Notebook: Pension Politics, DiFi's Free Shot?

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There's probably nothing harder than prognosticating the politics of hot button issues or high profile campaigns. There's also nothing more fun -- that is, if you're a political junkie.

Hence the inspiration for a weekend edition of the Reporter's Notebook.

Pension Chess Game: As we chatted about in Friday's podcast, there's great intrigue about how the pension debate -- stoked this week by the proposal offered by Governor Jerry Brown -- plays out politically.

It's not surprising why so many Republicans offered support for Brown's plan; after all, it's almost verbatim in some places the proposal offered by a group of Senate Republicans during budget negotiations and introduced as legislation in June.

The most notable parallel between Brown's plan (PDF) and SCA 13 (PDF) is the mandatory hybrid pension plan for future workers. The two also share in common an end to "spiking" (though Brown proposes a three year salary average, GOP senators wanted five years); pension benefits for felons; a limit on post-retirement employment; a ban on service credits (known as "air time"); retroactive pension increases; an end to pension payment "holidays"; less generous retiree health care options; and new expert members of state pension boards (though the two plans seem to differ on how to implement). Granted, the GOP proposal goes even further. But clearly the Brown plan is an acknowledgment that he largely agrees with Republican legislators -- which is probably why Sen. Bill Emmerson (R-Hemet), one of the GOP pols who negotiated with the Guv this year, put out a statement that said that if the language was strong enough, "I'm in. I'll vote for it."

Meantime, one interesting rumination on the politics of the pension push comes from the indefatigable Scott Lay, the community colleges advocate who moonlights as chief web-head of Around The Capitol and his daily email, The Nooner:

The big question [Thursday] from Democrats was why the governor insists on making this an issue next year, in the midst of the most uncertain election cycle any modern California politician has known. With top-two, redistricting and a wild presidential, introducing a very complex and highly personal issue that splits candidates from their benefactors is not popular.

And before you think this will only be a concern among Democrats, think again... Republicans were generally complementary toward the governor's plan. However, the biggest losers under the plan would be public safety employees, many of whom plan to appear in uniform on Republican mailers next year. These employees (including district attorneys) are the biggest beneficiaries of the current plan, and would see a dramatic drop in benefits and a dramatic increase in contributions. It won't take long for them to mobilize and Republicans could find their law and order support dissipate if the GOP gets too excited about the plan.

One final pension analysis: education writer John Fensterwald says that Brown's pension changes would mean that "future teachers would work years longer before they could retire with smaller pensions." No doubt we'll be hearing more from teachers. And soon.

Referendum Tick Tock: The next 11 days are the final stretch for the backers of the Republican effort to qualify a referendum on the new state Senate districts. The campaign technically has until November 13, but that's a Sunday. And with November 11 being a holiday, the last day for backers to turn in signed petitions to county registars looks to be Thursday, November 10. Meantime, campaign manager Dave Gilliard said recently that the effort is closing in on its target.

New Districts, New Candidates: An email arrived last week announcing a new effort to recruit GOP legislative candidates in California. The campaign, called California Trailblazers, is being led by the two top Republicans in Sacramento, Sen. GOP leader Bob Dutton and Assembly GOP leader Connie Conway. According to the news release, the effort is modeled after the 'Young Guns' recruitment effort of U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (who, let's not forget, was the Assembly GOP leader not that long ago).

The fate of Republican legislative candidates is going to be one of the major themes of the 2012 election cycle. With new districts, a GOP-Democratic registration gap that's larger than almost ever before, and a lot of competitive races, Republicans would like to grow their caucuses in Sacramento. But if they can't, then they will certainly not want to lose any ground, with Dems only four seats away from a supermajority status.

DiFi Challengers? Yes. Contenders? Probably Not: Speaking of 2012, it's hard not to notice the quiet surrounding the contest for U.S. Senate, where Dianne Feinstein continues to scare off any major Republican challenger. When federal campaign finance reports came out recently, it was clear that DiFi is still facing a virtually uncontested run at a fourth full term in Washington. To be fair, there are four California Republicans in the FEC's list of potential candidates -- Keith Holbrook, Tim Kalemkarian, Dirk Konopik, and Michael Stollery -- but between them, they reported only about $22,000 in campaign donations (and almost all from Konopik, whose website still says "Launching October 2011").

"It will be tough for Republicans to credibly challenge Feinstein next year," writes GOP blogger Jon Fleischman. He notes that DiFi, even with a recent statewide poll showing her job approval rating at an all-time low, still has several big factors in her favor -- from the high cost to mount a challenge to the state's senior senator to "perception that because she is moderate in temperament that she is not as liberal as [Sen. Barbara] Boxer."

Why Mention Lindsay Lohan on a Politics Blog?: Because there's a slight tie-in with her pending legal woes and the state's fiscal woes. The actress is due in a Los Angeles courtroom this coming Wednesday, but is unlikely to face jail time after having her probation revoked. Why? Blame the state budget and California's overcrowded prisons and jails, all now undergoing a major transformation under Governor Brown's realignment plan.

"If jail meant something in the state of California now, maybe I’d put her in jail," said LA Superior Court Judge Stephanie Sautner at an October 19 court hearing.

Good thing for the starlet, perhaps, that this isn't all playing out in -- say -- Phoenix.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • peter lorenzo

    Do we really know if DiFi is running? I think not.

  • John Myers

    I suppose that case could be made, though then you could make the same argument about a number of incumbents who have yet to fully engage a campaign operation. I think the senator’s decision to give her campaign a few million dollars recently — to replenish those allegedly taken by ex-treasurer Kinde Durkee — was designed to reassure Dems that she’s gearing up for another campaign.

    Certainly if she chooses to retire, the heirs apparent would turn it into one of the most closely watched races in the country.

  • california political races

    Not sure that I see any heated political races the coming year at least in terms of people running for office. However I can see some heated battles when it comes to gay marriage or marijuana legalization.