I've been reading press coverage of Governor Christie's proposal to resolve the property tax crisis in New Jersey. In case you don't know, New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the country, primarily because New Jersey's public schools are funded through property taxes.
So, the Governor wants to mandate a cap on property tax increases at 2.5% a year, unless voters in a given municipality approve a higher budget. And in order to sell that as a reasonable proposition, the Governor wants to give local governments a "tool kit" to help keep local costs down. The tool kit consists primarily of the ability to bust unions. For example, the state will cap pay raises (including wages, benefits, vacation time and other perks) for public employees at 2.5% a year, and allow any local government to opt out of civil service laws.
"People in New Jersey now feel as if there has become two classes of people in New Jersey: Public employees who receive rich benefits, and those who pay for them," says the Governor.
In so doing, once again the Governor is aligning himself with Republicans nationally. Writes the Wall Street Journal:
"Today's Democratic Party default is always higher taxes. Dominated by government-employee unions, they refuse to rethink government spending despite the steep recession. Last year six states raised income tax rates, and this year another five are attempting to do so. That didn't work so well in 2008 or 2009 in Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey or Wisconsin -- states that still have budget holes even after trying to soak the rich."
New Jersey Senate Democrats approve of the concept of the "tool box," although not necessarily this particular assortment of tools. Senate President Stephen Sweeney says that he also favors civil service reform, but that the 2.5% cap goes too far. According to Sweeney, wealthier towns will regularly vote to exceed the cap, while middle class and poor towns will not. Meaning that there will be an even greater gap between the haves and the have-nots.
So the Republican Governor presents a "we"-"they" with "we" being taxpayers and "they" being public employees. And the Democratic Senate President presents a "we"-"they" where the "they" are the rich towns and the "we" are the poor and middle-class towns, but still lending credence to the concept that public employee unions are the problem. But since most public employees don't live in wealthy towns, Sweeney, the highest ranking Democrat in the State of New Jersey, is simultaneously labeling public employees as both "we" and "they". And I bet he sits up at night wondering how we got a Republican governor in this State.
Now, I have my issues with the NJEA and other public employee unions. I do believe that the world has changed in the last 30-40 years and that, much like the auto workers union before them, the public employees unions are going to have to become part of the solution. But I don't they they are the puppet masters of the Democratic Party and I don't think we can balance our budget on the backs of teachers, police officers and firemen.
And then it hits me. In 2004, 2006 and 2008, gay families were the culprit. Liberals were pulling the strings of the Democratic Party and pushing an agenda of gay rights that would destroy the American family. A vote for George Bush or John McCain or the Republican of your choice was a vote for the American family. When Joe Biden refused to support gay marriage in the Vice Presidential debate I decided I was voting for the Green Party candidate (whoever it was).
Public employee unions are the gay families of 2010. The Republicans say they are the problem; the Democrats won't support the unions and so the Republicans get to frame the debate. So we're not talking about sending corporate income taxes to private schools or reducing taxes on millionaires; we're not talking about how the Governor is pushing a right wing agenda on a largely Democratic state and using the financial hardship of taxpayers as political cover; we're just continuing the attack on the middle class by making it harder for public employees to remain part of the middle class.
So my advice to the public unions? Lay low and ride this storm out. I would bet that Chris Christie and his tea party fans are a passing fad, and that in 2012 the Democratic Party will need the unions again. And that will be the time for constructive discussion. But to come to the table now is to allow tea party Republicans to set the agenda, and that means that meaningful compromise will be impossible.
And then I would tell them to start advocating for gay marriage rights for its members. Really, at this point it the unions have nothing to lose by doing it.