The ability of states to modify or renege on existing public employee pension funds seems to depend on the nature of a given state’s constitution, and relevant interpretations of it. In the past, such alterations were considered nearly impossible. But as of late, as challenges to them go forward, it appears they may not be so ironclad.
This is a development with an impact beyond any immediate effect on soon to be retiring workers or on state budgets. Soon enough, there is sure to be an effect on the ability of states to hire workers, and the quality of workers states find themselves able to hire.
Private sector workers vulnerable to the vicissitudes of corporate rapaciousness long have been subject to such modifications to pensions or outright reneging on them. But states aren’t profit-seeking entities, nor does one expect a representative body of the people to adopt the low scale of morality by which corporations abide. And it’s particularly galling for those affected knowing that recession related revenue losses as well as pension depreciations can be traced to reckless behavior in the private sector by those in the income brackets current Republican officials on the warpath for employee pensions perpetually seek to reward and protect, whatever the economic or budget conditions. Sacrifice? Not from them.
Adjusting pension benefits or any other kind of benefits or compensation for future employees is one matter of course.. That’s a full disclosure sort of arrangement being made. But revising, or reneging on pensions mid-stream is the breaking of a compact that should be legitimately sacred. And once done, in particular if a pattern of such copycat behavior emerges from state to state, real consequences are certain to follow, if not immediately, before long.
Messing around with workers’ pensions can only be considered an extremely unfair and morally dicey undertaking. Many important life decisions have been made by thousands of individuals partially on the basis of expectations related to pensions, and pulling the rug out at the time of disbursement cannot be justified.
Even if budgets are in fact in crisis, the recent gutting of pensions has been a clear-cut example of political and ideological vindictiveness, and union-busting pure and simple. In other words, public employees have been designated acceptable scapegoats for myriad budget decisions over time, and and in the case of new Republican governors, a trade-off for lower and lower tax responsibility for corporations and the affluent. Again, this cannot be morally justified.
The bottom line is that past hires have been enticed to take difficult and demanding jobs with a great deal of responsibility, whether it’s the teachers employed to educate your kids, or the administrative worker you depend upon to get your Social Security check on time. They were enticed by the promise that in lieu of wages at levels not comparable to those in the private sector they would have the expectation of future security when their working lives were done. Not only is failure to honor this compact contemptible in itself, it bodes poorly for the ability of states and cities to hire the sort of dependable and competent workers they are sure to want and sure to need in the near future. And it’s not going to be easy: in fact, it may be next to impossible if current arrangements are callously discarded mid-stream.
And besides that, the ideological blitheness and political crudity with which Republican state legislatures and governors have sought to renege on these commitments to public workers are politically, and more importantly, morally loathsome.