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A Tale of Two Counties...And Their Public Employee Unions

11:30 AM, Jun 1, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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The Washington, D.C. region has two large counties—one in Virginia and one in Maryland— that offer a helpful snapshot of good and bad budgeting. The bottom line: Virginia law doesn't allow public employees to unionize, while a Maryland county's government is stocked entirely with Democrats looking to outbid each other with spending promises for local public employee unions. Read the whole thing:

MONTGOMERY COUNTY has just completed a nightmarish budget year. Stressed, squabbling and besieged elected officials savaged services and programs and jacked up taxes to eliminate an eye-popping deficit of almost $1 billion in a $4.3 billion spending plan. Meanwhile, across the Potomac River in Fairfax County, all was sweetness and light by comparison. With a budget roughly equal to Montgomery's, Fairfax officials erased a deficit a quarter as large with relative ease and far less drama...

Virginia law denies public employees collective bargaining rights; that's helped Fairfax resist budget-busting wage and benefit demands. As revenue dipped two years ago, Fairfax officials froze all salaries for county government and school employees with little ado. By contrast, Montgomery leaders were badly equipped to cope with recession. County Executive Isiah Leggett took office proposing fat budgets and negotiating openhanded union deals after he succeeded Mr. Duncan. Then, as economic storm clouds gathered, he shifted gears and cut spending -- while still trying to appease the unions...

The cozy ties between elected officials and public employees unions in Montgomery have formed the backdrop for a drumbeat of reports about county employees' bountiful benefits, perks and abuses. In the past few years we've learned about county police officers who helped themselves to hundreds of thousands of taxpayers' dollars to secure cut-rate weapons for personal use. More than half the officers who retired recently from the police force left claiming "severe disabilities," some of them dubious, entitling them to huge taxpayer-funded benefits for life. Veteran firefighters may retire at age 46 and continue working for three years while simultaneously accruing pension payments that increase at a taxpayer-guaranteed rate of 8.25 percent annually, regardless of market performance. Meanwhile, Montgomery's teachers union has wielded such outsized electoral clout that politicians who received the teachers' endorsement in the most recent elections reached into their pockets and wrote checks to the union. As far as we know, this occurs nowhere else in America.

Governments all over the world are at a crossroads. They can be like Fairfax or they can be like Greece...I mean, Montgomery County.

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