Calif. Governor: 'Pension Reform Is Imperative'

Jun 7, 2012
Originally published on June 7, 2012 5:54 pm
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Wisconsin has been the most high-profile battleground in the fight over public sector union rights and benefits. But on the same day voters there refused to recall Governor Scott Walker, two cities in California also waded into the union debate.

Voters in San Diego and San Jose approved measures to trim pension obligations to public employees, as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Captain Jeff Barone is a 23-year veteran of the San Jose Fire Department, who says he always anticipated working 30 years as a firefighter. But a day after San Jose voters overwhelmingly approved Measure B, which is designed to reign in pension costs, Barone said he'll get out as soon as he can.

CAPTAIN JOHN BARONE: And there's not one person in our department under 10 years on that is not testing elsewhere, and looking for alternate employment in another city who actually will appreciate them.

GONZALES: Measure B will require Barone and other public employees to more than double their contributions to their pensions, bringing the total up to nearly 30 percent of wages. And Barone says he hasn't seen a raise since 2005.

Unions for the firefighters and police immediately filed two lawsuits. Christopher Platten, an attorney for the firefighters union, says Measure B is simply illegal because it reneges on retirement and disability promises made since 1961.

CHRISTOPHER PLATTEN: So what we are going to ask the judge to do is as simple as what your parents told you when you were a young child. And that is that a promise made must be a promise kept.

GONZALES: But for San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, the passage of Measure B is a sweet victory. Ten years ago, public employee pensions cost about $73 million annually. Today, it's ballooned up to $245 million. Pressure on the city's general fund has led to cuts in city services. Four recently built libraries and a new police station remain shuttered because the city couldn't afford to operate them.

On election night, Mayor Reed said Measure B will save his city billions of dollars over the next few decades and could be a model for other cities.

MAYOR CHUCK REED: It will give other cities hope. I've talked to other mayors around the country, cities large and small have problems, skyrocketing costs are draining services and this will give them hope that something can be done. It'll give them hope that if they go to the voters, the voters are going to be supportive.

GONZALES: Seventy percent of San Jose voters approved Measure B. In San Diego, a similar ballot measure received more than 60 percent approval. San Diego's Proposition B freezes the amount of pay used to calculate pension benefits for current workers, and places future hires, except for police, in a 401(k) style plan. Union leaders in that city also vow to go to court.

But the passage of these two measures and the battle over public sector unions in Wisconsin, suggests a new front for organized labor. Larry Gerston, who teaches political science at San Jose State University, says even in cities dominated by Democrats, the debate over public employee pensions resonates with voters hammered by the economy.

LARRY GERSTON: The entire infrastructure in the state is slipping into the Pacific. It's emblematic of the anxiety that the public feels. Sometimes you lash out maybe not at the right target but for the right reasons. And this is a very, very discouraged public in San Jose, in the Bay Area and in California.

GONZALES: Unlike Wisconsin, the two ballot measures in California attracted little outside money and they don't touch bargaining rights. Still, Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, made it clear he got the message. Brown called the votes in San Jose and San Diego a powerful wake-up call, and a powerful signal that pension reform is imperative.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.