The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute has issued a study showing that public employee pensions are far more generous than the retirement benefits of private employees. That's not a surprising conclusions. Hitting your "30" or whatever the number is has become a cultural reference for public employment. Government employees can typically retire much earlier at a guaranteed salary with health care benefits. Public employees typically defend these benefits by arguing that they accept lower pay in return for these benefits. We trade income, they say, for security.
Before I get attacked by the usual crowd, I should point out that I was raised by a fire fighter. I understand the arguments in favor of outsized public employee pensions. But, having come from a family where almost everyone worked for the government, I also understand their weaknesses.
It is not clear that the great majority of public employees would make more doing "comparable work" in the private sector. The argument for "enhanced" benefits are most salient for professional employees. Government payrolls are much flatter than private sector payrolls. A lawyer can make a lot more in private practice than in government service - although not all - perhaps not even most - do. An alternative explanation is that the role of public employee unions in electing the officials across the table compromises the bargaining process and providing outsized benefits - which are less visible to the public - is the result.
However you see this, what is becoming increasing clear is that government entities can no longer afford to pay these generous benefits. As Bruce Thompson pointed out in Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Milwaukee Public Schools are awash in unfunded liabilities to future retirees. Its burden rate is, depending on how you calculate it, three to four time what it is in the private sector. This has - and will continue to - hollow out what can be spent on education.
This is a problem that the city cannot tax its way out of and the state is unlikely to come to the rescue. It's got problems of its own and an often unexamined dynamic of Wisconsin politics is that outstate voters are, at best, indifferent and, at worst, hostile to the City of Milwaukee.
The problem is hardly limited to Milwaukee and Wisconsin. If you want to be depressed, spend some time here.
The problem won't go away by dismissing people like Bruce Thompson as "anti-public education" or Scott Walker as "anti-Milwaukee County" (as if the county was synonymous with its government). Unfunded pension and health care liabilities are a huge threat to effective public education or county government. Ignoring the problem does not solve it.