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Public Union Power Play

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  • | 9:01 a.m. September 10, 2010
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Unions representing government workers are spending more heavily than ever on Gulf Coast midterm elections to get and keep Democrats in power.

Public sector union contributions are up 76% compared to this period in 2006, with more than $9 out of every $10 going to Democrats. This does not include the heavy spending by their 527 organizations that typically mount attack ads in the final months of a campaign and suggests that the unions know who will grant them the best taxpayer-funded pay and benefit packages.

This should make private sector employees and taxpayers plenty nervous.

But it is being driven in part by the bad economy that is forcing cutbacks in government spending and jobs. In one month, from June to July this year, 3,400 government workers lost their jobs across Florida.

Some might argue that it's about time; government employment in Florida is still up 8,800 in the last 12 months while the unemployment rate has climbed to 11.5% from 10.8% a year ago.

The state is looking at a $5 billion budget hole next year assuming Congress strokes a $1 billion check this fall for Medicaid.

State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, R-Sarasota, a New College political science professor, says, “The [state] budget is deadly.”

Fitzgerald, a member of the United Faculty of Florida union, adds that public union employees are “under fire as they've never been before.” And those unions will continue to burn a path — check in hand — to the politicians they expect will return far more from taxpayers.

Like most Democrats in the Legislature, Fitzgerald and his colleagues are overwhelming favorites of public employee unions and their political action committees, commonly known as PACs.

But taxpayers, burdened by their own employment and economic fears, are in no mood to keep government workers comfortable as more revelations come out that government workers make far more than private sector workers.

“Right now, everyone is against government,” says Karen Hawes, Lee County's administrator speaking to a chamber of commerce group last month.

That's not surprising given that 83% of government workers make more than private sector employees in comparable jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the two million federal workers earn an average of $119,982 per year in compensation and benefits compared to $59,909 for the average private sector employee. Another 18 million are employed in non-federal public jobs.

To cover that additional cost, $100 billion comes out of the private sector in income taxes. That's according to The Free Enterprise Nation, a Tampa-based national organization working to “unify the private sector under one banner.”

An unscientific online poll taken by Florida Trend last month asked, “What's the first thing city governments should do to meet their budgets? The results: 76% of the nearly 900 respondents chose “cut employee salaries” (43%) or “cut public services” (33%). “Raise user fees” came in at 16% and “raise taxes” was most unpopular with 8% showing, for one, that not quite everyone is anti-government spending.

Protecting wallets

That minority group of tax and spenders surely includes public union members, who now make up nearly 40% of government workers. Threats of pay cuts and reductions in generous benefits make the $20 or $30 a paycheck for union membership seem like a better investment these days to protect wallets.

The next eight months, following the November elections and the Legislature passing the 2012 fiscal year budget by May, should tell whether its money well spent to protect government jobs.

The prospect that the state's public school teachers might have their salaries based partly on learning gains brought out a massive teachers' union-led protest leading to the eventual veto of Senate Bill 6 by Gov. Charlie Crist, who is courting union support for his senatorial bid.

It's also increased teacher union membership, at least in Hillsborough County, according to Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

“Our strength is in our members,” she says. About half of Hillsborough's teachers are union members now, more than it's ever been, notes Clements.

And the unions aim to capitalize on the rising demand for their services. The Teamsters have organized a vote of Pasco County government workers this month on the heels of a successful vote to form a union for employees of Hernando County employees and the Collier County school district. (See last week's Business Review, Sept. 3, 2010.)

While some public employee unions are making concessions in union bargaining agreements — as happened recently with firefighters in the city of Orlando — others are stepping up their lobbying efforts. And it's worked for Clements' group.

The Hillsborough County School Board recently approved the new bargaining agreement by a vote of 6-1. That deal gives teachers a 2% raise plus 14 early release days, a sticking point for upset parents at the hearing on the contract. But it's not all wins for the teachers unions; there are 10 school districts that have yet to approve last year's agreement.

Election spending spree

Public unions are putting their money where their mouth is by supporting more sympathetic Democratic candidates — and the occasional independent candidate — at all government levels.

In Florida, the public sector unions are picking up the pace in contributions for the 2009-10 election cycle. (See table.)

A Business Review examination of 16 unions that cater to public employees in Florida and the Gulf Coast, shows their campaign expenditures are up 76% this election cycle compared to roughly the same 19-month time period leading up to the midterm elections four years ago.

Since Jan. 1, 2009, those 16 unions have already spent more than $1.6 million, an increase of nearly $704,000 compared to the 2005-06 election cycle into mid-August of 2006.

