RALEIGH – Even in the homestretch of a legislative session, it isn’t typical to have two back-to-back rallies at the General Assembly attracting hundreds of people to send diametrically opposed messages to lawmakers. But that’s what happened this week when some 200 members of the State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) rallied Tuesday for bigger pay raises and then a larger crowd of more than 1,000 taxpayers and activists rallied Wednesday against burgeoning state budgets and government overreach.
But, wait a moment. Are those two messages really at odds?
SEANC has a beef with the General Assembly for years of poor treatment when compared to the state’s public-school teachers. The latter group has consistently gotten higher annual increases and more attention to working conditions. The former insists that the work of prison guards, mental-health professionals, and other state workers shouldn’t receive a lower value when budget time comes around.
There’s a case for their position. It’s difficult to find good evidence supporting the differential treatment. Recent teacher-pay hikes don’t appear to have moved the needle much when it comes to teacher quality or student outcomes. And while education is a priority, I would certain argue that public safety is an even higher priority, the core function of government. The labor market exists for district attorneys, parole officers, and corrections officials just as much as it does for educators.
But is arguing for better treatment of state employees inconsistent with the fiscally conservative message sounded so largely by speakers and participants at Wednesday’s Take Back Our State rally?
Not necessarily. To some extent, the interests of current state employees and future state employees are in tension. As state and local government has continued to grow, adding new programs and agencies, tax revenues that could have been dedicated to attracting and retaining good employees to carry out preexisting state responsibilities have instead financed the addition of new state responsibilities. In future years, with a larger state workforce, the fiscal impact is higher when lawmakers approve across-the-board pay hikes. Often, that means they propose smaller ones.
Add to that the fact that one of the biggest cost drivers in the state budget in the past decade has been Medicaid, a program that primarily directs state funds to private and nonprofit health providers, and you can start to see some common interest between aggrieved state workers and outraged state taxpayers.
Fiscal conservatives won’t always see eye-to-eye with SEANC, certainly. Thanks to its alliance with the Service Employees International Union, SEANC is adopting a labor-union mindset in its push for collective bargaining – a cause that is both doomed and deleterious. But when it comes to setting priorities for state funds, it does make sense to stop the unjustified preference for teacher pay and the legislature’s tendency to create new subsidy programs rather than ensure that existing government programs are staffed by committed, talented, enthusiastic state workers capable of carrying out their assigned tasks.
Workers and Taxpayers of the World, Unite!
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.