Ohio Just the Opening Volley in Coming Pension Wars

| Wed Nov. 9, 2011 1:09 PM EST

In a referendum last night, Ohio voters decisively repealed a law that curbed collective-bargaining rights for public-sector workers:

AP has declared Issue 2 (as the law was called on the ballot) dead. As of this writing, with about 75 percent of precincts in, repeal led by a whopping 62 to 38 percent margin.

Gov. John Kasich (R) took office in January vowing to curb unions’ power. But he appears to have overstepped his hand in curtailing the rights of 350,000 public workers — including firefighters and police officers — to negotiate over benefits, equipment and other issues....By including firefighters and police officers in the legislation, Republicans in Ohio set themselves up for a far more difficult fight. Wisconsin’s collective bargaining law made exceptions for both.

This is a real dilemma for conservatives—and frankly, for liberals too. Kasich may have gone too far, but at the same time, there are real problems with public-sector pensions in a lot of states. One way or another, voters are going to have to decide how to handle this, but here's the dilemma: The biggest abuses come from the very public safety professions that voters are most sympathetic toward. Right-wing governors get a lot of mileage from attacking teachers and "chair-warming" bureaucrats, but it's not teachers who get to retire at age 50, it's not teachers who get to retire at upwards of 90 percent of their working-age salaries, and it's not teachers who engage in "spiking" that can raise their retirement pay well above their working-age salaries. That stuff mostly happens in the public safety arena.

Pension reform is already close to impossible because you can't legally change contracts for existing workers without their agreement, and for obvious reasons existing workers aren't likely to give up their lucrative pension deals. But those pension deals are going to cost taxpayers a lot of money over the next few decades, and in some states that cost is going to be impossible to deal with. That's two impossible things colliding, and the third impossible thing is the public's support for the very occupations that are costing them the most.

I'm not sure how this is going to play out over the coming years. But it's going to be tough sledding for everyone: liberals, conservatives, public sector workers, and taxpayers. Ohio was just the warmup.

UPDATE: The first sentence has been changed. Sorry for the confusion. Issue 2 was a ballot measure that asked for approval of Senate Bill 5, an anti-union bill. The "no" vote garnered 61 percent and SB 5 was repealed.