The prospect of cutting thousands of jobs is something no one, not even a Republican candidate for governor, likes to contemplate.
Asked whether he'd ever had to let people go in the course of his career in the public and private sectors, Charlie Baker nodded, adding, "It's not a lot of fun."
Yet the widening gap between private- and public-sector wages and benefits has left state and municipal chief executives with little choice. If they're to grant the annual pay increases public employees have come to regard as their due, and at the same time fund the "Cadillac" medical plans and generous, defined-benefit pensions that are part of almost every government worker's contract, the only alternative is to cut personnel.
In a meeting last week at our sister paper The Salem News, Baker said addressing the state's growing budget deficit (estimated at $1 billion to $2 billion for the fiscal year beginning July 1) will be his first priority if he succeeds in winning the Republican nomination and getting himself elected governor this year. And that will require either eliminating jobs or renegotiating contracts, he added, making clear that the latter would be his first preference.
Unfortunately, past experience both on Beacon Hill and in city and town halls indicates that the unions have not yet accepted what Baker terms "the new normal" — the need to do more with less.
Teacher unions have steadfastly opposed efforts to replace annual cost-of-living raises — which reward the worst teachers as much as the best ones — with merit pay. And union resistance generally has thwarted initiatives aimed at reducing health costs like the one that would allow cities and towns to join the state's Group Insurance Commission.
As a result, the state and municipalities' obligations in terms of personnel costs have exceeded what their employers — the taxpayers — are able or willing to pay.
It's a reality mayors and selectmen have had to live with for many years now, Baker noted.
It's the reason you'll find many public safety and public works agencies, at least, operating with the same or fewer people than they had a decade ago. It's the reason you now pay extra for your kids to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities that used to be considered part of the overall school experience. And it's the reason why, while your property tax bill seems to go up every year, the library doesn't stay open as late as it used to and the snowplows are a little slower getting to your street after a storm.
The greatest task facing the next governor — whether it's Baker; his Republican rival, Christy Mihos; state Treasurer Tim Cahill; or the incumbent, Deval Patrick — will be convincing those in the public employ that there's a new reality they must accept. They must be made to realize that the days of guaranteed overtime, sick leave buybacks, and sweetheart pension deals — all concepts virtually unknown in the private sector — must end.
The alternative is either wholesale layoffs — 5 percent to 10 percent of the state work force is what Baker says could be required — or a taxpayer revolt that will make the cuts required by 1980's Proposition 21âÑ2 look modest by comparison.