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New York Post

 

The Big Gov't Crowd

September 27, 2010

By Steven Malanga

The Tea Party movement may have arisen to protest rising deficits and increasing federal control of everything from health care to the auto industry -- but the big-government coalition it’s fighting wasn’t born in Washington. The federal agenda that the movement is now battling to overturn originated in state capitals like Albany, Trenton and Sacramento.

This agenda has been promoted with growing success in the last 50 years by a self-interested coalition of public-sector unions and social-advocacy groups that benefit from bigger government, higher taxes and more public control of the economy. Merely “taking back” Congress on Election Day won’t stop the relentless rise of this coalition, which has at its disposal enormous resources.

President Obama is an expression of the big-government coalition, and his election to the White House was a signature event in its rise to power. He began his public life as a Chicago community activist heading a nonprofit funded heavily by government to organize neighborhood residents into a political force.

As a young college graduate immersed in the world of tax-bankrolled activism, Obama learned a lesson that many other activists also absorbed: To protect the funding that created and nourished their groups, community organizers like him had to head into politics.

An attractive candidate, Obama garnered the support of other activists in his Illinois campaigns, laying the groundwork for his presidential run. Members of ACORN, the controversial social-service group, were among his biggest supporters and worked hard to elect Obama to the US Senate, according to a 2003 article by a Chicago-area ACORN organizer.

In New York, government-funded activists long ago took the same road into politics as the young Obama. Organizers like Ramon Velez (who ran a vast, government-funded nonprofit network in The Bronx), Pedro Espada (who founded and ran Bronx health clinics) and Vito Lopez (who built a Queens social-service empire) all leapt from community activism into state and local politics.

By the early 1990s, in fact, a fifth of all New York City Council members and 15 percent of state legislators had come out of the social-service world. They could be counted on to advocate for higher taxes and more money for government services.

Over time, these activists partnered with another growing force in local government that shared their affinity for bigger government -- public-sector unions. These groups became important players in city halls and state capitals starting in the late 1950s, when then-New York City Mayor Robert Wagner gave public employees the right to collectively bargain in order to win their support in his battles with the Tammany Hall political machine.

Quickly, other big-city mayors and governors also began granting employees the right to negotiate with government for wages and pay -- ignoring the critics who pointed out that because government was a monopoly, public workers could hold cities and states hostage by going on strike.

The critics’ fears soon came to pass. In 1966 alone, teacher strikes shut down some three dozen urban school systems. When states began limiting public employees’ right to strike, unions quickly figured out a new strategy centered on becoming politically active in legislatures and city councils.

The evolution was quick. One example: In 1970s California, the most influential groups in state politics were the private-industry associations of the trial lawyers, insurance companies, doctors and hospitals. But by the mid-1980s, the biggest donors to political campaigns and spenders of lobbying dollars in Sacramento were public-sector unions for teachers, state employees, police, firefighters and prison guards.

The rise of these groups coincided with a growing public-sector ability to win big pay and benefit raises, including pension benefits. One startling result: Today, states and cities face an estimated $3 trillion in unfunded pension and retiree-health benefits for public employees -- a burden that will squeeze budgets for decades.

The big-government coalition heavily supported candidate Obama for president, and he has rewarded them. The various stimulus packages of the last year and a half have included hundreds of billions of dollars to preserve state and local government jobs. Much of this aid came with huge strings attached: Local governments that took the money committed to not cutting their program spending or reducing their workforce.

But perhaps the biggest boost to this coalition has been ObamaCare. Public unions heavily lobbied for the plan, even though most of their members already have health coverage. Their leaders know it will be good for the unions’ “business”: As government has increased its involvement in health care through programs like Medicare and Medicaid, politicians have written rules and requirements for these programs that make union organizing easier. That’s one reason why health-care unionization rates remain above the average for the rest of the private economy.

This coalition’s power is unlikely to fade even if the Tea Party movement pushes Congress back toward the center. The real reform battles need to be fought in state capitals and city halls, where this big-government coalition remains powerful and where it gathers the resources that give it so much leverage in Washington. Will the Tea Party aim at this target after November?

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/the_big_gov_crowd_ZH5w865ZksmDCA3CXeMhfN

 

 
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