Wednesday, November 9, 2011

After arguing last week that labor would be crazy to fight Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposals for pension reform, we invited Steve Maviglio, consultant to the union-backed Californians for Retirement Security, to respond to our brilliant, well-reasoned and responsible points. Here’s his offering.

By Steve Maviglio
Special to Calbuzz

At first glance, Gov. Jerry Brown’s 12-point package of pension reforms, released last week, looked like a deft political play, even winning over the usually sharp Calbuzz pundits.

It won gushing support from editorial writers across the spectrum. The Wall Street Journal equated it with Nixon going to China. Goo-goo government types from California Forward and Think Long praised it. And predictably, it was trashed by labor on the left as too strong and bashed by the uber-right as not going far enough.

But for the long haul, Brown may have negotiated against himself. His new set of proposals goes beyond those that Senate Republicans wanted this past spring in exchange for budget votes. So count on this: if Brown’s ambiguous measures are modified by the Legislature (and even the LAO’s tightwads suggested alternations yesterday), then the ever-cranky GOP will have an excuse to withdraw their support. Brown will have left himself open to criticism that he’s caved, meanwhile seriously harming his relationship with his labor allies.

If anything, Brown could learn a thing or two from President Barack Obama on this score. Obama, after playing touchy-feeling with Congressional Republicans on a Grand Bargain, is now struggling to fortify his base. Similarly, with his pension package, Brown has decided to risk alienating his base while getting nothing in return from his political enemies.

Indeed, state Senate Republicans will hold a press conference today calling for a special session of the Legislature to tackle the issue of pension envy. Just one example of how potent an issue this has become: the clamoring by Republicans is the reverse of their position two years ago, when now-Senate GOP leader Bob Dutton was among the bulk of Republicans in his caucus who voted against a modest labor-supported measure reducing pension liability.

Nobody will dispute that labor has a fight on its hands to protect retirement security for the state’s public workers from assaults. The latest PPIC and Field polls show strong bipartisan support to rein in pension benefits among all demographic groups — even among public employees themselves.

No wonder. Not a day goes by without a screaming headline about pension abuses. Publishing databases of public workers pensions become a goldmine to drive up click rates for newspaper websites. The “$100,000 Club” — representing less than two percent of the state’s retirees — secures about 98% of media coverage.

Which leaves Brown’s triangulation-happy advisers hoping that labor will simply cave on the issue, give the governor a pass and then hop on board any measures he’ll propose for the November ballot that he views as more important to unions and the Democratic agenda. Central to this reasoning is their reckoning that labor won’t risk a ballot measure that goes even further than what the governor has proposed.

They liken this strategy to 2004 workers comp reforms. As Capitol observers can recall, the Legislature buckled under Gov. Schwarzenegger’s threat of a ballot measure that year that would have been stricter than what labor was able to negotiate. The Democratic legislature grudgingly passed modest tweaks to the state’s worker comp system, averting the ballot initiative.

But let’s take a walk down memory lane.

In 2004, the ballot initiative proposal threat had a champion in a newly-elected popular governor. Schwarzenegger made it his signature issue, stumping up and down the state. There were big bucks behind it, including the full weight of the California Chamber of Commerce. Moderate Dems, under pressure from their own small business allies, didn’t need much convincing to go along with reforms. After all, not a single constituent would likely complain: the changes being proposed wouldn’t have affected the current benefits of a single worker, only impacting future claims.

Compare that to the pension proposals, which will affect millions of Californians with a vested interest in their defeat. Hell hath no fury like a voter who will see his paycheck slashed and retirement put in jeopardy or voters who might be concerned if when they call 9-1-1, that their call is responded to by a 67 year old police officer.

To read entire column, click here.