“The harsh reality is we can’t afford the government we have,” said state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R–Rochester) in the Detroit News last week. He was expressing disappointment with the Michigan Senate’s vote on Wednesday to keep a scheduled 3-percent state employee salary boost on the books. Cancelling the pay raise would have saved the state $48 million.

Supporters of the increase were quick to point out that $48 million is hardly a drop in the bucket in the face of Michigan’s multi-billion dollar deficit. What they don’t understand is that such a mentality is what puts a state in this position in the first place. Bishop is absolutely right: Michigan can’t afford its government. Everything the government spends with revenue it doesn’t have — revenue that comes from the pockets of suffering taxpayers and businesses — pushes Michigan toward insolvency.

But while it’s easy to make such an obvious point about the state’s fiscal crisis, it’s harder to say exactly what should face cuts. Seldom do recipients of government funding believe that they should have their revenue reduced — it’s always that other agency or program that could use a reduction. The Michigan Daily’s editorials are often guilty of this, preaching the need for compromises and necessary cuts to state government — but absolutely not for the University or student financial aid programs!

Senate Minority Leader Mike Prusi (D–Marquette), who supported the pay increase along with most Senate Democrats, argued in a similar vein. He commended the vote, explaining that cancelling the salary increase would be “like saying to state workers we don’t value your work enough to give you the raise you bargained for in good faith.”

Unfortunately, the problem is not that state employees are undervalued but the exact opposite – they are grossly overvalued. According to the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy, state employee salary has increased by 26 percent since 2001, whereas private sector compensation has only increased by 15 percent. An even greater disparity exists when employee benefits are factored in as part of a worker’s total compensation package. And just as with salary, this disparity is growing. Between 2002 and 2007, the difference between private sector benefits and public sector benefits grew by $2 billion.

But compensation is just one area where state employees beat the private sector. Another is joblessness. While the private sector has lost 12.1 percent of its jobs since 2000, the number of state employee jobs has actually increased in the same amount of time. Of course, when the only growing industry in a state is the one that’s revenue base is compulsory, something has to be wrong.

Reducing the pay of over-compensated state employees, then, is not only an economic necessity for a desperately broke state government but also a matter of fairness. In such harsh economic times, why should state employees be given raises when private employees – who are no doubt working as hard as ever to make ends meet – earn lower salaries, have drastically inferior benefits and face greater joblessness?

Now, I know I’m likely to receive a dozen comments on this article saying something like, “My dad is a state trooper! He puts his life on the line every day to protect YOU. Why do you want my family to starve?” Let me stop you right there, hypothetical commenter, because I’m actually looking out for your dad’s job, too.

That’s because your dad’s job is in trouble. The state is broke, remember? But only the legislature has the power to reduce employee compensation and benefits. This means that if compensation stays the same or continues to increase, there are only two ways to afford it — the government must either take in more revenue by raising taxes (an unappealing option for the people of Michigan) or fire public employees.

Indeed, this scenario transpired last summer, when Gov. Jennifer Granholm asked state troopers to take 37 hours of unpaid leave to make up for insufficient funding. But the police union rejected this compromise, leaving Granholm with no choice but to lay off 100 state troopers. Wouldn’t it be better for public employees to compromise their exorbitant compensation packages rather than lose their jobs entirely?

The legislature was not willing to make the right choice last week. But the gap between the privileged class of public employees and the rest of the work force is widening. How much further into debt must Michigan descend before the government wakes up to the reality of the unjust wages it pays its own employees at taxpayers’ expenses?

Robert Soave was the Daily’s editorial page editor in 2009. He can be reached at rsoave@umich.edu.

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