Public servants feel sting of budget rancor

Washington Post's Lisa Rein talks to federal workers about President Obama's proposal to stop pay increases for two million federal employees.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 12:43 AM

Here are two words you don't hear much lately: public servant.

More and more, when politicians talk about government employees - whether they are federal, state or local - it is with the kind of umbrage ordinarily aimed at Wall Street financiers and convenience store bandits.

"We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and the taxpayers who foot the bill are the have-nots," Wisconsin's incoming Republican Gov. Scott Walker declared this month, as he raised the idea of stripping state workers there of collective bargaining rights.

Outgoing Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is mulling a GOP presidential bid, also sounded a class-war note last week on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal: "Unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt."

That might sound like standard rhetoric from small-government Republicans. But at a time of staggering fiscal problems, Democrats, who have counted public-employee unions among their most stalwart allies, also are taking a noticeably tougher line.

New York Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo is girding for battle there, warning that state employee salaries and benefits are unsustainable at a time when the state has a $9 billion deficit.

Relative job security with generous benefits that extend into retirement has long been part of the appeal of working for the government. But an eight-hour day in a drab Independence Avenue office building can look like a supremely privileged lifestyle when Americans in the private sector are panicked and furious over what has happened to their own salaries, health coverage and 401 (k)s.

Add to that the growing view that the government has gotten too big and that deficits are going to swallow the economy, and you have all the makings of a backlash.

Three-quarters of those who were surveyed in an October Washington Post poll said they believe federal workers get better pay and benefits than people doing similar jobs outside the government, and 52 percent said government employees are overpaid.

When the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this month sampled public opinion on the major proposals that were put forward by the president's deficit and debt reduction commission, the most popular by far - and the only one deemed "totally acceptable" by a majority of respondents - was freezing the salaries of federal employees and members of Congress for three years.

Officials of public employee unions say they have felt political wrath before, but that this time, it feels different.

"The extent and the depth of it is new. This is a concerted, deep attack on public employees and public workers," said Gerald W. McEntee, president of the 1.6-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "The problem in the economy has not been created by public workers. It was created by Wall Street, and this political sleight of hand will do nothing to solve the problem."

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