Unions, Parties, and the Politics of State Government Legacy Cost

Daniel DiSalvo, Jeffrey Kucik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Many American state governments have made extensive promises to pay for employees’ health care and other benefits in retirement. Currently estimated at over $1 trillion in unfunded liabilities, these other postemployment benefits (OPEB) are creating a major fiscal problem for state governments. In this article, we examine the politics of OPEB. We seek to explain the variation in the generosity of OPEB across U.S. states. We argue that party competition theories do not adequately explain the outcomes we observe. Instead, we draw on the emerging Schattschneiderian approach to the politics of public policy to show that public union strength conditions a party's incentives to represent unions’ interests. In states where public sector unions are strong, unions can find their way into either party's coalition. We find that Republicans are more responsive to public union interests than either their ideological brand or prior research would suggest. It is only in states where public employees are weak that Republicans can act unilaterally and enact their preference for less government spending. To test our theories, we carry out an empirical analysis using a newly assembled data set of per capita OPEB liabilities across 49 states.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)573-597
Number of pages25
JournalPolicy Studies Journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2018


  • employee benefits
  • public sector unions
  • retiree health care
  • state governments
  • state parties

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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