SACRAMENTO — It's been six months since Gov. Jerry Brown put forward his proposals to make the public pension system more affordable, yet action on his 12-point plan has been nearly imperceptible.
That has led Republican lawmakers to accuse the Democrats who control the Legislature of stalling. Democrats acknowledge the slow pace, yet say they are making progress and intend to enact reforms before the session ends in August.
"It's not as fast as I would like, but it's complicated," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said this week during an appearance before the Sacramento Press Club.
He said Democrats have an obligation to deliver pension reform, particularly as they will ask voters in November to approve hikes to the income and sales taxes. But he also said they have "a different take" on parts of the governor's plan.
Brown's reform packaged called for increasing the retirement age to 67 for new, non-public safety employees and having local and state government workers pay more toward their pensions and retiree health care. Among other changes, the governor would put new workers in a hybrid plan that includes a 401(k)-style vehicle.
Frustrated that Brown's reform package had not been translated into individual bills, Republican lawmakers earlier this year did it themselves. They submitted a legislative package that copied Brown's 12-point plan and asked that it be heard by the Conference Committee on Public Employee Pensions, which has held five hearings throughout the state reviewing retirement benefits for public employees.
Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Lake Forest, criticized the hearings that have taken place so far, saying they have focused on how the state's two pension systems operate and receiving updates on local government pension proposals.
"It has been more fluff and not so much substance," she said.
Walters said the Legislature needs to enact meaningful pension reforms this year, as Brown has requested, for Democrats to have credibility when they ask voters to approve higher taxes in the fall.
Like public pension systems across the country, the retirement benefits offered by the state and by California's cities, counties and school districts have in many cases far outstripped the funding needed to pay them.
Pension systems have unfunded liabilities owed to future retirees in the tens of billions of dollars, and critics say many local governments are being forced to cut public safety, parks, libraries and other services to pay generous pension and retiree health care costs.
The California Public Employees Retirement System, the nation's largest public pension fund, runs a $235 billion fund for more than 1.6 million state employees, non-teaching school employees, local government workers and their dependents. The system has an unfunded liability of around $85 billion.
The $144 billion California State Teachers' Retirement System manages a fund for more than 600,000 active and retired teachers and has $64.5 billion in unfunded liabilities.
Brown's administration has estimated that his proposed changes would reduce the state's contributions by $4 billion to $11 billion over the next 30 years if his plan is implemented. Other government entities, such as courts, school districts, cities and counties, would see their own savings.