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GOP to Democrats: Gotcha

Republican legislators made a smart move when they backed Brown's pension proposal. Now his own party needs to step up.

February 27, 2012|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • California Gov. Jerry Brown attends the National Governors Assn. winter meeting in Washington, D.C.
California Gov. Jerry Brown attends the National Governors Assn. winter… (Jose Luis Magana, Associated…)

From Sacramento — It's hard to tell who stole, er, embraced the pension legislation first. Was it Gov. Jerry Brown? Or Republican legislators?

Either way, it was an artful heist.

When GOP legislators last week adopted en masse the Democratic governor's proposed public pension reform as their own, it was like the Lakers shooting jumpers for the Clippers or cats purring alongside dogs.

It's very rare — and I can't think of a similar occasion — when legislators of one party unconditionally endorse a top legislative priority of a governor from the other party. That is, while lawmakers of the governor's own party basically ignore him.

"It was a very clever political move," Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) conceded to Senate minority leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) in a congratulatory phone call.

Sure, Republicans were playing gotcha politics. And this isn't the end of the story by any stretch.

For any legislation to pass the Democratic-controlled Legislature, it must be overwhelmingly supported by the majority party. Either that, or at least a quarter of the Democrats — and perhaps a lot more, depending on the legislation — must defy their leadership and vote with Republicans. And this isn't going to happen.

It means there will ultimately need to be a compromise between Brown and Democrats, including labor unions. Then Republicans will face another decision: Do they keep hanging with the governor and take some credit for the presumably popular legislation, or revert to sniping and sulking?

For now, credit the GOP with a responsible act that moves us closer to good public policy: making state and local employee pensions more fiscally and politically sustainable.

But let's back up for some perspective.

Brown spent his first few months in office last year attempting to negotiate with a handful of Senate Republicans, trying to coax them to vote for placing a tax hike on the ballot. One trade-off he dangled was pension reform.

But Brown wouldn't go far enough for Republicans. He couldn't alienate the public employee unions he needed to help bankroll the tax campaign.

Also, Republicans never specifically offered to vote for the taxes anyway. They were afraid of anti-tax activists and right-wing radio entertainers.

Talks tanked. Fingers pointed.

Months later, after the Legislature had left town, Brown publicly outlined a 12-point pension reform plan that included many of the proposals he and Republicans had privately discussed.

Future employees would receive a hybrid mix of a reduced pension and a supplemental 401(k)-type plan. Retirement ages would be raised. Most current employees — state and local — would have to contribute more toward their pensions. Plus some other stuff.

"Last year," Huff told me, "we [Republicans] would have died for that."

But to get it, some Republicans would have had to vote for taxes. And many equated that with dying politically.

Brown finally got around to putting his proposal into legal language on Feb. 2.

A huge labor coalition immediately blasted it as an "unacceptable assault on current and future public employees."

Then Republicans did a copy and paste and introduced Brown's legislation as their own. And why not? No Democrat would.

Brown didn't know what to say. The statement issued by his office was essentially a mumble, mentioning only that "pension reform is urgent" and "we will continue to work with the Legislature to enact serious reform."

Republicans are covered. He badly needs to work with Democrats.

"We got our act together," Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway of Tulare told me. "We said, 'This is what we really need to do.' Nobody wants to be called an obstructionist, and we get called that a lot. This is sincere. It's a great opportunity.

"What I've learned in old age [she's 61] is that procrastination never makes it better. It just puts it off."

Why didn't Republicans craft their own legislation instead of glomming onto a Democratic governor's? "This is a good plan. Why reinvent the wheel? We don't want to go back to square one and start all over."

Republican consultant Rob Stutzman, who has worked in the Legislature and the governor's office, was impressed. "When's the last time they've done anything smart?" he said of Republicans.

"I'm not trying to be a smart aleck, but it's been a while. This shows some maturity and savvy."

To sum up, this is why it's smart:

• It's positive, not negative. Not obstructionist. Voters want bipartisan cooperation from their representatives.

• The governor's a good person to sidle up to. He's a lot more popular than the Legislature. If they don't wind up on the winning side, Republicans at least will be in good company.

• GOP leaders proved worthy of their titles. They exercised firm leadership, a recent rarity.

• Excuse the bald cynicism, but it does drive a wedge between the Democratic governor and Democratic Legislature.

• And the GOP didn't have to give in on taxes.

"There are no strings attached," Huff says. "I haven't even talked to the governor since last year when I was talking to him ad nauseam."

So now there's more pressure on Democrats to produce.

It's a delicate balancing act. Brown still needs unions to help finance his ballot campaign for a tax initiative. He can't tick them off too much over pensions. Even more so, Democratic legislators require labor money for their election races.

But Brown and Democrats must enact significant, bipartisan pension reform before they can persuade voters to raise taxes for schools and other government programs.

"That whole place," Stutzman says of the Capitol, "works better if everyone is playing smart."

Republicans now are playing smart. Democrats are up next.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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