Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday rolled out a sweeping and sometimes vague list of public employee retirement changes that he wants lawmakers to enact.
The 12-point list five of which were described as "proposals under development" immediately drew a mix of criticism, confusion and faint praise. A pension reform group thought the list was unambitious. A union executive wondered why Brown didn't make his proposals at the bargaining table.
Republicans in the Legislature liked that the Democratic governor is taking up one of their core issues, although they want more details and are demanding that any changes be put to a statewide vote.
"We'd prefer a measure that's voter enacted," said Sabrina Lockhart, spokeswoman for Assembly GOP leader Connie Conway. "There's stronger protection for taxpayers," because ballot initiatives are more difficult to reverse than legislative statutes.
One of Brown's "under development" items is to do something about the California State Teachers' Retirement System. CalSTRS is burdened with a $56 billion unfunded long-term pension obligation and needs money from the state to reduce it.
Senate GOP leader Bob Dutton said Republicans "applaud the governor's 'developing' proposal to address the CalSTRS unfunded liability" though he said Brown seemed uninterested during budget talks in fixing the problem.
"We are glad the governor is still considering Senate Republican recommendations even after unilaterally ending budget discussions," Dutton added.
The Brown administration seized upon the Cesar Chavez holiday, usually a slow day for political news, to tout proposals such as what counts toward pension calculations and putting a cap on the size of retirement checks.
Seven points included draft bill language that Brown wants the Legislature to pass. Those changes such as barring pension spiking and pension payments for civil servants convicted of a job-related felony generally have public support.
Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, said the proposals were intended to burnish Brown's bona fides in advance of putting tax extensions to a statewide vote.
Brown, he said, is "showing that he's not just putting out this fiscal wildfire. He's working to tamp down a bigger conflagration."
Bruce Blanning, executive director of the 11,000-member state engineers union, said he didn't understand why Brown was proposing pension legislation. The dozen unions that represent 200,000 state workers have all reached contracts or tentative agreements that cut state workers' take-home pay and increase their pension contributions.
"These issues weren't at the bargaining table when we closed negotiations two weeks ago," Blanning said Thursday.
The changes would affect all of California's state and local public employees and their pension systems, although some local government funds might challenge some of the changes in court, said Michael Semler, a government professor at California State University, Sacramento.
For example, Brown wants to eliminate pension holidays that allow government employers, employees or both not to pay into retirements when the funds are flush.
The California Public Employees' Retirement System allowed the state several years of pension holidays during the stock market run-up in the last decade. Then the market's meltdown in 2008 forced officials to rethink the policy.
Dan Pellissier, president of a group pushing to cut pension benefits, called the seven ideas stated in draft bill form "the lowest-hanging fruit on the pension reform tree."
Pellissier said Brown's pension reform plan is akin to the governor's announcements earlier this year that he was cutting the number of state cellphones and selling state vehicles more symbol than substance.
"Nice that he's paying attention to pensions, but his ideas aren't sufficient to solve the problem that confronts us," Pellissier said.
Pellissier's group, California Pension Reform, wants to put a measure on next year's ballot that would freeze and then reduce pension benefits for current public employees. The idea has several legal hurdles and, if approved, would face a lengthy court fight with public employee unions.