<WC1>This is not the first time that state Sen. Kevin de Le? has proposed a state-sponsored pension system for the more than 6 million California workers whose employers don't offer retirement benefits.<WC> <WC1>But the Los Angeles Democrat's latest effort, Senate Bill 1234, is only a couple of votes away from reaching Gov. Jerry Brown's desk, and it's touched off a titanic lobbying war.<WC> <WC1>De Le? has until Aug. 31 to get his bill into Brown's hands <WC>—<WC1> where its fate would be uncertain.

<WC>"<WC1>Expanding access to a workplace plan will alleviate the growing strain on our already overburdened safety net programs for California's rapidly aging population,<WC>" <WC1>de Le? wrote in a published opinion piece.

That's the public rationale. But there appears to be another motive for the full-court press this year.<WC> <WC1>California is the key battleground in a nationwide, union-sponsored movement for such pension programs aimed, in part, at reducing what some call <WC>"<WC1>pension envy<WC>"<WC1> and thus demands for public employee pension reform.

<WC>"<WC1>It's supported in part by public-sector unions because I think they see this as a way of assuaging some of the sense of deprivation that private-sector workers have related to public-sector pension plans,<WC>"<WC1> Ron Snell, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told Governing magazine.

That motive has surfaced repeatedly, albeit privately, in discussions about SB 1234 among lobbyists, legislators and staffers. Brown is demanding that the Legislature enact some fairly hefty reforms in public pensions this month to help persuade voters to approve new taxes in November, but public employee unions and their Democratic allies, such as de Le?, have resisted more than token changes.

The business opponents have flooded legislators' offices with background papers and analyses, arguing that requiring employers to offer pensions to employees, even if bosses are not required to contribute, would damage the state's business climate and could leave the state holding the bag if pension fund earnings don't match promises.<WC> <WC1>That is why the Brown administration, so far at least, has opposed the measure. Brown is also cultivating business groups for campaign money for his tax-increase measure.

One potential problem is whether the pension program would fall under federal regulation like other private pension plans <WC>—<WC1> thereby imposing new obligations on employers <WC>—<WC1> or would be considered an exempt public pension program, which then could impose financial obligations on the state.

De Le? is attempting to thread that legal needle, but his legislation would leave the precise design to a new commission composed of political appointees.

A visionary effort to improve workers' retirement security, or a shameless, unworkable political ploy?<WC>

<i>Dan Walters<WC> is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.</i>