July 18, 1997

Ms. Messinger's Budget Blunder

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York is a formidable candidate for re-election. But there seemed reason to believe that Ruth Messinger, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, would make him fight hard for a second term. Unfortunately, so far the opposite has happened.

Ms. Messinger is supporting wage parity between city schoolteachers, police officers and firefighters and their suburban counterparts. Everyone, including this page, would like to see teachers and police receive higher pay. But Ms. Messinger's vague rhetoric is raising false hopes for the workers and setting the campaign off in exactly the wrong direction.

The city cannot abruptly pay its workers salaries comparable to what they receive in places like Long Island. The Giuliani administration says that it would cost $1.4 billion a year just to put the teachers on the same footing. Add unionized principals, assistant principals, police and firefighters and the number rises by almost an additional billion dollars. Add sanitation workers, who have always received the same raises as other uniformed workers, and the total cost in the first year alone would be $3 billion. If other city unions demanded raises of a similar level, as they certainly would try to do, the Giuliani administration says, the total bill would be $5.1 billion.

Ms. Messinger now says that was not what she had in mind. She asserts that she regards parity as a goal, and envisions using the bait of suburban-level wages to get changes in work rules, residency requirements, job protection and other matters the unions have always refused even to negotiate. But none of that comes across in her public statements. In both speeches and television interviews she has given the impression that under her administration there would simply be more of everything at no cost to the taxpayer.

This page shares Ms. Messinger's concern that the city is losing its best educators to the suburbs, where pay is much higher, classes are smaller and conditions are more pleasant. We also welcome her hints that she would expect higher standards and more accountability from the higher-paid teachers of the future. But her blueprint for how to get there has been extremely vague and her language sloppy. The teachers and uniformed unions have a very keen idea of what "parity" means, and it does not include giving up job security, being forced to live in the city or being required to work longer hours.

Ms. Messinger understands both the city budget and the city union contracts too well to be sending these kinds of messages unaware. In the past she has written, at some political risk, about the difficulty of managing a work force in which union rules are overlaid with a civil service system that includes 3,000 different specific job descriptions limiting the tasks workers can be required to do. The unions did not appreciate her candor, which may be one of the reasons they have been so cool to her candidacy so far.

The talk about parity with the suburbs may just be Ms. Messinger's attempt to mend her bridges with a little old-fashioned Democratic pandering. If so, she is playing right into conservative claims that liberals can no longer govern New York City.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company