George Skelton

By George Skelton, Capitol Journal
January 23, 2012

It’s the norm in January: After the governor proposes a new budget and delivers his State of the State address, legislators slide into hibernation until spring.

Oh, there’s some rustling around in the dens — a few committee hearings, brief floor sessions — but no strenuous activity, no risk taking until May, when deadlines sprout and the governor revises his budget proposal.

Not every year follows that pattern — last March, the governor and the Legislature made sharp spending cuts — but winter 2012 has all the signs of the rhythmic long nap.

So it’s not surprising that there seems to be a look of lethargy among legislators concerning the sensitive issue of public employee pensions.

We’re being told to be patient. Pension reform will happen. This year.

“It has to,” says Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). “And it will. The public expects it, first of all.”

And, the Democratic leader adds, “it’s going to be an important part of convincing the voters that we’ve done everything reasonable we can to help deal with costs.

“Sometimes an issue is used as a wedge for political purposes, but it’s a legitimate issue nevertheless. It’s amazing how political the issue of public pensions has become.”

Not really.

Over the last decade or two, companies butchered pension plans while many governments boosted theirs outrageously. That led to inevitable outcries of unfairness by private-sector taxpayers. Also, government pension plans face unfunded liabilities reaching into the hundreds of billions, depending on the study. So that’s a time bomb ticking for taxpayers.

The nonpartisan Field Poll reported last month that an increasing number of California voters are viewing state and local government pensions as “too generous” — 41%, compared with 32% two years ago.

Another nonpartisan poll, by the Public Policy Institute of California, found that even government workers — nearly two-thirds of them — think that they should contribute more to their pension systems and that new hires should be provided only 401(k)-type plans.

Actually, through collective bargaining, state and local pension plans are starting to be rolled back for future hires, and current employees are contributing more to their retirements.

But practically everyone in the Capitol knows a major overhaul is needed because the current system is not sustainable fiscally or politically.

“There’s a desire to do it and get it over with,” Steinberg says. “But it’s going to take several months of sustained work to drill down below the ideology and easy sound bites and to actually analyze what the various options mean…. I’d like to get this done before the budget.”

The constitutional deadline for the Legislature to pass a balanced budget is June 15.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a 12-point pension overhaul, but seems to be telling legislators to take their time — a dangerous suggestion in Sacramento.

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