There were three races I watched closely on Tuesday; all were barometers of public opinion on the issue of state and local union health and retiree benefits.
In the Golden State, voters in San Diego and San Jose passed referendums by overwhelming margins that will lower the taxpayers’ cost burden for platinum municipal employee benefits.
The recall attempt of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was a referendum, too, but it was intended as punishment for the controversial benefit reforms he enacted last year. Walker kept his job by a comfortable margin.
San Diego, San Jose and Wisconsin are disparate in many ways, but they shared a common outcome on Tuesday.
But what was the message?
It was not a referendum on President Obama. He stayed as far away from the issues as possible.
It was not about Scott Walker either. He created the conflict in Wisconsin, but I suspect a fair number of voters who cast their ballots against the recall were not doing it because they loved the governor.
It was not even about the public unions per se. Most voters don’t deny the right of employees to unionize.
It was the voters’ realization that public union benefits are growing uncontrollably and will curtail the ability of cities to provide adequate core services. For example, San Jose has had to absorb an increase from $73 million to $245 million in pension payments since 2001. As a result, the city cannot build approved police and library facilities because it cannot afford the operating costs.
The unions cry “unfair” at any mention of higher employee contributions, but they fail to realize that fairness is a two-way street. They see nothing wrong with the residents shouldering an ever-increasing share of their benefits costs. Voters are learning that the unions’ concept of fairness amounts to selfishness.
The election outcomes shared another characteristic – bi-partisan and independent support for reforms. It’s not often we see that these days, so politicians should take note.
All of us share one view – we all want clean cities, with decent roads, adequate public safety, nicely maintained recreation facilities, etc. If public employee benefits are not reined in, we can kiss all of that goodbye, forever.