Joe Mathews is a Journalist and writes for Fox & Hounds Daily
You are absolutely right when you argue that state budget cuts are doing lasting damage to California.
It is plain foolish to cut the school year, lay off thousands of teachers, increase university tuition, undermine the safety net, and close state offices on Fridays. And you’re also right to argue that there need to be new revenues on the table to reverse the cuts to these important priorities.
If only you were effective advocates of these positions.
In reality, you have made yourselves a giant obstacle to winning this argument. You are undermining what should be a winning case for more investment in the public sector in California.
How’s that, you ask? It’s about a mixed message at the heart of what your public positions.
In one breath, you argue about the need to have a robust public sector in California. You’re right here. Citizens of this state need well-funded schools, up-to-date roads and bridges, good health care, all brought to you by public employees who are paid a living wage and have a secure retirement. You want to make the public sector bigger than it is, and that’s right.
But, in the next breath, you argue for making the public sector smaller. You don’t remember doing that? You do it all the time, by arguing for the walling off of information about the public sector behind private walls.
You’ve argued that the salaries of individual public employees should be private – when there’s no more important data for taxpayers to have, both for accountability and to know who works for them and what they do. You’ve argued similarly for keeping pension data private, despite abuses that require public oversight. You’ve even argued for keeping secret the names of police officers who shoot people.
In the schools, you are fighting efforts to disclose what kind of progress individual teachers are making with their students. You called for a boycott of a newspaper that compiled such data itself. You and school districts around the state could have made sure such data was available yourselves, but you stuck your heads in the sand.
When you argue against giving the public information about your government, you’re arguing for making big important parts of the public sector private. That’s right – when it comes to information, you’re just like the government privatizers you rightly rail against.
And when you argue for privatizing what’s public, you’re sending the message that the public sector should be smaller.
Combine those two messages – let’s fund the public sector more but wall more of it off from public accountability – and you’ve got a big fat loser. It’s this mixed message that explains the anger and criticism you’re receiving, even from progressives and centrists who basically agree with you about the size of the public sector.
(By the way, I know what you’re telling yourselves – those critics are really tools of a shadowy anti-government corporate agenda. And let me give you some friendly advice: you’re deluding yourselves, and giving into conspiracy theories won’t help your cause).
Fortunately for you, there’s a simple way out. Embrace public disclosure. Let the sunshine in.
Tell the world that the work public employees do is so important that we need more disclosure, not less. Let’s have not just the salaries but the performance of individual public employees up on the web. Let’s make sure that every record in an officer-involved shooting is a public one, because there is perhaps no more important public act of government than that one.
And don’t boycott the LA Times; tell the paper that the value-added data on teachers they have isn’t enough – you want to put up all kinds of other data that give a fuller picture of what each individual teacher faces.
Heck, let’s have a sunshine law that’s brighter than even Florida’s.
Use the disclosure to advance your bigger point. What the public sector does is so important that it must be better funded. And given the public scrutiny that public employees face, they should be better paid.
That’s a clear message. And a winning argument.