Editorial: Brown's pension reforms a good starting point

Gov. Jerry Brown deserves a nod for proposing moderate reforms to California's public pension system. And because his 12-point plan is essentially an opening offer to the legislators and voters who would need to approve his proposals, we'd like to ask the governor to consider even greater reforms before this thing gets watered down (or drowns) in the Sacramento Delta.

The governor wants to offer future government employees reduced retirement benefits by shifting more of the burden — and risk — from the taxpayers to public workers. Folks already working for the state, counties, cities and school districts are largely protected by collectively bargained agreements, so little can be done to change the current situation.

But Brown is looking forward, and we commend him for at least trying to moderately reduce the burden for future generations. The governor wants to increase the retirement age for future non-public safety employees from a pretty youthful (even by European standards) 55 to an appropriate-in-this-century 67. He also wants a third of retirement benefits to come from 401(k)-style funds and for public employees to contribute half of their pension contributions.

We'd do more by ending public pensions for future public employees, with exceptions made for police, firefighters and prison guards, the people who risk their lives protecting ours. But we see no reason to give future state, county or city janitors, doctors, accountants, graphic designers or marketing directors better retirement deals than their bosses, the California taxpayers. The typical public employee's work is no more special or meaningful than private-sector work, and those who perform it ought to be compensated at market rates as they relate to salaries, retirement, and vacation and sick time.

So we'd like the state and other government agencies to match employee's retirement contributions at the going 401(k) rate at many workplaces — say about 50% on the first 6%. It's good enough for many of us, and it should be good enough for those in our employ.

Sounding a little like a Republican, Brown called the current pension system "unaffordable" and "unsustainable," according to the Los Angeles Times. He's right, but we get the sense that his own party disagrees.

Consider this emotional statement from the head of the state Senate, Darrell Steinberg: "We can't forget that the vast majority of public-sector employees are middle-class workers, and their average pensions are far from exorbitant."

Steinberg is right. We're not talking about the wealthy. We're talking about middle-class people. But who is supporting these middle-class state workers to whom Steinberg refers? You guessed it: middle-class Californians.

The average salary for all Californians in 2009 was $50,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average state employee's base pay, according to Brown's website, was $65,000 the same year.

So, in short, working people are for working people. But the employers (the taxpayers) earn less than the employees (state workers) and are providing them with better retirement plans than they get. That just isn't fair, and as California's fiscal woes illustrate, it isn't cost-effective.

Californians elected Brown for his experience, commitment to the state and his promises to help clean up a pretty bad mess left by his predecessors and the Legislature. The state should consider his reforms for what they are — a good starting point.

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