SEIU is off-base on legalizing pot

I was surprised to read that leaders of the state’s biggest union — the SEIU — had decided to endorse Proposition 19, which would allow Californians to legally grow and possess marijuana. Any patrol officer, judge or district attorney will tell you that Proposition 19 is a flawed initiative that would bring about a host of legal nightmares and risks to public safety. It would also make California a laughingstock.

Leaders of the Service Employees International Union say they support Proposition 19 so the state can avoid cuts to healthcare, home care, education and elderly care programs. Yet even the best-case estimates show Proposition 19 (assuming it would even pass constitutional muster) bringing in only $1.4 billion in annual revenue — a fraction of our current deficit.

The SEIU could embrace a far better and more responsible solution for saving state programs: pension reform.

Getting a handle on pensions would preserve far more jobs and prevent many more cuts than legalizing marijuana, and it would do so without the legal complications and safety risks inherent in Proposition 19. Yet for the past year, the SEIU’s leaders have been fighting tooth-and-nail against common-sense measures to rein in a debt that is unsustainable and is severely affecting the state’s finances.

Indeed, California is suffering from a series of irresponsible decisions by SEIU-backed politicians, who have guaranteed huge retirement benefits to state workers without setting aside the money to pay for them. Because of this, we have $550 billion in unfunded retirement debt that is costing us $6.5 billion this year. Without reform, that unfunded debt will double in cost every 4.5 years. A single bill the Legislature passed in 1999 (SB 400, which retroactively boosted state workers’ pensions without a way to pay for it) is now responsible for about $2.5 billion of this year’s deficit. State pension costs for CalPERS are more than 2,000% higher today than they were 10 years ago, and that’s not a misprint.

How in the world can anyone consider that an even distribution of the people’s money? And how could someone think legalizing marijuana is the best way to solve it?

Six state employees unions have reached agreements with the state to roll back pensions for new hires. For example, the deal the California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen and other unions negotiated requires new employees to work additional years to receive full benefits, bases final retirement compensation on the highest three years of wages instead of the highest year, and increases the amount employees must contribute toward their retirement to a minimum of 10%.

These are reasonable changes to the system that members of these unions have accepted. They have made it possible for the unions’ members to avoid furloughs during this economic crisis, and they have lessened the state’s long-term debt. Similar changes with the rest of the unions would preserve funding for higher education, public safety, healthcare, home care, education and elderly care programs.

Sadly, SEIU’s leadership is refusing to make any rollbacks to pensions. We understand that interest groups must fight for their members, but for the SEIU to endorse legalizing marijuana means it is willing to risk public safety to protect unsustainable pension costs.

The notion that we have to choose between legalizing drugs and education funding or care for the elderly is false. The answer is to prioritize the money we already have, and funding pensions 2000% higher than we were 10 years ago means we don’t have our priorities straight.

SEIU members should tell their leadership that instead of focusing on extremist causes, they could agree to some common-sense rollbacks in what new workers are guaranteed. No one is asking for draconian concessions; even after changes to bring costs under control, we would still spend $2 billion more on compensation and benefits this year than last.

There are no magic solutions to our state’s problems, but there are some manageable ones, and SEIU’s leaders know what they are. Scaling back pensions, not legalizing marijuana, would show our children that we have our priorities right.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor of California.