The heavy hitters contributing to the ramp-up in spending, according to the Florida Division of Elections, are the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ($335,837) and its state affiliate, AFSCME Council 79 ($120,397), which together account for 36% of the increase amongst the group.

But the biggest spender is the Florida Education Association Advocacy Fund, which gets its money from its 140,000 members of the FEA. The teachers' PAC has spent just shy of $600,000 so far this cycle, about 10% more than they shelled out four years ago.

Public sector unions spent $165 million on campaigns and ballot measures in 2008, according to James MacDougald in his new book, “Unsustainable — How Big Government, Taxes and Debt are Wrecking America.” MacDougald founded the Tampa-based The Free Enterprise Nation and sees public unions as a major roadblock to fiscal responsibility and economic recovery.

Warning for Florida: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has seen the effects first hand — a $550 billion of retirement debt burden on his state that is drowning taxpayers.

In a Aug. 27 Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled, “Public Pensions and Our Fiscal Future,” the governor wrote, “Government employee unions are the most powerful political forces in our state and largely control Democratic legislators.”

Public union leverage

When Florida House Democratic candidate Cole Peacock, of Fort Myers, scans his list of 2010 campaign contributors, he'll see the The Florida Education Association Advocacy Fund, the Island Coast Education PAC, and the Southwest Florida Professional Firefighters union all on the list. And all at the $500 maximum contribution level.

Such political committees are also big contributors to the Florida Democratic Party. AFSCME handed over $250,000 to the party in July plus another $1,800 from its state Council 79.

Funds from the party's PAC have also made their way to Peacock this year, adding up to another $17,782 in contributions. Combined, those union sources amount to nearly 30% of Peacock's financial support this year. A call to Peacock's campaign office seeking comment was not returned.

Alex Sink, the Democratic nominee for governor has accepted at least $23,500 from unions that represent public employees including AFSCME, Teamsters, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its Florida Public Services Union, the Florida Police Benevolent Association plus firefighters and teachers' associations among others.

Rick Scott, the Republican nominee for governor, has not received any public union contributions, according to an analysis by The Free Enterprise Nation.

The unions seem confident who will throw tax money to their workers.

In the chutzpah of politics, Sink takes Scott to task in a Sept. 3 press release for embracing special interest insiders — a veiled reference to Scott selecting a decorated Navy veteran, Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Fleming Island, as his running mate. That, despite Sink being one of the state's biggest recipients of special interest money right up there with fellow Democrat, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek.

Those union PAC contributions also leverage additional financial support from individual union members, which follow the lead of their union — a fact that Clements confirms about her teachers' union members, and which an examination of Sink's contributors list also confirms.

Leftward leanings

No doubt these contributions would be still higher were it not for the state's $500 contribution limit. But MacDougald says political committees get around that by contributing unlimited funds to the political parties — almost always the Democratic Party for public or private unions — or to so-called 527 organizations.

The tax-exempt 527's often pay for attack ads with unlimited, and hard to track, soft-money contributions.

SEIU, which has gained national notoriety with its close ties to President Obama, has a growing presence in the Gulf Coast. It is the largest and fastest growing union in the AFL-CIO, and ranks second in 527 expenditures for the 2010 cycle.

So far, SEIU's 527 has spent $8.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The union supported ultra-liberal Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean in 2004 before turning to Obama in 2008.

Moreover, SEIU political action committee has brought in $28.5 million this cycle and spent $18.7 million — all on Democratic candidates — leaving at least $11.8 million still to spend before the November elections.

A Sept. 2 Orlando Sentinel story shows how SEIU likes to see its money and volunteer resources spent: “The SEIU helped propel U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami to victory in the Democratic Senate primary by sending out 200,000 mailers, making more than 400,000 phone calls and knocking on 3,700 doors, according to the group.”

More contributions to the PAC can be expected to come in shortly. According to MacDougald, PACs typically bring in late money from contributors. That's because they want to hide resources from opponents, and to satisfy contributors who don't want to be identified in campaign reports until the reports are filed after November's general election.

AFSCME, the national union of state and local government workers, is the largest political campaign contributor in the current election cycle among strictly public sector unions, according to an Aug. 30 Wall Street Journal editorial. The union makes 99% of its campaign contributions to Democrats. Click here for a larger look at union political spending.

Florida's U.S. Senate race also shows the leftward leanings of public union political committees. A look at nine major public unions making contributions to Senate candidates Marco Rubio, Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek tells the story.

Independent Crist received $10,000 from the Florida Police Benevolent Association, while Democrat Kendrick Meek pocketed $56,500 from the nine unions. Republican nominee Marco Rubio can claim he's not in the pocket of public unions having received zero contributions from them.


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