Democrats need to get serious about pension reform

Friday, February 17, 2012

Published in the Los Angeles Times on February 17, 2012.

Republican state Sens. Bill Emmerson (Hemet), Tom Berryhill (Modesto), Anthony Cannella (Ceres) and Tom Harman (Huntington Beach) respond to George Skelton's Feb. 12 column, "Commit a crime, collect a pension."

George Skelton brought to light an important component of any legitimate reform to our public pension system. Prohibiting payment of pension benefits to those convicted of a felony related to their employment is good public policy, and we welcome any attention to this abuse.

In terms of driving the overall discussion of public employee pension reform, Skelton's column fell short. While acknowledging that the Democratic leadership in Sacramento will probably never let Assemblyman Cameron Smyth's (R-Santa Clarita) measure to deny pension benefits to felons see the light of day, Skelton seems to take such partisan gridlock as an acceptable outcome.

To that end, it was noteworthy that Skelton didn't reference our comprehensive pension reform measure, Senate Constitutional Amendment 13, which has been awaiting a hearing since last year. This measure resulted from last year's failed negotiations with Gov. Jerry Brown over the reforms we sought and that  California desperately needs -- including pension reform.

Having discussed pension reform with Brown last year, we knew there was much agreement between the governor and ourselves; SCA 13 reflects that agreement. It was clear to us that he supported virtually every tenet of our proposal. Regardless of the lost opportunity for Democrats to negotiate a meaningful budget, Brown assured Californians that he would bring his pension reform ideas forward.

When the governor finally introduced his pension reform language a few weeks ago, none of us were surprised that it virtually mirrored SCA 13. Unfortunately, legislative Democrats have refused to set either measure for a policy hearing, effectively shutting down discussion on real reforms.

As a group, we withstood a tremendous amount of pressure by some within our party simply because we engaged the governor. In fact, it didn't faze us when Brown's spokesman called legislative Republicans "basically moronic" on a radio show last year; rather, we kept our eyes focused on finding solutions to some of California's biggest issues.

To us, Skelton's column promulgates the dysfunction that has become the norm in Sacramento. Quoting Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) as having "no problem with" denying felons pensions is a good sign. But Steinberg's statement strikes us more as public relations than public policy; the saying "actions speak louder than words" comes to mind.

We think it's time to stop the charade. The majority party needs to take up public employee pension reform in a meaningful and responsible way by giving SCA 13 and the governor's pension reform proposal a true hearing.

SCA 13 seeks to address not only the "easy" fixes we all agree on, such as spiking and double dipping, but also addresses the underlying structural issues that contribute to the problems faced by state and local governments. Moreover, SCA 13 ends pension abuses, reduces our unfunded pension liabilities and controls costs to ensure the sustainability of our public employee pensions.

Specifically, SCA 13 offers new public employees a hybrid between the defined-benefit plans most public employees have and the defined-contribution plans most private sector companies offer. New employees would be required to contribute more toward their benefits and would have the additional opportunity to take advantage of a 401(k)-style plan they could manage themselves.

We also propose capping the pay used to determine pension levels, a simple, direct way to end the outrageous payouts some public employees have enjoyed, generating embarrassing headlines and draining precious state and local resources.

With regard to abuse, SCA 13 would end pension spiking practices by requiring that benefits be based on an employee's highest salary averaged over five years. Furthermore, pension benefits could be calculated based only on an employee's salary, not counting overtime, uniform allowances, car allowances and other perks. The proposal would also eliminate double dipping (in which beneficiaries collect both a salary and pension checks) and so-called airtime purchases that inflate payouts.

We think the governor's tougher increase of the retirement age also makes sense. 

Skelton is commonly referred to as the dean of the Capitol press corps, and we respect him a great deal. He does a solid job commenting on the issues of the day, and many in Sacramento and throughout the state look to his insight on the mess that has become state politics.

But accepting partisan gridlock as the status quo does nothing to fix California. We hope Skelton will use his columns to help end the dysfunction in Sacramento by calling on the Democrats to get serious about public employee pension reform.