Meet The New Boss. Same As The Old Boss.

David Crane
Lecturer and Research Scholar at Stanford University and President of Govern for California

Until 1910, the dominant political force in California was the Southern Pacific Railroad. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, SP “manipulated much of California’s political life, buying city supervisors, mayors, judges, the state legislature and even members of the California delegation to the U.S. Congress.” Eventually California enacted a railroad commission and other reforms to reign in SP’s power.

A century later, state and local government employee associations are the new Southern Pacific. Confirming William Jennings Bryan’s proclamation that “the man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer,” the wage-earning members of government employee associations (eg, police, firefighters, prison guards, teachers, et al.) collect more money from state and local governments and school districts in California than anyone else, pocketing over $100 billion per year in salaries and benefits. Their share of government budgets can exceed 80 percent.

Like pharmaceutical companies and military contractors at the federal level, government employee associations work hard to elect and lobby state and local legislators who decide how much money will flow into their coffers and under what conditions. Their success is legendary. For example, this year California state legislators will grant more than $7 billion in salaries and benefits to fewer than 60,000 state prison employees, far exceeding the revenues of the country’s largest private prison corporation and even exceeding state appropriations for the 700,000 students attending the 33 campuses of the University of California and California State University systems.

Like the political activities of pharmaceutical and military contractors, the political activities of government employee associations are protected by the US Constitution. (In fact, California permitted political activities by corporations, unions and associations long before Citizens United.) That political activity is costly to citizens, students and taxpayers. For example, spending on pensions and other retirement benefits is rapidly crowding out education spending and causing tax and tuition increases. But don’t blame state and local government employee associations. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmaceutical companies, medical device makers, construction companies, incentive-seeking businesses and other recipients of government spending do the same thing. Private sector employees regularly seek the highest possible compensation. Government employees should not be held to a different standard.

No, that buck stops with the state legislature, which approves budgets and writes laws. But legislators are besieged day in and day out by government employee associations and other special interests and rarely supported or even noticed by citizens, students and taxpayers. That produces odd outcomes. For example, legislators from districts that house California’s public universities often vote to grant more money to government employees even if by doing so they reduce funding for universities. That’s because legislators know government employee associations are paying attention and that citizens, students and taxpayers are not. In fact, legislators often count on their constituents not knowing such truths.

The solution is to pay attention. That means more than tweeting and cocktail-party conversation. It means serious, studious and sustained political activity, including financial support. (Full disclosure: I run a political organization focused on financial support for exceptional state legislators.) Most Californians don’t even know the names of their state legislators even though those officials have a greater impact on the daily lives of citizens than members of the US Congress. This fiscal year the 120 members of the California Legislature will:

  • Run public K-university education systems hosting nine million students;
  • Pass laws and issue regulations affecting the jobs, wages and economic prospects of nearly 20 million workers and the health and safety of nearly 40 million residents;
  • Finance healthcare for 14 million Californians;
  • Determine the size of prison populations, the extent of social safety nets, the number of parks and recreation centers open to the public, the quality of our environment, the funding and maintenance of public transportation systems, and the state of our infrastructure;
  • Levy more than $180 billion in taxes and fees and direct the spending of nearly $300 billion including federal funds; and
  • Award tens of billions of dollars in salaries and retirement promises to government employees and approve the members of state boards investing hundreds of billions of dollars set aside to protect future budgets and taxpayers from having to pay more to meet those promises.

Isn’t that worth serious, studious and sustained political activity?

Recently, a friend reminded me of the concluding sentence of the Declaration of Independence:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

The founders pledged their lives and fortunes to the establishment of our democracy. No less is required of us to maintain that democracy. Don’t blame special interests. Blame yourself if you’re not helping good state officials to legislate for the general interest.

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