Orange County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to place a measure on the November ballot letting voters decide if future pension increases for county government workers should be put to a public vote.
If approved by voters as part of the Nov. 4 general election ballot, the measure would amend the county’s charter to require that retirement benefit increases for county workers be approved by a majority of voters, with a study of the benefits’ cost published in ballot pamphlets.
The county could still award cost-of-living adjustments without voter approval. If approved, the new measure would take effect in January.
Discussion of the issue was interrupted by Tuesday’s 5.4-magnitude earthquake, which caused lighting fixtures in the boardroom ceiling to shake violently and caused a group of schoolchildren attending the hearing on a field trip to bolt from the room. But supervisors continued the discussion after a brief pause without evacuating.
The proposal comes in response to officials’ efforts to harness the county’s soaring pension costs, after years of benefit increases based on expectations that stock market growth would continue to pay for the cost. Estimates have found the county’s pension system underfunded by $2.7 billion, or with just 73% of the money it needs to cover its costs over the next 30 years -- less than what experts consider a safe level.
Reigning in public pension costs has become a battle cry of fiscal conservatives in recent years, as handsome benefit enhancements have been bestowed on government workers and the costs have mounted. Earlier this year, a panel appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger found local and state government pension funds underfunded by $64.5 billion. Watchdogs say that cost will either eat heavily into other government services or require tax increases to pay for the benefits.
Union representatives and Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby expressed reservations about putting benefit hikes before voters, saying those are the kinds of decisions that politicians are elected to handle. But Norby ultimately voted with the majority.
Though the Orange County proposal bears all the traits of fiscal conservatism, it owes its heritage to that most liberal of cities to the north, San Francisco.
That city has had a measure in place for more than a century requiring pension enhancements to be approved by voters, and as a result its pension fund is more than fully funded. Statistics cited during Tuesday’s board meeting showed that San Francisco voters have approved pension increases 78 times and rejected them 39 times since its measure has been in place.
The city of San Diego also adopted such a system in 2006, after lavish public pension hikes led to federal sanctions for securities fraud and a flirtation with municipal bankruptcy.
The Orange County measure was put forward by board Chairman John Moorlach, who earlier this year led the county to file a lawsuit seeking to roll back pensions for sheriff’s deputies. It also had the support of conservative activist groups including the Lincoln Club and the Orange County Taxpayers Assn.
“This gives the public an ability to weigh in and say, ‘Yes, this is a good idea,’ or ‘This is not a good idea,’ ” Moorlach said.
The measure’s only opposition came from the unions that represent county workers.
The measure “does not give residents hope that their elected officials will make tough decisions, since it shifts that responsibility onto the backs of voters,” said Lisa Major, the assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn.
Still, it is not clear whether the ballot measure will set up a vigorous fall fight between the unions and the measure’s supporters. Union officials dismissed the measure as political grandstanding by Moorlach and said it would have little impact, since county workers have already received substantive pension enhancements and are not seeking more in the foreseeable future. Also, the measure is likely to be hugely popular with voters -- San Diego’s passed by nearly 70% -- so the unions may choose to save their campaign resources for a different fight.