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Lambs to slaughter
We understand that the state’s union employees wouldn’t solve Oregon’s budget crisis even if they gave up their recent 4.75-percent pay raise.
But we’re also pretty sure that Oregonians will continue to be regularly bombarded with dire fiscal predictions so long as the officials who negotiate contracts with the unions go to the bargaining table rather like lambs to the slaughter.
The cycle is familiar and depressing.
Last week the state’s chief economist announced that Oregon’s budget hole, previously estimated at more than half a billion dollars, is $378 million deeper.
Almost simultaneously, the state boosted union workers’ pay by that 4.75 percent. That increase, which is part of the contracts state officials negotiated with the unions, will cost the state about $16 million just through the end of the biennium, June 30, 2011.
So much for those “we’re all in this together” speeches.
Union officials say their members have already sacrificed, going without pay hikes in some years and taking unpaid furlough days.
But any notion we might have to praise the unions for their selflessness dissolves when we see that 4.75-percent figure.
Thousands of private sector workers in Oregon have endured far greater deprivations during the recession.
Losing their jobs, for instance.
State government, meanwhile, added 300 jobs between April 2009 and April 2010, and about 3,000 since 2007.
Even as state officials complain about fewer dollars flowing into Salem’s coffers, they continue to spend tens of millions to give state workers pay raises and ensure those workers receive generous health insurance coverage for free.
We’ve been hearing for years that Oregon’s budget is not sustainable. The same stale cliches are trotted out — a train wreck’s coming, painful cuts are imminent.
Yet state workers still got a raise. And they still don’t pay a dime for their health insurance or for their required 6 percent contribution to their pension.
We’re perplexed. After all, about 75 percent of the state’s general fund dollars go to employees’ salaries and benefits.
It’s simply impossible for Oregon to bridge a billion-dollar budget gap if the unions don’t pony up a significant share of the planks.
We’re not so naive as to expect the unions to do so if they’re treated with kid gloves come collective bargaining time.
Nor, frankly, do we blame the unions. Their job is to get the best deal possible for their members. And the deals they’ve made have been quite lucrative for a lot of years.
When times were better, Oregon could afford those deals. Those times are past.
If union workers volunteered to pay half of their 6-percent PERS share, and to pay the same amount for health insurance as the average public school teacher ($187 per month), the state could save an estimated $124 million by June 30, 2011.
If they won’t, then the state, if the crisis is as severe as officials claim, should need to issue a whole lot of pink slips.
We can only hope they show more fortitude than they’ve demonstrated during contract talks.