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Peter Schrag: The Democrats' local unaccountability bill

The Sacramento Bee (Published June 9, 1999)

Among all the attempts to bring back some order to the governmental mess created by two decades of California initiatives, the most promising, and certainly the most visible, has been the Speaker's Commission on State and Local Government Finance.

The commission, which includes a wide spectrum of Californians -- state and local government officials, business executives, labor leaders, civic activists -- was formed earlier this year by Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa in an effort to restore some autonomy and accountability to local government and, in general, some order to a system of governance that's often dysfunctional and nearly always incomprehensible. Villaraigosa himself has spoken eloquently about the confusion and voter alienation that the California nonsystem has produced.

But last week the Democratic state Senate passed a bill, SB 402, that will inflict more damage on local control and accountability than the commission can reasonably expect to fix. In effect, SB 402 would take most of the bargaining power that local governments now have in setting the salaries of firefighters, police officers and thousands of other public safety employees, and hand it to outside arbitrators accountable to no one but themselves. Elected local officials, who have already been stripped of virtually all authority to raise revenue, would thus be stripped of a major part of the power to control spending as well.

One of the two chief sponsors of that bill is Senate President Pro Tem John Burton. The other is Villaraigosa himself.

Villaraigosa says it's a fairness issue for workers with tough jobs who are not allowed to strike -- a safety valve that "won't unduly burden local government." But the real explanation looks a lot simpler. When it comes to paying off political debts from big contributors and faithful supporters -- and for Democrats, none are bigger or more faithful than the public employee unions -- it's no contest. This, as the late Sen. Milton Marks once told a staffer, is about labor, not local government.

The bill covers a broad range of government employees, state and local -- firefighters, police officers, sheriff's deputies, parole officers, park rangers, correctional officers, school cops, the California Highway Patrol. In cases where their negotiations with state and local employers reach an impasse, each side would name an arbitrator. Together, they would name a third, presumably neutral, arbitrator who would have the power to impose a settlement based on the last best offer of one of the parties.

The arbitrator is supposed to consider a range of factors in making his decision, among them wages, hours and working conditions of similar workers elsewhere, the consumer price index, the availability of funds to pay for the settlement and the public interest. In theory that sounds even-handed; in practice, as one observer put it, arbitrators can only get work if they support unions half the time and management half the time. And since the prevailing wage somewhere else is almost always higher, the process ratchets up costs everywhere.

The easiest way to understand the issue is to see who's for this bill and who's against it: On one side virtually every state and local union of cops and firefighters; on the other, the California State Association of Counties, the California Police Chiefs Association, the California State Sheriffs Association, the California Fire Chiefs Association and the League of California Cities, as well as scores of individual cities, from Alameda to Whittier.

California's cops and firefighters are already among the best compensated in the country, and the state's spending for public safety one of the highest in the nation. But the stakes here go well beyond bread-and-butter issues. Although SB 402 would cover only "wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment," the last is an elastic term: There's no way to tell how far its impact will go. But it would almost certainly undercut the authority of police and fire chiefs to determine staffing and might eventually edge into issues of employee discipline as well.

More immediately, it would sharply reduce what little accountability local agencies -- cities, counties, special districts -- still have to manage their own affairs.

Even now, responsibility is often hard to assign; when money runs out and programs are cut, is it the fault of the local officials who overspend or does the blame belong to the politicians in Sacramento who fail to appropriate enough to cover mandated costs? It's that kind of buck-passing that Villaraigosa's commission is supposed to concern itself with. But if SB 402 hands control over a large part of the local budget to an arbitrator who's not even known to the voters, the opportunity for fiscal mischief and buck passing would be greater still.

Which brings the story to what's perhaps the most cynical part of this bill. The California Constitution requires the state to compensate local agencies for certain costs mandated by the state. To get around that requirement, which could potentially cost the state billions, the authors wrote into SB 402 a provision that would allow each local jurisdiction to seek voter approval to exempt itself from the requirements of the bill. That, in theory, makes binding arbitration optional and thus not a mandate. But since only the public employee unions have both the big bucks and the interest to engage themselves in such an election, the whole provision is a farce.

The proponents assert that the measure would foster labor peace among California's public safety employees. But what's most likely to be fostered is more dysfunctional government, and more voter cynicism and alienation. The bill still needs approval in the Assembly and the governor's signature; Villaraigosa says it's a work in progress that could still change, but it's hard to imagine how. What's the speaker's commission going to do with this little stink bomb?

Copyright (c) The Sacramento Bee

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