Bigger Fish to Fry

Proposal to end the Civil Service Commission doesn't quite get to the real problem

One cannot fault the author of a new proposed amendment to the state constitution that would abolish the state’s civil service commission. The CSC has acted foolishly, ignoring the sensibilities of a solid majority of Michiganders and heaping new burdens on already much-weighed-down taxpayers. By extending benefits to “domestic partners” of state employees, the CSC thumbed its nose at Michiganders who have rejected gay marriage, as well as added to the cost of government. Further, the CSC cancelled a 3 percent employee contribution to health care benefits that was slated to take effect for non-exclusively represented employees.

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Such provocations practically begged for an aggressive response, and state Rep. Marty Knollenberg has drafted a proposal that would give the current CSC what is arguably its due: oblivion. This is a perfectly natural response, but it should nonetheless be resisted: The Legislature has bigger fish to fry.

As galling as the domestic partnership decision was, the pricetag is, as government finance goes, pretty modest: $5.7 million per year. The cost of cancelling employee contributions for health care is more substantive — somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million a year for three years, according to my very rough calculations.

In the grand scheme of things, these are relatively small amounts. We estimate that the state’s prevailing wage law, which mandates the payment of union-level wages on state construction contracts, costs $200 to $250 million annually, without any discernable improvement in the quality of construction and minimal benefit to low-wage workers. And normalizing public-sector benefits, so that health care insurance and retirement costs match up with private-sector averages, would save the state $5.7 billion annually. That’s about 1,000 times the cost of the domestic partners benefits.

More to the point, it isn’t clear that abolishing the Civil Service Commission would eliminate these programs permanently — there’s nothing that the CSC has done that cannot be negotiated as part of collective bargaining or lobbied for in the executive branch. In addition, an amendment to the state constitution would require a public vote, and the repeal proposal could face stiff resistance from the union political machine. Finally, the amendment is probably unnecessary anyway; by making prudent appointments to the CSC, the administration should be able to undo the domestic partnership benefits and restore health benefit contributions without amending the state constitution.

The real problem is government employee unions that have wrangled excessive benefits out of state and local government officials and used government-guaranteed “union dues” to build a powerful lobbying apparatus — an apparatus that will still be in a position to influence whatever takes the CSC’s place.

The state Legislature could go a long way toward guaranteeing billions of dollars in savings by reforming or ending that bargaining process and cutting off taxpayer-funded union dues. This could be done by rewriting the Public Employment Relations Act, which would not require a public vote and would restore control over government spending to local officials.

The frustration over the CSC’s recent actions is entirely understandably and healthy. But the real opportunities for the state to save money are elsewhere. It’s a measure of the depth of Michigan’s spending problem that the CSC is far from the biggest challenge confronting lawmakers and taxpayers.