Once upon a time, there was a retired Wall Street executive named Bruce Lisman*. After his investment firm cratered in the Collapse of 2008, he moved to Vermont and turned his attention to politics. (He should have checked with Rich Tarrant or Jack McMullen on how that tends to work out.) First, he launched a putatively nonpartisan advocacy group called Campaign for Vermont Prosperity. It was usually referred to as “Campaign for Vermont” in an apparent effort to camouflage Lisman’s pro-business agenda.
*Who may or may not have been thoroughly skewered in the movie “The Big Short.”
CFV accomplished little besides spending a goodly portion of Lisman’s fortune. It put out the occasional paper, held sparsely-attended policy forums, did a bit of lobbying, and paid some college students to show the CFV flag at public events. (I dubbed them “Lisketeers.”) There was precious little grass in CFV’s roots.
A few years later, Lisman made the seemingly inevitable run for governor. He spent heavily on his campaign but ran into a buzzsaw named Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who beat him in the Republican primary by 21 percentage points.
That was the end of Lisman’s political aspirations. He stopped bankrolling CFV, which somehow continued to exist as a center-right, pro-business advocacy group. Some well-meaning people are involved in CFV, but honestly, itbarely makes a ripple in Vermont politics. Whenever CFV does something, I find myself asking “Oh, are you still here?”
CFV’s website is laden with position papers and press releases dated from 2014 and 2015. It does occasionally burp out some new content, as it did last week with a “New Report on Pension Issues.” And though I run the risk of killing a gnat with an elephant gun, I feel compelled to expose this piece of half-assed propaganda. You know, just in case someone takes it seriously.
The “report” is an attempt to influence the current debate on public sector pensions. But it’s nothing more than an exercise in straw-man punching.
It begins with the thesis that state employees and teachers have good retirement plans in order to counterbalance the lower salaries in public sector jobs. Its “research” consists of comparing private and public sector pay and discovering, with shock and horror, that public sector salaries are a bit higher than in the private sector.
CFV’s implicit argument — it isn’t spelled out because it would put the lie to CFV’s supposed moderation — is that we can get away with slashing pensions for teachers and state and local employees because they earn a decent wage.
Well, you know why public sector pay has passed the private sector. It’s because labor unions are still common in the public sector while they’ve been eviscerated in the private sector. Those unions do a good job at negotiating pay and bennies. If unions were as common across the economy as they were 50 years ago, private sector pay would be a lot healthier. It’s well documented that worker pay has barely kept up with inflation and lagged far behind productivity gains in the economy. Workers in general are badly underpaid; public sector workers get decent pay, nothing excessive.
By CFV’s own figures, which I trust as far as I can throw the Statehouse, those workers aren’t exactly Scrooge McDucking into roomfuls of gold. The average salary for teachers and state workers is a bit more than $60,000. That’s a good wage, but nothing excessive. And no reason to short them on pensions.
In truth, public sector pay has nothing to do with benefits and pensions. It’s all negotiated between unions and management. Teachers and state employees were promised their pensions, and it’s not their fault that Our Leaders shorted state contributions to the pension funds for a decade and a half.
Meanwhile, our country faces a potential poverty crisis among our elderly because private companies have cut and cut and cut benefits or even straight-up raided pension funds. This is NOT a reason to put public sector employees in the same straits. The real answer is to fairly compensate private sector workers with pay and benefits that will provide financial security for them.
But you won’t hear that from Campaign for Vermont Prosperity.