Government Workers Will Pay

February 03, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.

GOVERNMENT WORKERS are taking it on the chin. They are being asked to forgo pay raises negotiated in prior years. Or accept furloughs. Or longer work days. Or reduced benefits. Or -- worst of all -- layoffs.

These workers are on the receiving end of the recession's body-blow to state and local governments.

After a decade of boom years, elected officials suddenly find tax revenues plunging but the cost of delivering social programs still rising. And because this isn't the Alice-in-Wonderland world of .. Washington, Maryland officials aren't allowed to pile deficit upon deficit. They've got to balance their books.

How?

The easiest way is to raise taxes. But not in a recession, and certainly not after voters resoundingly let politicians know they were fed up with this "tax and spend" philosophy.

Imposing a hiring freeze works well, but it takes a long time to create large-sized savings.

Ending programs can save large chunks of cash, but the vocal protests from vested interests make this difficult.

So after trimming back other expenses, officials are left with few options for curbing costs in a hurry except to take it out of the hides of the work force.

Dropping the normal cost-of-living raise for state workers saves $80 million. It is a simple step. No one is fired. No programs are curtailed. No one's pay is reduced. The state's 90,000 workers (regular, contractual and higher education) just won't get COLAs in 1991.

Government employees, quite naturally, don't look at it this way. They are being asked to sacrifice. They don't feel that's fair.

Who else is sacrificing? Surely not the governor, who stubbornly refuses to take a symbolic cut in his $120,000 pay. Only state workers are targeted.

They miss a key point. In the private sector, the bosses aren't so nice. Workers are being fired right and left. We're in a recession, and managers are taking a tough stance -- cut payroll expenses to make sure the company survives.

When Montgomery County's new executive, Neal Potter, suggested workers forgo COLA raises to help close a $180 million budget gap, the response from one union leader was, "The county isn't bankrupt. . . Don't balance the budget on the backs of our teachers, bus drivers, firefighters, police."

There is an air of unreality in this discussion. No one seems to believe the crisis is real.

In Montgomery, the employee unions may start to wake up if Mr. Potter is forced to fire 2,000 workers. Then they will regret their refusal to discuss salary give-backs or other concessions.

Worse news may lie ahead. If the Persian Gulf war persists and the recession deepens, the red ink will increase. State and county workers will be prime targets for future cuts.

What other options are there?

The Linowes commission report on tax reform offers an alternative -- but legislators are in a "no new taxes" mood. Another frequently mentioned move, "cut the fat out of government," usually translates into layoffs and benefit reductions and doesn't save much money.

So, officials return once more to the one sure way to cut costs and downsize government -- reduce the size of the labor force.

In troubled economic times, even government employees lack job security. There is no safety net. Nor is anyone in government service entitled to higher wages and benefits.

Instead, thousands of hard-working bureaucrats could end up in the unemployment lines. If they are lucky, they may only have to take a cut in pay or put in longer hours to make up for reduced staffing.

That is a bitter pill to swallow. Government workers so far seem to be denying that this is so. But it is.

The longer workers resist the efforts of elected officials to reduce overhead through wage and benefit concessions, the worse the deficit will grow -- and the more the pressure will build for officials to resort to massive layoffs.

The recession is for real. These huge government deficits are real, too.

Before this is over, we may have to get used to far larger class sizes in our schools, far fewer services for the poor and needy, less help from state and local agencies and more unanswered phone calls and longer lines for licenses and permits.

No longer in this state can we get something for nothing. If we're unwilling to increase taxes -- even marginally -- we will be forced in the months ahead to hand out pink slips and shut down programs.

No matter how this is done, government workers will be hit hard.

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