Gilded benefits clash with ‘fair share’

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Public employee unions leaders love to talk about “fair share” when they are trying to score even sweeter contracts than the ones they enjoy now.

It is the classic class envy diversion – it can’t be fair if anybody out there is making more than they are. If the idle rich just paid their fair share in taxes, then there would be plenty of money for government to pay their hard-working members bigger raises and provide even better benefits.

It doesn’t seem to occur to them that most rich people got that way by working hard. But that is a topic for another post.

What is interesting here is that in the long-overdue focus on public employee health benefits, you don’t hear union heads talking much about fair share. That’s because in this case, they’re the “rich” who aren’t paying their fair share.

And that is the way it will stay if health and other benefits are not removed from public employee collective bargaining.

The latest report from the Boston Foundation and Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, “Municipal Health Plans: Gilded Benefits From a Bygone Era,” sets out the divide between public and private sector health plans in stark but unsurprising detail – again. Indeed, MTF published “A Mounting Crisis for Local Budgets: The Crippling Effects of Soaring Municipal Health Costs,” in 2005.

The report’s title is a bit of a misnomer – it is not yet a bygone era, at least for public employees. But at least people are finally starting to pay attention.

The 20-page report is filled with supporting documentation on everything from copays to hospital stays, but the bottom line is simple: Public employees are not paying their fair share. And it is not “bashing,” “maligning” or “disrespecting” them to say so.

The study found that the average municipal premium for a family health plan was 37 percent more than the average private sector premium, 33 percent more than the average federal premium and 21 percent more than the state Group Insurance Commission premium.

Private, state and federal workers pay about twice what municipal workers do in copays for primary care visits. Municipal workers pay no deductibles, while the rest of us pay $250 for individuals and $700 for families – or more.

And on and on.

The stock response from public employee union leaders is that there is nothing unfair about this – that in past years they gave up bigger pay raises for better health benefits. But they and the elected leaders who gave away the store to them know that it was more a collusion than an adversary negotiation:

Both sides knew they could not sell big pay raises to the taxpaying public, so they hid them in things like benefits and work rules to increase overtime – benefits that are no longer so hidden, since their costs are cannibalizing municipal budgets. Boston is spending more this year on health insurance than on public safety.

Gov. Deval Patrick said he would fix all this by giving municipalities the “tools” they needed to cut costs – starting in 2007, municipalities were allowed to join the GIC. But he left the real tool in the hands of the unions – veto power. It takes agreement by 70 percent of the unionized municipal workforce to “allow” a community to join the GIC.  Not surprisingly, only about 8.5 percent of municipalities have joined the GIC.

There is nothing complicated about fixing this – it simply requires taking benefits off the collective bargaining table. But doing it has been much too difficult so far for elected leaders who depend on public union money and campaign workers to stay in office. Now would be a good time for them to remember that they are supposed to represent all the people, not just those who work for government.

Most people are paying their fair share. Public employees aren’t. That has to change.