Can Brown Deliver on Pension Reform?

Governor Brown's new plan to rein in public pension costs is going to earn him a lot of points with the public. Politically speaking, voters will give him a lot of credit for attempting to reduce future costs by increasing the retirement age and employee contributions, along with eliminating "spiking" that allows workers to boost their pensions by claiming overtime and other benefits.

After all, this reform is something Brown campaigned on last year, calling the system unsustainable.

But his plan, unveiled Thursday morning, faces a minefield in the legislature.  Republicans will want to know if it goes far enough to achieve savings.  Democrats will ask if it goes too far to be acceptable for their labor allies.

And labor groups are not going to roll over. Union leaders know they've got a problem with the public's perception of the pension system. That's why SEIU and others have agreed to concessions in recent years that have increased employee contributions and retirement ages.

It's also why union leaders have indicated a willingness to consider some reforms, such as the "spiking" issue. But broadly speaking, labor groups will fight for the continued ability to address these issues in collective bargaining, instead of handing it over to the legislature. 

And unions have shown no interest in shifting from their current defined benefit plans to a 401K-style system like private industry has. Brown would like to offer a hybrid system that contains elements of both systems to new employees.

And he wants to make it mandatory. At least one Democratic leader has said he'd be open to the idea on a voluntary basis.

Brown will also have particular difficulty winning a two-thirds vote to put his plan on the ballot.

Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel), a critic of the pension system, said Thursday she thought the governor's plan was moving "in the right direction."

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said he was keeping an "open mind" on the plan.

The governor would always have the option of gathering signatures to put an initiative on the ballot, if his plan stalls at the Capitol. He said Thursday he would focus, for now, on trying to shepherd the plan through the legislature, saying he wants lawmakers to "chew on" it for now.

In 2012, pension reform will be a signature battle in Sacramento.

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