Do unions have too much influence in Sacramento?

Today's topic: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said part of the problem with fixing the state budget is balancing the interests of unions with those of the people, with uncompromising Democrats putting labor interests ahead of the people's. Is he correct? Are the governor and Republicans targeting public employee unions too much?

Exposing union dominance in Sacramento
Point: Jon Coupal

Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said that California needs to strike a balance between the interests of government employee unions and the interests of taxpayers. He'd better act fast because when the corpulent government unions take a seat on their end of the teeter-totter, the spindly taxpayers at the other end are catapulted into the air. A soft landing does not appear likely.

Let's take a closer look at the current imbalance between the interests of government employee unions and those of the taxpaying public.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, California public employees are the highest paid of those in all 50 states. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has rated California the most generous in pension benefits for its employees. These guaranteed pensions are costing taxpayers more each year. The current bill is $4.6 billion. In the private sector, to retire on an income comparable to that received by many former government workers, it would be necessary to have more than $2 million in the bank. And many of these former state employees are able to retire, with full benefits, while still young enough to pursue a second career.

While government employees prosper with secure jobs, high pay and lavish benefits, average taxpayers are struggling to hold on to jobs and homes and to look after their families. The state unemployment rate is at 11.5%, and home foreclosures are at record highs. State employment actually grew in 2008 over the previous year.

It is no overstatement to say that government unions own the majority party in the Legislature. Jerry Brown, who himself enabled a significant expansion of collective bargaining power while governor, acknowledged that no Democrat can get elected without union help. Even more chilling is the video taken just a few weeks ago of an Service Employees International Union representative issuing a threat to legislators. The threat itself -- "come November, we'll help get you out of office" -- is not surprising, as union thugs issue those threats on a daily basis. The only surprise this time was that the threat was issued publicly in an open session of a legislative committee.

Despite the economy and California's crushing tax burden, government employee unions push for even more taxes; one union is advocating more than $40 billion in new levies. Their agents in the Legislature who depend so heavily on union campaign contributions slavishly pursue the union agenda of higher taxes to guarantee job security and escalating compensation for their benefactors.

Taxpayers want to see public employees, many of whom do outstanding jobs, fairly compensated. The problem is that government employees do so much better than taxpayers, and government, as an agent of the unions, is demanding ever higher taxes to maintain this disparity.

If there is any silver lining to the current budget crisis, it is that union dominance over California politics is garnering a lot more public scrutiny. More and more is being written about the undue influence of government unions and the unrealistic compensation packages they are able to extract from state and local governments. This scrutiny is long overdue.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

We're trying to save crucial services, not ourselves
Counterpoint: John Tanner

In moments of great stress, people often fall back on old coping mechanisms. Our vision narrows, and we lash out at what's right in front of us. Instead of changing bad behavior, we dig in our heels.

California is in its deepest financial crisis of my lifetime, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and many other conservatives are going to their "safe" place: lashing out at government as the problem and pushing for deeper cuts when people are suffering now.

That's what your post attacking hardworking California families made me think about, Jon. You and the governor both say that the interests of union members and taxpayers are at odds. My experience in public service says the opposite. Californians understand that effective, efficient government services can make our lives better. They can actually save us money. And they are worth supporting. That's what Service Employees International Union members have been working for since the budget crisis struck last year.

Jon, just a few weeks ago, we were on the same side of the May 19 election. Our members made phone calls and talked to voters to oppose a package that included spending caps that didn't make sense.

Here's how we could work together again:

* Recognize that California public services are worth saving. Just today, the state said it may stop new enrollments in Healthy Families, the hugely successful healthcare plan that covers 1 million children. That means 350,000 children could lose coverage next year. Let's weigh the costs of that in kids' lives, family productivity and the expenses for our private and public hospitals. Last year, a public opinion survey commissioned by the SEIU state council showed that Californians value education and healthcare for the elderly and families and are willing to support those programs.

* Bravely face the cost of an all-cuts budget and the choices that we have to make. Everyone knows public services are going to get hit. But we can make smart choices, not just slash and burn. Here's an example: According to an analysis by the UC Berkeley Labor Center, 73% of the governor's cuts would come from services that help elderly Californians stay healthy and in their homes, and keep children and families out of expensive emergency rooms. Cutting these programs would boost unemployment and shred healthcare for 1.9 million people.

* Combine deep cuts with smart new revenue. Let's tax cigarettes, cut tax breaks for drug companies and wealthy corporations, and lose some loopholes. That's what SEIU members have been talking to legislators about since the budget crisis began last year. Click here to watch our ad about the need for both "sacrifice and common sense."

I spent a few minutes on the latimes.combudget calculator, so I know it's possible. Let's work together on this.

Just one more thing: That Republican attack ad against unions that you mentioned missed the mark. The woman identified as a "union bully" is actually a woman who counts on these programs to help care for her son, who has Down syndrome. She's angry, and she's scared. But she's speaking out for government that is accountable to families who need services. That's what we all should be doing. Let's talk more about that tomorrow.

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