Berg: Government unions, your property tax bill and the power of giving

Illinoisans are a giving bunch. In fact, no state sees a higher share of its population donate money to charity, according to a WalletHub study released in November. That’s something to be proud of.

But there’s a difference between giving thanks and getting played. And when it comes to the largest tax Illinoisans pay – property taxes – they’re made to be suckers. Political leaders have taken advantage of their generosity. And now the deck is stacked against reform at a time when relief could not be more crucial.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the powers granted to government worker unions. Wonder why Illinois property taxes are so high? This out-of-whack power balance has a lot to do with it.

Government worker unions in Illinois enjoy unlimited scope in bargaining subjects, no limits on the length of most contracts, and the power to shut it all down if they don’t get what they want.

Taken together, that’s a toxic trio. Every neighboring state has taken steps to rein in at least one of those powers. Illinois is a laggard in this regard – the last holdout.

First, the “right” to shut down government services. All of Illinois’ neighboring states – Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa and Wisconsin – prohibit strikes for most or all government workers. The reason is simple: Government worker strikes are not the same as strikes in the private sector. Instead of hurting the party on the other side of the negotiating table, innocent residents reliant on services take the hit.

But in Illinois, a “right to strike” is actually enshrined in state law. The result? Since 2012 alone, the Chicago Teachers Union has gone on strike or threatened to go on strike at least four times. In May, faculty at the University of Illinois-Springfield walked out on students a week before finals. And in February, Illinois’ largest government worker union, which represents 35,000 state workers, authorized a strike should Gov. Bruce Rauner implement a contract the union didn’t like.

Because there are virtually no limits on the length of contracts or what may be bargained for, this strike power is a cudgel for outrageous deals at taxpayers’ expense.

Just look at what happened in Palatine. Local taxpayers are on the hook for a 10-year teachers contract, locking in years of pay hikes while private sector incomes stagnate.

And in Chicago, Inspector General Joe Ferguson divulged earlier this year that the city “doesn’t need to employ” 200 motor truck drivers who secured a 10-year deal in 2007, in advance of the city’s failed 2016 Olympics bid.

That’s really the crux of the issue. Decadelong deals can’t account for changes in technology or economic conditions. They also prevent accountability for elected officials. Voters can oust politicians, but those contracts will remain on the books for years, regardless of who’s in charge.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana and Michigan all restrict the length of collective bargaining agreements for some or all government workers.

Most of Illinois’ neighbors also protect taxpayers by limiting the subjects over which government worker unions can negotiate. But in the Land of Lincoln, government worker unions can bargain over almost anything related to a worker’s employment.

This harms taxpayers in two ways. The first is in legal costs. It can take eons to iron out all the details of the contract. Illinois state workers have been without a contract for more than two years as negotiations, and now court proceedings, have dragged on.

Second, a virtually unlimited range of negotiable subjects means taxpayers are often on the hook for perks that most of them wouldn’t expect in private sector jobs. A contract between the city of Kankakee and the Office and Professional Employees International Union, for example, mandates that employees get a day off for their birthdays.

In Wisconsin and Iowa, most government worker unions negotiate over base wages. That’s it.

So if Illinois lawmakers are soliciting gift ideas for their constituents, they only need to take a peek over the state border. Balancing the scales at the bargaining table is an essential step in fixing the property tax problem.

• Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

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