Fact checking the Rio Grande Foundation: Sloppy and deceptive
The Rio Grande Foundation has launched another series of attacks on workers that are deceptive at best and out-and-out false at worst. Fortunately, their studies and data are so badly flawed that they’re easily rebutted, so here is a point-by-point refutation of Paul Gessing’s assertions from his recent column:
A clever turn
RGF allegation No. 1: Public workers make more than their private-sector counterparts, including benefits. It seems that Gessing is conceding that public employees make less than the private sector when you compare apples to apples; he wasn’t able to refute in the slightest the apples-to-apples studies.
RGF alternative allegation No. 1: Workers shouldn’t join a public sector union if they don’t make more than in the private sector. Clever turn, Paul! Public sector workers do make less, including benefits, according to most of the studies in the last few years. So why join? Fair question.
Members join precisely because there are billionaire-funded think tanks like the Rio Grande Foundation who don’t value their work and think that budgets should be balanced exclusively with layoffs and pay cuts. This year, for example, Gessing and his political allies are doing all they can to protect out-of-state corporate loopholes while New Mexican workers and businesses pay their fair share, and public employees face yet another round of pay cuts and the elimination of even more positions.
With unions, there’s at least a chance of a raise in the good times to try to prevent the gap with the private sector from growing, and a voice to ask to minimize damage in the bad times.
Public employee unions are also critical to prevent cronyism and abuse. To be fair, before public sector unionization and ensuing civil service rules, historically Democrats were even worse that Republicans in loading up city and state governments in the East and industrial Midwest (and all over) with the nieces and nephews of donors and friends.
For decades, politicians in both parties used to turn over many of the classified jobs in the public sector every four or eight years, costing the taxpayer billions of dollars in experienced, competent workers and replacing them with neophytes with little to no basis for getting that job except for connections. Unions continue to provide that safeguard, as well as giving workers a basic voice in health, safety, and working conditions, arrived at by mutual agreement with executives and legislators from both parties.
So yes, unions provide incredibly important value to our members, but we’re glad Gessing finally is tacitly starting to acknowledge that government workers are, as a rule, underpaid.
A pretty big error
RGF allegation No. 2: AFSCME outspent oil and gas. Gessing is referring to New Mexico’s lobbyist reports, which AFSCME fully complies with. It’s true that for all New Mexico state races, including GOTV programs, AFSCME spent almost $600,000.
Here’s the flaw with lobbyist reports, though: Only expenditures made directly by lobbyists or their direct employer are reported. The 2010 reports show that all other lobbyists and lobbyist employers only reported about $1 million. In other words, those reports would lead you to believe that AFSCME spent a third of all the money spent to elect our governor, Legislature, and all other offices.
Hogwash. The total amount spent on our state elections, not including federal races, was around $15 million. Heck, each of the gubernatorial candidates were well over $6 million. AFSCME is responsible for about 4 percent of all the political spending for state races, not 33 percent. 4 percent is also close to the percentage of AFSCME voting age members and family members compared to the total number of voters in 2010.
Did oil and gas really only spend $183,000 as Gessing claims? Of course not – that’s merely what got reported by lobbyists and their “lobbyist employers.” Of course, if you have an association to lobby for you, like the N.M. Oil and Gas Association, then the “employer” money doesn’t get reported. As far as I know, those reports are accurate for what they are supposed to report, but it’s factually totally incorrect to cite that as the amount that oil and gas spent in 2010 on state races.
The real data? Oil and gas outspent AFSCME by many multiples in this year’s elections. Take a look at this link.
Whoops. Turns out oil and gas spent $2,663,604 in New Mexico races. That’s not 30 percent of what AFSCME spent; it’s 449 percent. Pretty big error.
While we often have philosophical disputes with Paul and his team, this is just a factual error by the RGF. I’m hopeful Paul will offer a correction/retraction on this point, as I did in an earlier debate with him.
A meaningless ratio
RGF allegation No. 3: New Mexico has too high a ratio of public to private sector workers. Unlike their campaign data, this one isn’t wrong – it’s just completely meaningless. The ratio of public to private sector workers is a reflection of dozens of factors, including how well the private sector does, poverty, military facilities, national labs, and yes, population patterns.
Density is important, but so is the concentration of that density. For example, Nevada and Arizona have at least 90 percent of their population within 20 miles of two population centers. They can and do provide the vast majority of services in those two areas.
In New Mexico, by contrast, only a third of the population is in Albuquerque, with the rest very evenly distributed. Does the RGF really want to shut down MVDs and schools in Carlsbad, Hobbs, Artesia, Roswell, Farmington, Grants, Gallup, Las Vegas, Taos, Silver City, Las Cruces, Clovis, Portales, and other significant population centers outside of Albuquerque and Santa Fe? That’s incredibly different from a state that only needs offices in Las Vegas and Reno.
Further proof of the worthlessness of this stat: Illinois, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are four of the top six states in having low and “efficient” public-to-private sector ratios, while Alaska, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, and other Republican states dominate the 15 states with the highest public-to-private ratio. In fact, of the 15 “most bloated” states, only New Mexico and Washington state voted Democratic in the last presidential election.
According to the RGF, then, Republican, rural, states (primarily in the South and plains/mountain west) are bloated, big government states, and Democratic, unionized states are the most efficient. Thanks for the endorsement of liberal policies and public sector collective bargaining, Paul!
