Voters have mixed views on public pensions, Field Poll finds

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 10, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 10, 2012 - 10:57 am

James Juarez, a 22-year-old Sacramento State student, has watched his tuition costs climb and class availability shrink over the last three years while the state put more money toward its pension obligations.

His conclusion: The level of public pension benefits is "outrageous – it's not right."

LeWayne Stitt, a 59-year-old disabled former bus driver, thinks that current benefit levels are fair.

"I understand the governor is trying to balance things, but I guess I'm old school," Stitt said from his Natomas group home. "How can you cut reasonable pensions for people providing a public service?"

As Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers continue to craft a package of changes that would cut state and local public pension benefits, a new Field Poll finds conflicting views among California voters on the subject.

The latest numbers show that 37 percent of likely voters believe public pensions are too ample, while 36 percent think benefit levels are about right – a statistical dead heat. Another 17 percent of likely voters said benefits are not generous enough, and 10 percent had no opinion.

The divergent attitudes demonstrate what Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo called "the mixed feelings" among California voters about pensions.

Still, the electorate overall supports some specific changes to curb state and local retirement costs.

About two-thirds, 67 percent, favor limiting how much of an employee's salary is used for pension calculations. Meanwhile, 60 percent think the public employee retirement age should be raised.

GOP political consultant Tim Rosales said that the survey illustrates that voters don't get excited about fuzzy concepts such as "pension reform" but do support clear-cut changes.

"Voters have heard the term 'reform' attached to a number of issues over the last few years, but what does that mean?" said Rosales, whose firm isn't working on the issue. "It just shows that folks (in Sacramento) have to be specific. Voters want more substance."

Steve Maviglio, spokesman for a union coalition, said the Field data show voters don't want to gut pensions. His group insists pension changes should be negotiated by individual unions and employers rather than dictated by the Legislature.

"There's no appetite for a radical overhaul," Maviglio said. "There is interest in some modest improvements, which we support."

Brown angered his union base earlier this year with a package of 12 public pension changes he hoped to put on the Nov. 6 ballot with a tax increase measure.

The centerpiece of Brown's plan ends traditional pensions for state and local government employees hired July 1, 2013, and later. Employees would be offered "hybrid" plans that combine a smaller guaranteed payout with a more volatile 401(k)-type component.

It's no longer clear that Brown is insisting on pension legislation to amend the constitution, which would require quick support from two-thirds of lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly to get a proposal on the November ballot.

The pension-change effort stalled last week when the administration and the Legislature disagreed over where to set the pensionable pay cap and the retirement age.

A Democratic plan would have set a roughly $110,000 cap on new employees' pay that can be used to calculate their guaranteed pensions. Retirement contributions on salaries above that amount would go into more volatile 401(k)-type savings accounts.

The plan allowed a higher salary-calculation cap for future public safety hires, such as firefighters and police officers. Unlike other public employees, those workers generally don't pay into Social Security.

Democrats also proposed raising the starting retirement age for non-public safety workers from 50 to 52, and delaying full pension benefits until age 67. Public safety workers would have received lower qualifying ages.

Brown didn't think those provisions went far enough. An administration spokesman last week called the disagreement between the governor and the Legislature "substantial." Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg countered that Brown lacked a detailed alternative proposal.

Lawmakers will probably take up the issue in August. Brown has said that passing a credible pension reform package is key to the success of his tax increase on the November ballot. He reiterated that position last month after landslide elections in San Diego and San Jose signaled that voters have an appetite for rolling back retirement benefits.

The Field Poll, however, indicates that voters aren't necessarily connecting lowered public pension benefits with how they'll vote on taxes.

More than half of likely voters in the November election, 54 percent, said that legislated pension reform wouldn't affect how they vote on Brown's tax increase.

Only 11 percent of respondents already inclined to vote against the tax hike said pension reform would make them more likely to change their minds. On the other end of the spectrum, some 14 percent of voters leaning toward "yes" on the tax measure said they would probably vote against it if lawmakers enact pension legislation.

"It's essentially a wash," DiCamillo said.

The Field data also show that Californians oppose Wisconsin-style legislation that would strip public sector employees of their bargaining rights by a 10-point margin, 50 percent to 40 percent.

Researchers found that the views split along party lines: 67 percent of Democrats oppose the idea and 63 percent of Republicans favor it. Nonpartisan voters rejected the proposal, 49 percent to 39 percent.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Jon Ortiz

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