Friday, June 10, 2011

Patrick reaches again for the taxpayers' credit card

There is a lot of frustration out there today about Governor Patrick's announcement this week that approximately four thousand state employees will soon receive a three percent raise in pay, at a total annual cost of somewhere around $10 million.  Even the Globe instinctively recognizes the incongruity of this move with the Commonwealth's still ugly budget reality, writing in the very first paragraph of its front page story,
Governor Deval Patrick granted a 3 percent raise yesterday to 4,000 state managers beginning July 1, despite a budget that cuts higher education, local aid, and social services.
As usual, the Herald is less sanguine in the opening to its own story,
Lawmakers and unions slammed Gov. Deval Patrick yesterday for triggering a pay-raise bonanza to the tune of nearly $10 million with a 3 percent salary hike for as many as 4,000 state managers — even as Bay State residents face frozen salaries and unemployment.
Differences in  tone aside, the subtext of both takes is the same: 'What the *$!*&!#$??"

Let me get a qualifier right out front: vilification of public employees frequently goes overboard, especially in the budget context.  Plenty of the people who will receive what is no doubt a welcomed pay increase work hard and do a good job, and with a median salary among the targeted group (executive branch managers) of around $84K, no doubt many of them struggle to keep pace with the rising cost of living and the myriad financial pressures exacerbated by the ongoing recession.  This is not about that.  It is about math.

Yeah, but is there a credit card in there?
We hear endless rhetoric from the Governor about the dire budgetary situation, the deep cuts he has already made ("through the fat and into the bone" is a Patrick favorite). Underfunded services, cities and towns forced to cut to the quick, quiet but persistent rumblings of new "revenue" measures. And then... a sudden, $10M discretionary expenditure (there have been reports that this hike was forced by a contract, but that is inaccurate - at most, it is a discretionary move intended to keep managers' salaries on pace with other state salaries that are set by contract).

So how is the move justified?  According to Patrick's budget chief, Jay Gonzalez, executive branch managers have not received a raise since 2007 - an unfortunate truth that also applies to countless private sector workers (even the ones lucky enough to have maintained their employment over that period).

"[T]his wage adjustment is the right thing to do to help the Commonwealth retain and recruit a talented and competitive workforce that can continue to work hard for the people of Massachusetts," said the Governor, a sentiment echoed in further remarks by Gonzalez: "We have asked so much of managers over the last few years. If we’re going to get the quality of people in state government we need to provide those services, this is a step we need to take."

This guy hasn't had a raise since 2007 either.
That would be fine so far as rationalizations go, if there were any evidence whatsoever of a discontented exodus from the Commonwealth's workforce.  Maybe I've missed it?  In truth, a whole lot of people out here in the real world also have had "so much" asked of them since the recession set in.  A whole lot of private sector employers would like to offer pay increases to their employees, but cannot afford to do so - and cannot tap a bottomless well of other peoples' money to fund the expenditure.

What all of this reveals about Patrick & Co. should not come as a surprise.  They simply perceive reality differently from those of us who feel a more personal connection to "the government's" money.  A fiscal crisis means something different to Patrick than it does to the ordinary taxpayer.

I am put in mind of my peer group in college (the memory is hazy, but there).  Quite a few of us carried a credit card provided by our parents "for emergencies only."  Some of us took that to heart, and never took those cards out of our wallets.  Others considered Friday night munchies and a pizza joint with no nearby ATM an "emergency" sufficient to justify tapping the parental credit line. 

The Patrick Administration is like that latter group.  They talk the crisis talk... right up until they get the munchies.  "Sure the budget is beyond maxed out, but we really want to do this...." and out comes the taxpayers' credit card.

By the way, by using this extended credit card analogy I am not suggesting the Governor has initiated new borrowing to fund these pay hikes.  But in context, with the state facing enormous deficits, massive unfunded liabilities, and continued revenue uncertainty, I'd say the analogy holds.

One more time: this is not about whether the specific workers in question deserve a raise in the abstract, or whether they work hard, or whether they have sacrificed during the recession.  It is about math - and about perceptions and reality concerning the Commonwealth's budget situation.  Citizens who are losing benefits to budget cuts, municipal officials forced to do more and more with less and less state aide, even unionized state employees whose contractually-locked salary increase this year will not amount to 3% - all are entitled to look at the Governor's action this week and ask, "Hey, where did you find that $10 million?"

"And how much more room do you have left on that card?"

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