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Pension Reform: Public Keeps the Pressure On

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California voters may have contradictory feelings on issues like taxing and spending, but they are clear when it comes to pension reform--do it, and do it now.

A Field poll released on July 10 has voters favoring a pension cap by the one-sided margin of 67 percent to 25 percent. And by a margin of nearly two-to-one (60 percent to 32 percent), the voters want the age hiked before recipients are eligible to collect their pensions.

If California Democratic Governor Jerry Brown didn't sense the urgency for pension reform before (and he probably did), he certainly does now.

Brown is a veteran of public anger. He witnessed as much in 1978 when 63 percent of voters passed Proposition 13, the state's seminal property tax reduction initiative. He also knows that voters haven't passed any statewide tax increase in nearly a decade.  

Voter anger on pensions and resistance to taxes could be formidable obstacles to Brown's temporary taxes increase this November unless he finds a way to convince the public that he is the steward of careful spending.

That's why Brown can ill-afford for the legislature to recess without the passage of pension reform. Such legislation is the key to Brown's credibility and the foundation (albeit shaky) of voter support for his ballot proposition.

Brown already has shown tight-fisted spending. He recalled state cellphones and cars, drastically reduced welfare benefits and negotiated reductions in state workers' salaries. Cumulatively, these successes have painted a picture of a man who makes Scrooge seem like a spendthrift.

Now he must further solidify his new reputation by getting the legislature to pass pension reform. He knows it.

The question is whether the Democratic legislators are willing to go up against their long-time organized labor supporters. If they don't, there may be a pension reform initiative in 2014 that makes current negotiations seem like child's play.  

Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst for NBC Bay Area.

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