There have been numerous efforts to tame California’s retirement debt, either through legislation or an initiative. But any one of these efforts would only slow the rapid growth of pension and retiree health debt.
California’s most recent governors have focused on benefit changes for new government workers because of the so-called California rule.
In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed an initiative to give future state workers 401(k)-style retirement accounts instead of traditional pensions. But the Republican governor abandoned the idea after Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer crafted a title and summary for the initiative that said the measure would eliminate death and disability benefits for future public employees.*
In 2011, Brown proposed a hybrid retirement system for new employees that would have combined smaller pensions with 401(k)-style plans. But that too was rejected by fellow Democratic lawmakers.
Since then, pension reform advocates and taxpayer watchdogs have proposed benefit changes for current workers for prospective work.
Most recently, former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, and former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, a Republican, led an initiative campaign in 2013-14 that would have required current workers to negotiate future benefits. Such efforts for a statewide initiative have failed to qualify for the ballot, but a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court could renew a campaign.
What isn’t touchable is the benefits workers have already earned.
Because promises have already been made by state and local governments to millions of public workers, the retirement debt cannot be erased. The best solutions can only hope to reduce the taxpayers’ burden.
* This description was modified for clarity 4/5/18