Virginia’s teachers, first responders and other public servants work tirelessly every day, with unmatched dedication and professionalism. They deliver great public services and contribute to Virginia’s outstanding quality of life, business climate and enviable reputation for good government. Moreover, they accomplish this at a cost that makes taxpayers in other states jealous.

In short, our public servants have earned and deserve our respect, our appreciation and the highest accolades.

What they don’t deserve is a quid pro quo, smoke-and-mirrors agreement on collective bargaining that satisfies the deal struck among candidates and leaders of employee groups before the last election. The bill does nothing to add resources that supporters claim are needed. Instead, it lets the General Assembly and the governor off the hook of responsibility for appropriately funding the commonwealth’s share of critical services.

The first argument advanced by supporters is that the bill will lead to more resources and improvements such as smaller class sizes and higher salaries.

Fair enough. Salaries consume most local tax dollars, and no one should be surprised if employee representatives choose, for example, a 1% additional salary increase over the 50 or so new teachers such an added increase might fund in a suburban community. One might wonder how much of the “more resources” will be used for smaller classes.

Other consequences not mentioned by proponents appear in states that encourage collective bargaining. For example, “more resources” means higher taxes, cuts in other services or both. Remember those building maintenance issues impacting school districts across Virginia? Expect them to get worse. One could add to the list of consequences:

  • Protections that favor employees and make addressing accountability for poor performance difficult and expensive.
  • Higher property taxes that add to the housing affordability crisis, leading to more exclusion and segregation.
  • Risk that negotiators, faced with the inevitable stalemate, solve their dilemma by promising employees something that will only be a problem for some future elected body: enhanced but unfunded retirement benefits.
  • Exacerbated disparities, as rich communities fund demands that poor communities can’t afford.
  • An accelerated shift in funding responsibility from the state to localities as legislators and governors will argue that localities should pay for the agreements they negotiate.

This last item should be particularly alarming to those seeking more resources.

Consider this: If resources are the issue, why won’t advocates in the General Assembly adjust the standards of quality to reflect actual practice and need, and fully fund the state share of the SOQ. (And do the same for other critical areas such as public safety, environmental cleanup, mental health, etc?). Why the charade of collective bargaining, unless it is the General Assembly’s intent to shift more of the burden to localities and property taxes?

Proponents’ second argument seems more problematic in a representative democracy: That employees should “have a seat at the table” and “a voice to advocate.” Of course, they should, and in fact, they do. It’s common for employee groups to dominate public hearings on budgets. In many localities, teams of employees play a valued role in the development of priorities. And yes, employees do get to vote for their elected representatives.

But collective bargaining gives employee groups a position denied to other constituents. Would proponents accept, for example, that taxpayer groups, or parents, or business associations have a stake and deserve a place at the table? Isn’t “a place at the table” fundamentally why we elect representatives?

Perhaps the governor will do what he knows is right, if such a bill reaches him, and send it back. If not a rejection, he and the General Assembly should at a minimum consider these revisions:

  • Allow any group that can recruit as many members as a collective bargaining unit, and which has a stake, to have place at the table.
  • Require that collective bargaining agreements be fully funded on a pay-as-you-go basis, including funding of reserves for long-term liabilities like retirement benefits.
  • Require that any collective bargaining meeting be advertised and open to the public.
  • Pilot the process at the state level for five years. Let the governor and General Assembly prove the concept and fund the results before springing this on ill-prepared localities.

The likelihood that the General Assembly and governor will consider such changes slips each day. They simply aren’t necessary to fulfill the terms of the backroom deal.

Collective bargaining for public employees will change Virginia in profound ways, some positive, some negative, some anticipated, some unknown.

Perhaps our elected leaders will step back and allow for a full public airing of these many considerations. Anything less will serve to prove the old adage, “When the politicians’ lips are moving, the truth is on vacation.”

Jay Stegmaier retired as Chesterfield County administrator in 2016. Contact him at: jay.stegmaier@gmail.com

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