Unions need reality check on true costs of pensions 

Whenever someone suggests that California’s public employee pension systems need reform, civil service unions react dismissively, often with attacks on the credentials or even the morals of critics.

When, for example, a Public Policy Institute of California poll found strong support — even among public workers themselves — for Gov. Jerry Brown’s middle-of-the-road pension reform plan, the union-backed Californians for Retirement Security reacted thusly:

“These poll results are not surprising. They amount to more fallout from a sustained and unrelenting misinformation campaign being fed to Californians. ... Millions of public servants in California are doing their jobs and planning their futures with the promise of retirement security made to them. Even they are being peppered, however, with misleading and disproportionate examples of the tiny fraction of six-figure pensions and isolated cases of abuse. Pensions equal less than 3 percent of this state’s beleaguered budget, while California corporations swim in profits and are dodging contributing tens of billions to state coffers through a slew of tax breaks.”

A day after that poll was published, a research team based at Stanford University and headed by Joe Nation, a former Democratic state assemblyman, released an updated analysis of state and local pension funds, concluding that they are underfunded by hundreds of billions of dollars and, unless reformed, will seriously erode future financing of schools, health care and other services.

The reaction from Californians for Retirement Security was even more scathing, to wit:

“This so-called academic study is an irresponsible exercise in manipulating numbers and relying on faulty data to support a political agenda. ... In its latest hit piece, which also is full of inaccuracies and false assumptions, facts and input from several groups that did not support the study’s preset conclusions were roundly ignored.”

The irony is that the hundreds of thousands of teachers, firefighters, police officers, clerks, janitors, garbage collectors and other public employees whose futures depend on the systems have the most to lose if they are not reformed.

Brown is not their enemy. During his first stint as governor, he signed the collective bargaining legislation that allowed the unions to become politically powerful, and he received heavy union support as he was running again in 2010.

Are the unions claiming that he’s lying when he says that “the arithmetic doesn’t add up” and pension obligations “are on an unsustainable path”?

Are their members willing to gamble their futures that Brown and other critics of the status quo are wrong?

And are they certain that voters won’t adopt some draconian pension changes if his modest reforms are rejected?

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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