On Pensions, Republicans Are Right — And Insane


The pension legislation put forward by Gov. Brown and Democratic legislators has a number of changes that Republicans have sought in the pension system.

But they are opposing it anyway.

Their reason? Because the changes are being made as a statute, or law. They are not a constitutional amendment. The Republicans argue that a law can be changed by the Democrats -- presumably after the November elections, when Democrats won't feel the pressure they do now to roll back pension problems (in order to help Brown's Prop 30 tax increase and to hurt the right's Prop 32 limitation on union dues). Republicans are demanding these changes be rendered as a constitutional amendment, which, assuming it were approved by voters, couldn't be changed.

That Republican position is at once absolutely reasonable -- and totally crazy.

In fact, it's crazy that the GOP is right on this. And the party's legislators are right because California's system of government is crazy. Almost everything conceivable has been baked into California's overly long constitution. So making any significant policy change requires constitutional amendment, if you want it to stick.

Constitutional amendments require voter approval. So the Republican position -- and the realities of the California governing system -- requires voters to go along with almost anything at this point. That's a huge limitation on effective, timely policymaking.

And things will get worse, since the more you put into the constitution now, the more you'll have to put into the constitution to change things tomorrow.

I'm still not sure whether the pension legislation is worthy of support, or whether it represents real progress on the issue. Details are still coming out, and there's been little scrutiny.

But the pension legislation is utterly convincing on one point: California badly needs a new, short constitution.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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