By Dale Kasler
and Jon Ortiz The Sacramento Bee
Published: Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

CalPERS billed it as a sober, factual discussion of pension fund costs, aimed at toning down the rhetoric over an explosive political issue.

But there was no shortage of emotion during the daylong forum – particularly when a panel discussion including a prominent labor leader and a key aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger turned personal.

The flare-up at the Sacramento Convention Center came when panelist Dave Low, a lobbyist for the California School Employees Association, lit into Schwarzenegger special adviser David Crane, chief spokesman for the Republican governor’s proposal to curtail pension benefits for newly hired workers.

Accusing Schwarzenegger of exaggerating the problem, Low said the average retiree in his union collects an annual pension that’s “less than what Mr. Crane makes in a month.”

Many in the crowd of about 350 gasped.

Given a chance to respond, Crane said: “Huey Long couldn’t have done it any better,” a reference to the Depression-era Louisiana governor considered a demagogue.

“This reference to my personal income – what is that all about?” Crane added. He accused Low of tossing out figures “that you can’t back up.”

Crane makes $8,143 a month. That’s less than what the average retiree in Low’s union makes in pension benefits in a year: $13,608.

The two jawed back and forth briefly, prompting CalPERS executive Kenneth Marzion, who was acting as emcee, to ring a cowbell to restore order and halt the bickering. After their part of the program ended, Crane and Low shook hands and chatted for a few minutes.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System hasn’t yet taken a stand on the governor’s pension proposal but convened the forum to “separate fact and fiction” in the debate, said CalPERS board President Rob Feckner.

The day brought plenty of emotion.

Cora Okumura, vice president of Local 1000 of the Service Employees International Union, said Schwarzenegger’s plan to cut benefits for new workers is “another in a long line of attacks on public employees.”

The Schwarzenegger administration says CalPERS benefits are unsustainable, especially with the fund shouldering a $56 billion loss in the last fiscal year. Crane said the problem began long before the stock market crashed – and is at least partly CalPERS’ fault.

He said the fund lulled legislators into thinking they could raise benefits – as they did in 1999 – without having to worry about costs to the taxpayers.

Since then, as Schwarzenegger said earlier this week, the state’s annual contribution to CalPERS has risen from $150 million to about $3.5 billion. Yet CalPERS officials and labor leaders say the comparison is unfair; the $150 million was a fluke caused by a runaway stock market that minimized the state’s costs.

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