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Great Escape? How Brown May Pay Back the Unions, Cheaply

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    The Great Escape's Captain Virgil "The Cooler King" Hilts might be the most laid back prisoner of war to ever be captured by the Nazi's. Constantly irritating prison guards with his escape attempts and irreverant behavior, Hilts (played by Steve McQueen) spends his time in isolation (i.e. "the cooler") dreaming up new escape tactics.

    Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee had a terrific column Sunday about Gov. Jerry Brown and the state prison guards' union, which strongly supported his re-election.

    The column has one stark statistic that should become familiar to every Californian worried about state spending. It is: "California was spending $6 billion on prisons when Schwarzenegger took office in 2003, $28,000 per inmate per year. This year, the state will spend $9.3 billion on corrections, $49,500 per inmate." And prison spending is only one of the budget areas that has exploded. The others: health care costs, debt service, and tax breaks.

    But Morain's column was most useful in answering this question: how can the new governor pay back union supporters when there isn't much state money to send those unions? Here are four reasons, inspired by the column:

    -End the furloughs. Brown seems likely to stop the state worker furloughs. That would be a pay increase of sorts for prison guards and other state workers -- and it wouldn't cost the state much. Why? Because furloughs provided only short-term savings; the money goes back to workers when they retire, through higher payments and retirement benefits from unused holiday, vacation and other time off.

    -Delayed gratification. Morain notes that Gov. Pete Wilson cut prison guards' pay as he entered office in bad budget times -- and then gave the guards, who supported him, a much bigger raise as he left office.Budget hawks should keep a close eye on Brown and call out the new governor if he cuts deals like this.
     
    -Protect people, not projects. Morain notes that the state could save $500 million by not rebuilding its death row. That's money that could protect the guards and other state union employees.

    -Show the public that the unions aren't entirely to blame for the state's problems. Brown has already done that, by holding budget summits that show all the many factors that have gone into boosting debt and deficits in the state. He's right -- everyone in California, from the unions to companies to voters themselves, is responsible for the crisis. And for the most part, Brown has avoided scapegoating particular interest groups, including the unions, for the problems. That may -- I repeat, may -- make such interests more likely to accept cuts. Or it may not.

    Either way, it's worth trying.