Cal. gov't unions in pension reform smackdown

In a preview of the harsh fight expected next year, California public unions are already campaigning against a pension-reform measure some 14 months before it potentially even goes before voters.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, representing about 9,000 officers, recently started airing radio ads in Los Angeles urging the public to disregard petitions to place the measure by former Assemblyman Keith Richman on the ballot. "If you value the job that your police officers, firefighters and teachers do for the community, please don't sign this petition," say the campaign ads.

The radio buy, although relatively small, is an unusual early sign of the degree to which unions are gearing up to fight Richman's effort. "We just feel very strongly about it," said PPL President Tim Sands. "We're going to fight to tell people the truth - that we need to keep the benefits to hire the brightest and best." Sands declined to disclose how much the union is spending on the ad campaign, but said it is running on KFWB-AM (980) for about six weeks.

Richman's measure aims to lower the costs incurred by state and local governments for pension and retiree health care benefits. It raises the

retirement age and lowers benefits for new state and local government employees hired after July 1, 2009.

It would also limit the percentage of final pay a government employee earns in retirement to 60 percent or 70 percent. Currently, thousands collect pensions worth 100 percent of their final salaries or more, plus lifetime health benefits.

The move comes amid growing concern about soaring pension and retiree benefits. Many city, county and state government agencies awarded unions generous benefit packages in the late 1990s when the stock market was hot.

Today, unfunded pension liabilities threaten to bankrupt some municipalities and increasingly concern state officials. One concern is that money needed for education and other public services increasingly goes toward pensions and retirees' health care benefits.

Signatures needed

Richman, a Granada Hills resident, heads the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility. He said current unfunded pension and health care liabilities, for all city, county and state workers, range from $200 billion to $300 billion.

Richman believes his measure could ultimately save state and local governments some $500 billion over 30 years.

Richman has not even begun collecting any of the 694,354 signatures he will need to submit by Jan. 10, 2008. He only received official approval of the wording from the state Attorney General's Office in mid-August.

Because he is aiming for the November 2008 ballot - and specifically does not want it in the February or June elections because an expected lower voter turnout would favor the unions - he is not in a rush.

He expects to need about $1 million to fund the signature drive.

But Richman believes the early campaign is a sign that the unions consider him a legitimate threat to convince the public that reform is needed.

"They're obviously taking our efforts very seriously," Richman said. "I think they are concerned. They recognize the issue of skyrocketing public-employee retirement costs is becoming better known by the public.

"And I'm sure that they recognize that our initiative - which would simply change the retirement age and require a full career's work for a full pension - is something that the public receives very well."

So far, the PPL is the only group actively attacking Richman's measure this early. But other unions are waiting in the wings.

Dave Low, chairman of a union coalition formed to lobby on pension issues, said his group met with the PPL recently to discuss the issue and the police union offered its ad to anyone who wanted to air it elsewhere in the state.

Unions unite

The coalition, called Californians for Health Care and Retirement Security, includes more than 30 unions representing police, firefighters, teachers and other state and local employees.

It was formed soon after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to reform the pension system in 2005. Unions were highly successful that year in launching early attacks against his effort before it even got on the ballot.

Unions characterized Schwarzenegger's plan as cutting benefits for widows of police officers and firefighters, and the governor ultimately withdrew the measure entirely rather than submit it to voters.

Low said an equally strong effort is likely against Richman's plan.

"I think we will spend whatever it's going to take to defeat it," said Low, who is also assistant director of governmental relations with the California School Employees Association.

"We'll have to do some analysis to find out what that number is. This is such an important issue and has such a dramatic effect on employees that we'll dig deep to come up with whatever it takes."

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger this year revived his effort to reform the pension system but decided to take a slower and more inclusive approach.

He and legislative leaders appointed a 12-member commission this year, including membership from public unions, to study the problem and make some recommendations by January 2008.

The Public Employee Post-Employment Benefits Commission has been holding monthly hearings around the state, with its next set for Sept. 21 at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Low also is on the governor's pension commission and so far said he is satisfied with how the panel is proceeding. But he said it is not yet clear what type of reforms it might eventually recommend.

Ultimately, the California School Employees Association would rather see reforms negotiated on an individual basis during contract talks between various government agencies and their employees, Low said.

Richman presented his ideas to the commission in April. But no matter what its final recommendations, he is not optimistic that the Legislature would pass them because of the public unions' strong influence in Sacramento.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst with the University of Southern California, said it is fairly unusual for ads to air about an initiative that has yet to qualify for the ballot.

In this case, it could be an indication that unions are genuinely worried that the measure might gain popular support.

"It's a pre-emptive strike," Jeffe said. "It's what happens when you have all the money in the Western world and you're nervous. Why not cut it off at the pass?"


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