By Sid Salter
STARKVILLE – News of the sounding of political alarms by leading state Democrats topped the news after the long Labor Day holiday weekend. For state Democrats and for labor unions alike, rhetoric from a Labor Day picnic hosted by a Jackson union local chapter could signal the beginning of an ominous political dynamic.
Press reports that leading Democrats – including new party executive director Rickey Cole and state Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson – predicted hard time for the state’s public employees if Republicans take control of the Mississippi House of Representatives.
Cole, a seasoned political veteran, was quoted as saying: “This is not an important election, this is the last election. It’s the last damn chance. It’s the last train leaving.
amp”If we don’t win the (state) House of Representatives, if we don’t win a majority in the Senate, if we don’t elect Johnny DuPree governor, then in six weeks there won’t be a State Personnel Board. You’ll have to promise to be a good Republican to get a job.”
After the turmoil in other states over public employee benefits, one has to question the wisdom of couching the outcome of legislative elections as determining the future of state retirement benefits and public employee benefits. While there are Republicans – Gov. Haley Barbour among them – who have long called for a review of what he has called “unsustainable” benefit increases to the state’s Public Employees Retirement System by lawmakers.
In August, Barbour created a 12-member Public Employees’ Retirement System Study Commission to analyze the program’s structure and recommend changes. The 12-member commission will provide a comprehensive report to Barbour and the Legislature by Nov. 15.
“The current funding path for Mississippi’s pension system relies too heavily on increased contributions from taxpayers,” Barbour said. “Large benefit increases adopted in the 1990s and early 2000s, coupled with the impact of the economic downturn, have created a financially unsustainable system. The commission will take a hard look at the tough decisions that need to be implemented to ensure the long-term solvency of the system.”
That announcement stirred concern among PERS’ recipients. State retirement benefits have long been the “third rail” of state politics much as Social Security and Medicare has been the “third rail” of national politics. But as has been seen at the national level, state governments are increasingly being forced to examine their retirement systems
But Democrats who seek to make such reviews a litmus test of support for state public unions likely do so at their own political peril. The Mississippi Association of Educators and the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees are the two unions most vulnerable to anti-public employee sentiments.
The Mississippi Legislature has historically been slow to tamper with PERS benefits or employee participation in the system. Barbour’s commission aside, that’s still likely to be true. Why? Because changing the system for public employees shines light on changing the system for legislators, too.
That’s true unless public unions turn the debate – as it was in Wisconsin – into a highly partisan “us against them” political standoff. Unlike those in Wisconsin, Mississippi public workers have never had collective bargaining rights in a right-to-work state. State Republicans leaders likely pray the Cole continues the partisan rhetoric regarding public workers and organized labor.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (662) 325-2506 or firstname.lastname@example.org.