Opinion » Guest Opinions

Idaho the State, Not the Corporation

State workers are employees, not customers

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and Idaho Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney are apparently changing our state motto from "Let it be perpetual" to "Let it be corporate." They believe a business model can solve the economic woes of state government. Yet the buffed corporate administration of Otter, when viewed against the backdrop of our national economic meltdown, should warn us that Adam Smith's invisible hand of capitalism can quickly become a jeweled fist of arbitrary and autocratic power.

State and federal governments are not businesses or corporations. They are public agencies designed to provide services as a part of our social contract—our collective agreement to provide basic services for everyone, regardless of income.

First, Gwartney, a millionaire and specialist in representing the interests of the insurance industry, views the state budget as if it were a corporate profit/loss ledger. Idaho has been a fiscally well-balanced state with its three-legged stool of property/sales/corporate taxes. Our tax system supports citizens who expect adequate public services. Yet we are increasingly relying property and sales tax, while many corporations pay little or no taxes at all.

Meanwhile, state services and workers are at the mercy of those same corporate interests and the people of Idaho are wondering why they have lousy roads, low wages and a gubernatorial stimulus package based on attracting munitions manufacturers, nuclear developers and the sale of utilities to multinational corporations. Corporate executives apply board-room management strategies to government jobs based on service to the community, not sales and dividends projections.

The corporate approach to state government increases the proliferation of mid-level managers who command high salaries, monitor and enforce top-down decision-making and organizational discipline while destroying the checks and balances inherent in governmental decision-making in a democratic society. Unilateral decisions by Otter and Gwartney to reduce worker health coverage replace a wellness model of health care with a mean-spirited punishment of sick and injured workers and have been carried out without the involvement of the Legislature, state workers or the citizens of Idaho.

Second, Gwartney is a specialist in third-party, social insurance policies, with a particular interest in increasing the bottom line of the giant insurance companies that underwrite public insurance plans. He sits on the board of Regence and proudly lists his former chairmanship of UWC Strategic Services in Unemployment Insurance and Workers Compensation. UWC, an insurance lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., billing itself as the "voice of business," is involved in third party insurance issues wherever they occur—state legislatures, congress and the courts.

Gwartney and the folks at UWC will tell you the only thing they care about is that state insurance programs for injured, sick and deceased workers and their families are run efficiently and based on "firm financial management." What that really means is that if you are a state worker in Idaho and you are sick longer than three months, you lose your job. It means you pay more for prescriptions and health insurance, you must conserve sick or annual leave for wellness visits, and if you are a state retiree, your premiums skyrocket.

This is not public policy, it is Social Darwinism, weeding out the sick and injured. This approach also fails to consider the rapidly increasing numbers of unemployed, injured and chronically sick workers who cannot make ends meet and ultimately access public assistance.

Third, Gwartney has a number of goals for the future. The Department of Administration, under his direction, has issued its FY2009-2011 Strategic Plan: "Providing Business Solutions for State Government." It is filled with insights into a corporate model of public service. His plan calls for "significant improvement in downward communication," the use of "tactful discipline"; states that the department should "continue to explore maximizing the collection of surplus benefit funding from other state agencies"; refers to employees as "customers"; targets the elimination of a fund established to hire impaired and disabled workers; and, somewhat ironically, calls for the establishment of a "career path" for administrative employees only. State employees, tired of the corporate-inspired merit system, have asked for the same thing for years.

In a state like Idaho, politicians, large land owners and agribusinesses have cultivated an almost phobic hatred and animus toward public employees. The "sagebrush rebellion" might play well to anti-government pundits, but this stereotype unfairly stigmatizes public employees who accepted lower wages for decent benefits in the past and an almost universal commitment to a public service career. Ironically, our current fiscal crisis might have been much less dramatic had the federal, state and local regulations (and the employees who enforced them) remained in place. In addition, labor unions, made up of workers who see the excesses of corporate decision-making on a daily basis and have the collective power to challenge those decisions, could also play an important role in the future as they have in the past.

The governor and Gwartney need to realize that state employees are not commodities to be bought and sold or strategized against future markets like wood pulp in a multinational corporation. We are human beings who demand respect, fair treatment and a livable wage with reasonable benefits. Idaho is not a corporation, a kingdom or a Texas ranchero, it is a state. It is a state governed by laws, checks and balances and made up of citizens who have rights. Citizens who expect basic government services. We will not allow the governor or his administration to dictate policy without representation. Gwartney may volunteer his time and his insurance industry expertise to cut benefits and the quality of life for state workers, but employee or not, he is accountable to every person in Idaho for his actions.

Robert McCarl is the vice president of the Idaho Association of Government Employees, Local 687 and has been a state employee since 1986.