Move over Wall Street traders -- seems there's a new vampire squid in town. Civil servants?
Passage Tuesday of a controversial bill sending billions of dollars to states to shore up payrolls for public school teachers further stoked the debate over whether government employees, their unions and their benefits packages are bankrupting the country.
"[The bill] will make the teachers unions happy, but it won't make teaching in schools better," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., at a press conference Tuesday during which he and other Republican leaders criticized legislation earmarking $26 billion in aid for school districts and other state agencies.
As the recession grinds on and states struggle to close budget gaps, a spotlight is shining on the salary and benefits collected by public sector professionals, including teachers, police officers and firefighters. They once commonly were viewed as the salt-of-the-earth backbone of America. But now, they are more often than not being portrayed as a boilerplate around taxpayers' necks.
"As a society, we meant well but we overpromised," said Carol Kellerman, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a New York City nonprofit group that seeks to curb wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars. "These benefits to civil servants are no longer sustainable."
From cash-strapped California, where the public school teachers have been hammered as the highest-paid in the country, to Connecticut, where an assistant police chief in New Haven recently made headlines for retiring at age 48 with a six-figure annual pension, public workers, fairly or not, are increasingly the target of public scrutiny and scorn.
"We're in a difficult economic situation right now where a lot of people in the private sector are losing their jobs and benefits," said Jon Shure, deputy director of the State Fiscal Project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Some political forces and commentators play off that fear and uncertainty to foster anger against those fortunate enough to still have economic security, saying, in effect, 'Look at these public sector workers leeching off your hard-earned dollars.'"
Shure, along with several advocates of public workers, pointed out several reasons why they say the growing negative perception surrounding public sector wages and benefits is unfounded:
Contrary to widely reported tales of outrageous pension abuse, the average annual pension collected by U.S. public servants is around $20,000, according to the CBPP and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
Only one-fourth of the money used to fund most civil service pension funds, including firefighters and police, comes from taxpayers; the rest come from employee contributions and investment returns.
While state pension deficits are said to be in aggregate in excess of $1 trillion, the figure becomes far less staggering when put in the context of when the benefits are slated, on average, to be paid out -- over three decades, said Steven Kreisberg, AFSCME's director of collective bargaining. "Taken over 30 years, it's 2 percent of state budgets," he said.
"Trust me, teachers are hardly retiring with golden parachutes and living out their years floating on yachts," said John Abraham, director of benefits for the American Federation of Teachers.