So is Governor Walker's budget repair bill unconstitutional? Milwaukee City Attorney Grant Langley says so. Is he right? I have serious doubts. Here are some preliminary observations.
At the outset, we should note that Langley claims only that that a particular provision prohibiting cities of the first class (a category that contains only Milwaukee) from paying the employee's portion of its retirement plan (in effect, prohibiting an automatic enhancement of wages paid in the form of a pension contribution). This is, of course, the concession that we are now told the public employee unions are willing to make. Langley says, in effect, that each employee individually must consent to this. (He would probably also say that the employees unions can consent for them, but if his opinion is generally correct, it is not clear at all that this is so.)
His opinion says nothing about the restriction in collective bargaining rights although his argument based on home rule might apply to it as well.
Having said that, the opinion's conclusions seem wrong. First, it claims that the City has home rule rights guaranteed by the state's constitution. It certainly has those rights but the law permits the state to interfere with a local unit of government's affairs when they pertain to a matter of state wide concern. The opinion simply assumes this issue away, largely relying on legislative pronouncements from the first half of the twentieth century.
What the opinion ignores - and should not have - is the Governor's stated rationale for the proposed limitations on municipal contributions. Far more than in the 1930s and 1940s, Milwaukee is a supplicant of the state. It lives on money from Madison. If that is the case, then how it spends its money arguably becomes a matter of statewide concern.
More startling is the opinion's conclusion that pension contributions (as opposed to vested pension benefits) are frozen forever at the time an employee becomes part of the city's retirement system. It seems to say that, if an employee was getting 5.5% of his pay contributed toward a pension at the time he joined the system, that he is entitled to get it until he leaves city employment.
If that's the case, then the taxpayers of Milwaukee ought to be outraged that their elected officials could ever have let such a thing happen. If that's the case, then the point that I and others have been making about the ways in which public employee unions capture their governmental employers ought to be considered an immutable law of nature.
But I'm not so sure that is the case. The authority that Langley relies upon seems just as easily - and perhaps more readily understood - to apply to an employee's vested benefits, i.e., what they have already earned in terms of pension benefits, as opposed to creating an immutable right to future contributions that can never be altered.
What is evident is that City taxpayers should hope - fervently - that Langley is wrong. And city employees should not be overly encouraged. If the state cuts municipal aid, it remains the case that - even if the city must continue to contribute 5% of salary to the pension of each employee hired before this year - there is no right (at least after the expiration of existing collective bargaining agreements) to any particular salary level. If the city can no longer afford the 5%, it can simply reduce or freeze wages. If collective bargaining makes this impossible, there is an even more sobering prospect for city employees.
There is no constitutional right to a job.