California considers getting rid of pensions

Governor Jerry Brown's proposal to let Californians vote on some of the most fundamental challenges to our state's fledgling economic recovery is a politically risky endeavor. On the one hand, it is an equitable measure, because for too long we have left the fate of our state's coffers in the hands of incompetent politicians. On the other hand, however, leaving these decisions to the voters will reveal the expanding fissures of thought among Californians. Issues like the role and size of government, public policy, taxes, and recently, public employee pensions and retirement.

According to a recent Times/USC Dornsfire poll, 68 percent of those polled thought that public employees should contribute more from their salaries towards their retirement. Additionally, 70 percent favored a cap on pensions for both current and future government employees, and 52 percent believed that the age of retirement should be raised.

All of this must be leaving the public employee's unions fuming and embarrassed. After all, they did spend millions to get Brown elected, in the hopes (one supposes) that a democratic career politician would vigorously protect their special interests.

Brown has proven to be far more evenhanded than opponents previously thought, much to the chagrin of traditionally democratic unions. Frankly, it's commendable. It's refreshing to know that our governor is not afraid to make politically risky decisions in the interest of the greater good, which in this case is the economic future of California.

To put it bluntly, California's public pension system is unsustainable. If something isn't done to correct this obstacle in the way of recovery, California will face yet another budgetary crisis.

According to the Sacramento Bee, San Luis Obispo County spends up to five times as much on pensions as it does on prosecuting criminals, and Stanislaus County's pension costs are double its $23.5 million general fund budget deficit, to name just two counties facing these painful pension overheads. But for the 80 largest cities and county governments in California, the growing cost of paying government employees' pensions will create a deficit of $28 billion in unfunded liabilities.

The ensuing battle to defend and preserve public sector pensions in light of the numbers (which clearly point to a destructive trend) is disgustingly selfish; Selfish, because in times of fiscal austerity, everyone should be making sacrifices. Some (reasonably) argue that government employees should be required to make bigger sacrifices; if for any reason, than because it's the tax payer's dime that pays for the public sector's salaries, benefits, and eventual retirement, and the tax payers are already paying enough as it is, with very little guarantee of protecting their own retirement.

Indeed, public sector workers provide an array of extremely important services to the state, many of which civilized society depends on. But there really isn't any other way to say it; the public sector is over bloated, and is obliged to make sacrifices. Asking public sector employees to contribute a little more from their (already generous) salaries towards their retirement is not only reasonable, but also necessary. Asking government employees to work an extra five years of their life, is, well, no big deal. Some people work until the day they die, "owing their souls to the company store."

Cutting pensions should be the first item of business in the gargantuan task of getting California back on the right track. It should be on the negotiating table far before considering laying off teachers, civil servants, eliminating domestic programs, and raising taxes for families and businesses.