California puts union patronage above public service

On July 2, 1881, a disgruntled federal job seeker named Charles Guiteau shot James Garfield as he waited at a Washington, D.C., train station ??? eventually killing the 20th president and triggering reforms that still influence the way government operates.

Before the assassination, Congress debated the need for a civil service. When new presidents came into power, they would fire federal employees and replace them with supporters and friends. Guiteau may have been crazy, but he was a catalyst for replacing the ???patronage??? system with one based on ???merit.???

As governments have grown, debates still center on the size and cost of the public workforce. Whether the issue is pensions, unionization or accountability, the same question emerges: Is a government job a benefit and right, or a means to provide a service to the public?

On Thursday, the California Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of HR 29, a union-championed measure to oppose the outsourcing of public services. It was nonbinding, but deeply reflective of the lower chamber???s view that government jobs exist primarily as a means to boost the income of the people who have them.

???Public services and assets are the fabric that binds our communities together,??? according to the resolution. ???They are also a ladder to the middle class. ??? Outsourcing frequently means that wages and benefits for public service workers fall and the local economy suffers while corporate profits rise.??? It urges local officials to study a liberal think tank???s ???Taxpayer Empowerment Agenda.???

The resolution makes this sensible point, as it would ???require governments to post information about their contracts online and require contractors to open their books to the public, ensure that governments have the capacity to adequately oversee contracts, to cancel contracts that fail to deliver on their promises ??? .??? Anything dealing with public dollars should be open to scrutiny, and there???s no doubt that private contractors can provide shoddy work ??? as shocking reports regarding welds on the Bay Bridge project reveal. But that wording is window-dressing.

???We can do transparency if that???s really the problem,??? said Assemblyman Don Wagner, R-Irvine. ???Everyone in this building knows that???s not what???s really going on here. ??? You are hurting the people in your district who would like to compete for contracts. You are hurting the people in your district who have to pay additional amounts (but) get inferior services because the virtues of competition ??? get ignored here today.???

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, said that Los Angeles unions showed the mayor that they provide services more cost-effectively than contractors. That???s counter-intuitive, and such cost comparisons rarely include the cost of unfunded pension liabilities. But even if Jones-Sawyer is right, why slam the door on competition? As I learned when working for a contractor at an Air Force base in the 1980s, the possibility of shifting the work to others provided incentives for everyone to scrutinize costs and bolster service.

As the resolution noted, many California cities are facing ???severe budget problems??? and are struggling to provide basic services. It doesn???t mention one explanation: Years of unsustainable compensation promises officials have made to unions. The courts have limited the ability of cities to make pension cutbacks, so outsourcing remains a useful cost-saving device.

HR 29 ???is aimed at restricting local ability to contract out for services, threatening the very mission of local governments to provide vital local services in an efficient and economical way,??? according to a League of California Cities statement, which argued that cities typically contract-out waste collection, construction and even park services.

By most accounts, California pays more for its public services than other states, so it???s hard to see how quashing competitive pressures will help. Then again, the apparent goal here is not to help taxpayers, but to protect a new form of patronage. Sadly, the Assembly has come down on the wrong side of a question that Americans have been asking since the 1800s.

Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at