Larry Mantle

L. A. Times/USC poll shows voters take issue with both parties

I was struck by how strongly California voters feel about getting a chance to vote on Governor Brown’s proposed extension of selected tax increases.  Though support for passing the extension looks iffy, voters want their say, regardless of political party.  It’s also clear that voters, including Democrats, don’t want the legislature to unilaterally extend the taxes. 

It looks to me like the governor was politically astute in making the special election promise a central part of his campaign.  However, if the measure was defeated at the polls, it’s not clear what his Plan B was going to be.  If the measure doesn’t get on the ballot, we may find out sooner rather than later.

It was also striking how strongly voters support reform of public employee pensions.  For Republicans and independent voters, every possible reform mentioned on the poll was greeted with strong support.  Democrats opposed the idea of current public employees seeing the terms of their retirements changed.  However, they supported significant changes for new hires, including a mixed pension of defined benefit and 401(k) style accounts.

The argument I’ve consistently heard from supporters of fully defined public pensions is that all workers should have such plans.  Regardless, it doesn’t look like the private sector’s going back to defined pensions.  Workers will ultimately absorb the risk, not their employers.  Should the same happen for public employees?  Should government continue to be the backstop for pension returns that aren’t sufficient to pay benefits?

We had an excellent call Monday morning on AirTalk from a retired judge who is concerned about the future competence of public employees if benefits are significantly cut.  He was skeptical about salaries being high enough to attract strong employees, if the retirement benefit wasn’t better than the private sector average.  Do you agree with his analysis?

Other calls have claimed that pension reform isn’t really behind the call for pension reform.  They argue that this is an ideologically-based attack against the existence of public employee unions. 

It’s undoubtedly true that some of those seizing on this issue would love to use it to demolish unions.  However, what this USC/Times poll indicates is that the public desire for reform goes well beyond anti-union politicians.  It seems voters want public employees to have benefits more like their own.  The open question is whether those same voters support public salaries that are comparable to those in the private sector.

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