Thursday, July 17, 2009
IN MY OPINION (Column)
No Keeping Secrets From Taxpayers
By JON COUPAL
By any measure, California’s government employee unions have been overwhelmingly successful — in advancing their own interests.
Pay for government workers ranks first out of 50 states. They have no competition. Their political clout allows them to select most of their own supervisors, otherwise known as the members of the state Legislature. And much about what they do and how they are compensated is kept from the taxpayers — their theoretical bosses — who pay their salaries and for their benefits.
For the unions, the key to success is the ability to continue to keep taxpayers in the dark, but the light is beginning to shine through and the public who must pay the bills is beginning to catch on.
Some government employees will complain that they should not be subject to question because they work hard, have a lot of financial responsibilities and live in a state that has a high cost of living. Of course, this is true for the rest of us as well. Public employees who do not want to concede how desirable their jobs are — let’s not forget to take into consideration the rich benefits and lavish pensions — can take the following challenge: They can quit their jobs and then count the number of qualified applicants. In a declining economy with California unemployment nearing 12 percent, does anyone really doubt that most positions would draw long lines of applicants?
Yes, for the unions it is much better when most taxpayers remain unaware of just how well they are doing. This is why, for example, they have been resisting allowing the public to know how much some of the state’s top pension recipients are receiving at taxpayer expense.
The California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, a public pension watchdog group, has been documenting the number of former government employees receiving yearly pensions in excess of $100,000. While many government retirees receive less, so far, the Foundation has uncovered 5,115 who get $100,000 or more each year from CalPERS. However, there are a significant number of government employees whose pensions are paid from other retirement funds.
When the Foundation attempted to obtain similar pension information from Contra Costa County, a retired employee sued the county retirement board, claiming that releasing her pension amount was an invasion of privacy.
Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association attorney Tim Bittle argued for the Foundation, saying the public interest in knowing how public money is spent outweighs any embarrassment public employees might feel from the disclosure of their retirement benefits. Also supporting the release of the pension information were the Contra Costa Times, the Los Angeles Times and the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
The Superior Court judge ruled for the taxpaying public and ordered the records released, saying “transparent government is the cornerstone of our democracy.”
This is an object lesson the government employee unions would do well to heed. As upset as the public has become upon learning that they must work longer and harder to assure that those in government can retire earlier than most in the private sector and enjoy a secure retirement with pension benefits well beyond the average non-government worker, they become truly angry when they find there has been a effort to keep this information from them.