Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has said his efforts to weaken the power of public sector unions are necessary to help the state and local governments there to work through severe budget shortfalls. But there is more to the story of why he and other Republican governors are going after the unions. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who did what Governor Walker is attempting and more six years ago, put it succinctly on Fox News Sunday: "As a general phenomenon, we have a situation where public sector unions get jillions of dollars in dues, which they hand back to the politicians who then sweeten the pot for them in an unending circle, and that's a bad idea."
He and other conservatives who have long made the case against public sector unions have a point. Tax dollars go to state workers and flow through their paycheck deductions to unions, which the unions use to donate to political campaigns for officials who then reward the workers with better pay and benefits — mostly benefits, eventually costing the taxpayers a lot more money. Most studies suggest that public sector workers don't make more than private sector workers with equivalent qualifications, but they do tend to get perks — notably defined benefit pension plans and lifetime health care — that are virtually unheard of in the private sector and which amount to trillions of dollars in liabilities for taxpayers. There is, indeed, something unhealthy about it.
What the unions' critics are less apt to point out is that all manner of other corporate special interests donate to campaigns for officials who then write tax and regulatory policy to the benefit of their donors, shifting more of the burden for paying for public services on individuals and widening an already gaping divide between the rich and everyone else. That, too, is an unhealthy circle.
So here's a suggestion: Rather than eviscerating the unions, why not just disrupt the part of the cycle by which they funnel money to political campaigns? And while we're at it, why not do the same for the corporate interests? If the problem is that unions (and others) are buying influence for their benefit, instead of the general public's, why not just cut off the money?
The Republican critics of unions haven't suggested any such thing because their concern is not so much that the cycle of union contributions creates bad policy but that it creates bad politics for the GOP. Unions, after all, donate overwhelmingly to Democratic candidates. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the three top outside spenders in support of Democrats in the 2010 congressional election were all unions, and two of them were public sector unions. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees spent $12.6 million, and the National Education Association spent $8.7 million.
However, the GOP has every reason to find a way to cut off the unions while keeping the current system of campaign finance in place. AFSCME and the NEA spent well less than the conservative-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which topped the list at nearly $33 million. Seven of the top 10 outside spenders favored Republicans last year. Republicans may like to blame state fiscal woes on greedy unions, but they seem less eager to tally up the value of tax breaks and regulatory decisions they make at the urging of their major donors; Governor Walker, for example, just signed more business tax breaks in January.
Legally, the Supreme Court has made it clear that campaign contributions are protected free speech, so absent a constitutional amendment, they can't be outlawed altogether. But we could make them a less important part of our political process by creating a system of public campaign financing. If Governor Walker or any of the other Republicans who are gunning for municipal unions really wanted to see government make decisions free of special interest influence, that is what they would propose. Anything else is just partisan maneuvering.