The ink is hardly dry on the historic pension reform bill the Legislature approved and Gov. Jerry Brown signed last year, but already powerful forces are out to eviscerate it.
One assault is contained in Assembly Bill 160 by Watsonville Democrat Luis Alejo. Sponsored by a trio of transit unions, this bill would exempt an estimated 20,000 transit workers from the Public Employee Pension Reform Act. The hard-fought measure approved with so much fanfare just four months ago reduces pension benefits for newly hired government workers, raises retirement ages and bars pension spiking, among other things.
But transit union lobbyists claim that the act also reduces their members' collective bargaining rights, in violation of an obscure provision in federal labor law that applies uniquely to transit workers. Under that law, they say, public employers who reduce or diminish collective bargaining rights can be denied federal transit grants.
Using that argument, the unions have already challenged federal funding for several state transit projects, including a $40 million grant that was in the pipeline to help finance Sacramento's light- rail extension to Elk Grove.
The U.S. Department of Labor has put several districts on notice that their federal grants are in jeopardy and instructed them to try to work it out with their unions. Transit districts should not have to fight this battle alone. Brown needs to make it clear to federal authorities that pension reform is not an abridgement of collective bargaining rights. Under the law, unions retain ample authority to collectively bargain.
Another attack involves the changes that the state reforms imposed on county retirement programs. As reported in The Sacramento Bee, unions are suing pension boards in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and Merced counties to overturn parts of the new law that restrict how pensions are calculated.
In Merced, a union representing county sheriff's employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees filed suit after the local pension board said the new law would not allow use accumulated vacation pay when calculating retirement benefits for anyone who retired after Jan. 1.
The unions argue that employees have worked with the understanding that the pay would count. Many saved up vacation days in anticipation of higher pensions.
Finally this week the governor said he would ask the attorney general to defend the new state law against the union lawsuits. That defense needs to be vigorous.
The state pension reform act passed in 2012 fell far short of solving the huge pension burden facing the state and local governments.
AB 160 is tentatively scheduled for its first committee hearing Wednesday. If AB 160 passes, granting transit workers an exemption, then other powerful unions will demand to be let out of the law.
If the governor fails to vigorously defend pension reform, and if the Legislature is bullied into passing AB 160, the entire pension reform effort begins to look like a fraud. Voters will be watching. Were state leaders really serious about pension reform or was it all just a ploy to get the electorate to approve tax increases?