December 14, 2009
My dad, Don Watson, was a public employee. He spent more than three decades of public service working for the federal government. He was an engineer with a proven knack for managing people.
It made an impact on me that he stayed in government service even when he would have made more money in the private sector. He saw his “job” as a calling to serve.
Daddy was living proof that smart, sincere, dedicated, honest people make careers in our government. They work on behalf of all of us. Really and truly, they are public servants. And you don’t have to look very far to see that, especially lately.
The Statesman had an editorial Thursday about the heroic job that state employees are doing to clear a backlog of food stamp applications. These folks are working nights and weekends to enroll thousands of Texans who are relying on the program – particularly in the midst of this recession – to stave off hunger for themselves and their families.
According to the article, 7,700 state employees are averaging significant hours of overtime every week. You should read the whole thing, but I do want to highlight this quote from Tom Suehs, executive director of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission:
“It’s mothers who can’t put their children to bed, parents who miss cheering on their sons and daughters, and supervisors who go to sleep wondering about the people who didn’t get help that day.”
We all owe our deep thanks to the folks who are giving so much of their lives to keep people from going hungry this holiday season.
And on Saturday night, I spoke at the 40th Anniversary party for Austin’s chapter of AFSCME (for the acronym-challenged, that’s the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees).
This is another great group of public servants, representing the people who keep your water running, your parks mowed, your lights on, your trash picked-up, and your roads navigable. It’s way too easy to take them for granted. But we couldn’t have a city without them.
I enjoyed a close relationship with city employees when I was Austin Mayor. And in each of my first two sessions in the legislature, I’ve carried (and passed in the Senate a bill to give these folks the ability to negotiate things like salaries with the City of Austin through the meet-and-confer process – the same process that firefighters and police officers use in working out contracts with the city.
In other words, it’s a fair’s-fair sort of thing.
During the last session, in the midst of the scramble to pass legislation as the House of Representatives seized up over a partisan issue, I amended this bill onto other ones that were passing through the Senate.
Unfortunately, it just couldn’t break through on the House side. I’m sure we’ll try again in 2011.
Finally, there’s one last (and bad) piece of news to pass on.
In case you didn’t hear, the Attorney General ruled late last month against payment of a $500 one-time supplement to retired state employees and teachers. He declared that the state’s budget writers improperly drafted the measure that would have set aside $155 million for the payments. (The budget provision stated that it couldn’t take effect without the Attorney General’s sign-off; the ruling means the $155 million will go toward improving the condition of the retirement funds.)
This means retirees, who haven’t had a true cost-of-living adjustment in years, will have to wait even longer.
This was another unfortunate turn for our public employees. Also during the session, the legislature passed a bill that, to its credit, took on the challenge of shoring up our employee and teacher retirement funds. But the bill required only that employees sacrifice through higher contributions and benefit cuts. Under this law, the state will keep on doing what it’s been doing. I voted against it.
There’s no question that our retirement systems face serious challenges. And we’ve got to get the funds on a footing where they can provide regular cost-of-living adjustments without an extraordinary legislative act and an attorney general’s ruling.
But we also need better, fairer solutions in which both the state and its employees are sacrificing and compromising. One side can’t be expected to bear the burden, particularly when that side has already given so much to the State of Texas.