05/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Is Richard Trumka Taking Money From College Students to Pay for Union Tax Fix?

Richard Trumka was all about the public option back in September, when he said in no uncertain terms that the AFL-CIO "won't support the bill if it doesn't have the public option in it." And to his credit, one of the only reasons it stayed in the debate as long as it did was because Trumka kept bringing it back up.

But the public option was never more than a bargaining chip for Trumka, something that the AFL-CIO could cash in when it wanted something. Of course, he got nothing he wanted, and in the end settled for a fix on taxing "cadillac" insurance plans. And now he is actively trying to block a vote on the public option, dooming its chances. In doing so, he's insuring that his "fix" gets paid for by cannibalizing $22 $18.5 billion from student loan reform.

The excise tax is both unpopular and bad policy, and it unfairly targeted skilled workers who live in states with high insurance costs. People who are represented by Trumka's labor federation. And it's his job to protect them.

But taking money out of the pockets of community colleges, state schools and early education programs is not the way to do that. These colleges are trapped in the midst of the state budget crises, shutting down programs and firing staff just to keep their doors open. The money in the Senate "fix" came from putting an end to Wall Street banker middlemen in the student loan process, cutting out their outrageous, crippling fees. It was passed by the House as the Student Loan and Financial Aid bill (SAFRA), and was meant for education. With a double-digit jobless rate, enrollment at community colleges is surging as minority youth urgently try to improve their job skills. By denying a vote on the public option, Trumka is forcing his "fix" to be paid for by taking $22 $18.5 billion directly away from education funding.

There is another way to pay for health care, one that doesn't involve raising taxes or cutting $22 $18.5 billion from education: the public option. The Congressional Budget Office says it will save $25 billion in the health care bill, and the only people who stand to lose are the insurance companies, who don't want the competition.

But Richard Trumka says the AFL-CIO is telling Senators not to even allow a vote on an amendment to the public option. The public option that could easily pay for the money taken straight from cash-strapped schools for Trumka's union fix.

Michael Bennet of Colorado went on the floor of the Senate, telling the outrageous, bald-faced lie that allowing a vote on the public option would "kill the bill." For someone who has been in the Senate now for quite some time, he obviously needs a basic civics lesson (see "Frosh Sen. Michael Bennet Won't Offer Public Option Amendment, Still Seems Not To Understand How Legislative Process Works"). The health care bill has passed. It's already been signed into law. The sidecar reconciliation bill is essentially a tax "fix," negotiated after the unions threatened to "kill the bill" after the Senate passed it the first time. If these changes were so critical to saving lives, one wonders how the Senate deliberated for so long and managed to overlook them in the first place.

But one of the more shameful things about the union "fix" is that money that was initially targeted to help colleges and students across the country got seized to pay for it. The student loan direct lending program saves $61 billion that was supposed to go straight to education, but unions cut a deal with the White House to reduce the excise tax. But somehow that fix had to be paid for. And so they took $22 $18.5 billion from student loans.

It's wrong for Richard Trumka to have used the public option as a bargaining chip in the first place, and it's terribly wrong for him to be opposing so much as a vote on it now. The excise tax doesn't even kick in until 2014. Those students need money now.

And it's dishonest to claim that failure to pass the "fix" means people won't get health care. But that's what Michael Bennet is doing, desperate to save his seat as his primary challenger -- Andrew Romanoff -- calls on him to stand by his word. Trumka is covering for Bennet, pretending that a public option vote will happen later on. The amendment could pass with 50 votes now under recociliation -- not when the "60 vote" barrier magically reappears in some fantasy future.

The President said he supports a public option. The House already passed one. There are 53 Senators who say they have supported a public option. The only ones who don't want one are the insurance companies.

Trumka shouldn't be covering for Michael Bennet's desperate lies. And he certainly shouldn't be holding community college students up by their heals and shaking them til the change falls out of their pockets, while Aetna stands over his shoulder counting their millions.

Update: the House Committee on Education and Labor writes that the total education figure is $42.5 billion rather than the $39 billion that had been reported, so the money being taken from education is $18.5 billion rather than $22 billion.