Californians are demanding real change to the failed status quo and on June 5th, based upon the primary election results, they sent an unmistakable message to Sacramento – stop overspending or else.
That message was clearly delivered by the voters. Victories for pension reform in San Jose and San Diego, and the looming defeat of a higher cigarette tax, are an encouraging outcome for fiscal responsibility in California. In the Democrat bastion of San Jose, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that will force current city workers to either contribute more of their own money to their existing pension plan or enroll in a less generous plan with a higher retirement age. Future workers will receive retirement benefits that are somewhat similar to what private sector workers receive. San Jose’s voters approved this reform mainly because the city’s pension costs rose from $73 million in 2001 to a whopping $245 million this year. Residents have seen less police and fire services and more potholes as city government spent more money to fund out-of-control pension costs for retirees. The voters understood that every additional dollar spent on pensions was one less dollar for the services they cared about.
San Diego’s voters felt the same way. Their city is spending $231 million on pensions this year compared to $137 million in 2006. They approved their pension reform measure by a 2-to-1 margin.
The story of these two California cities reflected a widespread trend for pension reform nationwide. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker comfortably survived a recall campaign that partly originated from his efforts to get pension costs under control. Liberal states like Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York are also pursuing pension reform.
Even Governor Brown had to propose a pension reform plan of his own earlier this year. My Republican colleagues and I introduced it on his behalf in the Legislature, but the Democrats shelved it indefinitely. They and the Governor are focused instead on raising taxes to spend more on government.
But they will have a difficult time convincing voters to raise California’s already high taxes even higher. As of this writing, Proposition 29 appears headed for defeat. This proposition would raise taxes on cigarettes to fund a new bureaucracy. A poll taken a few months ago found that 67 percent of Californians supported the tax, but that support dropped significantly when they had doubts the state would spend that money wisely. If the people are reluctant to raise taxes on cigarettes, then the Democrats will have a tough task trying to raise sales and income taxes – taxes that have a direct correlation to job creation. The last thing we need are higher taxes that will encourage more job creators to flee to business-friendly states.
Refusing to act on pension reform at a time when we are spending more on pensions but less on other services like education simply makes no sense.
I hope Sacramento gets the message that the time is now to reform state pensions and get overspending under control. If they fail to act, the voters may very well do the job for them in the future.