Californian Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman gestures… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
Meg Whitman has repeatedly said she exempts police and firefighters from her plan to switch state workers from pensions to 401(k)-style retirements because they have dangerous jobs. But analysts say the GOP gubernatorial nominee's stance is also a shrewd political move.
FOR THE RECORD:
Public pensions: An article in the Oct. 17 California section about public pensions as an issue in the gubernatorial race said that California Highway Patrol officers are part of a labor group called the California Statewide Law Enforcement Assn., which has endorsed candidate Meg Whitman. Highway Patrol officers are represented by the California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen, which has not made an endorsement. —
Police and firefighter unions hold tremendous power in Sacramento and can use their cash and muscle to help a candidate get elected. They pay for hard-hitting TV ads that play up their role as the guardians of public safety. They turn out at campaign events to hector anyone who proposes to mess with their pay and benefits.
Their numbers are smaller than those of teachers, service workers and other organized state employees. But they have the public on their side, said Tony Quinn, a former legislative aide and co-editor of the Target Book, which tracks California political contests.
"They're America's heroes," Quinn said. "When you have a crime, you don't call the tree service. You call the police. They're the ones who risk their lives, and voters think they ought to be compensated for it."
Public safety officers' pay and benefits became a hot topic in the gubernatorial race after someone in Democratic nominee Jerry Brown's campaign was recorded calling Whitman a "whore" for excluding their jobs from her proposals and seeking their endorsement in the Nov. 2 election.
The implicit accusation — that Whitman was currying favor with public safety groups in return for endorsements — had a ring of truth, political analysts said. Candidates compete for such support and sometimes cut backroom deals, analysts say, because the groups are influential with voters.
"I'll guarantee when Meg Whitman sends out her mailers, she'll say she's tough on crime and there will be no mention of their benefits," said a longtime Republican strategist, who declined to be named because such talk could hurt his business.
If Whitman needed a reminder of the power of public safety unions in California, she had only to look to a fellow Republican, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said Marcia Fritz, head of the California Foundation for Pension Reform.
Five years ago, Schwarzenegger's initiative to switch state workers from pensions to 401(k)-style plans was stopped cold when firefighters, police and other law enforcement groups mobilized against it. Schwarzenegger dropped the initiative before it ever hit the ballot box.
Some candidates go too far, said Fritz. "Everyone supports a law-and-order candidate, but someone has to watch out for the taxpayer too," she said. "The biggest abuses in the pension system are by cops and firefighters."
For decades, police and firefighters have received better pension benefits than other government workers. The rationale was to get them to retire in their late 50s and 60s, when their physical capabilities had diminished.
But in 1999, the state Legislature passed a law allowing public safety workers to retire at 50 with 90% of their final pay. Average base salary for police officers in California ranges from $45,000 for new recruits to $80,000 for veterans.
Police and firefighters can pad their final year's salary with unused vacation, longevity pay, premiums for specialized work and other supplemental income, driving up the basis for their pension benefits. The higher costs, along with investment losses in recent years, have contributed to a pension debt estimated by the Schwarzenegger administration at $500 billion.
But Ron Cottingham, president of the Police Officers Research Assn. of California, the largest group representing sworn officers, noted that those pay items were negotiated at bargaining tables. "That's not abuse," he said. "That's part of your salary."
The California Statewide Law Enforcement Assn., a union of California Highway Patrol officers, firefighters and other public safety officials, has endorsed Whitman. In his support letter, the group's president, Alan Barcelona, said Whitman "understands that public employees are not one lumpen mass, but that some, like our members, pin on badges, put out fires, answer 911 calls and investigate and inspect the worst of crimes.
"She informed the CSLEA board that she now sees the value in keeping defined-benefits retirement for public safety employees."
Brown has secured endorsements from other law enforcement groups and a police chiefs group. His pension plan doesn't take a 401(k) conversion path, but it would require new hires to accept lower pension benefits. He also would move the state back to basing retirement pay on an average of three years' salary instead of the final year's, something analysts say would make it harder for workers to bolster retirement pay.
Schwarzenegger this month negotiated a return to pre-1999 benefits levels for most future state workers. But the new union pacts don't apply to the tens of thousands of police officers and firefighters who work for local governments — something the next governor should address, said Fritz.
"The state led us into this, and now we need leadership in the governor's office to lead us out of it," she said.