Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, March 17, 2011
Even in California, where union-funded support led to a Democratic sweep of statewide offices last year, voters support reforms in how public-employee pensions and health benefits are funded – a major shift from two years ago, a new survey by UC Berkeley and the Field Poll found.
The survey, released today, found that 42 percent of the respondents think pension benefits for public employees are “too generous” – up from 32 percent in October 2009. The poll of 898 registered voters was taken Feb. 28-March 14 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
The results come in the wake of weeks of protests in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker and a Republican-dominated Legislature stripped public employee unions of most collective bargaining powers and exacted greater employee contributions toward benefits. Lawmakers in Indiana, Ohio and several other states are working on similar measures.
Analysts said California’s similar anti-union sentiment was surprising in a state where unions and union-backed independent expenditure organizations spent $30 million to back Jerry Brown and Democrats to a sweep of statewide elected offices in November.
The survey found that 69 percent of respondents want state and local government union members to pay more each month for health benefits. Respondents also overwhelmingly want to increase the minimum age when an employee can retire; reduce benefits for new employees; and replace the current pension system with 401(k)-style benefits with reduced guaranteed payments.
Several of the survey questions were similar to pension-reform proposals suggested last month by the state’s Little Hoover Commission. While critics of the commission said it includes several Republican appointees, the new survey contained an ominous sign for unions: Nearly all of the proposed reforms received strong support from independent and Republican voters in addition to Democratic voters who usually are more union friendly.
While 50 percent of poll respondents oppose taking away collective bargaining rights for public employees, compared with 42 percent who favor such a move, UC Berkeley political science Professor Jack Citrin said “that margin is a lot closer than you think it would be in this state.”
During his campaign for governor last year, Brown supported some pension reforms, but he has not pursued them in the first few months of his term, instead focusing on getting approval for a combination of tax extensions and budget cuts to close the state’s $26.6 billion budget deficit.
Citrin said the poll sends a message to Brown “that the public understands the problem and is willing to support some fairly dramatic changes if Sacramento is willing to go that route.”
The new survey contained other potentially treacherous signs for unions. Among non-union households, there is a dead-even split over whether unions do more harm than good.
“That is really something that the unions should pay attention to,” Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo said. “This has gotten to a point where the mainstream, middle class is paying attention to this and wants something done.”
Labor organizers said the public doesn’t know enough about how public unions have given back millions worth of benefits during contract negotiations in the past year.
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