Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, January 13, 1998

Public unions wearing out their welcome

TODAY'S young workers carry two 300-pound gorillas on their shoulders when they face the tax men. They have to pay out for Social Security/Med-icare benefits for elders like me much more than they can expect to get back when they turn 62 or 65.

At home, they have to support government workers who get good pay plus fringe benefits much greater than theirs - more holidays, more vacation and sick pay, better retirements, great health benefits and vastly more job security.

Gorilla No. 2 is why there is a strong case to shrink government with more privatization of its services. Governor Cayetano boasts Hawaii already has done a lot in his three years on the job. Some 900 prisoners have been shipped to Texas where they cost the state $45 a day compared to $70 at home.

Private social agencies are paid millions by government to help mentally impaired people live outside state institutions.

The governor is weighing management privatization for our airports, small-boat harbors and prisons.

So he is no stick-in-the-mud on this issue. But he says he will stop when it means simply laying off a comfortably paid government worker like a janitor to replace him or her with a privately hired minimum-wage worker. Gary Rodrigues, head of the United Public Workers, obviously has the governor's ear on this in a year when Cayetano is up for re-election.

Up to a point I think we all should side with Cayetano and Rodrigues. The social cost involved in privatization must be weighed.

Not even New Zealander boosters who have seen their economy revitalized by privatization since 1984 say it is right for every situation.

But Cayetano has allowed the number of state employees to increase from the inflated size he attacked in 1995. All he can boast is that "we've reversed the growth of state government from 8 percent a year for eight straight years to under the rate of inflation over the past three years." What a contrast to his slash/burn approach to job cutting in 1995 that was stalled by union contracts! We still have a fat government.

He learned the hard way that labor rules the government roost. But government unions are beginning to wear out their welcome with the taxpayers. Things will get worse if that 300-pound gorilla continues to demand more food than goes to those who carry him.

We need a trade between government unions and the taxpayers. Yes, unions, keep your jobs and benefits. In exchange support changes to lower the gorilla's feeding costs.

Make our department budgets more openly accountable on a performance basis. Allow management more freedom to manage including more rights to transfer and retrain workers for greater efficiency. That way job vacancies as they occur may not need to be filled.

Support the governor and the Legislature in cutting red tape and redundancy. Govern-ment's multiple-purchase order signings can take months. Use computers for still greater efficiency in education and elsewhere.

CONSIDER following the example of Indianapolis in requiring government sectors to compete against private providers for government contracts. Even write in specifications on what fringe benefits the private bidder must provide. Narrow the difference, in other words, to one of management efficiency.

Simply making government more efficient would solve much of the problem Cayetano and Rodrigues lay out. "Simply," of course, is a nutty word choice. It means overcoming union and bureaucratic pressures not to change. Even"cleaning up" purchasing scandals led to more red tape, not less.

In the election ahead Mayor Linda Lingle of Maui will offer a cool, clear voice for privatization. Cayetano and the government unions will answer. Maybe, just maybe, we will emerge with better common ground for progress. That 300-pound gorilla can't be ignored. His weight burdens taxpayers and scares off investors.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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