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Like everyone else in California, I’m dismayed at the state of the state. The massive budget deficit, high taxes and runaway government spending, spreading unemployment, a hostile business climate, and unfunded future pensions are ruining a state that has every natural gift and advantage in resources, both human and natural. Everyone seems to agree that the way the state government works has a lot to do with these problems, but no one is sure how to fix it. I even taught a seminar last semester on reforming the California constitution to explore solutions (more on that another time).
Earlier this week, I was lucky to go to the annual dinner of the Lincoln Club of northern California, which is made up of Republican leaders in the San Francisco area. The Club was awarding its lifetime achievement award to Pete Wilson, the last governor who made state government work (and a proud alum of my law school) — believe it or not, but when Wilson left office, the state had a budget surplus. Ricochet’s very own Peter Robinson interviewed Wilson on how to save California. It was an amazing night: Wilson displayed an encyclopedic command of the policy challenges facing the state.
The one change that he said could restore the state’s fortunes wasn’t lowering taxes, cutting spending, or eliminating excessive regulations — though these were all important. He said there was a deeper root cause: the power of the public employees unions. According to Wilson, public employee unions trigger a destructive dynamic. Public employee unions take money from their members and use them for partisan political purposes. They pressure government officials to cut them sweetheart deals, especially through things like job protections and pensions, that don’t show up on the bottom line for years. They create a larger and larger interest group that demands more government spending and higher taxes, which drives out private entrepreneurship and swells their ranks even more. Reduce the power of the public employee unions, and you lower the size of government, reduce the costs of the state, and fix the looming pension problem.
So here’s my idea, and it applies beyond California. There is no constitutional right for public employees to form a union and to use their dues to pressure the government for more spending and benefits. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote while a state judge, a policeman “may have the right to talk politics but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.” Unions only have this right because state government has granted it to them. So how about a one sentence ballot initiative, to amend the California constitution, that simply says that public employees cannot form unions — and why not do this state by state.
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