As state legislatures prepare to begin their 2011 sessions, one thing is clear - state employees are going to get screwed. Actually, anyone who relies on government, i.e., everyone, is going to get screwed. It appears the screwdriver is currently being borrowed by Wisconsin.
It's a simple rule of economics: less money means less services. So whether you are employed by the government, or just use their services - like courts, schools, or roads, you'll feel the effects of multi-billion dollar deficits in many states.
Every year as legislatures commence session, the same issues exist in the criminal justice system: will there be more funding for judges, raises for prosecutors and public defenders, will drug and other rehab programs continue? One thing that is always assured, though, is more statutes creating more crimes. Even when prosecutors go to legislatures and beg that no new criminal offenses be created ("we have the tools"), politicians find it much easier to increase a penalty from 5 years to 10 years than to revamp the state's health care system, or figure out a way to provide economic incentives for corporations to move to the state.
Particularly this year, we will deal with the issue of state employees contributing more to their pensions and health insurance - what is more typically referred to as "benefits."
"Benefits," are the lynch pin to public employment. The hook, the reason many stay in the public sector. Over the years I have tried to hire a secretary or two from the prosecutor or public defender's office, and even with an offer of more salary, been turned down. Sure I offer health insurance and a retirement plan, but it's not as good as the state plan, and there's no guarantee of 9-5 with two breaks, or an occasional weekend session preparing a case. There's also no guarantee of employment in the private sector. It's well known that unless you kill someone, getting fired from state government is nearly unheard of.
In the private sector, people are fired for poor performance. In the public sector, well, one time I had a secretary in the public defender's office that couldn't do anything right. As an example, she would set depositions of witnesses, not put it in my calendar, and when I was out of the office, angry witnesses would call wondering why I wasted their time.
I was asked what I wanted done about it. "Fire her."
"We don't fire people here."
There are different types of people who seek public sector work, particularly when it comes to prosecutors and public defenders.
There are those who know they will be there for a few years to get experience, and then leave. There are those who want a career as government lawyers, and there are those who aren't sure, but "wind up" staying either out of passion for the job, or a lack of desire or fear of private practice.
When I was a public defender I paid $93 a month for health insurance. Now I pay, well, not $93 a month. I don't remember paying anything into a retirement plan, now I pay a percentage of my income every year. There were other benefits offered for a few dollars a month, benefits for which I now pay hundreds of dollars a month.
So while the salaries are lower in public life (but not always) the benefits are what keep people there, even those who complain about the lack of raises.
Now our state governments plan to gut benefits, making public sector lawyers contribute more to pensions and health insurance.
And there's lots of complaints.
State budgets pay a majority of their monies to three entities - education, health care, and of course, corrections (jails). Courts are generally a small percentage, but prosecutors and public defenders are part of the state employment system and are included in pension and health costs.
States can't afford it anymore. And I think the message, while subtle, is clear - government service is no longer a welcomed career.
They want you there for a couple years, and out. It's better to pay a prosecutor or public defender $40,000 for 3 years than keep them there for 25, with increases in salary and benefits every year, eventually paying a yearly pension upon retirement.
I was there for three years. I began accumulating a pension from day one, but because I left before 10 years, I forfeited the money. If I ever went back (not likely for most) I would recapture those years and they would count towards an eventual pension amount, but again, the state usually wins that bet.
Long term state employees cost long term money. It used to be that the message was "stay here, make less money, and we'll take care of you in the long term."
Those days are gone.
The effects are many. We will lose those experienced prosecutors and public defenders that handle the large and complicated cases. The private sector will be better positioned to compete for new hires as the lure of "benefits" will no longer be as impressive.
This is where we are going. Our state governments are entering an age of conservativism that brings with it a philosophy that the state should not compete with the private sector where the result is to take business away from private business.
Prosecutors and public defenders believe that both salary and benefit cuts are the proverbial "straw," but I think this is the government's intention.
They want you out soon. You cost too much money.
Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. Post to Twitter
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