The state of worker freedom 2015

It’s been a tough year for Big Labor. From the worker freedom side, states are switching over to right-to-work status which gives the working man the ability to put hundreds of dollars more in their pockets annually by reducing or eliminating the forced payment of union dues. Meanwhile, the environmental lobby has grabbed the attention of the Obama administration from the left, meaning no Keystone XL pipeline the Teamsters support and a more rapid demise of the United Mine Workers union thanks to EPA regulations discouraging the use of coal. Ironically, Big Labor has allies on both those environmental issues in the Republican Party they rail against while shoveling millions to those who support the environmentalists.

But today I want to take a brief look at the former issue. In the next few months, there’s a good chance that Missouri could join the ranks of right-to-work states despite the fact it has a Democratic governor – the GOP has significant majorities in both houses of its legislature so it’s merely a matter of intestinal fortitude on their part.

After that, though, the pickings are far more slim. Most of the remaining closed-shop states have either a Democrat-controlled legislature – which means any right-to-work legislation is dead on arrival, as is annually the case in Maryland – or a Democratic governor who won’t sign it and knows the votes aren’t there to override. That eliminates most of the states which toil under closed shops.

A couple exceptions to this are Alaska and Ohio, but these states aren’t promising for different reasons. Alaska has a Republican-controlled legislature and a governor who is a Republican-turned-independent who ran on a unity ticket with the Democratic nominee to defeat former GOP Gov. Sean Parnell. But there’s no real push to adopt such legislation as it appears the energy industry, which is the state’s predominant private employer, is comfortable with the closed shops.

On the other hand, Ohio tried to pass right-to-work reforms in 2011 but they were overturned via referendum that same year. In an election year with solely local offices on the ballot, Big Labor was able to mobilize its army of volunteers and fool enough of the others to win a sizable victory. And while the dire predictions that the defeat of right-to-work would make Gov. John Kasich a one-term governor didn’t pan out, the current Presidential candidate has no appetite to go through that fight again. Moreover, GOP members of the Ohio legislature aren’t going to risk anything that could enhance Democratic turnout in a state Republicans need to carry in 2016.

So the fight in Missouri may be the last right-to-work battleground for awhile. It may be Labor Day of 2017 before we get significant movement one way or the other.

To the left, the world is not enough

I’ve probably given as many pixels to failed candidate Rick Weiland as anyone outside his native South Dakota, but it’s because I think he’s very useful as a gauge of reactionary liberalism in a part of the nation which has maintained a streak of populism surprising for such a rural area. While the South has gone almost completely Republican, those in the rural Midwest will occasionally elect Democrats they deem to be centrists or populists on a statewide level. South Dakota has rejected Weiland several times, but it doesn’t mean he’ll stop trying and to me that exhibits precisely how the far left operates and why it’s important to hear about their desires. (He could also use the money since he can’t manage his campaign funds, but I digress.)

So yesterday, in the wake of the debate about CRomnibus, I received a missive called “We can’t breathe!” from which I quote in part:

The revenge of the money changers is in full swing in Congress today.

Let the big banks have their swaps back. Let Las Vegas advertise itself with your tax dollars. Increase by 1000% the amount billionaires can contribute to buy off our political parties.

Men of color are not the only ones they have in a choke-hold – now they’ve got all of us – and it’s way past time to tell them none of us can breathe!

Emboldened by the Obama-haters they just elected, Wall Street is readying the nooses for Obamacare and Dodd-Frank. They think they can’t be stopped.

But WE can stop them!

24 states allow initiatives and referendums – 24 states where you can show them exactly what you think of their choke-hold on the rest of us.

So let’s put what they are doing to us on the ballot in those 24 states and find out who is right.

(snip)

Help us close down the debt on my just completed Senate campaign, and fire up our initiative and referendum team. Because we are going to turn our little state into a laboratory for direct democracy.

A laboratory and an export market.

Let’s put Citizens United, Ferguson, and Big Bank plutocracy on trial at the ballot box.

Because when you go down fighting instead of whimpering, a funny thing often happens: people notice, then they think a little, and pretty soon they’re fighting too.

If you have to vote on it you have to think about it.  So let’s put our ideas directly on the ballot and pick a fight. (All emphasis in original.)

This is the mirror-reverse of the strategy Maryland Republicans tried in 2012 to petition already-enacted legislation to referendum, which failed. Looking back, I wonder if the Maryland Republican Party isn’t kicking itself for not placing the “bathroom bill” or 2013 gun bill on the ballot this year – we may have even had a more shocking victory by repealing both laws. (The counter-argument, of course, is the “sleeping dog” school of thought which liked the Democrats’ low turnout – perhaps the inclusion of those ballot measures would have hurt Larry Hogan’s chances by bringing out more liberal Democrats.)

