The state’s annual budget ritual is playing out like the Kabuki it is. Lobbyists and ad agencies race around with a message of dire consequences, including shattered and lost lives, if the services of their clients are not spared from budgetary cuts. Occasionally their message includes some truth. This year, I predict, without being willing to wager a plug nickel, that the budget will be enacted on time — that is by April 1. As the process winds down, we constantly hear that the remuneration of government employees is a major, if not the primary, cause of the budgetary distress faced by New York and virtually every American state. This fallacy is frequently packaged with a discussion of tenure policies and the rigidity of rules for laying off government employees when that becomes necessary, as it has this year.
It is true that there are many functionally tenured government workers (especially teachers) who possess a degree of job protection, as well as health and retirement benefits that most people in the private sector cannot hope to obtain. It is also sadly true that rules such as “Last In, First Out,” a.k.a. LIFO, effectively tie the hands of supervisors struggling at once to maintain the highest quality of service/teaching while saving the most money. The worst case scenario in the LIFO conundrum involves the “hypothetical” spectacular teacher on the job for only a year or two who must be laid off first, despite unanimous recognition among supervisors, peers and students that she/he is at or near the top in teaching effectiveness. When that teacher is laid off, the second part of the double whammy occurs because the least money is saved. The newest teachers, far and away, receive the lowest compensation. Unfortunately, this “hypothetical” is an everyday reality in schools across the state.
Well, that’s all very interesting and disturbing, at least to The Weekender. The part about reforming LIFO, recently seized upon by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and my weekday mayor, Mike Bloomberg, is vitally important relative to attracting and retaining the best teachers. However, it and the entire focus on government employee compensation, benefits and collective bargaining rights is a detour, frolic and trivial pursuit if the goal is to ascertain the real causes of state budget deficits and realistic measures for closing the gap between revenue and expenditures.
A much larger share of state expenditures and those most wasteful and excessive involve entitlement programs like, and most specifically, Medicaid. On the collections side, we still suffer from massive shortfalls in tax revenues because of the excesses of large banks, the housing finance industry and exotic investment practices. That shortfall will improve only when the tens of millions still out of work return to gainful full-time employment. Public employee salaries and benefits (especially those of notoriously underpaid teachers) are a pittance compared to the excesses and scams embedded in New York’s roughly $50 billion annual Medicaid program. New York’s Medicaid program delivers lower than average health care outcomes to a minority of the state’s citizens at a price more than twice that paid in states with far better results.
So as we watch, and better still, actively engage in the debate about public employee compensation and rights and the process which produces this and future year budgets, let’s not continue to be deceived about the real source of our fiscal problems and the real path to reform. There are important reasons to examine and fix aspects of various public employee tenure systems and an urgent need to discard LIFO, but the reason for that is to improve our schools not to fix the budget.
During the week, The Weekender practices law and recently has started to see why it may be time, or well past it, to reform the most outrageous tenure system of all, one that gives federal judges a job for life, regardless how badly and lazily they do their jobs. Since the lives of Chathamites, like those of all who inhabit our nation, are daily and vitally affected by the actions and inactions of these federal jurists (whether or not we realize it), federal judges and their jobs for life will be the subject of the next Weekender column.