Do the Democrats who dominate the state Legislature side with a governor of their own party or do they go the way of their colleague Republicans, who fought with party mate Arnold Schwarzenegger most of the seven years he spent as governor?
Do Democrats try to keep feeding ever bigger chunks of state money to pensions for members of the public employee unions who often fund their campaigns? Or do they opt to use at least some of that money for sustaining or restoring social safety-net programs they have pushed, often the victims of budget axes in the last few years?
These big questions rest now in the laps of Democratic leaders like state Senate President Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez, and so far they seem to be choosing their public employee supporters over the programs they profess to cherish.
Brown first put his party mates in this position last October, when he presented a 12-point plan for changing state pensions to ease the budget burden they’ve lately put on the state. The Brown plan would raise the age when new, non-public safety employees can retire with full pensions from 55 to 67. It would base new pensions on employees’ highest average compensation over a three-year period, rather than the current system that encourages about-to-retire employees to take huge amounts of overtime in their last year.
Brown also would end the “commit-a-felony, collect-a-pension” system that has so enraged many Californians as they watched some former city employees charged with bilking millions of taxpayer dollars start collecting pensions the moment they were bounced. And he aims to have employees pay much more toward their retirement and health-care benefits than they do now.
To show he means business, Brown’s current proposed budget would cut the state’s contribution to the California Public Employee Retirement System by $200 million from last year’s levels.
In the months since Brown’s pension plan announcement and his submitting precise language to a legislative committee, his party’s lawmakers have had little to say about it. That may be in part because they know how cash-strapped state government is, but they’re reluctant to make the kind of choice that now confronts them.
Republicans, though, have spoken out, acting delighted over the Democrats’ dilemma. Perhaps proving that the Brown plan represents something similar to what his 2010 Republican rival Meg Whitman mused about doing, Republicans in both the state Senate and Assembly signed onto it, even if they did so a tad half-heartedly.
They introduced it verbatim in both legislative houses, promising they all would back it. Said Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of the eastern Los Angeles County suburb of Diamond Bar, “Republicans believe that the governor should have an up-or-down vote on his pension reform plan…We have not changed one comma, one period or one word. This is his plan as he wrote it, and we will stand with him to see it passed.”
Added his Assembly counterpart, Connie Conway of Tulare, “We are committed to working across party lines to pass the governor’s plan.” She called it “the first step of the changes that must be enacted to get our runaway pension system under control.”
The bald-faced fact is that Brown’s plan won’t change very much very soon, as most of its significant changes apply only to new employees. The portion with the most immediate effect plainly is his proposed requirement that all employees pay about half the costs of their retirement and health benefits. Most of those costs are now picked up by whichever government they work for.
If this plan had been introduced by a Republican governor, it would have been dead on arrival. But because Brown is a Democrat elected with strong support from public employee unions and has never indicated any reluctance to run for a fourth term (second in this go-‘round), his party mates have not been able to dismiss it as the product of an anti-union grudge. What’s more, unions have opposed it vocally.
Democrats plainly were not thrilled with the GOP move, but the counter-proposals they offered after months of considering the Brown plan would not provide as significant budget relief as Brown’s plan, either immediately or in years to come.
Which means that when legislators look for the two-thirds vote they’ll need to place a pension-reform proposition before voters this fall, Republicans will be using the plan of a Democratic governor as their base, keeping Democratic lawmakers in a very unusual, awkward spot.
How it plays out will say a lot about the extent of Brown’s clout as he nears the mid-point of his third term.