HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

Gov. Jerry Brown gestures Thursday toward a display of the 12 points in his plan to overhaul the state pension system. He will push for the Legislature to put the proposal on the ballot next year rather than try to qualify it through initiative petitions.

Jerry Brown's pension package faces skeptical Legislature

Published: Friday, Oct. 28, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

Even as Gov. Jerry Brown announced his plan Thursday to reduce pension benefits for public employees across the state, its prospects of passing intact appeared dim.

California's powerful labor interests objected to major parts of the plan, and the leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature – neither of whom attended Brown's announcement – reacted warily.

Brown said he thinks the Legislature will "rise to the occasion," but even he wasn't sure of the outcome.

In the Legislature, he said, "There isn't a history of curbing pension benefits."

Nevertheless, Brown promised pension changes in his campaign, and the proposal could blunt Republican criticism of his labor ties as he prepares next year to ask voters to raise taxes.

"He looks great asking for it," said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego. "This is kind of like Obama's jobs bill. He can take a stand, even though he knows it may be dead on arrival."

Brown proposed at a Capitol news conference increasing the retirement age for newly hired state and local government employees and offering them less generous retirement benefits, a package he will ask the Legislature to put before voters in November 2012.

His 12-point plan was propped on easels beside him, and Brown said, "I'm going to push this."

Brown's record of legislative accomplishment does not suggest great likelihood of success. Republican lawmakers blocked his bid for a bipartisan budget deal and for passage of a tax and jobs plan this year.

Opposition to his pension plan is likely to come primarily from fellow Democrats.

"I think the problem will be with his friends and allies," Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway said. "We've been willing to do this for a long time."

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the Legislature next year "will pass a robust pension reform package."

If it does, it may opt for some of the more modest proposals in Brown's pension plan, among them prohibiting the purchase of additional retirement service credit, or "airtime."

Far less likely to pass intact are Brown's proposals to increase the retirement age to 67 for most new employees outside the public safety sector and to replace defined-benefit pensions with a "hybrid" system combining a smaller, defined benefit, Social Security and a 401(k)-style benefit.

"I believe in defined benefit," Steinberg said. "I believe in defined benefit, because I don't think that retirement should be based on the ups and downs of what occurs on Wall Street."

The California Chamber of Commerce and California Business Roundtable both praised Brown's plan, the chamber calling it "bold and substantive."

The effect of business support on lawmakers, however, is unclear.

"The hard part for Brown is that the opposition is likely to be more intense than the support," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.

Nor are Democratic lawmakers beholden to the third-term governor, Pitney said.

"Even though his popularity is pretty good," he said, "he doesn't really have a lot of IOUs to cash in, so he's going to have to do it the civics textbook way, rely on the actual merits of the issue."

Pitney said, "It's tough, but tough doesn't mean impossible."

Brown briefed labor leaders on his plan Wednesday afternoon, and already they are preparing for a fight.

"The governor has indicated that labor will not like many of his proposals," Dave Low, chairman of the union coalition Californians for Retirement Security, said in a prepared statement. "He is right."

Low said many of Brown's proposals would circumvent collective bargaining, a cause Brown championed when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983.

Similarly, Yvonne Walker, president of the 95,000-member SEIU Local 1000, said, "If the governor tried to do this exclusively through the Legislature, we would fight it."

If the Legislature is unwilling to put his pension plan on the ballot, Brown could turn instead to a voter initiative, but isn't planning to. That is the course he is expected to take on tax increases after failing to persuade Republicans in the Legislature to put tax extensions up for a vote.

Regarding pension changes, Brown said Thursday that "at least in this round I'm respecting the legislative process, and I'm presenting it there."

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