Friday, May 1, 2009

Legislative Democrats and their Allies - a not so happy legislative session

Last week's legislative session was rough. Lawmakers were forced to make radical cuts in programs that serve the most vulnerable, cut health care for the working poor, layoff teachers and raise classroom size in our schools and slash enrollments and layoff professors in our colleges. Everyone knew from the beginning knew that this was going to be hard and most legislators knew they would leave with fewer friends than they came in with.

The real shock was the extent to which the session hit the friends and allies of the legislative democrats. As I said in my previous entry, Democrats and Republicans alike work together with friends and allies with whom they share mutual values. This session they departed on many issues.

You can start with the budget. Democrats balked on mitigating the impact of budget cuts on state employees. State employees face layoffs, salary freezes, unpaid furloughs and a 25% increase in their out of pocket health care costs. Already laboring under a 25% pay differential with private sector, recruiting and retaining state workers is going to be difficult or impossible in the future. Given the severity of the budget crisis however, these cuts shouldn't be a surprise. Lawmakers wanted to treat everyone equally. They were simply doing what they thought they had to.

The surprise was the issues that weren't related to the budget. The Governor and the legislature abandoned organized labor on their two biggest issues, worker privacy and unemployment insurance. Legislation to help child care organizers also failed in the Senate. While their overall scorecard could be seen as positive Environmental organizations were also less that satisfied.

Worker privacy and unemployment insurance were by far the most difficult issues because they were both zero sum games. Labors gain in unemployment insurance was business's loss. The labor proposal on the unemployment insurance bill would have reduced a business tax cut by $200 million and provided an equal increase in unemployment benefits over that same 6 year period.

Killing worker privacy was the number one issue for business and passing it was the number one priority for labor. This issue is the quintessential business versus labor issue. The bill would allow employees to opt out of anti-labor propaganda meetings. The idea is that this would put labor and capital on an even playing field. Labor organizers can't require prospective members to attend organizing meetings (and in fact, participants have been fired for just that reason) The problem is that business doesn't want to be on an even playing field. They don't have to and they are quite happy with the union density of the private sector continuing to fall.

So why did their Democratic allies balk? For one very simple reason. The economy is very bad and a majority of legislators in both parties were simply afraid of making it worst. Many analysts argued that Boeing was already looking for a reason to leave the state and after last Fall's bloody strike were not eager to face a more empowered labor movement. Boeing and other big companies, hemorrhaging from the deep recession, vehemently fought both bills. Boeing's CEO told lawmakers that he felt he needed access to employees to explain the impact of a strike on their customers. Without that access he felt it would be hard to run the company in Washington. The explanation seemed credible.

Other legislators were unclear as to why they would risk the ire of business and possibly the business climate when they were uncertain that the legislation would survive a court challenge.

Fears of making the recession worst were also reflected in the mood of the electorate. Polling and focus groups done in February around a possible revenue initiative to mitigate budget cuts indicated that the public was very worried about the economy and strongly opposed to any measure that would impact business negatively. Focus groups indicate that the public was very concerned about the business climate.

The bottom line is that given the severity of the session, both lawmakers and the public were wary of any moves that could be seen as hindering the business climate.

This sessions wounds are going to take a lot of time to heal. But people on both side should cool their jets. There are fair and logical explanations on both sides of the argument. People just need to be honest and listen to each other.

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