Los Angeles paid for retiree health benefits or retiree pensions. This adds a significant amount to their actual total pay. Funding these benefits are part of any employee’s total compensation package.
How can that information be obtained for Los Angeles police?
If you review the Actuarial Valuation and Review Of Retirement and Other Postemployment Benefits as of June 30, 2013, performed by Segal Consulting Group for the City of Los Angeles Fire and Police Protection Plan, there is some pretty good information available. Exhibit B in the beginning of the document shows the retirement fund contribution rates as a percent of eligible payroll. The pension contribution last year was 37.82% of base pay, and the retirement health care contribution was 11.69% of base pay. An expert at the LAFPP office confirmed that these percentages exclusively represent the employer contribution and do not include amounts withheld from employee paychecks which are also contributed to their retirement funds. Therefore, the total of those percentages, 49.51%, can be applied to to the average LAPD base salary of $94,660 and apportioned per employee to accurately represent, on average, how much they are making in retirement benefits. As it is, that equates to $59,491 per year – meaning that the average total compensation for LAPD officers is actually $157,151.
LAPD Retirement Payments Affected by Investment Returns
It doesn’t end there, however. If the LAPD retirement systems fail to achieve forecast investment results, the amounts currently being paid by the employer – already nearly 50% of base pay – will have to increase. According to the Segal Report (Exhibit III, page 59), as of 6/30/2013 there were assets of $14.6 billion set aside for retirement pension liabilities estimated – using a discount rate of 7.75% – to have a present value of $17.6 billion, leaving a $2.6 billion unfunded liability. How confident can the LAFPP be that they will be able to grow a $14.6 billion fund at a rate of 7.75% per year? Using formulas provided for this purpose by Moody’s Investor Services, if you lower that annual projected earnings rate just a little, to a still very healthy 7.0%, the unfunded liability grows to $4.65 billion; at projected annual earnings of 6.2%, which represents the historical earnings rate of U.S. equities (including dividend reinvestment), the unfunded liability grows to $6.62 billion. And at the less risky 5.0% annual earnings rate of top grade corporate bonds, that liability grows to $10.1 billion.
In plain English – the unfunded liability for the LAPD pension fund could quadruple if the fund earns 5.0% per year instead of 7.75%. Just dropping the rate of earnings to 6.2% nearly triples the unfunded liability.
And it gets worse. The pension plan – officially analyzed at what some of us would consider to be a ridiculously optimistic annual 7.75% rate of return assumption, has a “funded ratio” of 83.2%. That should still alarm us, actually, because only 100% qualifies as fully funded, but 83.2% is a better ratio than most public employee pension funds out there. The other fund managed by LAFPP, however, for retirement health care, is only 38.5% funded (Segal Report, Valuation Results, Health Plan, page 4), although it is a much smaller fund – it’s officially recognized unfunded liability is “only” $1.6 billion.
There may be a lot of deep financial concepts and arguments in play here, but unfortunately, it’s not mere gibberish. There are real world consequences and tough decisions signified by these numbers. The city of Los Angeles is going to have to put more into these retirement funds then they already are, or they are going to have to cut benefits.
What Criteria: Comparable Pay, Affordable Pay, or Appropriate Pay?
If you look around Southern California it isn’t hard to find cities who pay their police officers more than LAPD. The California Policy Center compiled 2011 and 2012 data for a few cities in Orange County and here are some of the numbers they found for average annual total compensation for their police: Irvine, $168,336; Anaheim, $170.866; Costa Mesa, $181,709. One may reliably surmise that immediate neighbors such as the city of Beverly Hills also pay their police more than Los Angeles – and herein lies an irony that will justifiably grate on any officer of a large city like Los Angeles: The wealthy cities have less crime, but can afford to pay more to their police. But are the LAPD receiving low pay, or are the police in these other cities overpaid?
Moreover, there is a converse to this point – small cities cannot possibly absorb and employee thousands of police leaving because they want to earn more money.
Which returns us to the difficult question – is an average pay package of $157,151 really “low pay?” Beyond what rate of pay may be comparable or affordable, what is appropriate? Bear in mind the average LAPD overtime earned per officer, as reported in the 2012 data, was $1,691, which means that most LAPD officers are working the 4-10 or 3-12 shifts and not much more. According to an official summary of LAPD benefits, they also get 13 holidays, and three weeks vacation as rookies, which increases to 4.6 weeks after ten years. And for all those contributions to their retirement benefits, after 30 years work the average LAPD officer can expect to retire with a pension and health insurance package worth between $90K and $100K per year (ref. Evaluating Public Safety Pensions in California, CPC, April 2014).
