Are Public Employee Pensions Part of or Above the Law?
I attended the final few hours of last night’s House/Senate pension reform public testimony session. While I was there, the great bulk of the testimony was from public union members and officials, repeating variations on the theme of yeah it’s a mess, but the young folks have plenty of time to figure out how to pick up the pieces of the mistakes we’ll leave behind and the important thing is that I get mine. Describe the Raimondo/Chafee plan with analogies to theft was common: “picking our pockets”, “stealing from union members”, etc. In other places, I’ve seen the Raimondo/Chafee pension reform plan described as “larcenous”.
But something can only be stolen from someone if it belongs to them in the first place. So what, exactly, do Rhode Island’s public union members think that they own that is being taken from them? Given that the contributions from salary made by RI public employees aren’t nearly enough to provide the benefits they currently demand, and their employer raises money mostly through taxation, the only answer is that the state’s public union members have convinced themselves that they own a piece of the future incomes of every citizen of Rhode Island — even of those yet to be born. This is wrong, on both legal and moral levels.
Limited, democratic governments have no authority to give one group of people permanent and unlimited ownership of the incomes of others. Government has no right to designate “owners”, who are free to take as much each year as they say they need from the “owned”, with the “owned” being allowed no recourse whatsoever to change the terms of their inferior position. Specifying that relationship in contractual form (or just calling it an “implied unilateral contract”) does not make it a proper use of government power. You could write up something that looks like a contract to sell your neighbor’s house to a third-party, but it would mean nothing, because you can’t sell, give-away or transfer what you don’t own. Likewise, government does not “own” all of society. Government only “owns” the portion of the citizens’ livelihoods and property that representatives accountable to the people decide upon, in an appropriations process that must be renewed and reviewed in a reasonably time-limited budget cycle. This understanding of the limits on what government actually possesses has been a fundamental check on tyranny and absolutism for over 300 years.
This principle is reinforced in Rhode Island law, which explicitly states that no contractual obligation in a municipal public employee contract can extend beyond three years. So how does this get reconciled with claim that past municipal employee contracts bind specific COLA structures 20 years or more into the future? Easily enough! For those willing to assert that union claims on the incomes of others are higher than and untouchable by the law, the first principle of government is that a small group of people are the real owners of the property and livelihoods of everyone else — but that this is not a cause for worry, because everyone will get a voice in government regarding other matters, after this first order of business is taken care of.
The major problem here, of course, is that such a practice is not consistent with democracy. A democracy cannot accept — and certainly cannot create — special classes of people who hold a super-legal position over the rest, entitled to special laws and appropriations all their own, which are unalterable by the people and their representatives.
It remains to be seen if we will have such a class of people in Rhode Island.