Is Pension Legislation Dead?

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It looks like major pension changes may have to wait again.

That's the likely impact after backers of an initiative seeking pension savings announced they were abandoning the initiative for this year. They blamed state Attorney General Kamala Harris for their retreat; they argued that she gave their pension initiative a title and summary that was so inaccurate and unfair that it was certain to lose. And that in turn made it difficult to raise money for a campaign.

Of course, the initiative would have been an uphill fight. Those who want to reduce the billions in pension obligations for state and local governments have been seeking to do this by initiative since at least 2004 -- and have failed again and again to qualify measures for the ballot.

But the initiative was useful as a point of leverage -- a possible driver of a legislation on pensions. Unions and others who oppose pension changes didn't want to fight a ballot initiative; they prefer to save their money for other initiative campaigns (including those to raise revenues and to fight back limits on use of union dues) and on electing more Democrats in the legislature. So with the threat of an initiative, unions and Democrats they back might have been more open to making concessions.

Now, that seems unlikely. Gov. Jerry Brown continues to push a detailed, thoughtful plan that would curb pension abuses and attempt to standardize pensions at the local government level (where many of the worst pensions abuses have taken place). But Democrats and labor groups, even before the abandonment of the initiative, had been resisting Brown's efforts to make a deal. Now Brown's task -- getting labor to make changes -- seems even harder.

Of course, unions would be wise to make concessions, and many unions have done so at the local level, generally in deals that require their members to contribute more to their pensions. Pension obligations have become a problem for labor both politically (voters are reluctant to raise taxes at the same time they're reading about outlandish pensions) and fiscally (generous pensions dissuade governments from hiring more workers -- and thus creating more public employee union members). 

Getting behind Brown's plan, or something similar, would make it easier to convince voters to raise state taxes via ballot initiative this fall. But the signs point to nothing much happening this year. Which means this failed ballot initiative is not the last such measure we'll see.

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