Giving Gov. Martinez credit
RGF allegation No. 4: New Mexico government is too big and needs mass layoffs. In our recent debate, Paul was joined by the very smart Doug Turner, a key player in the libertarian Johnson administration. As I’ve detailed previously here, New Mexico government is the same size in raw numbers of FTEs as it was under Johnson, with more than 10.3 percent additional people to serve. In other words, we’re now 10 percent smaller per capita.
If someone as bright as Turner, and a governor as committed to small government as Johnson, supported government bigger than today’s, how can Gessing claim that government’s too big? Was Turner incompetent? I certainly don’t think so. Was Johnson secretly a big-government aficionado? Doubtful.
Anyone who has been in the House Appropriations or Senate Finance committees over the last few weeks has heard Governor Martinez’s new cabinet leaders beg that the Legislature not cut more positions.
Is Governor Martinez suddenly a big-government acolyte? Not likely. She is, however, realistic about needing the staff to carry out the core missions of government, and she now sees first hand how thinly staffed the front lines are. For that she and her staff deserve credit.
Twisting a bunch of irrelevant numbers
RGF allegation No. 5: PERA and ERB are “in a uniquely poor condition.” Here’s another area where the RGF is trolling out statistics that have no relevance to a policy debate. They recently released a study showing that New Mexico has the third largest “liability” of any pension fund.
The problem is, liability doesn’t matter, unfunded liability does. The RGF’s focus on liability alone exposes their lack of familiarity with how defined benefit plans work. It’s like saying “McDonald’s is in the worst financial shape of all restaurants because it has a lot of accounts payable.” The statement is true, but McDonald’s also has many more stores than any other restaurant, so alone, it’s irrelevant.
New Mexico has long-standing, mature pension plans which even after the worst financial crisis in 70 years are only slightly underfunded according to industry standards (PERA is only 1.5 percent underfunded when measured against GASB standards). It’s in better shape than most funds – the exact opposite picture of what the RGF wants people to think. Further, new state workers were just required to work 20 percent longer to retire, and there are more changes planned to strengthen already strong plans.
The RGF had to really twist around a bunch of irrelevant numbers to make it look like New Mexico, Wisconsin and Ohio have something in common, but that’s just because they enjoy having workers at war with states, and they’re a little miffed that it hasn’t happened here yet. The truth is that by normal measures, Wisconsin is also in pretty good shape, and their numbers couldn’t be more irrelevant. RGF’s outlandish number-fixing is already flipping votes in the Senate, so it’s not as if their falsehoods don’t have an impact.
Why the sloppy, irrelevant data?
I’ll give Paul credit for this: he genuinely believes that government is, for the most part, evil, and needs to be eliminated. Same for unions. He argues against everything from public schools to health care for the poor to prisons. He believes.
But why use such deceptive or meaningless data?
First, in the case of misreporting spending, it can be as simple as the fact that our reporting systems are complex, overlapping, and incomplete. Paul has personal integrity, and I doubt that he would have used the numbers he did if he’d known that the lobbyist reports were too narrow to capture the real campaign spending.
Second, giving RGF the benefit of the doubt on their pension gaffe, if you want to get rid of something altogether for ideological reasons, there’s not much incentive to be bothered with knowing the details of how it functions.
John DiIulio, President Bush’s first Faith-Based Initiative leader and rock-solid conservative, was profiled in Esquire in 2003 after leaving the administration. DiIulio, by background an academic and policy person interested in expanding private-sector charity with tax dollars, lamented, in his words, the…
“…lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking: discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare.”
But that was well-explained by “a senior White House adviser and admirer of DiIulio’s” in the same article:
“The view of many people (in the White House) is that the best government can do is simply do no harm, that it never is an agent for positive change. If that’s your position, why bother to understand what programs actually do?”
Fair point. That the RGF doesn’t know the meaningful metrics on pension plans isn’t surprising given their wholesale objection to their very existence.
Third, the more one scapegoats government, the more one can misdirect away from the RGF’s funders, who don’t want any government regulation of their industries (think Wall Street and the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster).
Driving a wedge
Last week, I got an email with an insightful joke in it, and a slightly different version appeared on Joe Monahan’s site as well. “A CEO, tea partier, and union worker are at a table, with a dozen cookies on a plate in between them. The CEO takes 11 of the cookies, and then tells the tea partier ‘watch out for that union guy, he wants a bite of your cookie.’”
The RGF isn’t looking out for non-union workers or anyone in the middle class, or even the fairly rich. It’s using sloppy researched and poorly applied data to drive a wedge between the tea party and regular working union folks, both of whom just want things like a decent job and health care.
The far-right think tanks love angry battles, as do some on the far left. But so far, AFSCME isn’t taking the bait, and to her credit, neither is Governor Martinez. We disagree with her on issues like raising revenue by closing loopholes for out-of-state corporate tax-dodgers, but it’s OK to have policy disagreements. That’s what legislative sessions are for.
What’s not OK is to use faulty, deceptive data to drive the argument. Even if unintentionally, that’s exactly what the RGF’s latest broadside does.
Bundy is the political and legislative director for AFSCME in New Mexico. The opinions in his column are personal and do not necessarily reflect any official AFSCME position. You can learn more about him by clicking here. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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