Is It Already Too Late for Pension Changes?


Last week, legislative Democrats delayed action -- again -- on changes to save money on the pensions of government workers.

The Democrats, who were unable to reach agreement with Gov. Brown on a legislative package, said this delay is no big deal.

Yes, Democrats acknowledge they need to make pension changes to convince skeptical voters that the tax increases in Gov. Brown's November ballot initiative won't be swallowed up by pensions.

But they say they have time. They'll pass legislation by the end of the summer, well before the November election. Some commentators have suggested that waiting until later may help -- because more people will be paying attention as the election nears.

But there's reason to think that it's already too late.

Consider another line of reasoning about pensions.

The pension issue has been a burning one for years. Californians have become more and more worried about pension abuses -- and the high costs of pensions, particularly compared to their own meager retirements.

They've also noted that action has been relatively slow. (And voters don't seem to be giving credit to those unions, particularly on the local level, that have negotiated an end to certain abuses).

So what would be the reaction -- if the legislature finally takes action just two months before an election in which elected leaders are asking for pension increases? Would this be seen as the legislature finally acting bravely?

Or would it be more likely to be seen as a political move -- even a trick -- to pass something that looks like pension "reform' as a way to get more in taxes?

My money is on the latter reaction. This cynical point of view could be buttressed by this fact: anything the legislature does via statute in late August could be undone after the election. But the Brown initiative, a constitutional amendment, will be with us forever.

As Calbuzz explains in a very strong recent post, voters had this sort of cynical reaction before: in 1978. The legislature and then Gov. Jerry Brown waited until Prop 13 was headed to the ballot before passing property tax relief. It was too late; the legislative alternative was dismissed as political and Prop 13 passed overwhelmingly.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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