When the state's most respected public survey outfit, the Field Poll, released research this week showing tepid voter interest in the issue of the public employee retirement system, it showed us two things: one, that only about a third of voters think current pension levels are too generous; and two, the pension critics and politicians who have attempted for the better part of two years to whip the public into a hysteria over this issue haven't been very effective.
In fact, a solid majority of those surveyed still say that pensions are about right 36 percent or not generous enough 17 percent. It shows that, while some changes to the pension system are in order, voters are not interested in a full-scale overhaul.
That's a good thing, because political campaigns to push the Legislature into taking hasty action rarely produce good policy. All sides seem to agree that pension-spiking, six-figure retirement payouts and other abuses need to be addressed. But these reforms need to be addressed properly, not just in a slap-dash manner so the issue can be used in the next election cycle.
The state Legislative Analyst's Office gave a similar warning just a few months ago, urging lawmakers to "take several months" to fashion a pension proposal in response to Gov. Jerry Brown's 12-point plan.
If the Legislature does heed that advice and takes a bit more time to examine this issue, they ought to notice that, around the state, public employee unions in more than 240 municipalities have already made significant concessions. They recognize that cities and counties are under intense fiscal pressure, and have agreed to things like decreased or deferred pay increases and higher personal contributions to their own pensions.
They also ought to notice what's happening in the private sector, where corporations are asking Congress to be able to calculate the success of their pension investments by taking a 25-year average of returns, rather than a two-year snapshot. If we look at the California Public Employees' Retirement System, CalPERS, in the same way, we'd see that it has earned an impressive 8.4 percent annually in the 20 years between 1990 and 2010.
It is almost comedic that the push for pension "reform" in California comes from business groups that lobby on behalf of corporate interests. They want government employees' pension plans to look more like 401(k)s. However, 401(k)s were never meant as primary retirement accounts for average working families. They were designed as tax shelters for corporate executives, not as stable savings accounts for the teachers, police officers, bus drivers and other government employees who retire, in California, on an average pension of just $26,000 a year. Many public employees also do not earn Social Security, and so have solely their pensions on which to rely in their golden years.
Corporations are also to blame for greater strain on states' social service budgets. Over time, companies have defunded private sector retirement security, phasing out pension plans. That leads to far fewer Americans retiring with an adequate nest egg on which to survive. When the money runs low, they look to government assistance. In the end, corporations will have passed off their costs onto state government budgets.
There are a number of reasons to tread carefully when it comes to changing a largely sound public employee pension system, not the least of which is this: The retirement payments made to the 2 million public employees throughout the state are a significant economic engine in California. In 2010 alone, these payments generated $26 billion in economic activity, according to CalPERS. A California State University professor says those dollars supported 90,000 jobs in the state.
So, lawmakers being pressured to take quick action on the state's pension system ought to take comfort that the critics' sky-is-falling campaign hasn't really affected public opinion. Californians don't consider pensions a major problem in need of dramatic overhaul. They would rather see some small tweaks made correctly, rather than a full-scale plan drafted in haste.