By Don Thompson
Associated Press
Posted: 03/06/2011 05:23:02 PM PST
Updated: 03/07/2011 05:33:32 AM PST

SACRAMENTO — A partisan split on how to change California’s massively underfunded pension systems is playing an increasingly prominent role in the debate over Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to fix the state’s woeful budget.

Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, have scheduled votes this week on the plan, which balances deep spending cuts with an extension of tax hikes enacted two years ago.

Republicans so far have refused to support the tax extensions. They say the state must first make fundamental government reforms, led by restructuring a pension system filled with benefits that disappeared long ago for most the private sector.

“We have an unfunded pension liability of massive proportions, and we have got to get a handle on this pension crisis,” Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Lake Forest, said.

Walters has introduced a series of bills. Her SB 520 would put new public employees into a 401(k)-type defined contribution retirement plan similar to that offered to most private-sector employees.

Walters’ other bills would:

# Require pension plans to save for future retiree health care benefits.

# Prohibit state employees from increasing their pensions by buying extra years of service.

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