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Changes to pensions are modest say reform supporters

7:04 PM, Jun 22, 2012   |    comments
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By Nannette Miranda

SACRAMENTO, CA - When you combine state and local governments, the Pew Center for the states estimates California's public pension systems' obligations had $112 billion in unfunded liabilities in 2010.

Add in retiree health costs, the total jumps to nearly $200 billion.

Pension reformers have been sounding the alarm for years that retirement costs will drain, maybe even bankrupt budgets. They said state leaders have made only modest changes because public employee unions are too powerful.

What employee contributions or investment gains can't pay for, taxpayers make up the shortfall.

"The holes in the budgets that are caused by feeding this pension beast are eating up all the other money we need for the programs we value, like schools, transportation, housing and safety net programs," California Pension Reform supporter Dan Pellissier said.

Pension supporters, though, point out the Pew Center's numbers are two years old and the stock market has done better since then.

A pension fund is considered healthy if unfunded liabilities are kept to 20 percent or less.

"There's actually good news in the report in stating that California has gone from a funding ration of somewhere around 60 percent to 62 percent to somewhere around 70 percent to 78 percent for most of their pension funds," Service Employees International Union spokesperson Terry Brennand said. "We're going in the right direction."

Republicans tried to bring Gov. Jerry Brown's pension reform package to a floor vote this week. There's urgency because some elements need to be approved by the end of the month in order to be placed on the November ballot, but the Democratic majority sets the timetable.

"Where was the vote today? You had an opportunity to debate it, to do up or down," Minority Leader Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said. "What'd you say? No!"

"Come on. You want to be part of the comprehensive solution here in California and in this Legislature? Then participate in all parts of governance, not just the parts that you find the most politically appealing or attractive," Senate President Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said.

Democratic leaders vow pension reform will be enacted this year. The question is how much will the final package resemble Brown's tough proposals?


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