Election Road Trip: Pension Reform Debate Hits Home in Sacramento

California's capitol

(David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

Sacramento, California is a company town — and the company is state government. More than a third of all state workers live in Sacramento County. So when talk turns to changing pension benefits for public employees — the top issue for the final weeks of this year’s legislative session — people living in the state capital pay close attention.

At the Ambrosia Cafe on the K Street Mall, just across the street from the State Capitol, Denise Ackerman is sharing an outside table with a friend.

She’s an attorney with the state, and her feelings about pension benefits are unambiguous.

“It’s a contract that’s been entered into with the employees of California and that needs to be preserved and honored,” Ackerman says.

Ackerman points out that state workers have already sacrificed to help balance the budget — furloughs, layoffs and pay freezes. She adds that it’s unfair to ask them to give back more.

“To a certain point public employees have been scapegoated out and it’s like, ‘Okay, they’ll just take the hit.’ And there’s a lot of hardworking employees out there that are really losing a lot,” she says.

About 4 million Californians belong to a public pension system. That’s 11 percent of the entire population.

One of them is Lynn Andres. She’s worked as a legislative aide for eight years.

She supports pensions for the rank-and-file, but agrees retiring workers should be prevented from artificially inflating their annual benefit by cashing in vacation time to boost their final salary.

“I think there are some situations where pensions are abused, where people spike their pensions at the end. That kind of stuff is wrong. The abuses that we see, that’s a legitimate point of negotiation,” Andres says.

There’s an air of urgency in Sacramento these days, a sense that something has to be done to rein in retirement benefits before they overwhelm state and local government budgets.

Governor Brown released a 12-point reform plan. It includes limiting so-called double dippers: workers who retire, then go back to work for the government. And legislative leaders are promising to pass comprehensive pension reform by the end of this month.

It’s a topic that seems close to the surface wherever you go here. In leafy and lush William Land Park, a few miles south of the Capitol, three women are chatting at a picnic table. One of them, Cheryl Stafford, is a retired teacher.

“I get a pension and I believe if you work for 30 years, and I strongly believe that if you pay into a system you should get it,” Stafford said. She notes that critics of pensions could have gone into teaching, but didn’t.

“Teachers don’t get paid that much and they deserve something at the end. And it’s a hard job,” Stafford says.

Sitting next to her, Mary Ann McLean says she supports pension changes, like reducing the benefits for new workers. But this former teacher is careful not to offend her old friend.

“Something has to change in the system because we cannot sustain what we’ve agreed to. That’s the problem. Not necessarily just teachers. Nothing having to do with that union or unions in general.

“They have to raise taxes. I mean if you need money, you have to,” Stafford says.

McLean adds that she wants what seems so out of reach these days; a bipartisan solution.

“Both sides are pretty unwilling to negotiate and I think that’s unfortunate and I think that’s making people really angry,” McLean says.

And that anger isn’t hard to find.

At a little league ballpark seven miles east of downtown, it’s Lakeside versus Lincoln in the end of season championship game.

Among those cheering on their team is Steve Jonsevitch, a small businessman who lives in South Sacramento. Jonsevitch has family members who are public employees. He thinks their benefits are simply too generous.

“Why should we support state government workers in that way when the rest of us aren’t getting anything, have to pay our own way. Health care, retirement, we don’t get as many days off. Why should they?” Jonsevitch says.

In fact, his own wife Kathy is one of them. The public school teacher says she works hard but doesn’t think she deserves benefits that are richer than her husband gets.

“I feel lucky, but I feel bad for people who don’t get it. I can understand those people’s frustrations,” she says.

Among the frustrated is Becky Croft from Rio Linda. She works with special needs students and believes the growth of pensions is out of control.  It’s part of the reason she says her school is broke.

“We don’t have supplies, bring in our own crayons, pencils, art materials, music stuff. They’re just not available for teachers anymore,” Croft says.

Employee benefits are just one of many things forcing state and local government budget cuts these days. But California does have some of the most generous pension benefits in the nation. And these costs have spiraled higher in recent years, in part because Democrats liberalized pension rules during the dot com boom.

With term limits, most of those politicians are long gone, leaving their successors to try and fix what they left behind.