Jerry Brown made a rare gubernatorial appearance this month before a joint legislative committee that was delving — with obvious reluctance — into whether California’s public employee pension benefits should be overhauled.
While seeking his second stint as governor last year, Brown had pledged pension reform and has since offered a 12-point overhaul that attempts to strike a middle ground between the defenders of the status quo and the radical changes that outside groups want.
State and local pension costs have been rising, due to sharp increases in benefits in the last decade and declines in the pension fund investments that were supposed to pay for those benefits at no cost to taxpayers.
The Legislature’s majority Democrats are clearly reluctant to enact more than superficial pension reforms because they are utterly beholden to public employee unions for campaign support. Many, indeed, are either former government union members themselves or were handpicked by union leaders.
Brown knows that, of course. He knows that he was also dependent on union campaign money last year. He knows that a big reason he couldn’t cut a budget and tax deal with Republicans this year was that unions were dead-set against the GOP’s pension reforms.
But Brown also knows that public pension reform strikes a strong chord with voters, especially during a period of economic malaise when education and other public services are being cut and when they are being asked to pay more taxes to shore up those services.
Brown told legislators, therefore, that if they want voters to approve higher taxes on next November’s ballot, they must prove that they are being tight with the public’s money, and that means they must make a significant dent in unfunded pension costs.
Brown finds support for that message in two recent statewide polls that legislators will ignore at their peril.
Last week, a Field Poll found that voters’ views of public pensions have evolved, that increasing numbers now see them as too generous, and that Brown’s approach enjoys strong support.
This week, a Public Policy Institute of California poll echoes those findings, with 83 percent of Californians seeing public pensions as a problem. Strong majorities believe that employees should pay more and that traditional “defined-benefit” systems should be changed to a “defined-contribution” system for new workers, similar to private workers’ 401(k) plans.
Perhaps most important, while union leaders resist such changes, PPIC found that strong majorities of public employees themselves favor them.
Persuading voters to pay higher taxes would be difficult, but if the Legislature tries to slough off pension reform, or enacts only token changes, it will give tax opponents a potent weapon.
Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.