Reihan Salam has provided excellent coverage of the budget battle in Wisconsin on his NRO blog The Agenda.  Yesterday, he referenced a Washington Post story from last spring that showed how collective bargaining rights influences public spending patterns. It’s more than worth a read.

The Post story highlights two very similar counties: Montgomery County, Maryland and Fairfax County, Virginia.  Both had roughly equal $4.3 billion budgets and similar demographic make-ups and populations. Yet, while Fairfax County managed to erase its deficit entirely, Montgomery County was struggling to eliminate its $1 billion deficit.

What would account for this dramatic difference?  The Post editors put it bluntly, saying: 

Montgomery is lurching under the weight of irresponsible governance, unsustainable commitments and political spinelessness — particularly in the face of politically powerful public employees unions….Clean parks, cheerful classrooms, safe streets, bustling libraries — the work of these employees helps keep these counties such attractive places to live. But when 80 percent of all outlays are related to personnel, labor contracts that get out of whack can endanger the public welfare. 

The Post then details how in 2006, Montgomery County officials-interested more in their own political careers than the County’s welfare-aggravated an already bloated budget with their grossly uncontrolled spending.  

In Montgomery, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a career politician then running in the Democratic primary for governor, pitched a gold-plated, pork-laden grab bag of political largess that drove county spending up by 11 percent…At the same time, Jerry D. Weast, Montgomery’s schools superintendent, negotiated a contract that promised pay increases for most teachers of 26 to 29 percent over three years — about twice the raise Fairfax teachers got — plus health benefits virtually unmatched in the region. 

The results have been striking — and strikingly unaffordable — in a county where more than half of all spending goes to public schools. The average teacher salary in Montgomery today is $76,483, the highest in the region. Average pay for teachers is now almost 20 percent higher in Montgomery than in Fairfax and has increased much faster than in most local suburban school systems. Since 2000, salaries for Montgomery teachers, as for many other county employees, have nearly doubled, rising at almost triple the rate of inflation.

Teachers are pillars of any community, and Montgomery’s are highly rated. But their compensation has outstripped the marketplace. Today, Montgomery schools spend about 20 percent more per pupil than Fairfax schools; they consume a greater share of the public spending than in any other locality in the region. The spending gap is not about classroom quality and student achievement; in those terms the two school systems are comparable. Rather, the difference is compensation, which accounts for 90 percent of Montgomery’s education spending. 

So, what’s different in Fairfax County?  Collective bargaining rights.  The Post explains: 

Virginia law denies public employees collective bargaining rights; that’s helped Fairfax resist budget-busting wage and benefit demands. As revenue dipped two years ago, Fairfax officials froze all salaries for county government and school employees with little ado. By contrast, Montgomery leaders were badly equipped to cope with recession. County Executive Isiah Leggett took office proposing fat budgets and negotiating openhanded union deals after he succeeded Mr. Duncan. Then, as economic storm clouds gathered, he shifted gears and cut spending — while still trying to appease the unions. 

But perhaps not surprisingly, the Post doesn’t blame the unions. In fact, they say the unions are doing their job fighting for their members.

Fine, fine. I get the point but I don’t agree.  I simply don’t agree that Unions are fighting for their members when their actively working to destroy the system for which those employees work.  However, I do agree with the Washington Post that they share the blame with another group – spineless politicians. 

The primary culprits here, as this account should make clear, are not the unions, which are supposed to represent their workers energetically, but county leaders. These include an inexperienced and now all-Democratic County Council, whose current members’ average tenure, less than six years, is half that of the members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors; a politically agile schools superintendent who has rallied support by striking generous deals with the teachers union; and successive county executives who signed their own unaffordable contracts with police, firefighters and other public employees unions.