Dan Walters

By Dan Walters
dwalters@sacbee.com
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

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 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 hand-picked 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.

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