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Legislators Looking to Join Retirement Plan

Amendment would give them the same benefits as other state employees, but not the package that was wiped out by term limit law.


SACRAMENTO — Ten years after imposing term limits and abolishing the generous pensions of state lawmakers, voters are being asked to approve new retirement benefits for members of the California Legislature.

This time, the benefits would be the same as those of most rank-and-file state employees instead of the "gold-plated" variety that critics used to attack.

Proposition 33, a measure passed narrowly by the Legislature last summer, will appear on the ballot Nov. 7 as a change to the revolutionary term limits initiative approved by voters in 1990. Proposition 33 would allow members of the state Assembly and Senate to vest in the California Public Employees' Retirement System with five years of service.

The program also would allow legislators with qualified previous public employment, say as a city council member, police officer or county supervisor, to count their time in the Capitol for retirement purposes.

So far, the proposal has bobbed quietly in the backwaters of campaigns. This may change in the stretch drive before election day, say both backers and critics.

Proponents have reported collecting and spending only about $29,000. No campaign committee has formally organized to oppose the proposition.

Members of the Assembly are restricted to three terms of two years each; senators can serve two terms of four years each. Members "termed out" of one house can run for the other.

Legislators say they offered Proposition 33 to offset the valuable employment years people lose when they serve in the Legislature.

"The problem is when you get back to the job you came from, which affects about half of the members, you are short six to 14 years in your retirement," said Assemblyman Brett Granland (R-Yucaipa), a Proposition 33 backer who must leave office this year.

Opponents, including some of the original sponsors of the 1990 term limits initiative, attack it as the return of an era of lawmaker pensions that surpassed those of typical state workers.

"This is a clear stick-it-in-your-nose response by the Legislature," asserted Pete Schabarum, a former Los Angeles County supervisor and state Assemblyman and co-author of the term limits initiative 10 years ago.

Another opponent, Lew Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, said legislators would be tempted to pass laws enhancing benefits for themselves and other state employees.

Granland and Assemblyman Lou Papan (D-Millbrae), author of the proposed constitutional amendment, say their plan portends no such mischief.

"There's nothing like that even in the works," snapped Papan, who also has advocated lengthening legislative terms.

Under the ballot proposal, legislators would be allowed to join the retirement program that covers a majority of state workers, who can retire at age 55. They would pay the same 5% of their salary, now $99,000, and would vest for payments in five years.

The Public Employees' Retirement System estimates that under Proposition 33, a typical Assembly member who served six years would receive a maximum $974 a month. A senator with eight years would get up to $1,380 monthly.

Independent Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill estimated the cost of Proposition 33 at less than $1 million a year.

She also said the proposed benefits would not result in additional costs because they would be absorbed by the Legislature's budget.

Except for Social Security, lawmakers elected since 1990 have no publicly financed retirement program. However, 21 incumbent lawmakers elected before term limits are still members of the old legislative retirement system.

During legislative hearings on the measure, Gov. Gray Davis' advisors at the Department of Finance objected that the measure would result in "ongoing indeterminate" costs and that its health care features would give an "inequitable" advantage to lawmakers over civil servants.

"Legislators could become eligible for full retiree health benefits upon meeting a 10-year vesting requirement, while state employees could be required to work 20 years to earn the same benefit," they said.

Supporters of Proposition 33 assert that under the old legislative retirement plan, that may have been the case. But they say that as a constitutional amendment, Proposition 33 would supersede the old statute, which remains on the books but is inoperative.



What it would do: Amend California's term limit law to allow members of the Legislature to participate in the same public employee retirement program as most state workers.

Supporters: Most members of the Legislature, California School Employees Assn., state Public Employees Retirement System, officers of the California Chamber of Commerce, California Professional Firefights and AARP.

Opponents: Lew Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee; Ernest F. Dynda, president of United Organizations of Taxpayers; Pete Schabarum, former Los Angeles County supervisor and state assemblyman.

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