As Central Falls Falls

The New York Times has an article today on the plight of Central Falls, Rhode Island, a 19,000-population industrial city that may declare bankruptcy under the fiscal weight of $80 million in pension obligations for police and fire officers. Unlike some coverage of municipal fiscal woes, this one does not dance around the way some of the problem originates in misguided labor policy:

The city, just north of Providence, is small and poor, but over the years it has promised police officers and firefighters retirement benefits like those offered in big, rich states like California and New York. These uniformed workers can retire after just 20 years of service, receive free health care in retirement, and qualify for full disability pensions when only partly disabled.

“Promised” is a word of art here, because the city wasn’t really making all of these concessions on a voluntary basis, as its negotiator explains:

state law called for binding arbitration, which for many years was a clubby process that emphasized comparable benefits all across the state more than any city’s ability to pay.

“Binding” arbitration, just to be clear, does not mean that the city agreed beforehand to settle disputes with the unions by way of arbitration; it means that state law imposed an arbitrator’s edict whether city managers ever signed up for the arbitration route or not. It thus differs from the contractually specified arbitration upheld lately in consumer contexts by the U.S. Supreme Court in AT&T v. Concepcion, a decision assailed by many of the same politicos who see no problem with genuine mandatory arbitration in the labor context.

The crisis in municipal finance wrought by binding public-sector arbitration and related laws comes as no surprise to readers who remember Cato’s excellent 2009 study “Vallejo Con Dios: Why Public Sector Unionism Is a Bad Deal for Taxpayers and Representative Government” by Don Bellante, David Denholm, and Ivan Osorio. (The California city of Vallejo declared bankruptcy in 2008 following the failure of negotiations with police and fire unions over unsustainable compensation.)

One point the otherwise thorough Times article omitted: many politicians in Washington have worked for years to impose a Central-Falls-like legal climate on states and localities lucky or farsighted enough to have avoided one in the past. During last fall’s lame duck session, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to push through the truly appalling Public Safety Employer–Employee Cooperation Act, which not only would have forced police and fire unionization on reluctant states and localities but also provided that in case of impasse (quoting Heritage) “States would have to provide a dispute resolution mechanism, such as binding arbitration.” And the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a priority of President Obama during his first years in office, would have imposed binding arbitration on the private sector. Central Falls may now be hurtling toward the waterfall, but how many other communities are just one political shove away from plunging into the same fiscal rapids?