Politicians’ pensions account for just a fraction of actual line-item expenses. However, they can serve as symbolic rallying cries during labor negotiations and budget cuts. That’s why there is a growing sentiment that it’s time to address the lifelong benefits paid to part-time elected officials.

Assemblyman Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills) has proposed AB 738, which would prohibit a publicly elected official who serves in a part-time position in any city, county, or state level office from receiving a pension from the CalPERS system.

It’s a policy being advocated not only at the state level, but also by local leaders. In San Jose, Councilman Pete Constant has been trying to end CalPERS defined-benefit pensions for City Council members since June of 2011. That effort will take another step towards conclusion on January 24, when the Council is expected to vote on the proposal.

A memo by Councilman Pete Constant dated June 6, 2011 stressed to his colleagues the importance of “personally leading by example” and eliminating or amending their defined benefit pensions.

“I do not believe it is reasonable to have taxpayers’ bear the burden of providing a lifetime benefit,” wrote Constant in the memo, because officials in San Jose are barred from serving more than 8 years on the City Council. Currently, the Council members receive a defined retirement of 2% at 55, with a five-year vesting period.

This Council pension structure has already resulted in an unfunded gap of nearly half-a million dollars in San Jose.

Leaving the CalPERS administered defined-benefit plan would require that San Jose immediately pay for the unfunded gap, but it would create a second-tier for Council members going forward. The long-term savings from switching plans would offset the initial cost as future members of the City Council would be placed either into a defined-contribution system or a defined-benefit system with a less-generous formula. Constant suggested either a 1 or 1.5 percent accrual rate.

The creation of the second tier would be necessary, because the City Attorney determined that Council Members could not leave or change the pension system once they’d been elected to office. The current Council would continue in their defined-benefit system until leaving the city.

Similar benefits for elected officials have been curtailed in the last two decades, Assemblyman Hagman wrote on the conservative blog Flash Report. Members of the State Legislature lost their benefits in 1990, when voters approved term limits. School board members and commissioners were barred in 1994. But part time local officials continue to be eligible for benefits.