Californians need to suffer more!

FEB. 13, 2011

People increasingly want answers for how California can solve its fiscal problems, but I rarely have good news to offer. Last week, I wrote about three Assembly Republicans who attended a “no more cuts” rally sponsored by the Service Employees International Union – those always-agitated, purple-shirted, bullhorn-toting activists who are ubiquitous around Sacramento.

The three amigos joined with the union in opposing cuts to the In-Home Supportive Services program – where hundreds of thousands of Californians are subsidized by the state to take care of their own family members and who become members of the dues-paying SEIU “family.” On Feb. 8, one of those assemblymen, Brian Nestande of Palm Desert, was rewarded with a $7,800 campaign donation from an SEIU local union. I’m sure the benefits will keep rolling in to Nestande and the others (Jim Silva of Huntington Beach and Paul Cook of Yucaipa).

This is small stuff, perhaps, but it’s indicative of how hard it is to enact serious reform in Sacramento when Republicans are so easy for unions to buy off. And make no mistake about it – the public-sector unions are the main obstacle to almost any reform in California.

On Wednesday night, my Mom called. She was excited after seeing me on an MSNBC program, “The Ed Show.” That was odd since I’ve never been on MSNBC, and that network – and that show in particular – tilt hard to the left. The host, Ed Schultz, was blasting those of us who criticize public-employee pensions. He played a commercial from a firefighter union, filled with emotion-laden images of firefighters running into burning buildings. Ed talked about the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. This is the kind of imagery that the public will be forced to deal with if serious pension reform ever comes into play.

Will the public keep up its demand for reforming union abuses when confronted with such imagery? Will Republicans stand tall when they’re dealing with uniformed heroes rather than purple-shirted loudmouths?

You know the answer. There are lots of good ideas out there, but this remains a political problem, not a policy problem. That’s why I’m so cynical.

The stories of fiscal insanity and abuse are everywhere. The Los Angeles Times reported recently that “[n]early three-quarters of Los Angeles County firefighters and lifeguards who retired in the last three years successfully claimed they were disabled on the job and won enhanced pension benefits, county records show.”

And the same week the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “In the game of megabuck public paychecks, outgoing San Francisco police brass are hauling away the gold. New city records show that former Police Chief Heather Fong – who retired in 2009 – received a grand total of $528,595 in her final year. … Now that she’s gone, she’s pulling down an annual pension of $229,500 for life.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg there. No wonder San Francisco is running out of money and that Public Defender Jeff Adachi, the progressive Democrat who sponsored a failed pension reform measure in November, Proposition B, is trying again with what he calls “Son of B.” Who thinks San Francisco voters will wise up?

It’s not just the money. How do you think the inmates in California’s prisons are getting cell phones and other contraband? Here’s the Times again: “Prison employees, roughly half of whom are unionized guards, are the main source of smuggled phones that inmates use to run drugs and other crimes, according to legislative analysts who examined the problem last year.”

Yet people want solutions. Well, the technical solutions are simple. The state needs to slash the size of government, slash the number of government employees, contract out legitimate services and remind the public that the government is not responsible for taking care of them. State officials need to lower tax rates and reduce regulations, so that the private sector will begin generating new jobs and revenue here rather than in less-regulated locales. Regarding pensions and retiree health care, the state needs to provide benefits to its employees that are in line with those received in the private sector. The issue is political, and there is zero political will in the Capitol to even modestly reform these benefits for new hires.

An Assembly official recently told me about a proposal to reduce the pensions of state employees who have been convicted of serious crimes, but the unions pulled out the stops, and this bill died. If the Legislature can’t reduce the pensions of criminals, what’s the chance of broader reform?

How about the courts? A state appellate court recently turned down Orange County’s appeal on its sensible – but so-far unsuccessful – lawsuit against the retroactive portion of the pension increase a previous Republican-dominated board granted to deputy sheriffs. In 2001, Republicans tripped all over themselves to provide a 50-percent pension increase to union members, and they did so retroactively – going back to the day each deputy started work. The new board now says that’s an unconstitutional gift of public funds and that debt levels were increased without a public vote, which also contradicts state law.

I’m glad the board now is appealing to the state Supreme Court, but there’s little chance that a court reluctant to pioneer new legal ground will side with taxpayers. One attorney told the story of a case involving pension reform in which the judges openly discussed what the ruling would mean to their own pensions. Legal cases give agencies little elbow reform for reforming pensions or improving union accountability.

That leaves the initiative process. Unfortunately, our side never agrees on strategy and rarely has enough money to stand up to the unions, which can tap their members’ pockets at will. I’m not saying we’re doomed, but the state’s finances still are going to have to get far worse before enough people are willing to make the hard choices necessary to save us. There’s no point sugarcoating it.

–Steven Greenhut

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