Union Contracts Taking Center Stage In Assembly Race
Wisconsin battle coloring Anchorage municipal elections
ANCHORAGE—With the municipal election just weeks away, assembly candidates are making the push to have their views heard on a range of issues—from the city budget to public transportation, but recent events in Wisconsin are pushing collective bargaining issues to center stage in Anchorage.
It was a major point of contention on Monday at the Chamber of Commerce-hosted forum for a group of Assembly candidates.
“The heavy engagement involvement of city employee unions in each of these elections--they're putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into these campaigns,” said incumbent Assemblymember Chris Birch, who represents South Anchorage. “My opponent, for example, has a $10,000 contribution summary out of $11,000 raised from city employee unions, and that influence is to push against contracting out and more cost-competitive means.”
“Why I am getting all the money is because my opponent is absolutely adversarial,” said opponent Mike Kenny. “We are not going to get things done in the city unless we have all the parties at the table, working in concert to solve our problems.”
The topic also drew strong responses from those running for the West Anchorage Assembly seat.
“In late 2008, when there was a financial crisis in the financial market, our Assembly took a very irresponsible action in passing overly generous labor contracts that are not sustainable, locking us in for a five, four-year period,” said West Anchorage Assembly candidate Elizabeth Vazquez.
“We could consolidate employee benefits across all contracts between the school district and municipality,” said incumbent West Anchorage Assemblymember Harriet Drummond. “We've got about a dozen different benefit plans and it costs a whole lot to administer those and it would be much smarter to get them all together under one roof.”
“My understanding is that I don’t think we have a budget deficit,” said West Anchorage Assembly candidate Peter Olsen. “I think the best thing we can do to balance the budget is try to make cuts where necessary.”
Patrick Flynn is the incumbent downtown Anchorage Assembly representative. Engineer Albert Swank is trying to unseat Flynn.
Both Flynn and Swank are long-time Alaskans but the similarities end there.
“I support the collective bargaining process both in the private sector and the public sector,” Flynn said. “It's a way for management and labor to get together and find out what the rules of the road are, agree on them and move forward.”
Swank said he’s a proponent of public safety but does not condone giving police and fire unions “blanket approval.”
“Just because we have five or ten more firemen or police officers or increase their salary by 20 percent, what effect is it truly going to have on crime?” Swank said. “Very minor.”
As tensions run high in Wisconsin over union rights, those very issues are coloring this year's municipal race; namely, how the Assembly handled the 2008 city union contracts.
“I was there,” Flynn said. “The contracts that were voted on in 2008 were based on labor negotiation instructions passed by the Assembly in previous years and in fact authored by current mayor Dan Sullivan. He was the sponsor of that legislation. The terms of the negotiations that were supported by the Assembly were met in the contracts that came before the Assembly. Based on that, I voted in favor of the contracts. Given what we know now and the fiscal constraints we're dealing with, I might have made a different decision had I had the fortune of having all that foresight.”
Swank said he would never have approved the contracts
“Mr. Begich by his administration the budget of Anchorage depending on how it's analyzed, roughly 40 to 50 percent increase, we went from a $300 million budget to $400 million budget,” Swank said.
When it comes to education, Flynn says it’s important to keep the Anchorage school district budget in perspective.
“It's a big budget,” Flynn said. “The school district's budget is actually larger than the city's budget. However, the city's portion of the school budget is the same as the rest of the city's budget; that is to say, your property taxes are roughly half for school district and half for other local services.”
Swank says education is his top priority, but says “throwing more money” will not necessarily increase graduation rates nor improve the quality of education. He says the allocation of school money may need to be better assessed.
Come April 5, downtown residents will decide whether to stick with Flynn or go with a more conservative voice.