One of the most significant reasons the City of Los Angeles faces financial challenges is because personnel costs – for all departments – increased year after year, thanks to the power of collective bargaining. But was this appropriate? During the lean years after the internet bubble popped, and again after the real estate bubble popped, people in the private sector felt lucky to have jobs. Meanwhile, in the public sector, year after year, annual cost-of-living adjustments kept being awarded. And even in cases where, finally, cost of living increases were suspended due to financial constraints, “step increases” and “longevity pay” and other annual pay hikes continued per labor agreements. Worse still, the pension funds and retirement health care funds, which appeared to be flush during the bubble years, have now revealed themselves to be in serious trouble. When comparing their pay to what other cities pay, LAPD officers, and all public employees, ought to also compare their rates of pay to what private citizens have experienced. Making $157,151 per year is a LOT of money in virtually any profession in America, including police work if you venture outside of California, New York, and a few other places where, arguably, public employee unions have taken over their local governments.
When confronting the continuous risk and inevitable tragedies that befall police officers, no amount of money will ever be enough. But the Los Angeles Police Protective League, and other public and private unions, should consider the deeper cause of middle class struggle, which is the artificially high cost of living in California. Despite well crafted arguments to the contrary, there is plenty of land and almost limitless conventional energy in California. And if the alfalfa farmers in the Mojave Desert were permitted to sell their water allotments to the LADWP, there wouldn’t be a residential water shortage even in this tough year. Taxes in California are among the highest in the nation, and taxes are driven primarily by public sector personnel costs, along with the costs for an unreformed welfare system that gives California the dubious distinction of having 12% of the nation’s population but 30% of its welfare recipients. Failed immigration policies further strain the system. Public employees could afford to make less, a lot less, and live better, if these needless hindrances to California’s prosperity were corrected.
Along with protecting one of the greatest cities in the world, and hopefully participating constructively in a tough debate over whether or not their compensation is appropriate and affordable – LA’s finest should consider the deeper roots of the economic hardships we share together, and how to engage on those fronts for the good of everyone.
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As reported by investigative journalist John Hrabe, conservative gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly has accepted money from public safety unions in his legislative campaigns. His support from unions wasn’t a momentary lapse in judgement. As cited in Hrabe’s reports, his past candidacies have also benefited from independent expenditure campaigns funded by public sector unions. To not report Donnelly’s actions here would be negligent. But Donnelly’s not alone.
An assembly candidate from Orange County, conservative Keith Curry, recently lost the endorsement of the conservative Orange County Lincoln Club for accepting a donation from the Orange County Firefighters Union. Apart from the Orange County Lincoln Club’s dramatic decision to hold Curry accountable, none of this is news. While public sector unions virtually control the Democratic party in California through campaign contributions and lobbying, public safety unions spread their money around to candidates from both parties.
The consequences of allowing labor unions to take over California’s cities and counties through political spending that dwarfs every other special interest should be obvious by now. Public sector unions are the brokers and enablers of other special interests – corporate, financial and environmentalist. In all cases, these special interests have an agenda to squelch competition and secure government favors. Public sector union power makes or breaks any candidate or policy agenda from any other source. The other special interests get the message, and play ball. The results are higher prices for consumers, higher costs on small businesses, and higher taxes for everyone. Meanwhile, large corporations and financial interests profit, and public sector union members get increased pay and benefits that effectively exempt them from these harmful effects.
Such abstractions are largely irrelevant to politicians who need money to run their campaigns. They know that rank and file conservatives love public safety employees because they do tough work, fighting crime and catastrophe, facing danger every day, serving and protecting the public. Of this, one can say without irony, what’s not to like? But public safety unions take advantage of the sentiments of loyalty and respect their members have earned from the public, and have used it to elevate their pay to unaffordable heights. Libertarians, of course, can also be manipulated by public safety unions. After all, who cares if nearly 100% of a city’s budget is for police and fire services, if those are the only “legitimate” services a local government ought to provide? But should a double standard apply? Should most public sector unions be opposed, while public safety unions get a pass?
The challenge for conservatives is two-fold. First, whatever money they don’t accept from public safety unions they will have to replace through contributions from somewhere else. But there is nothing available to them that comes anywhere close to the torrent of money that perennially flows from the pockets of taxpayers into the payroll departments of government agencies and then automatically transfers into the coffers of public sector unions. In California over $1.0 billion per year is collected by public sector unions – one third used explicitly for politics, two-thirds utilized for an inherently political agenda, negotiating how we manage our public institutions and compensate our public workers. Public sector unions play in every political contest because they can, and because every election, no matter how insignificant, directly affects their interests. Nobody else even comes close.
