Is it time for California pension reformers to close shop?


By Steven Greenhut | for

The pension numbers are clear. Despite some good recent returns, California’s pension systems are in a deep hole, the result of a decade of expanding pension promises and underfunding the payment of them.

Essentially, any California public-sector worker on the job in the last decade — especially police officers, firefighters, prison guards and the rapidly expanding category of “public safety” worker — have been made millionaires by fiat. One would need millions of dollars in the bank to match the guaranteed pensions provided to this group.

Meanwhile, services are declining, taxes are going up and the most depressed cities are going bankrupt. Something has to give.

Nevertheless, the pension-reform movement is dead in the water. The vast array of California officialdom, which sees itself as part of the union workforce more than as representatives of the taxpayers, has stymied reform at every turn.

They halt statewide initiatives. They kill even modest reforms in the Legislature. State administrative agencies file lawsuits against municipalities where voters pass reform (San Diego). The unions file and win lawsuits. The latest came in Ventura County, where a court ruled this week a pension reform measure that mainly affected new hires wasn’t legal. That measure was designed to be a template for 20 “37 Act” counties that have their own pension systems as authorized by a 1937 law.

No on that too. The judge told reformers to go the Legislature. Of course, the union-controlled Legislature tells reformers to go to the voters.

But when the voters approve reforms — and they almost always do by huge margins, even in overwhelmingly Democratic cities — reformers then must go to the courts, which then find for the unions. Even in bankruptcy, lowly cities (lowly, because they are financially strapped) cannot take on the political muscle of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System — a scandal-plagued system that promised massive pension spiking won’t cost taxpayers a dime (oops).

No one cares that such self-interested promises (CalPERS employees enjoy the increased pensions, too) not only don’t come true, but are so far off the mark they threaten the health of the state budget. Sorry, taxpayers can be made to pay more. So that in depressed cities such as Stockton, Vallejo and San Bernardino, where most residents get by on $50,000 incomes or less, these same residents are being forced to pay higher taxes to sustain the $150,000 pensions and salaries enjoyed by cops and firefighters. But most efforts to modestly rein in this giveaway are stopped, crushed and rebuked.

As I explain in my U-T San Diego column, pension reformers have an indomitable spirit, pension reformers are so used to losing that they roll with the punches, regroup and undertake new efforts to promote a modicum of fiscal responsibility. They raise money for the effort. They use up volunteers’ time. They are the ultimate good-government actors rebuffed at every turn by some of the nation’s greediest interest groups who always want the same thing: “more.”

But instead of regrouping, pension reformers should hoist the white flag. Enough already. The governor has spoken. The Legislature has spoken. The courts have spoken. The state administrative agencies have spoken. No reform, they say. No way, no how. Not even for new workers. Not even to halt crazy abuses. At some point, California reformers need to spend their time doing something more constructive, such as figuring out which city in Texas to relocate.