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Stucknation – With Washington Deadlocked, States and Cities Get Creative

July 5, 2011
By Bob Hennelly

Our federal government and the self-perpetuating partisanship that resides there are now a threat to our national and fiscal security. As they run out the clock on the debt ceiling debate, they play golf or mug for the ever-present camera. It’s a game for them.

The national leadership is so caught up in their pursuit of power and re-election that they are entirely disconnected from the very real social and economic dislocation their corporatist and partisan politics have wrought.

In the immediate aftermath of the great collapse of 2008, the nation bailed out the banks, and promises were made about helping homeowners who were facing foreclosure. Those promises were not kept by either party, and the value of the real estate on Main Street America just continues its downward slide unabated.

Right now the only sign of adult bipartisan leadership and forward momentum is coming from the states, local officials and average citizens who sense the country’s dire condition. They are putting their desire to serve the people over their party. And while you can disagree with the policy result, you have to respect that they are putting something at risk by acting out of their comfort zone to accomplish something greater than there own self-engradisement.

Leave it to the U.S. Conference of Mayors to try and send a wake up call to the self-absorbed beltway about the actual cost of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of the lost opportunity for re-building our fraying nation and its hurting cities.

In the Empire State, Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic and Republican legislators govern a state short on cash but that did not stop them from trying to make it a more just and inclusive place by embracing marriage equality.

In Trenton, conservative Republican Governor Chris Christie spent months beating up on the Democrats who control the state legislature. But when it came down to the wire, he worked behind closed doors with Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Shelia Oliver to fashion a compromise that both sides hope will save the state’s public employee pension and health care benefits without bankrupting local governments.

Perhaps it’s that at the state and municipal level there are no abstracting the results when there is a failure to lead. And so Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rising star in the Democratic Party, embraced Christie’s call for trying to contain the ever-upward spiral of pension and health care costs.

Booker had to layoff 163 officers – 13 percent of his police force – because the costs of continuing to keep the fringe benefit costs current on the rest of the work force.

At an editorial meeting at WNYC, Booker said Christie’s “pugilistic style” gave him pause.

“To me Chris Christie’s plan is right. We need somehow to curb benefits and make them more rational,” said Mayor Booker. “It is ridiculous to me that have a health care system with out public workers where there is no conception of cost on the part of provider, no conception of cost on the consumer, and what does that do in any environment it is going to drive up costs.”

Booker said the state had “sacred cows” that it could no longer afford like the requirement that public employees receive the total value of unused sick days when they retired.

“These big buyouts that people get for unused sick days – they weren’t sick,” said Booker. “Why are we buying them out? Why do I have to pay to my police officers upwards of a quarter of a million dollars for people walking out the door for unused sick time. You know what I could do with a quarter of a million dollars. Do you know how many summer jobs I could provide in my city for that kind of money?”

There are state and local labor leaders stepping up to the challenge of our national leadership crisis. New Jersey’s Communications Workers of America, that represents New Jersey’s state workers DID put forward a meaningful plan to try and cut health care costs but it did not get the media attention it merited.

There’s no doubt New Jersey’s failure to make its payment into the public pension funds for a generation set the stage for the current crisis. And CWA’s Bob Master says public unions are being unfairly scapegoated as the nation continues to feel the fallout from Wall Streets ruinous and fraudulent speculation.

“What’s happening in New jersey is part of a national even global effort to solve the crisis that has brought on by the financial meltdown at the expense of the living standards of middle class people. In this case they were public workers,” said Master.

In New York City it was the behind the scenes leadership of UFT President Michael Mulgrew that produced results for his members AND the children of New York. Mulgrew worked WITH the Bloomberg Administration even as he publicly blasted the Mayor for his plan to layoff 4,000 teachers. The teachers gave up their sabbaticals and shuttle diplomacy between City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and low key Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott staked out common ground.

But we have to keep asking the big questions about how it is that we find ourselves in this scarcity mode from Athens to Trenton. Yes there’s a global debt crisis and the books must be balanced. But on whose back? These days U.S. multinational continue to hoard trillions off-shore waiting for the two-party bilking system to give them a tax holiday.

Friday night inside the Tweed Courthouse, Mayor Bloomberg, Speaker Quinn and a who’s who of New York City government were all in a self-congratulatory mood because they had reached a budget deal for this year that spared 4,000 teachers, but laid off a thousand city workers. Word of the landmark vote in Albany on marriage equality added to the celebratory mood.

But outside a hundred plus protesters banged on drums and cowbells to protest any layoffs and “givens” like the hike in college tuition for cash strapped students in the City University system. These were the denizens of Bloombergville who have put their lives on hold to camp out for several days around City Hall to try and make the connections between the growing push for cuts to education and vital public services even as the concentration of great wealth in America continues unabated.

So while Washington dithers there are plenty examples of leadership; conservative Republicans, Democrats, trade unionists and activists who are willing to put something at risk to get our mired nation unstuck.

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