WASHINGTON -- America’s appetite for austerity in paychecks and benefits for government employees is spreading.
Voters signaled their agreement in elections this week, one in Wisconsin and two more in city elections in California. In Wisconsin, the solid decision by voters to keep Republican Gov. Scott Walker in office after a tough recall drive appeared to politically validate his move to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees. In California, voters’ approval of pension cuts for current and future city workers in San Diego and San Jose suggested a bigger threat for public-sector unions nationally, one that could spawn similar moves in other cash-strapped cities and states.
“The fact that these ballot initiatives took place, and they passed by significant margins, will probably embolden reformers in different places around the country to take on these issues,” said Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
The election results were a clear setback for public employees and their unions, but perhaps to varying degrees.
“In Wisconsin, you have a governor that reversed 50 years of union rights, so this was very obviously a politically motivated attack that extended far beyond economic necessity,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.
“San Diego and San Jose are much more about desperate cities trying to make ends meet,” Wong said. “You have a very severe state budget crisis so, given municipalities’ interest in curtailing expenses, it doesn’t surprise me that those initiatives might pass in those two cities.”
While Ohio voters in November repealed a Wisconsin-like measure that ended collective bargaining rights for state workers, conservative Republican lawmakers – and growing numbers of Democrats in cash-starved states like California and Illinois – continue to target public-sector workers for concessions.
Last year, 18 states increased employee pension contributions for state workers, up from 11 in 2010. Sixteen states increased age and service requirements for state employee retirements.
States including Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey and South Dakota have moved to postpone or cut cost-of-living adjustments on state employee pension benefits.
Across the country, nearly 600 bills have been introduced in state capitals seeking to limit the collective bargaining activity of public-sector workers and their unions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. States that passed such laws included Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
In total, 30 states and Puerto Rico passed 69 collective bargaining bills in 2011.
“There were far more bills on collective bargaining introduced than in previous years," said Jeanne Mejeur, principal researcher for legislative management at the NCSL.
This year’s state legislative session isn’t producing the same volume of legislation or the vitriol that marked public clashes when Walker first pushed his plan in Wisconsin. Experts said election years typically bring slowdowns in controversial legislation. Most states also are in the second year of their two-year legislative cycles, meaning a glut of holdover bills is clogging the dockets.