The federal government may be mired in a political tar pit at the moment, but prospects could be brightening for California's state and local government.

That's partly because of last Tuesday's launch of a statewide ballot initiative, the Pension Reform Act of 2014, designed to scale back unrealistic and unsustainable retirement promises that cities made to employees -- promises that threaten the very stability and safety of our streets and schools and courts and community centers. This initiative will amplify and inform a public debate about state and local pensions that is way overdue.

The move wasn't unexpected. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed had indicated he was near filing the paperwork for a constitutional amendment that would give state and local governments the ability to rein in skyrocketing pension costs -- for existing employees.

That's the key; most pension reforms to date have focused on new hires and will take years, even decades, to realize significant savings. This is not much relief to cities that are struggling to cover pension costs now -- collectively, more than $150 billion. Yes, billions, according to the state Controller's Office.

Reed's a good frontman for this effort. His city has about $3 billion in unfunded pension liability, and he rallied overwhelming voter support (70 percent) for Measure B last year, which forces all city workers to pay up to 16 percent more of their salaries toward their pensions.


Advertisement

San Jose's workers have sued, claiming pensions are a "vested right." But a statewide initiative would remove that "vested right," opening doors for every city to renegotiate its pension arrangement with current employees. The objective is not to take away pension benefits workers have already earned; it's about reining the future rate of accrual.

It's significant that Reed and other Democratic mayors are taking on this effort, not the more traditional pension reformers -- California's dwindling ranks of Republicans. This is a movement that must have support in the state's majority party. This is not a conservative vs. liberal battle. It's not about rich vs. poor, Wall Street vs. Main Street. It's not even about ending public pensions in California -- no one is proposing that, despite what public employee unions may say.

It is about restoring sanity to a pension system that has been so abused it has city councils making choices between hiring more police and paying the lifetime free health care and lush pensions of retired cops.

It is about making sure that local governments can continue to have healthy workforces, to fix sidewalks and pick up the trash, and not just become agencies that collect taxes to pay retirement benefits.

This will not be an easy public discussion. But the burden of public-sector pensions is something that California can't afford to ignore.