We give Gov. Jerry Brown credit for his honest effort to control public employee pension costs. Against a complex legal and political backdrop, he fought with legislative leaders for meaningful change.
Unfortunately, the final package, on which lawmakers will vote Friday, doesn't go far enough. While traditional defined benefit pensions provide security for workers in retirement, benefit levels must be reasonable and the accounting must be honest. The pending plan partially addresses the former and does nothing about the latter.
Nevertheless, we urge legislators to pass the bill if -- and only if -- they first correct a huge loophole that opens the door for more pension spiking. If that's fixed, the bill will be a marginal improvement.
Most of the proposed changes only affect new employees. They include reductions in benefit formulas and caps to block exorbitant pensions for high earners. But meaningful change to restore financial stability requires alterations for current employees.
Toward that goal, the governor fought for the most significant breakthrough in the legislation: A requirement that employees share equally with employers the going-forward cost of their pensions.
If implemented, this would be a breakthrough. Currently, employers often pay far more -- and some cases all -- of the cost of pensions. Not only is that unfair to taxpayers, it leaves employees no incentive to consider cost-savings because they bear little financial pain.
The proposal to split costs 50/50 would address that. However, the bill mandates that only for future employees and current state employees. For current local workers, that would be subject to collective bargaining. We know how well that's worked.
As for accounting, we continue to see pension systems, usually dominated by labor union representatives and elected officials beholden to them, essentially cooking the books. By making overly optimistic investment forecasts and deferring losses years, and even decades, into the future, pension systems create debt that must be paid by future generations.
State taxpayers currently face a pension debt of, conservatively, $257 billion. That averages $20,700 for each California household. Yet, the legislation does not address accounting gimmicks or lopsided pension system governance.
Finally, the governor and Legislature did nothing to address the issue of "vested rights" -- the notion that once an employee is promised high pension benefits that guarantee applies to all future years of work. It's a concept foreign to the private sector.
We know that fixing it will probably require a vote of the people. This package should have included a ballot measure for a future election. Instead, it's silent. Thus, the pension plan -- we won't call it a reform -- is only a small step.
As we back it, we wonder whether it delivers as advertised. Unveiled only Tuesday, the plan will be put up for a vote on Friday. Legislators won't be able to intelligently read it. Pension experts won't be carefully scrutinize it, much less comment. As for public review, it's almost pointless. We already know of one glaring loophole.
It's a disappointing bill and an ugly process. Lawmakers should have done better on both fronts.