Ending the employees vs. services battle

Today's topic: Is there another way to save money on public services besides cutting workers' pay or reducing availability?

Let the private sector provide some services
Point: Jon Coupal

Can we provide government services more economically to taxpayers? Absolutely! Can we do this without cutting government employees pay? The answer to that will be determined by whether or not the government employee unions are willing to be flexible.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown -- who knows a thing or two about collective bargaining and government employee unions -- explained why, as mayor of Oakland, he opposed unionizing charter schools: "As we all learned from the sorry experience of state-sanctioned bureaucracies in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, decentralization is crucial to both freedom and excellence."

Many state services could be provided as well or better than they are now and at lower cost. For example, California spends about $45,000 per year on each prison inmate. This is the highest expenditure of the 10 most populous states, whose average is just over $27,000.

In his column Monday, the Sacramento Bee's Dan Walters summed it up this way: "It's a case study in political dysfunction, with penal policies being made in a highly charged atmosphere, with the union representing prison guards wielding way too much influence over those policies, as well as their own compensation, and with politicians' pandering to the union and public emotion rather than doing their jobs."

While he was mayor of Indianapolis, Stephen Goldsmith cut the cost of providing services by using his Yellow Pages test. If a service could be found in the Yellow Pages, he favored government buying or hiring it rather than producing it. This is consistent with former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's quote: "It is not a government's obligation to provide services, but to see that they are provided."

With California's high cost to incarcerate prisoners, it will probably not surprise many to learn that to protect the public-employee-union monopoly, California bars contracting out for incarceration services to the private sector.

This is a story that repeats itself throughout state government. Though law enforcement and oversight of sensitive programs should remain in the hands of government employees, most state services could be privatized at a considerable cost savings (does anyone really feel that the DMV provides courteous and efficient service?). Those who have doubts should visit the Reason Foundation's website,, where they will find a wealth of ideas on cost cutting while maintaining high-quality services.

As for the government employees, they too should be allowed to bid on providing services. Those who win a contract will have an incentive to provide good, efficient and economical service, because the result could be even higher pay for those state workers.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

Unions have already made sacrifices
Counterpoint: John Tanner

Jon, you and I agree on this one. Government has to get smarter and more accountable to the public. As President Obama said in his inaugural address, "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works. ... Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."

Unfortunately, accountability isn't driving the state budget process. It's a free-for-all hack-a-thon.

California is ranked 44th in public employees per resident, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Consequently, we have overcrowded classrooms, courtrooms and hospital emergency rooms. At the same time, our spending on prisons is out of whack. So we have to get our priorities straight, and that starts with real leadership.

Right now, we can't afford to waste a penny. Here are a few things we should be doing:

* Look closely at government contracts for waste. Research by the Service Employees International Union on state contracts shows the government needlessly pushes as much as $34.7 billion out the door every year on contracts. The SEIU's research led the governor last month to trim vendor contracts by 15% and cancel unfilled contracts that were an open invitation for departments to overspend. Potential savings are in the billions.

Some contracts make sense, but we need transparent reporting and effective oversight. When you expand contracting without adequate oversight, it's a recipe for disaster. Our most shameful example is government's and contractors' failure to respond to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

* Ensure contractors prove, not just promise, cost savings. Public employees have economies of scale and can be even more effective than private business. The city of Los Angeles has a strong record of this. When Mayor Richard Riordan came into office in 1993, his first move was to try to privatize trash pickup and custodial services. There's a moral argument to paying a living wage. But there's also the bottom line: Our members showed they could be more cost-effective than private companies. We pioneered automated pickup and modern cleaning techniques. Today, the city diverts more than 60% of the city's trash from landfills, and two-thirds of the city's trucks run on alternative fuels.

* Implement the best ideas for efficiency. Public employees are ready to support the best ideas to make government more efficient, no matter where they come from. And we've come up with some of our own. (I don't just mean printing more double-sided copies and turning our thermostats down.) These include alternative work schedules that cut commuter pollution and costs. SEIU Local 721 supports police hiring in Los Angeles, where fewer than 10,000 officers patrol a city of nearly 4 million people. And we've proposed shifting duties to civilian staff to save millions of dollars every year.

Public employees have already made the kinds of "shared sacrifices" that the governor likes to talk about, including deferring pay and taking furloughs. Here in Los Angeles, city workers are going to start voting on an agreement that freezes salaries and eliminates 2,400 jobs through early retirements. That's going to mean pain for working families, but it's also going to keep our city working without a tidal wave of layoffs.

But if this discussion starts and ends with cutting services, then we've failed to address the real issues. We won't make the kinds of changes that our state and economy need to thrive.

John Tanner is executive director of SEIU Local 721, which represents more than 80,000 public-sector employees across Southern California.