Pension Reform? Don’t Count It Out . . . Yet
An interesting article in the San Jose Mercury News on Governor Schwarzenegger’s determination to pull off public pension reform in this, his last year in office.
Arnold’s opening salvo to legislative Democrats: work with me to cut back on state workers’ pension and trim current employees’ salaries, or brace yourselves for the unavoidable snip-snip-snip of the public safety net.
The temptation is to dismiss this kind of tough talk (Arnold calls it a “Sophie’s Choice” between reform or cuts) as just so much bluff and bravado — the opening round of a budget dance that’s all but certain to go beyond the July 1 deadline, through the rest of the summer, and perhaps well into the fall.
But if you consider the larger dynamics at play in Sacramento, it’s a smart ploy by the Governor.
First, it’s his last budget. Better to take his time and get it right, and not bull-rush a lousy product sometime in late July or early August. The longer the Governor takes, the more pressure he puts on the Legislature — the guys and gals with the far worse approval rating, and the ones whose names are on the ballot (unlike the Governator).
Second, Arnold has leverage in any deal regarding pension reform — leverage that didn’t exist that in the 2005 special election and last time he got into a slugfest with public employees.
That difference: it’s called the public’s growing exasperation with story after story of generous retirement benefits and pension obligations devouring city (and, soon, the state’s) budgets – not to mention the Legislature’s inability to deal with the growing crisis.
Ironically, it’s a reversal of how Schwarzenegger entered office. Back in the post-recall heyday, with a big man flexing not only big muscles but soaring approval ratings, the Legislature feared initiative showdowns with the new governor.
Schwarzenegger knew this, and he used it to his political advantage. Take the case of one of the big tickets in his recall campaign: workers’ compensation reform. Given the choice of working with Schwarzenegger on workers’ comp, or settling their differences via the ballot box, lawmakers caved (for the record, Arnold got the support of 110 of the 116 lawmakers who cast a vote on SB 899, his workers’ comp package).
Schwarzenegger could attempt the same ploy this fall, assuming the budget goes deep into extra innings: pitch lawmakers on working with him to pass pension reform, or convince them he’s serious about taking matters straight to voters in the form of a ballot proposition.
Why would Democrats do this, given the Arnold’s approval rating hovers somewhere in Gray Davis Country? They just might — if the choice is (a) working with Arnold and getting a compromise deal (btw, probably a better deal than they’d get with Meg Whitman or Steve Poizner), or (b) being forced to spend millions in an initiative battle, and having to defend a pension system that’s becoming ever more indefensible.
Leverage, it’s a funny thing. And in politics, it comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes — even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.