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Unfunded liabilities, austerity measures and neo-liberal economic plans: What the West Michigan Policy Forum wants to do to public sector employees

February 28, 2019

On Monday, the West Michigan Policy Forum posted on their Facebook page an article by the Michigan-based news source Bridge.

The Facebook post included the text you can see here on the right, which affirms the West Michigan Policy Forum’s position that public sector health care benefits and pension are an “unfunded” and should be done away with.

The West Michigan Policy Forum (WMPF) has made the elimination of public sector employee benefits and pensions a priority since 2017. The WMPF, along with other neo-liberal capitalist groups succeeded in eliminating public teacher pensions in 2017 and made it the focus of their bi-annual conference this past fall, when hundreds of their members met in Grand Rapids

The Bridge article is entitled, A $18B debt is coming due, and it’s haunting small town Michigan.  The premise of the article is that with the cost of public employee health care benefits and pensions, in communities all across the state have less money, “for everything that makes a city livable, from police and fire protection to parks and recreation and roads.”

The Bridge reporter makes the assumption that money cannot be generated or diverted from other sources and that things like police budgets are absolutely necessary. For example, in Grand Rapids, the Police Department uses up one third of the current city budget and one could certainly argue that their behavior in recent years has been highly questionable at keeping the most vulnerable communities safe. Another way that Grand Rapids could save a great deal of money would be to reduce or eliminate subsidies to developers who primarily build high cost housing that benefits the professional class.

This is a major flaw in the article, since it assumes that everything that municipalities spend their money on currently is absolutely necessary. The article also ignores the fact that revenue sharing from the state has been significantly reduced or eliminated in some cases and is tied to communities adopting more strict austerity measures.

So, the question is, why should public sector employees have to give up their current health care benefits and pensions, when many of them have dedicated decades to the service of their community and have always expected that these benefits would be in place for them when they retire?

What the West Michigan Policy Forum is pushing for and what some municipalities have already adopted is to shift the burden on to the workers, reduced health care benefits, make public sector employees pay for a larger amount of the health care and to shift any pension plans to the speculative market in the form of a 401k. In this scenario, we would be leaving people’s health care and pensions to a volatile market. In addition, this push to relieve municipalities from the responsibility of paying for their employee benefits and pensions, in reality is just another attack on public sector unions. This has been the plan of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network at the national level, along with groups like the West Michigan Policy Forum at the state level.

Lastly, it must be pointed out that many of the members of the West Michigan Policy Forum contributed collectively nearly $17 million in the last election cycle to fund candidates who support these kinds of austerity measures that also undermine public sector unions. 

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