There's no sugarcoating California’s fiscal mess 

People increasingly want answers for how California can solve its fiscal problems, but I rarely have good news to offer. Last week, I wrote about three Assembly Republicans who attended a “no more cuts” rally sponsored by the Service Employees International Union — those always-agitated, purple-shirted, bullhorn-toting activists that are ubiquitous around Sacramento.

The three amigos agreed with the union about cuts to the In Home Supportive Services program, where hundreds of thousands of family members are subsidized by the state to take care of their own family members, and who become members of the dues-paying SEIU “family.” On Feb. 8, one of those members, Brian Nestande of Palm Desert, was rewarded with a $7,800 campaign donation from an SEIU local union. This is small stuff, perhaps, but it’s indicative of how hard it is to achieve serious reform in Sacramento when Republicans are so easy to buy off by the unions.

One firefighter union is running TV ads opposing reform that feature images of firefighters running into burning buildings. Will the public keep up its demand to reform union abuse when faced with these images? Will Republicans stand tall when they’re dealing with uniformed heroes rather than purple-shirted loudmouths?

The stories of fiscal insanity and abuse are everywhere. The Los Angeles Times reported recently that “Nearly three-quarters of Los Angeles County firefighters and lifeguards who retired in the last three years successfully claimed they were disabled on the job and won enhanced pension benefits, county records show.” A San Francisco newspaper reported last week, “In the game of megabuck public paychecks, outgoing San Francisco police brass are hauling away the gold.”

It’s not just the money. How do you think the inmates in California’s state prisons are getting cell phones and other contraband? From the prison guards, of course, and the union resists any changes that will stop this.

Yet people want solutions. The state needs to slash the size of government, slash the number of government employees, contract out legitimate services and remind the public that the government is not responsible for taking care of them. The issue is political and there is zero political will in the Capitol to even modestly reform benefits for new hires.

An Assembly official recently told me about a proposal to reduce the pensions of state employees who have been convicted of serious crimes, but the unions pulled out the stops and this bill died. If the Legislature can’t strip pensions from criminals, then what’s the chance of broader reform?

How about the courts? A state appellate court just struck down Orange County’s sensible lawsuit against the retroactive portion of the pension increase a previous Republican-dominated board gave to deputy sheriffs. One attorney told the story of a case involving pension reform in which the judges openly discussed what the ruling would mean to their own pensions. Legal cases give agencies little elbow reform for reforming pensions or improving union accountability.

That leaves the initiative process. Unfortunately, our side never agrees on strategy and rarely has enough money to stand up to the unions, which can tap their members’ pockets at will. I’m not saying we’re doomed, but the state’s finances still are going to have to get far worse before enough people are willing to make the hard choices necessary to save us.

Steven Greenhut is editor of; write to him at

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