The other challenge for conservatives is equally daunting. How do you make the entirely legitimate but woefully awkward argument that you support public safety, even though you oppose public safety unions? How do you express your appreciation for the risks and sacrifices made by public safety employees, at the same time as you argue that their pay and benefits have grown to levels we can’t afford, and in many cases are inequitably high?
One way to make this argument – along with simply stating the above points – is to remind members of public safety that even without collective bargaining and unions, they will still have significant political influence. Totally voluntary associations of public safety employees can still collect dues and donations, voluntarily, from members, and they can still engage in political spending. But without collective bargaining, at least the politicians they help elect would not be bound by the strait-jackets of labor agreements that are wreaking financial havoc on nearly every city and county in California.
There remains the larger, more abstract but very compelling argument that Donnelly, Curry, Brulte, and every other conservative in California who engages with unions ought to articulate. Unions, especially public sector unions, negotiate over-market compensation at tremendous cost to everyone else. And the intrinsic agenda of public sector unions, bigger government, is compatible with the agenda of crony capitalists, financial opportunists, and environmentalist extremists with their army of plaintiff attorneys, but this agenda hurts everyone else.
There is another, higher path, which is to dissolve public sector unions altogether, so that government workers and private workers share the same fate. This will facilitate grassroots political activism undistorted by government union agenda. Activism that will force corporations to compete, force governments to live within their means, inspire debate over government entitlements that are financially sustainable and earned according to the same formulas by all workers, increase opportunities for small businesses, and lower the cost of living for everyone.
* * *
Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center
Public Pension Solvency Requires Asset Bubbles, April 29, 2014
Forming a Bipartisan Consensus for Public Sector Union Reform, January 28, 2014
A Policy Agenda for Union Reformers Stuck Inside Unions, November 5, 2013
Avoiding the Oversimplifications of ‘Right Wing’ vs. ‘Left Wing’, December 16, 2013
How Unions and Bankers Work Together to Protect Unsustainable Pensions, November 26, 2013
Should Police and Firefighters be Exempted from Union Reforms?, March 12, 2013
The Preexisting Political Advantage of Government Workers, November 27, 2012
Would ANY Public Sector Union Reform Appeal to California’s Democrats?, February 12, 2013
The Ideology of Public Sector Unions vs. Private Sector Unions, February 20, 2012
The Differences Between Public and Private Sector Unions, May 13, 2011
Part One: Tim Donnelly’s anti-union rhetoric doesn’t match his pro-union record:
Public employee unions are a reliable target of California’s self-styled “patriot, not politician.”
“California’s governor and legislature have shown a complete disregard for the needs of businesses and working families, and have instead caved to unions and special interest supporters,” Assemblyman Tim Donnelly writes on his campaign website.
Yet, much like his spotty record on property rights, Donnelly’s anti-union rhetoric doesn’t match up with his record, which includes financial support from and sponsored bills for the very public employee unions that he loves to hate.
Donnelly’s anti-union rhetoric
In January, the Republican lawmaker attacked Gov. Jerry Brown for “confiscating the earnings of hard-working Californians” to squander it on “political pay-offs to his cronies in the public sector unions.”
The solution to public sector unions, who in Donnelly’s words, get to “legally bribe your boss,” is “to change it so that unions can’t have a stranglehold on every dollar that comes in.”
Back in his first campaign for State Assembly, it was the union dollars coming into Donnelly’s campaign.
Public employee unions’ financial support for Donnelly’s campaigns
In 2010, Donnelly “was the first to get a big donation from any of the state’s law-enforcement unions,” according to the Pasadena Star-News. That donation was a $5,000 contribution from the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association.
It wasn’t the only time public employee unions have supported Donnelly. In 2012, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association Independent Expenditure Committee spent heavily to attack Donnelly’s Democratic opponent, John Coffey. According to the Victorville Daily Press, “the group mass-mailed fliers with personal attacks against Coffey including accusations of domestic violence and unpaid child support.”
What have law enforcement unions received in exchange for this support?
Donnelly’s union-sponsored bill: special gun rights for law enforcement
This session, Donnelly carried a sponsored bill on behalf of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 3969. According to UnionWorkers.com, “The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is the largest federal employee union representing federal and D.C. government workers nationwide and overseas.”
Donnelly’s bill grants law enforcement a special gun right, not offered to the general public. Assembly Bill 1985 “allows federal correctional officers to possess and use assault weapons and other specified firearms while off duty,” according to the legislative analysis.
