State workers need to pitch in

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board June 05, 2009 11:26 am

Please forgive our indulging in an overused nautical analogy, but as Oregon’s economy has been foundering these past several months, it seems to us that state workers have more than their share of reserved seats on the lifeboats.

For instance, according the Oregon Employment Department, private sector wages in the state rose an average of 2 percent in 2008.

Average wages for state employees, meanwhile, increased by 5.7 percent.

But the more egregious gap between the private sector and state government involves health insurance.

State workers have it, and to them it’s free.

Some private sector employees have insurance, but relatively few of them have their premiums fully paid.

And now the Legislature, at the behest of Gov. Ted Kulongoski, wants to widen the chasm between private and public benefits.

The mechanism is House Bill 2116.

The bill, which Kulongoski requested, would impose a 1 percent tax on the gross premiums that insurance companies collect.

The money would enroll an estimated 80,000 children, and as many as 100,000 adults, in the Oregon Health Plan (the state’s version of Medicaid).

Here’s our problem: Insurance premiums for private sector workers probably will continue to rise as they have for the past decade, and insurers almost certainly would pass on the 1 percent tax to their customers.

Yet Kulongoski refuses to push state employee unions to pay even a paltry portion of their premiums. And so long as the state continues to pick up the entire tab — an average of $12,800 per year per employee — HB 2116’s 1-percent tax won’t affect state workers.

This is reckless spending at any time, but it’s absolutely unconscionable when Oregon’s unemployment rate is near 12 percent, and the vast majority of the jobless were most recently working in the private sector.

We don’t fault the governor and the Legislature for trying to supply health insurance to Oregonians who are trying to ride out the economic storm.

But it’s long past time for state workers to join the private sector and pick up a baling bucket.