Prisoner of the Union
When California governor Jerry Brown announced details last month of a two-year contract that he’d negotiated with California’s prison guards’ union, you could practically hear the sighs of disappointment from stalwarts who had hoped that the 73-year-old maverick might take on a few vested interests as he tried to close the state’s $15 billion budget gap. That hope was always at odds with reality: last year, public-sector unions poured $30 million into independent campaign expenditures on Brown’s behalf, including $2 million from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). So the favorable new union contract shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it should deflate the wishful thinking that Brown is likely to be a radical reformer—unless you consider extending tax increases and restricting the use of state cars and cell phones real reform.
The state’s old contract with CCPOA allowed retiring prison guards to collect a payout for up to 80 unused vacation days. In practice, that limit was often unenforced—but the new contract removes it altogether, letting guards bank an unlimited amount of vacation time. That will make it much easier to retire with six-figure payouts. Already, as a Sacramento Bee story has revealed, some state employees have walked away with as much as $800,000 in banked vacation time; the new CCPOA contract will make that more common. In fact, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that guards and their supervisors have 33 million vacation hours banked, which could cost taxpayers $1 billion or more. All this is in addition to prison guards’ “3 percent at 50” retirement arrangement, which allows them to retire as young as 50 with up to 90 percent of their final year’s pay—and the guards commonly spike those generous pensions with various gimmicks, such as filing disability claims shortly before retirement.
The problems with the CCPOA deal aren’t limited to the vacation-time giveaway. An editorial in Long Beach’s right-leaning Press-Telegram recently complained, “Brown’s deal reverses some reforms that were made under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, such as the requirement that guards meet physical fitness standards and that allows managers to take action against sick time abuse. To top it off, the deal includes a pay increase.” As the newspaper reminded readers, this wasn’t the first time that the guards had benefited from special treatment. In 2003, for example, Governor Gray Davis “agreed to raise the pay of 30,000 prison guards by 34 percent over five years shortly before he was dumped from office.”
By taking advantage of a decades-old bidding war between Democrats and Republicans, all of whom want the union’s endorsement in order to appear tough on crime, the union has resisted any reform that would reduce costs in the state’s prison system. The result: California has an annual per-inmate cost of almost $49,000, higher than the national average of $30,000 and far higher than the $17,000 in low-cost Oklahoma. The CCPOA resists efforts at outsourcing any component of the prison system, including medical care, and the union even rallied recently to block reforms that would keep corrupt guards from smuggling cell phones to inmates. As a Stanford Criminal Justice Center report in 2006 argued, “California’s bloated and dysfunctional corrections system epitomizes what is wrong with state government—hopelessly inefficient, captive of special interests, and growing beyond its means.”
Reason’s Tim Cavanaugh pegged the governor’s accord with the guards as “the exact moment when the extremely faint hope that Governor Brown might be a Nixon-in-China-style reformer was shot down.” Jon Coupal, president of the tax-fighting Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, called the contract a “dead-bang giveaway” that saved very little money in the short term and provided no savings beyond that. Coupal, whose organization ran independent ads last year on behalf of Brown’s gubernatorial opponent, Meg Whitman, added that the deal should prove once and for all that organized labor has Brown on a “leash.” Coupal’s got a point. If Brown can offer this sop to the prison guards’ union in the middle of a budget crisis, then there seems little chance that he’ll take on any other union or interest group in the state. As the Press-Telegram put it: “Brown promised to be a governor of some independence, looking after Californians’ best interests when managing the budget. This deal shows that promise to be empty.”