“By exempting Federal Correction Officers, we will not only allow them to protect themselves but also allow them to protect the citizens of our communities that they have sworn to serve,” Donnelly argued in support of his bill.
The idea of providing special gun privileges not enjoyed by the general public is what many Second Amendment activists describe as a “cops-only” gun bill. In 2013, Wisconsin Carry, a gun rights group, cautioned that such special exemptions for law enforcement was “the path to tyranny.”
“Granting special privileges to off-duty and former cops that allows them to ignore FUNDAMENTAL private property rights and carry where law-abiding concealed carry license holders cannot is a path to tyranny,” the group warned.
Part Two: Donnelly aide working with unions against San Diego GOP candidates
A top aide to a Republican candidate for governor is working with public employee unions to defeat Republican candidates in local elections.
Asher Burke, who assists Assemblyman Tim Donnelly’s gubernatorial campaign with “social media and online creative,” is also a principal officer of Public Safety Advocates, a political campaign committee working to defeat Republican-endorsed candidates in San Diego County.
According to campaign reports filed with the County of San Diego Registrar of Voters, the campaign committee has accepted tens of thousands of dollars from public employee unions, including the Deputy Sheriffs Association of San Diego County, the San Diego Police Officers Association and the Peace Officers Research Association of California.
Those funds are going to support Bob Brewer, who is running for San Diego County District Attorney. The Republican Party of San Diego County has endorsed Bonnie Dumanis, the incumbent, who has been outspent by Brewer.
“County records show Brewer also outraised Dumanis in the first six months of this year, bringing in more than $281,000,” the Voice of San Diego reported on the competitive race. “Dumanis received about $213,300 during the same period.”
Brewer, a first-time candidate, has received support from “11 police unions – including, most recently, the statewide California Coalition of Law Enforcement Associations,” according to the Voice of San Diego.
Union-funded Public Safety Advocates attack GOP candidates
Burke said the campaign committee welcomes the support of police and fire unions.
“Public Safety Advocates is a political expenditure committee for public safety organizations to support candidates they have determined will keep our local communities safer,” Burke said. “Almost every campaign, probably including Assemblyman Donnelly’s, would welcome the support of police and fire. If you were a candidate, wouldn’t you?”
John McCann Union MailerHe added, “As Jerry Brown continues to dump dangerous criminals on our streets, due to his early release boondoggle, I find my work with local groups like police and fire to be extremely important to maintaining the type of city and state I want to live in.”
In addition to backing the union candidate for district attorney, the campaign committee has spent money to attack John McCann, a candidate for Chula Vista City Council who has also been endorsed by the Republican Party of San Diego County.
A recent mailer distributed by the Public Safety Advocates campaign committee attacks John McCann as “the man who CAN’T.”
“John McCann is bad news for Chula Vista,” the mailer warns. “Tell McCann you CAN’T support his failed management and incompetence.” (A copy of the flyer is shown at the end of this article.)
Donnelly’s anti-union rhetoric
Burke’s work with public employee unions coincides with his work for Donnelly’s campaign for governor, which has repeatedly attacked the unions for excessive salaries and benefits. Writing in an open letter to Brown in 2011, Donnelly accused the governor of submitting new contract agreements that “protect the well-paid public employee unions, even at the cost of students, public safety, and jobs.”
According to state campaign finance records, Burke and his businesses, Burke Communications, Inc. and Campaign Services Group, Inc., have received $69,194 in payments from Donnelly’s gubernatorial campaign committee, of which $38,500 was for campaign consulting. It easily makes Burke one of the highest-paid employees of Donnelly’s low-budget campaign.
Donnelly’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. However, in the past, the GOP candidate has boasted that hard-core liberals also work on his campaign.
“I have hard-core liberal Democrats working on my campaign as well as libertarians,” Donnelly told the Redding Tea Party in September 2013.
About the Author: John Hrabe spends his time traveling the world as a freelance journalist. When he isn’t on an international flight, John writes about state and national politics for CalWatchdog.com, FlashReport.org, Huffington Post and the editorial pages of the Orange County Register. John’s most recent high-profile investigation uncovered the questionable labor practices of Goodwill Industries, the nonprofit organization famous for its secondhand clothing stores. These articles originally appeared on CalNewsroom.com (“Tim Donnelly’s anti-union rhetoric doesn’t match his pro-union record,” May 9, 2014, and “Donnelly aide working with unions against San Diego GOP candidates,” May 11, 2014), and are republished here with permission from the author.