Why Not a Pension Cut Trigger?

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Gov. Jerry Brown and the leader of the State Senate, Darrell Steinberg, say they need to make changes to reduce pension costs -- in part to create the right political context to convince voters to approve Brown's initiative temporarily raising taxes.

But they are being fought by other Democrats and public employee unions who oppose the changes.

The unions have some reasons for opposition. One good reason amounts to a question: why should they agree to pension givebacks now -- when it's unclear (and perhaps unlikely) that Brown's initiative will win?

This question has particular force with polls showing Brown's measure holding only a narrow majority among likely voters.

The good news for the Democrats is that there's a way to resolve their concern -- and boost the initiative.

That way? Link the pension changes with the ballot initiative.

Essentially, take the pension changes that Brown supports and adopt them, but with language that delays the moment they take effect until after the November election. If the ballot initiative passes and taxes are raised, the legislation would take effect. If the taxes go down to defeat, the pension changes would be canceled.

This could give a boost to the ballot initiative. While the pension changes wouldn't be literally on the ballot, they practically would be.

The political benefits are clear. Such a link would provide some comfort to unions that their sacrifices wouldn't be in vein. It might reassure moderate and even some conservative voters that the additional revenues wouldn't be gobbled up by pension obligations (that's not all that real of a fear, but it does exist in the minds of many).

Call it a pension trigger. If there's one thing we know about the governor, it's that he likes legislative triggers -- his budgets have been built around them.

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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