Collusion between unions and officials

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and his state’s Republicans have to rein in the cost of government employee benefits. Rather than focusing on what the unions can and cannot do, perhaps a better approach would be focusing on what government officials can and cannot do.

The problem has arisen because of collusion between unions and elected officials at the state, county and local levels. The unions contribute to the campaigns of elected officials and the elected officials pay them back by agreeing to generous benefits. It’s easier for the officials to grant benefits than salary increases, because the salary increases appear in the current year’s budget and have to be paid for, while the benefits - particularly defined benefit retirement plans - must be paid for by their successors, long after those who granted them are out of office. But the bill eventually comes due.

The answer is to make it against the law for government officials at every level - from the governor to local school boards - to agree to any contract that promises a future benefit that is not paid for in the current fiscal year. No more kicking the can down the road.

Rather than the open-ended commitment to defined benefit retirement plans under which a worker retires at 60 or 65 and collects a percentage of his last year’s salary for the rest of his life, government workers would have to switch to 401(k) plans or earned benefit plans. The contributions - whether from the government or workers - would be paid for in the current year and nothing could be left for future generations to pay.

The government-employee benefits mess was created by two parties that saw it in their individual interests to ignore the burden they were placing on future generations. Unions have a right to participate in the political process, but government officials shouldn’t be allowed to pay for union support by bargaining away the future.

DALE O’LEARY

Avon Park, Fla.

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