Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed rollback of public employee pensions received a tepid response from California legislators at its first public hearing Thursday, even as the Democratic governor made a public appeal for his plan.
"In my opinion, this is the minimum. This is what makes sense, consistent with the law and, I think, consistent with what the Legislature can get to," Brown told members of a joint legislative committee on pensions.
In late October, Brown outlined proposed changes to the pension system that include raising the retirement age to 67 and creating a "hybrid" system combining defined benefits and a 401(k)-style plan for most new workers.
His 12-point plan, which the Brown administration says would save $4 billion to $11 billion over 30 years, also calls for increasing employee contributions for current workers and cracking down on pension calculating practices that can increase costs.
Panel members commended the Democratic governor for seeking to take the lead on pensions but stopped short of endorsing his approach.
"This is very complex. There is not one single answer. There is no one home run or Hail Mary pass that's going to win the game," Democratic Assemblyman Warren Furutani of Gardena, the committee's co-chairman, told Brown. "I think you will set the tone, but also we will bring to bear some things, not to mention some of the stakeholders and others."
Furutani also called for more targeted solutions, focusing on high wage earners and cases of abuse without hurting what he called average workers.
"We can't keep lumping it all together. We need to break this into pieces rather than one lump sum where everyone is in the same situation," he said.
Lawmakers used the 4 1/2-hour hearing, the first public legislative vetting of Brown's plan, to press for more details on the proposal.
But some specifics, including full legal language, have yet to be worked out. Michael Cohen, Brown's deputy director at the Department of Finance, said it will take at least six months to "come up with a hybrid plan that makes sense." It was also unclear Thursday how the proposed framework would affect local government workers.
The plan faces opposition from parties on both sides of the pension debate. Some public employee unions have argued that the hybrid plan would undercut retirement security for future workers, while groups proposing pension overhauls of their own for the ballot say Brown's plan would not go far enough.
The state's two major pension systems, as well as the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, have questioned the legality of parts of the plan, particularly provisions affecting current workers.
Brown and officials testifying on his administration's behalf defended the legality of his proposal.
"We think the governor's proposal meets constitutional tests," Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Marty Morgenstern told the committee.
Brown will need the support of both Democrats and Republicans in both houses to place the parts of his plan that require voter approval on next year's ballot.
Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Niguel, called the plan a "good first step" but questioned whether it went far enough to address the state's unfunded pension liability.
Brown said he sought to craft a plan that he thought had "a real possibility to get enacted," given legal and political constraints.
"Whatever we do this year, it isn't over," Brown said, "but I think I've laid out a pathway that makes sense.