We are not Sucking Aliens

The Statesman this week reported that Speaker Straus had suggested some unsavory solutions to reducing  the state budget shortfall.  Two of the unsavory solutions (at least to me) include unpaid work furloughs and four-day work weeks for state employees.   Personally, I would embrace a four-day work week, but my creditors might have a problem with my reduced income.  I just don’t think “We’re balancing the state budget, folks,” is going to garner much sympathy.

I hear my private sector friends asking, “Why should you government workers be immune from getting nasty letters from your creditors like the rest of us?”  My best answer to this question is simple:  public sector employees, in essence, negotiate a Faustian contract with the devil of capitalistic competition in which we relinquish high salaries and bonuses (what’s that?) in exchange for job security and some decent benefits.   The runner-up answer is that the world doesn’t need more widgits or promoters or financiers of widgits like it needs the services of people who keep our civil society civil, clean, healthy, and safe.

It has always perplexed me how government employees are oft depicted like an occupying force of aliens equipped with hoses that suck up money to use in some alien form of thumb-twiddling.  As if government employment were some form of jobs program or government handout!  Ross Perot might say, “If we could only deport these employees back to their planet, we could stop that sucking sound and balance the budget!”  But if you look around, these  employees are members of your family, church group, and circle of friends, or your fellow joggers, golfers, and Willie Nelson fans who, during the work week, keep Texas beaches open, roads built, water protected, and restaurants contaminant-free.  I would say, “We’re Government!” but that sounds too much like the UT “We’re Texas!” whatever-that-means slogan (I remain convinced that genius advertising execs adopted it as a compromise between the two warring contenders,  “We’re Education!!” and “We’re Football!”)

Like many state employees, my flights of fancy often take the form of a government official who takes a stand in support of his/her employees, saying something like, “State employees work hard, support families, and do a job for much less pay than those in the private sector:   don’t balance the budget on their backs!” (That bolded text would be the sound bite.)  Maybe this fantasy official would point out that state employees often work year after year without pay raises or that exotic thing called “bonuses,” while their private sector counterparts shake their heads and ask why they aren’t pursuing the big bucks in the “real world.”  (Yes, I’ve really heard that.)   My fantasy statesman or stateswoman also expresses concern that good government cannot be achieved when its employees are treated like the stepchildren of the American labor force.  Since this is Texas, maybe he or she would pull out a little carrying-around gun and  demonstrate what “shooting yourself in the foot” is all about.

As Texas Comptroller, Bob Bullock came as close to this fantasy officeholder as any I have ever known.  Bullock would go to the Legislature and fight for a budget that included pay raises, new equipment, training funds, etc., for his employees, explaining that he employed the best and brightest people in state government and they merited the raises and resources that would maintain the productivity he demanded and the State deserved.  With this kind of support, we all worked a little harder at our jobs, as well as forgiving his general lack of warm fuzzies.

The truth is that whenever the budget won’t balance, there is the 600-pound gorilla hovering nearby and sporting a t-shirt that reads “More tax.”  But, in political-speak, “tax” is the solution that cannot be named unless in close proximity to the word “never.”  The inevitables of life, death and taxation, are not considered as separate events for a politician — there is a direct causal connection between the two.  If you start talking taxes, (political) death will invariably follow.  Better to go hiking in Appalachia and explain that misstep rather than why you may have suggested more taxes.

The only official I can remember who didn’t shy away from the tax solution in a budget crisis was Ben “Jumbo” Atwell, a 24-year veteran of the Texas House of Representatives from Dallas.  Jumbo sponsored many tax bills and for 10 years chaired the Revenue and Tax committee (later renamed the “Ways and Means” committee to hide the word “taxes” from public display).  He often mentioned that no one wanted to take credit for sponsoring tax bills even though getting one through the Legislature is one of the most difficult things a legislator can do.  So, at some point, he began thinking of immortality and pre-ordered his gravestone:  a large piece of pink granite chiseled  into the shape of Texas and inscribed with Ben Atwell, Lawyer – Legislator, Author of Tax Bill. He parked it next to his pre-selected burial plot at the State Cemetery – strategically visible from Cisco’s, one of his favorite breakfast spots.  He had years to admire it before it became his final address and took pride, I believe, in remembering how he had fought the taxation battles.  “Nobody wants to be taxed,” he would admit, but taxes are necessary to keep the government in business.  Granted, many  factors contributed to his continual electoral victories even with his name on tax bills year after year, but I wonder how close state government will come to self-destruction before someone, re-election be damned,  takes up Jumbo’s mantle and begins a frank discussion of how this state can expect to thrive on less and less revenue with an ever-growing population demanding more services.  The fact is that Texas cannot win the lottery to solve its economic woes, and given that reality, it’s worrisome to think of what the state — not just its employees — may endure before we see the likes of another author of tax bills.

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About nowandthenadays

Observer of life who writes about Austin, women's issues, history, and politics. I retired as a Texas Assistant Attorney General after almost 40 years in state government in May, 2013.
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5 Responses to We are not Sucking Aliens

  1. dax says:

    Really well put.

  2. JPM says:

    Well said, Jeffee. Oliver Wendell Holmes said “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.” When elected leaders grow more concerned with their own elective hides than the common good of the governed, our civilization suffers, and we have little enough of that already.

    • Thanks for that addition from OWH, John! I heard a senator on television describing how senators were forced to vote against their self-interest, defined as their re-election prospects. Apparently, the interest of a state or the nation doesn’t matter!

  3. Ruthie says:

    I love your thoughts. Kenneth get “no respect” as a government worker. We had just joined Onion Creek (14 years ago) and were at a Meet & Greet affair for new members. A member asked me what my husband did for a living. I explained that he worked for the State of Texas. He nose looking down comment was something like, “A state worker?!?” Needless to say we didn’t “rate”. Bullock had his faults but he loved Texas and was a visionary. (Bullock was also very kind towards Kenneth when Kenneth was in need of a job.)

    • I hear you loud and clear. Another attorney in our office told me about an attorney in the private sector who was getting “desperate enough” to come work for the State….as if that was as low as she could go. No question about it….Bullock loved Texas.

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