Now that the current biennial budget is done, the facts show that state workers will have contributed about $950 million in savings. Just on wage freezes, healthcare premiums, and furlough days alone, that equals about a 6 percent contribution out of their expected income.
But maybe that’s fair, some say, because governors beginning with John Rowland and now Jodi Rell have been telling us for a decade that public service workers are overpaid. That’s a fact, right? Well not so much.
A recent study conducted by the National Institute on Retirement Security in collaboration with the Center for State & Local Government Excellence called “Out of Balance? Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation over 20 Years” set out to determine whether jobs in the public sector were compensated equally with jobs in the private sector.
Using data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, they compared earnings and found that state public service workers earned 11 percent less than comparable workers in the private sector. Municipal workers earned 12 percent less. The trend over the last 20 years showed that these earnings have declined relative to their counterparts in private industry. Even when the relatively more generous benefit packages public service workers get were added in, public employees still had lower overall compensation than those in the private sector by 6.8 percent for state workers and 7.4 percent for municipal workers.
Okay, you might say, so the John Rowland’s of the world have been less than honest with us. Not really a surprise. But it was still fair to take 6 percent away from public service workers because the only choice is to raise taxes and people in Connecticut are already overtaxed, right? Well some of them are. Middle class families (including public service workers) pay around 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes. The poor, believe it or not, pay even more—close to 12 percent.
But the very rich?
Taking into account federal tax deductions they claim for local taxes, the very rich pay around 5 percent of their income in state and local taxes. That’s after the tax increase included in last year’s budget of 1.5 percent for families on their income over $1 million dollars. So public service workers gave up 6 percent of their overall expected income and millionaires gave up 1.5 percent of their income over $1 million? And still the millionaires are paying half as much in percentage taxes as you and I are.
How can this be fair?
Multibillionaire Warren Buffet, interviewed by the New York Times recently asked the same question when he noted how little he paid in income taxes compared to his own employees. Warned that when people raised this issue they were accused of “class warfare,” Buffet had this to say: “There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Indeed. And as long as people are fooled into blaming hard working public service workers for revenue shortfalls instead of a tax structure that favors the super rich, the superrich will indeed keep winning the war.
Okay it’s unfair, some may say, but why should I care if we under-tax the rich and scapegoat public service workers? I’m not rich, and I don’t work in the public sector. That’s an easy one.
Years of hiring freezes, downsizing, and retirement incentives have left our public sector grossly understaffed. On the state side, Connecticut’s state trooper force is below its statutory minimum, we have corrections officers and health care workers struggling through mandatory double shifts. We have backups and waiting lists for workers needing job services, and for businesses needing permits to create jobs. College students are struggling to find courses they need to graduate, bridges and roads are being inspected but we lack the staff to get them fixed. Towns and cities are laying off teachers, maintenance workers and librarians, and leaving police and fire positions unfilled.
And of course, the most vulnerable among us, the sick, the physically or developmentally disabled, the very young and the very old, and the many workers laid off and cast aside by our ailing economy, all are finding crucial services scarce or even impossible to find as the state balances its budget while not asking for a contribution from those most able to pay. All of this could be avoided if the very rich just paid their fair share.
Just as bad, the tax inequality that is starving our state government of resources also starves our private economy. By cutting the state spending by billions of dollars, the Rell administration has reduced demand in the private sector, and cost that sector over 50,000 jobs. More cuts will only result in more job losses, a fate working families can’t afford. Without fair taxation of the very rich, Connecticut’s politicians cannot implement a real jobs program on the scale needed to impact our economy.
Connecticut has a real opportunity ahead. We’ve got a choice and we’ve got an election. If Warren Buffet can see the choice, then so can we. We can choose to work together to protect our families and to get people working again. We can choose to protect vital services and put the economy back on track. We can choose fairness. Imagine waking up in a state where your job is more secure and your family’s future is brighter. It can happen.
Sal Luciano is Executive Director of Council 4 AFSCME, a union representing 35,000 public service workers in Connecticut.