The public employee pension issue is gaining traction. Results from the recent Field Poll indicate that voters are becoming concerned with the potential cost to the taxpayers as a majority of those polled support changes to the government pension system. Polling the public on pension issues has hardly ever been done.
Public pressure from newspaper editorials and a radio ad campaign by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association against a Metropolitan Water District pension increase plan forced the water district’s governing body to pull the pension proposal off its agenda last week. Rallying public opposition to a pension program is not something you see everyday.
Part of the responsibility for this public awareness of pensions falls to the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility founded by former Assemblyman Keith Richman. Current president Marcia Fritz has led the organization on an aggressive education campaign to inform the public about pension excesses and potential taxpayer liability.
The organization’s database of public sector members who receive more than $100,000 in pensions has been a popular tool for the media in exploring the pension question.
In addition, former San Diego Union Tribune writer Ed Mendel’s extensive examinations of California pensions on his Calpensions website has shone light on the issue. A wrap up of the current debate on pension issues was set forth succinctly by Mendel in this post last week.
Other journalists have taken up the issue. For example, Chris Reed of the San Diego Union Tribune blogs on the issue frequently. The Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters commented on the pension issue yesterday. Like a muckraker of old, the Contra Costa Times Dan Borenstein has zeroed in on questionable pension practices in the Bay Area.
With all this publicity, the public is beginning to pay attention. According to the Field Poll 60 percent of voters back a cap on public workers’ benefits; 56% support replacing the current defined benefit plan with a 401k system that many private sector employees have; and 51% say current benefits should be reduced.
According to the poll it is those people who claim to pay a great deal of attention to government who have the greatest concern with the current pension formulas. In essence, the more people know about the pension benefits received by pubic employees, the more they object.
Citizens will become more aware when they realize the taxpayers will have to make up for big shortfalls to the state’s retirement system and learn of the pay-to-play scandal that allegedly involved a retirement system board member.
David Crane, an economics adviser to the governor told the Wall Street Journal the retirement fund losses mean, “there is less money for parks and recreation, less money for the University of California, less money for health and human services.”
Now is the moment to move forward with reform of the pension system. When Keith Richman attempted to put forth a ballot measure on pension reform in 2005 it was met with stiff opposition and weak support. Richman’s California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility is preparing a new measure of reforms to place on the ballot. With all the publicity about pension problems and excesses revealed over the past few years the opportunity for success this time is better.
However, further education efforts will be necessary to tell the story to a wider audience of voters and increase those positive numbers revealed in the Field Poll. Fierce opposition from public employee unions can be expected against any reform measure. Extensive education efforts must continue so voters will understand the necessity for reform. An opportunity to establish important pension reforms should not be squandered before the time is right.
Joel Fox is the Editor of Fox & Hounds Daily. For more, visit the Fox & Hounds Daily Web site.