Giving Public Employees Their Due — Without Overdoing It

Whether a state's economy is recovering or imploding, fairness and excellence are still the issues.
July 16, 2015
By Charles Chieppo  |  Contributor
Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance

California is emerging from years of fiscal crisis, while Illinois remains a fiscal basket case. Public-employee labor issues playing out in each state highlight the kind of balance that helps avoid the train wreck that's in California's rearview mirror and is front-and-center for Illinois.

With its credit downgraded due in large part to the nation's most underfunded state pension system, Illinois is still without a budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1. Republican Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed a budget passed by the Democratic-led state legislature that was more than $3 billion out of balance.

The lack of a state budget has raised the question of whether state employees should be paid in full until a budget is passed, and the issue has been complicated by contradictory court rulings. A Cook County court found that state employees should receive only the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour until a budget is in place. But a downstate court disagreed, ruling that the workers should be paid in full while the impasse plays out.

The legal issue ultimately will be settled by the courts, but when it comes to fairness, the right conclusion is clear: Illinois' employees shouldn't bear the brunt of multi-generational mismanagement by the state's elected leaders. The impact of asking to survive on the minimum wage for an open-ended period would be catastrophic for working people, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck.

Just as it's fundamentally unfair to ask state employees in Illinois to pay the price for decades of irresponsible leadership, the passage of a bill by the California Assembly shows just how short memories can be for legislators so recently embroiled in a deep fiscal crisis.

The bill would allow terminated state employees who have agreed never again to seek employment with a particular state agency not to disclose the discipline settlement when applying for employment with a different state agency.

Public-employee unions say the legislation merely clarifies a bill passed last year that requires some disclosure of past disciplinary agreements. But the reality is that it generally takes a lot to merit dismissal from a unionized state job. That shouldn't necessarily bar a person from any prospect of future state employment, but taxpayers deserve to have agencies know about such agreements and factor them into employment decisions as appropriate.

Public employees must be treated fairly and with respect for governments to attract and retain high-quality workforces. At the very least, that means not holding Illinois state employees responsible for the sins of past and present state leaders. But the California legislation is a disincentive for excellence. The challenge for state and local governments is to promote fairness and respect without creating a culture of entitlement.