In his recent op-ed in favor of Michigan's Proposal 2 -- a union-backed ballot initiative that would create a constitutional right to collective bargaining -- Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon is more honest than most in describing the campaign's motives.
Proposal 2 "will invalidate existing or future state or local laws that limit the ability to join unions and bargain collectively," Napoleon explains. That admission should set off warning bells for Michigan voters, because it's precisely those invalidated laws that are projected to save them $1.6 billion a year.
However, the Sheriff is incorrect in his assessment that if Proposal 2 is defeated, somehow law enforcement personnel would no longer receive needed training. Police training and certification are required by statute and provided for by agencies such as the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards. To say that unless collective bargaining is more powerful than the law police will not have the necessary skills to protect the public and themselves is disingenuous at best.
Let's start with a quick history lesson. In 2008, just as the Great Recession was beginning, half of all dollars spent by state and local governments went to employee wages and benefits. This unsustainable status quo, coupled with a steep drop in revenues during the downturn, forced state governors and lawmakers to come to terms with fiscal reality. And it wasn't just Republican governors in states like Wisconsin who championed reform; Democrats in states like Rhode Island and cities like San Jose picked up the mantle as well.
Under Governor Rick Snyder, Michigan passed its own sensible reforms. Snyder asked that public sector workers shoulder 20 percent of the cost of their own health insurance premiums -- something the average private sector worker is already doing. He also signed a teacher tenure bill including "last in, first out" reform which prevented new, well-performing teachers from being the first to be fired simply because they lacked seniority.
As a result of these reforms and others, Michigan is a state on the move again. The Michigan Economic Activity Index, published by Comerica Bank, hit in July 2012 its highest level since November 2002. Just last month, Michigan's Department of Technology, Management & Budget reported that unemployment was down in all 17 of the state's major job markets.
Rather than adjust to the changing landscape, where government costs are smaller and the economy is more vibrant, Sheriff Napoleon and Michigan's government employee unions have taken a different approach. Their Proposal 2 puts unions above the law, out of reach from reformers in the elected legislature and the taxpayers who they represent. Instead, a collective bargaining agreement would stand above all -- no matter how costly or unsustainable it is for taxpayers.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette says 170 laws and 18 parts to the state constitution may be overruled in whole or in part by Prop 2. If elected officials need to expand criminal background checks on teachers, too bad -- the state would have to negotiate for that in a heated labor dispute. The same goes for nearly every aspect of a government labor contract: hours, benefits and working conditions.
Michiganders can't afford to go back to the days where they picked up the tab for labor's every demand. This ballot initiative is the government-employee unions' last and best hope to push back against common sense reforms. But if Proposal 2 fails in Michigan, government-employee unions may be forced to recognize that their agenda doesn't align with those of the reform leaders and the taxpayers who voted them into office.
F. Vincent Vernuccio is the director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. For more information on Proposal 2, please visit http://www.mackinac.org/17297