The East Oregonian
A proposed ballot measure for 2020 would force Oregonians to have a serious discussion about the role of public employees.
A self-described government watchdog group called Priority Oregon wants public employees throughout the state to have similar pay and benefits to what private employees receive. On Tuesday, the business-oriented group filed the initial paperwork for its proposed constitutional amendment that would mandate “Equal Pay for Equal Work.”
Priority Oregon, which does not disclose its funders, has been a sharp critic of Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and Democratic legislative proposals.
The assumption is that public-employee compensation would decrease, freeing tax dollars for other uses. But the ballot measure could cut both ways.
The proposal raises a fundamental question: Should public and private employees be equally compensated? If so, the governor, city managers and school superintendents — even legislators — could argue for hefty pay raises when compared with private-sector equivalents. CEOs and boards of directors make far more in the corporate world. Government IT professionals, and certainly many lawyers and doctors, could make more.
The larger issue is that an unwritten social contract has governed public compensation for generations. The private sector involves greater risk of success or failure, and thus the potential financial rewards are greater. In contrast, public employees generally have experienced greater job security, although that is lessening. In exchange for that security, they have received lower salaries but good benefits. If that social contract is to be changed, society’s expectations must change as well.
Priority Oregon contends that Oregon public employees generally have much better pensions, more paid time off and lower health-care premiums than most private-sector employees. That is accurate.
Salary is a different matter. Scads of statistical studies have been conducted, but all they have proved is the difficulty of comparing public and private pay for “similar” jobs. In conducting those analyses, numerous assumptions are made about what constitutes a comparable job as far as duties, working conditions and qualifications. That explains why practically any group can find a salary study to support its particular viewpoint.
For decades, Oregon has struggled, and failed, to find definitive answers. It would be expecting a lot of future legislatures to “Establish criteria to guide public employers’ determinations of when an employee’s job is like or comparable to the job of an individual in Oregon who is not employed by a public employer,” as required by the proposed ballot measure.
The proposal is a long way from reaching the 2020 ballot, if it does. But it raises intriguing questions.