Pension reform is a tough issue politically, especially for Democrats. It's not just that changing public employee pension rules upset the labor unions that back the party. It's that pensions matter most to older folks -- and older folks vote. Estimates suggest that the average age of a California voter this fall will approach 60.
So it's worth noting that some of the state's savviest and most experienced Democrats are signing onto reform. The former Assembly speaker and San Francisco, Mayor Willie Brown Jr., even appeared this week at an event to back proposals from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to roll pension benefits for public workers back to where they were before 1999 legislation made pensions much more generous. In so doing, he echoed the themes of State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who also has backed change.
Why do Brown and Lockyer want reform? But for all the short-term pain, they recognize that pension reform is, in the long term, important for Democrats in two very important ways.
First, in a time of scarce resources, every dollar state and local governments spend on covering unfunded pension obligations is money that can't go to education, health care and programs to protect the most vulnerable citizens.
Second, and probably most important, generous pension benefits have a huge political cost, accompanied by a real human cost. Democrats, after seeing cuts in programs in recent years, need to make the case to voters that it's time to raise taxes and other revenues to fund public programs. But it'll be hard to convince voters to provide more money for government programs when stories about outrageous pension benefits are on the front burner. Voters may ask: why should we raise taxes on ourselves if much of the money is going to public workers?
This concern is usually overblown (pension spending is still a tiny fraction of state spending), but the unfunded obligations are huge, and the public frustration is real. Democrats would be wise to listen to Brown, Locker and other grown ups.