California's State Legislature adjourns today for about a month. And despite the reformist acoustics that have come from Governor Jerry Brown's office since Inauguration Day, most of the state's vexing issues with public-sector benefits remain unaddressed.
Late last month, a quartet of Republican state senators tried to rectify this trend by introducing Senate Constitutional Amendment 13, a proposed ballot measure to comprehensively overhaul the Golden State's public employment system. The amendment would increase public employees' contributions to their pension and health care plans, disallow retroactive pension increases, and open the door to hybrid plans that would include defined-benefit components (for a more thorough look at the proposal, see here).
Unfortunately, Amendment 13 is almost certainly doomed in a legislature overwhelmingly dominated by union-friendly Democrats (as a proposed constitutional amendment it would require a two-thirds majority of both houses of the legislature - roughly the amount controlled by the regnant left).
With that in mind, a group of would-be reformers has filed a trio of proposed ballot initiatives that would circumvent the legislature entirely and take their case straight to the voters. The California Center for Public Policy - with University of California, Santa Barbara economics lecturer Lanny Ebenstein taking the lead - is drawing hope for its proposal from the fact that the Golden State's electorate often shows itself to be more populist than its elected officials (these are, after all, the same voters who defeated an initiative to extend tax increases by a nearly 2-1 margin in a 2009 special election).
Of the three initiatives, the least controversial among the general public will likely be a proposal that sets the age at which public employees can retire with full benefits at 65 (58 for public safety officers). It will still draw union ire, but is largely in keeping with public perception about an acceptable retirement age.
The second proposal (and the one drawing the most attention thus far) would prevent collective bargaining for all state workers - a proposal sure to unleash a tidal wave of union money unlike any that's ever been seen if it qualifies for the ballot. Even though it's a long shot, it's still a worthy fight to have in this decisive moment for California public policy.
It's the third proposal, however, that may prove the most problematic. It would increase the state income tax rate on public workers by 15 percent if they earn from $100,000 -- $149,999 annually in state pension money, and by 25 percent if they earn beyond $150,000.
The problems with the proposed initiative are myriad: it focuses on punitive measures instead of systemic reform; it embraces the sort of tax code-based class warfare that is usually the provenance of the left; it will almost certainly run afoul of legal challenges; and it runs the risk of sullying the other proposals through its seeming vindictiveness.
California's pension reformers have enough problems on their hands in this deep blue state. With the torrent of union advertising likely to result from any serious reform campaign, they'll have to relentlessly and clearly make the point that they are targeting institutions for reform - not individuals for punishment. The income tax hike for public employees cuts in the opposite direction - and should be jettisoned accordingly.>