California, look to Wisconsin

Walker has said he was motivated in part because the cost of employing a public sector worker in Wisconsin (and many other places) has soared thanks to rising pension and health costs in particular. Without the flexibility to move quickly to control those costs, local governments faced a long-term budget pinch in which employee compensation squeezes out other spending and drives taxes higher.

Californians should understand those fiscal pressures. Average annual pay for a local government employee in the state rose by 60%, to $61,185 (excluding benefits), between 1999 and 2008, according to the Little Hoover Commission on California State Government Organization and Economy. That’s about 70% more than the increase in private sector wages in the state over the same period. Average pay for cops and firefighters climbed 69%, to $89,056, again excluding benefits, in the same period.

Benefit costs have soared even more than wages. The annual cost of funding pensions in California’s 20 largest municipalities has grown from $1.3 billion in 1999 to $5.1 billion last year, according to a study by Stanford University professor Joe Nation. That’s an annual growth rate of better than 11%.