It’s also true that, even in the face of a Republican wave election, four states that had a minimum wage increase on the ballot, including the aforementioned South Dakota, passed these measures while electing Republican Senators – in Alaska and Arkansas the Democrats seeking re-election to the Senate were defeated on that same ballot. (Nebraska was the fourth state.) Again, this shows the streak of populism which occurs in the Midwest.

Obviously Weiland sees a trend, exhibited in his home state, where direct democracy can succeed in accomplishing those things a representative republic would not. As the minimum wage example shows, people can be fooled into voting against their best interests – that’s why we were founded as a Constitutional republic.

Weiland’s mindset is shared by a lot of people, though. Witness the populist appeal to Southern voters espoused by the writer of the linked New Republic piece, Michael A. Cooper, Jr., who pleads with his party:

Speaking as a southerner, we need help, not from the DCCC but from government to deal with issues like homelessness and drug addiction.

These aren’t esoteric concerns Beltway liberals tut-tut about like global warming or political correctness, but true pocketbook issues which unfortunately tend to affect the poorest among us. Conservatives would prefer these issues be dealt with on more of a faith-based level through private charity but it can also be addressed by local and state governments. (By the way, thanks to Jackie Wellfonder for bringing the New Republic piece to my attention just in time for me to add it in because it fit the point so well.)

Just as the right has its TEA Party movement which has cooled to the mainstream Republican party – and for good reason – many activists on the left are embracing their new savior as Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose populist screed against Wall Street has won the backing of elements of the Democrat Party who think Barack Obama sold them out and Hillary Clinton is too close to the right wing. They are also fed up with the government, but stare at the problem from the other side of the fence because they want the power of government to regulate corporatism out of existence, or rein it in as fascism dictates.

Meanwhile, while these Warren acolytes whine about what Barack Obama is not providing them, they fail to see that many of their goals are being realized anyway. Truly it’s the Right that’s not being served.

As the new year arrives and Republicans take over Congress (along with the governor’s chair in Annapolis) we will begin to see all the stories and tales of woe unreported on over the last six years. There’s a lot of work to do, and Republican leaders in Congress didn’t get off on the right foot by passing CRomnibus. We must demand, now that we’ve granted them the opportunity to complete the FY2016 budget in regular order as they’ve wished to do for several years, that our priorities be the ones funded and the mistakes of the last six years deleted.

Perhaps we can also do our part in using the referendum system in advancing conservative causes as well. Two can play that game, and it’s just as important to motivate our voters as it is for the other side to buy theirs.

Crunching some numbers

In terms of determining just how massive the potential ticking time bombs of state debt and dependence on federal government subsidy are, there are few groups as useful as State Budget Solutions. The advocacy group recently released two studies to which those who run for office in Maryland should be paying particular attention.

First of all, SBS annually calculates the total amount of state debt each state labors under as it tries to get the financial house in order. While Maryland’s debt is nowhere near as unmanageable as that of other states like California – which is nearly $800 billion in the long-term hole – their $94.2 billion unfunded liability is nothing to sneeze at. Of that $94 billion, SBS determined that $68.3 billion was unfunded public pension liabilities, $16.5 billion was outstanding bond debt, and $9.4 billion in what they call OPEB liabilities, described as “mainly retiree health care.” Considering our latest budget proposal for FY2015 is just a shade under $40 billion, the debt we are carrying could theoretically take our entire state budget for the next 29 months or so.

SBS slices and dices up these numbers for every state, and in comparison to some others Maryland doesn’t look that bad – while their overall debt is 14th in the country, it’s only 20th per capita. We rank just ahead of Virginia on the overall debt, but Virginia’s per capita debt is just 41st. On the other hand, while Delaware’s overall debt is 43rd by virtue of its small size, their per capita debt ranks ahead of Maryland as Delaware is 17th.

The second study comes at a time when federal influence in state budgets is at an all-time high. The good people at SBS determined that the average state received 31.6% of its budget in the form of transfers from Uncle Sam. Surprisingly, Maryland is just a little below that mean as they only get 30.25% of their money directly from Washington, D.C. Obviously this doesn’t tell the whole story because so many of Maryland’s workers are employed by the federal government so they get the transfer from a middleman who might be a lowly clerical employee or a high-ranking Cabinet officer – as long as they reside in Maryland, the state derives some of its revenue indirectly from the federal government that way.

All this is made more interesting by the fact that Virginia received the third-lowest share from the federal government, with just 23.53% of state funds being federally-supplied. Delaware was also very low in the rankings, getting only 24.46% from the federal government. (The highest was Mississippi at 45.35%, lowest Alaska at 19.98%.)

But imagine the nation trimming its sails to Alaska’s level: we would save about $51 billion annually.

Of course, the idea of block-granting various functions to the states using federal money has strong appeal to conservatives who believe the states could best determine how to spend their money. All that is true, but I never cared for the idea of government as pass-through conduit. To me it would be better just to have the state do all the work.

I’m hoping the four gubernatorial candidates on our side are familiar with this group’s work because they could all stand to benefit from the insight.