Brent J. Meyer
PORAC Vice President
For years now, pension reform has been a popular topic on newspaper editorial pages and talk radio. In California, the pension reform discussion is often accompanied by an avalanche of alarming statistics and doomsday predictions. Massive numbers are tossed around to suggest the state is ready to sink beneath the weight of unfunded pension debt. There’s no point in wading into a debate over those numbers. Everybody knows data can be twisted, tweaked, baked and squeezed to make any outcome seem plausible. But it’s important to understand what’s behind the public employee pension reform discussion. As it relates to cops, it’s essential to know the consequences for public safety and law enforcement.
At first, the tactics implemented by public pension reformers were simple: They wanted to drive a wedge between wage earners on public and private payrolls. The idea was to pit blue collar against white collar and citizen against citizen worker, build political influence, and then get elected to public office. We know so well the stories of Chuck Reed and Carl DeMaio. But this strategy really unraveled when these guys won their first big victory in 2012 — public pension reform in San Jose. Soon after convincing 70% of city voters that fixing pensions was simple and painless, they were forced to admit their scheme was unworkable, illegal and dangerous. We know that, almost immediately, the city’s safety was put at risk.
Within weeks after the passage of Measure B, San Jose’s police force began to wither. Under the new rules, city employees were to pay more for their retirement benefits or accept less generous pensions. New employees were tiered, marked and treated as second-class citizens as they found themselves on reduced pension tracks. Disability protections and pensions could be stripped away for all employees under fiscal emergency protocols. Hardest hit was the P.D., where officers sped up their retirement plans or searched to laterally transfer away to other departments. Academy classes shrank. Four years later, the once-robust department was down around 300 officers, its workforce levels reduced by about one-third. The loyal officers who stuck around SJPD were mandated to work unprecedented hours of emergency overtime.
Ultimately, a Santa Clara County court threw out substantial portions of the city’s pension reform package, but San Jose still hasn’t recovered. Last year, in fact, voters passed an initiative designed to repair the damage done by Measure B, but a problem persists. As the San Jose Mercury News notes, pension reform “all but crippled the city’s ability to retain police officers or recruit replacements.” Some believe that San Jose will need at least a decade to climb out of the hole it dug for itself.
In Sacramento, the “electeds” haven’t asked voters to pass draconian pension reforms, but they see Sacramento P.D. struggling to maintain its full strength. Like law enforcement professionals in other cities, my colleagues realize they have choices. With neighboring police and the sheriff’s department offering better pay and benefit packages, Sacramento is suffering notable losses of highly trained and experienced officers, thanks to significantly more lateral transfers away. As we all did with San Jose, I’m watching California’s capital city near crisis-level staffing, as we quickly descend below our authorized staffing levels.
This shouldn’t suggest that I’m opposed to discussing further pension reform. We’re all taxpayers who have a stake in the fiscal future of our state. We’re all in this together. And that’s the point — everyone deserves a decent and secure pension, whether you’re a police officer, nurse, teacher, garbage truck driver, supermarket clerk or tree trimmer. But should fire chiefs and city managers really be retiring north of $250K per year? Later this year, when the California State Supreme Court rules on an appellate case from Marin County that tests the security of public employee pensions, the court is expected to decide on a challenge to the “California Rule,” which has served as the bedrock for public employee pensions. Established in 1955, the California Rule says that public employee pensions become vested rights when they’re hired. For 62 years, this rule has protected California public employees against political trends and Wall Street recklessness. However, the California Rule’s fundamental understanding came into question last year, when Judge James Richman of the California First District Court of Appeals ruled that while public pension rights were clearly vested, those rights could be adjusted downward by “reasonable” interpretation. In other words, state and local authorities presumably could reduce public pensions within “reasonable” parameters. Only time will tell what the politicians or public consider “reasonable” today. Suggesting that we tie our future financial security to short-term Wall Street trends or someone’s political aspirations is unacceptable. Lest we forget, many organizations, including PORAC, got behind Governor Brown’s public pension reform in 2012, which was intended to help strengthen the long-term security of California public pension systems. If you’re attending our Issues Training Symposium this month in San Diego, pension expert Amy Brown will be speaking directly to this.
Triggering a war between public and private-sector workers is nonsense, since we all work toward earning a secure retirement. And it’s not in anyone’s best interests to pit Main Street against Wall Street, either, since we need both to thrive. But if our communities cannot attract enough law enforcement officers to patrol their streets with a stable, livable pension, as well as keep their citizens safe, then nothing else matters.
Thank you for your membership, have fun and stay safe!