Monday, January 03, 2011

Cuomo targets government employees, will call for pay freeze

As the Times is reporting, new New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is targeting government employees as part of a broader program of fiscal tightening:

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will seek a one-year salary freeze for state workers as part of an emergency financial plan he will lay out in his State of the State address on Wednesday, senior administration officials said.

The move will signal the opening of what is expected to be a grueling fight between the new governor and the public-sector unions that have traditionally dominated the state's political establishment.

It will also come days after the New Year's Eve layoffs of more than 900 state workers, an event that union representatives marked with a candlelight vigil on the steps of the Capitol and outside government offices in five other cities.

"The governor said during his campaign that the difficult financial times call for shared sacrifice," said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the governor's address. "A salary freeze is obviously a difficult thing for many government workers, but it's necessary if the state is going to live within its means."

I have very much the same response to this as I had to President Obama's targeting of federal employees. It's a stupid and cynically symbolic move: Big headlines, minimal actual impact on the actual budget. As I put it at the end of November:

Of course, government is an easy target. People generally want government to do what they want -- and to be there when they need something (you know, like disaster relief or police protection) -- but don't want to pay for it.

And while even in this time of economic crisis companies are making huge profits and CEO are taking home huge salaries and bonuses, government employees can easily be scapegoated as the problem, or at least as a large part of the problem, even if they aren't.

It's not about reality, it's about public perception -- and conservatives have managed to convince much of the public that government employees are all a bunch of overpaid layabouts with their snouts in the public trough.

To be fair to Cuomo, things appear to be a bit more challenging at the state level, particularly in New York, where there isn't a bloated military budget that could be significantly pared down and where there aren't tax cuts for the wealthy that ought to be repealed. 

But what I also objected to was Obama's language. He talked back then about how "getting this deficit under control is going to require some broad sacrifice and that sacrifice must be shared by employees of the federal government." Fair enough, but who else is being asked to sacrifice other than those who are already having so much difficulty dealing with the ongoing economic situation? It is likely that any deal with Republicans over the deficit will require cuts to Social Security, and of course Republicans federally have blocked various efforts to extend unemployment and other benefits to those who need help the most. So the rich get their ridiculous tax cuts for another two years while the poor struggle even to put food on the table. And government employees (while, admittedly, not poor) face a pay freeze while Wall Street execs, bailed out by the government, end up with bonuses as massive as ever and corporate America piles on the profits while refusing to hire.

Where exactly is the shared sacrifice?

Look, I get it. Obama and Cuomo have to appear to be doing something about their respective deficits and, as government executives, they're in a position to target government employees, not Wall Street bigwigs and corporate bloodsuckers. And I'm not saying that government should regulate the pay of the private sector -- yes, I'm still a capitalist.

But stop it with the "shared sacrifice" nonsense. We all know who's being asked to sacrifice -- or, rather, who's being forced to sacrifice -- and who isn't.

And we all know that what Cuomo is doing, like what Obama is doing, is almost purely symbolic. As the Times notes, "the immediate budget savings from the freeze would be relatively modest -- between $200 million and $400 million against a projected deficit in excess of $9 billion -- achieving it would be politically meaningful." It's a way around the Assembly, a way around his own state Democratic Party, and a way around the public-sector unions -- a way to look aggressive and non-partisan. The good thing is that any freeze would have to be collectively bargained, and the unions should demand a good deal in return should they agree to it. (A good thing, too, is that a freeze would likely just be for one year -- so it's possible that a fair deal could be reached.)

And remember, the pay that government employees don't get is money that won't be spent, that won't help stimulate the economy at a time when economic stimulation, far more than fiscal restraint, is most needed to get the economy moving again.
I understand the need for all of us -- individuals, corporations, and governments alike -- to live within our means. It is deeply irresponsible, not to mention deeply unfair to future generations, for governments to rack up massive debt. And, yes, tough choices need to be made. But now is not the time for tightening before all else, for restraint over stimulation, for stupid, cynical moves that target the public sector, moves dressed up in the high-falutin', hypocritical, and simply dishonest rhetoric of shared sacrifice.

I have high hopes for Gov. Cuomo and for the most part I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. We'll have to wait for Cuomo's State of the State address on Wednesday for the details of the plan, but I'm just not sure targeting government employees at this time of economic uncertainty and widespread despair is really the way to go.

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  • I am so glad I voted for their Green Party opponents. Cuomo and Obama are Republicans in every way except for party registration.

    By Blogger libhom, at 7:36 PM  

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