Thirteen years ago, the California Legislature approved SB 400, the measure that paved the way for mass retroactive pension spiking not just for state employees but for local governments up and down the Golden State. It was approved based on disinformation provided by CalPERS that suggested there would be little long-term cost to taxpayers because the stock market boom would never end. Now the sponsors of two ballot measures that aim to clean up this debacle are being screwed over by tendentious, dishonest ballot descriptions put out by Attorney General Kamala Harris. It has never been more obvious that the California political establishment amounts to a union front. Democracy in the Golden State has just been waterboarded — again.
The title and summer Harris put out are full of red herrings and loaded language, as the California Pension Reform group details:
While the Attorney General accurately describes parts of the initiatives, she provides other statements that are either provably false or grossly misleading:
1. “Reduces pension benefits for current and future public employees…”
This is an absolutely false statement. The proposals do not change pension benefits for current employees. The proposals simply require current employees to pay more for future benefits and then only if the fund is at risk of not being able to pay the employees the benefits they are due.
2. “… including teachers, nurses, and peace officers, but excluding judges.”
The AG selectively lists three positive poll-tested jobs out of thousands of government employee job classifications when both measures apply to all public employees, except constitutionally-protected judges.
3. “Prohibits public retirement systems from providing death or disability benefits to future employees.”
The AG includes the words “prohibits” and “death or disability benefits” in the same sentence when our measures actually specifically provide for those benefits. To avoid any confusion about death and disability benefits, both initiatives say:
“Sec 12 (d) All government agencies that provide pension or other retirement benefits for their government employees may also separately provide death and disability benefits for the benefit of their government employees, regardless of the date of hire. The cost of such death and disability benefits is not subject to the cost limitations established in this section.”
What’s so infuriating about this is that “direct democracy” is the only means that Californians have to do an end run around the unions, green cultists and trial lawyers who control Sacramento. While California may be a liberal-leaning state, when it comes to ballot measures, many of those liberal voters show common sense, and warm, for example, to the argument that a state with high taxes should be able to make ends meet. There are plenty of signs that many of these liberals were quite willing to believe that pensions are far too generous for public employees.
But when the arguments are framed with the mendacity shown by Kamala Harris, direct democracy is taken hostage by the powers that occupy Sacramento.
Remember, the primary argument made a half-century ago for generous pensions for public employees was that their pay was so poor they would never be able to save enough money for their retirement. Now apples-to-apples comparisons done by the federal government, USA Today and plenty of other analysts show that this disparity is either nonexistent or that public employees make more than private employees with similar jobs.
Union advocates don’t concede this is true. But they do see the need to offer additional arguments. So what did they come up with? The “brain drain” argument that without generous pensions, governments would hemorrhage workers to other employers. This is bunk. WIth the exception of law enforcement, there is no market demand for public employees, which is why federal labor stats show tiny turnover in the public sector.
But the dishonesty and the mendacity doesn’t end there. The debates over public employee pensions are rigged and manipulated in every possible way, starting with the basic numbers. As I wrote in the L.A. Daily News last summer …
As daunting as official estimates of unfunded liabilities may be, plenty of experts think the actual liabilities are far higher. A 2010 Stanford University study asserted that the three largest state pension funds could be underwater by more than $500 billion, but that unrealistically rosy projections of long-term earnings made the problem seem much smaller. And even the smaller problem that pension funds admit to is often deceptively minimized by a practice known as “smoothing,” in which the funds put off sharp increases in the assessments they charge local government clients – done to promote the illusion all is well with pension finances.
Liberal defenders of the California status quo like Timesman George Skelton often dismiss Republican or conservative or libertarian concerns by saying the public just doesn’t agree with you, so shut up. But when it comes to pathetic power plays like this, that’s just not true. The L.A. Times’ own poll shows vast support for pension changes. But the political-media establishment in Sacramento doesn’t care what the public wants, just what the public employee unions want.
And so we see atrocities like Kamala Harris’ assault on pension reform. This isn’t democracy. This is California politics as usual — “puke politics,” in Bill Lockyer’s phrase. Our nominal governor is Jerry Brown. Our real governor may as well be Steve Maviglio.