THE ORPHANS & WIDOWS CANARD: HOW ARNOLD FAILED TO PREPARE FOR THE BABBLE
by Jill Stewart
American Reporter Correspondent
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Let's stipulate that California Attorney General Bill Lockyer does indeed write ballot measure descriptions designed to make the state's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's reform ideas sound awful. Exhibit No. 1 was Lockyer's official ballot description of pension reform, which Lockyer insisted could wipe out orphan and widow death benefits for firefighters and cops.
Actually, the now-abandoned reform plan did not mention orphan and widow benefits. Moreover, it is utterly impossible to imagine any entity in California willing to ruin its own reputation by claiming such a "loophole" and then trying to cruelly wrest death benefits away from the 10 to 15 families annually who lose someone in the line of duty.
But this media war had nothing to do with logic. It was all about the hysteria of political theater.
We've seen many unfair ballot descriptions written by partisan A.G.'s in California. Tainted ballot descriptions are a powerful tool because many voters base their entire vote on the ballot title and summary written by the Attorney General.
Lockyer is a partisan, union guy. He insists his ballot wording was fair. Indeed, he claimed to me that he "never changed a word" of any ballot measure written by the attorneys under him. But he wants to be governor in 2006, and he needs Big Labor's millions of dollars in campaign donations.
It's hardly a surprise if Lockyer uses his power, either directly or via subtle pressure on his underlings, to undercut ballot measures that his pals hate. And they particularly hated the governor's decision to rein in a ballooning state pension mess in Sacramento.
Daniel Pellisier, chief of staff to Republican Assemblyman Keith Richman of Northridge, who wrote the pension reform bill, tells me Lockyer "has egregiously breached his obligation to provide fair analysis of ballot measures. ... Lockyer couldn't resist the urge to advance his own political career."
Agreed. But hey, politics is ugly. What surprises me much more is the pigheadedness of the governor. Mired in a PR debacle, on April 7 the governor abandoned pension reform. ("It does not wipe out orphan and widow benefits." "Does so." "Does not.")
Had pension reform been approved, this switch to a 401k-like system would not have affected the pension of a single existing state worker. That was another issue the media got backwards. Television reporters continually interviewed current state workers insisting they'd be forced onto 401-Ks. In fact, only workers hired after mid-2007 were included in the new reforms - people still two years away from even joining the payroll!
Did you ever hear that crucial fact on tv? No. Arnold failed, completely, to prepare for the babble. As a result, no reform. Taxpayers are on the hook until the pension mess is fixed.
According to the state Department of Finance, a typical low-skilled secretary, who next week takes a state job and works 20 years until retirement age, will get a $1 million payout if living to life expectancy. And there's nothing you can do about it.
Few taxpayers can dream of $1 million pensions, yet Californians are forced to subsidize state workers who earn, on average, nearly $60,000 a year.
The governor could have quashed the orphans-and-widows nonsense instantly, by backing an anti-loophole law making crystal clear that these 10 to 15 families per year were protected, and assuring that disability benefits to thousands of cops and firefighters also remained unaffected.
But noooo. The governor instead stamped his feet and denied any loophole. After all, it's so important to be right.
How inexcusable. Schwarzenegger knew he was facing a well-oiled anti-reform operation, launched in 2004 when a coalition of rich labor unions hired a polling firm to conduct a $100,000 study to figure out how to halt pension reform.
The $100,000 survey suggested that anti-reformers use firefighters and cops to stop reform of public pensions. Voters' attention had to be diverted from the more typical 325,000 state employees, like the bunch that works the DMV counter.
So the Service Employees International Union, California Teachers Association and California State Employees Association and others did exactly that. As Pellisier notes: "The CSEA, CTA and SEIU led it, and there were 40 people at the strategy meeting. They were not there to come up with a way to fix the pension mess."
California is perpetually a dog wagged by its tail. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics says unions in California lost 29,000 members between 2003 and 2004. Unions represent only 16.8 percent of our workforce. State employee unions are roughly 2 percent, depending on how you count.
Yet look at their power over the media and Arnold. By the time tv news began airing video of firefighters begging Arnold not to wipe out their death and disability, pension reform was utterly dead.
A Slate.com writer mused recently that Arnold, pushing many reforms all at once, seems to be purposely creating "insurmountable challenges" so he can surmount them and thus even more grandly win the day.
Well, the Keystone Kops also set out to create seemingly insurmountable obstacles, which they then tried to surmount. But the Keystone Kops did it because it was funny.