April 12, 2017
By The Editorial Board
Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators showed what they can do when they are committed.
Most of the time, legislation — especially solving long-term problems — moves like icebergs.
The transportation bill proved that if legislators really want to get something done, they can.
Brown, committed to fixing and improving California’s transportation system, personally pushed through legislation to raise the gasoline tax and vehicle fees to generate money needed to fuel the much-needed work.
The legislation wasn’t perfect. We’re not happy with the evergreen nearly automatic increase built into the tax or the last-minute addition of specific projects needed to win the votes needed to barely win the two-thirds majorities needed for legislative approval.
But what the legislation shows is Brown and lawmakers can get a job done.
Too bad public pension reform isn’t one of those jobs.
Since 2012, when lawmakers approved a portion of Brown’s 12-step package of reforms, addressing this issue has been off the table.
While off the table politically, it’s taking a bigger bite on the ledgers of state and local governments.
That bite leads to future cutbacks in public services and increases in fees and taxes.
Local political leaders say they can only accomplish so much without statewide reforms. And Sacramento politicians have shown little interest in taking up the issue again.
In fact, however, Brown said, “We’re not finished with pension reform. We still got to do much more there. It’s going to take a while, but that’s still on the agenda.”
It’s likely going to take a lot longer than Brown’s two-week push for legislative approval of his gas tax increase.
But just like aging infrastructure, the clock is ticking on taxpayers’ rising cost for public employee pensions.
During his second stint as governor, Brown has seen the state’s annual payment to CalPERS, the state’s largest public pension plan, rise 69 percent to $5.4 billion. And it’s expected to continue to rise.
The California Policy Center has predicted the annual tab will grow to $9.8 billion in 2023.
The center also estimates the annual bill for California cities and counties will double in five years, partly due to the decision by CalPERS to roll back its overly optimistic return on its investments.
Those promises to workers made by cities and counties occurred when municipalities could depend on double-digit returns on CalPERS investments. CalPERS, cities and counties have learned they can no longer bank on those lofty returns, but they — their taxpayers — have to pay for those promises.
The reforms of 2012 were a modest start, made with Brown promising to follow through with other reform measures.
Brown’s leadership was instrumental in approving the transportation plan. The tax and fee increases are going to be a hit on taxpayers’ pocketbooks. The governor can make amends by proving his political mettle and pushing, once again, for pension reforms that could save taxpayers from years of increases in their taxes and fees or cutbacks in public services.
If he can get the job done on potholes, he should be able to do so on pensions — if he really makes it a top priority.