Taking aim at unions

Lawmaker wants state workers to pay percentage of benefits
Julie Grey, left, of Jacksonville, and Anne Mann of Eugene joined hundreds of protesters Feb. 26 in downtown Medford to decry political moves against unions in Wisconsin.

Emboldened by Wisconsin's rejection of public-employee unions, an Oregon legislator has turned his sights on state employee pensions and health insurance to help solve the state's budget problems.

"If I had the power, I would implement similar reforms in Oregon," said Rep. Dennis Richardson, a Central Point Republican.

How much employees contribute toward premiums in Western states:

Washington - 12 percent

California - 18.9 percent

Idaho - 12.7 percent

Montana - 24.5 percent

Nevada - 17 percent

Utah - 5 percent

Arizona - 11.5 percent

Average - 15 percent

Oregon - 0 percent

Oregon vs. Wisconsin two-year budget problems:

Wisconsin's budget gap, $3.6 million

Oregon's budget gap, $3.5 million

Source: Rep. Dennis Richardson

Richardson, who is co-chairman of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, acknowledges he doesn't have the political backing in Oregon for his ideas. Richardson's approach is denounced by union officials and many legislators who say state workers have already made sacrifices and will continue to make sacrifices.

Richardson is looking to drum up support for proposals such as requiring state workers to start paying a percentage of their health insurance premiums and modifying the retirement program. Both proposals together would save more than $500 million as the state tries to climb out of a $3.5 billion budget hole.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation Friday stripping the public-employees union of most of its collective bargaining rights.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has made it clear that any changes to union contracts in this state would take place after a discussion across the collective bargaining table.

Richardson said that if state employees paid 15 percent toward health insurance premiums, the state would have another $250 million for schools and other services. The 15 percent is an average of seven Western states, all of which have employee contributions to premiums.

He also suggested reforms to the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) that would require a 6 percent employee contribution to free up $334 million.

Richardson said the unions are inflexible when it comes to helping with the state's budget problems.

"My experience is the unions don't care about compromise — they care about control," he said.

Buck Eichler, past president of the Service Employees International Union, Jackson County chapter, said Richardson and other conservatives forget to mention the sacrifices government workers already have made.

He said it's too easy to target health-insurance premiums after state employees have taken wage freezes and furlough days to help balance the budget.

"The unions are more than willing to negotiate," Eichler said. "In tough times, we all have to make sacrifices."

He pointed out the state took steps in 2003 to reform PERS.

Eichler, who was himself laid off by Jackson County, said any increase in health premiums would have a particularly negative effect on lower-wage workers who are hard hit by cutbacks.

Unions haven't shied away from making suggestions to solve the state's budget woes, Eichler said.

SEIU recommended the Oregon Department of Revenue could collect more revenue from personal income taxes if staffing levels were improved. The union also suggests that some agencies have too many middle managers.

Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat, said Kitzhaber's budget proposal asks for some big concessions from unions on picking up health care costs and reducing salaries.

"If you are going to get down to a dollar amount, the governor and Dennis are not that far off," he said. "The difference is that the governor plans to actually negotiate that proposal."

Buckley disputed that there would be any real savings from going after those who haven't paid personal income taxes, but he did say there is some merit in the union's suggestion that some agencies might have too many middle managers.

Buckley said it's disheartening that the focus of discussion is about taking more dollars out of the middle class rather than looking at the bigger picture in this country — that more wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few.

As an example, he tells the joke of a company chief executive officer, a union worker and an angry voter sitting down together to share a dozen cookies. The CEO takes 11 of the cookies for himself, then warns the angry voter to watch out because the union worker will take the last cookie.

"This is going to the heart of the question: Are we going to have a middle class or not?" Buckley said.

He said it's obvious that health insurance premiums are rising so fast that state workers may have to share some of the burden.

But, he said, the governor is also looking at other efforts to bring down health care costs in the state.

"Wisconsin took a path to tear the state apart," he said. "We're taking a path to keep the state together."

Rep. Mike McLane, a Powell Butte Republican, said he does advocate some type of co-payment for health insurance, but stopped short of condemning unions.

"I'm reluctant to disagree with Dennis Richardson, given his years dealing with the budget," said McLane, who is on the House Joint Ways and Means Committee and has been in office for six weeks. "I can't say collective bargaining by state employees is an impediment to bringing our revenues in line with our budget."

McLane said there has to be wage concessions similar to those experienced in the private sector, but he said having furlough days as a way to cut costs is not an option he finds satisfactory.

Julie Grey, a Jacksonville union retiree who rallied recently in support of unions, said it's important to retain the collective-bargaining process, and she worries that the dignity of middle-class workers has been eroded.

At the same time, she said she can see the point of having state workers pay a portion of their premiums.

"I absolutely agree with that," she said. "I think it's absolutely reasonable."

The 54-year-old said she has a good pension plan from her 25 years as a legislative analyst in California and pays toward her health-insurance premium.

She said large corporations show little interest in the plight of the middle class, while public employees get the brunt of criticism.

"It feels like an assault to everybody," she said.



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