Field Poll gauges voters on public pension reform

A plurality, but not a majority, of California voters believe pension benefits for most state and local government workers are too generous, and most believe Gov. Jerry Brown is on the right track to reform, according to Field Poll results released today.

But about two in three California voters believe reforms should be made to the benefits of current employees, not just new ones – something legal experts say could be hard to do, as contracts aren’t easily broken.

Two years ago, the Field Poll found 32 percent of voters believed public pension benefits were too generous while 16 percent believed they weren’t generous enough, 40 percent believed they were about right and 12 percent had no opinion. Now, 41 percent say they’re too generous, 14 percent say they’re not generous enough, 35 percent say they’re about right and 10 percent have no opinion.

Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security – a coalition of unions representing more than 1.5 million public workers and retirees – said in an e-mailed statement that it’s “very revealing that even after an intensive and sustained political campaign attacking public employees, about half of voters believe that public employee pensions are just right or too little while just four in 10 think they are too high.”

Republicans are far more likely to believe public pension benefits are too generous (58 percent), while 41 percent of Democrats say they’re about right. Independent voters are split, with 37 percent believing they’re about right and 34 percent saying they’re too generous.

Naturally, union households show more support for the status quo – 48 percent believe the benefits are about right, 27 percent say they’re too generous and 22 say they’re not generous enough – compared to non-union households (45 percent too generous, 32 percent about right, 13 percent not generous enough).

When read a summary of pension reform proposals Brown rolled out in October, 51 percent say they strike the right balance; 24 percent think they go too far and 14 percent believe they don’t go far enough. Voter reactions were relatively uniform regardless of party or union affiliation.

“We believe voters have yet to hear meaningful details about the governor’s pension proposals to make an informed decision, and our own polling demonstrates that, given specifics, some of his proposals are very unpopular,” Low said. “Although voters might think it sounds unfair to single out new employees, it is illegal and unconstitutional to impair benefits for current employees. Given all the facts, Californians will not stand for our state government breaking the law and breaking promises to those who have dedicated their careers to serving the public.”

Low said his coalition’s goal remains simple. “We will continue our hard work with the Governor and the Legislature on reasonable, common sense measures to sustain California’s retirement system, rebuild our state’s working class, provide adequate retirement benefits, eliminate abuses and confront fiscal realities.”

The Field Poll numbers are based on a survey of 515 registered voters conducted Nov. 15 through 27, with a 4.4-percentage-point margin of error.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • John W

    Only 58 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of Independents think the benefits are too generous. Wow! I would have expected both of those numbers to be significantly higher. Yet two-thirds think reforms should apply to both current and new workers. There’s a serious disconnect there. Despite all the efforts by Dan Borenstein and others like him to educate the public as to what these benefits cost and how making good on them will increasingly crowd out public services (almost to the point of extinction in cities), people (even Republicans) just don’t seem to get it. A regular state worker (not CHP or Corrections) retiring at 60 with 30 years service and final pay of $80k stands to collect $1.2 million in pension (not including COLA’s and health benefits) over the next 20 years, plus another roughly 25% of pay in Social Security, plus withdrawls from any retirement savings plan or deferred compensation plan for which they may be eligible. Safety is a bit different — 50% more pension starting even younger but no Social Security. Local and county benefits at least as high and often higher.

  • lars54

    I just read the Police Chiefs of San Jose retire with $200,000 a year pensions. They can’t keep a police chief because the minute they hire one they retire quickly to get in on these choke-an-elephant pensions. When I read these stories I get physically ill, you’ve got guys “retiring” in thier early 50’s at $200, 000 a year annually, plus free health care for life. Most regular workers have no pensions at all, many workers don’t even have health care anymore, I can’t wait for this pension vote thing to be on ballot. I’m definately voting for it, public servants aren’t supposed to live like kings in retirment. A fair retirement yes, mega pension no.

  • Publius

    If the bond holders at Chrysler can be pushed aside in favor of the unions, and the tax payers moved to the back of the line when it comes to collecting the Solyndra money, then the pensions of current and retired workers can be re-worked to make them substainable for the long haul without bankrupting the State. The argument that you can’t alter or break a contract is bunk. It happens every day in the real world.

    A poll taken about union pensions should not include any union members, private or public. The numbers are off. If you want to find out if the jockey is to heavy you don’t ask the jockey; you ask the horse.

  • John W

    Re #3

    I share your sentiments. Unfortunately, there have been court rulings to the contrary. To the effect that, for some reason, once you are on board as a brand new public employee for even one day, not even the union can negotiate down the pension deal that existed on the day you started. The deal can be dramatically increased (as happened with state and local employees in CA about 10 years ago), but nothing can ever be taken back. Yet, some governments have been able to make employees to contribute more to their pensions, while leaving the pension itself alone. So, maybe the way around the legal situation is to keep increasing the amount employees have to contribute toward their pensions; even if, in the extreme, they have to pay 100% of both the regular funding and the funding shortfalls.

  • Publius

    Re #4

    Good point. Increasing the amount a new employee contributes is a must, but having the new employee shoulder all of the responsibility is wrong. The State does have the power to tax special groups. The millionaire tax and the sin tax are a couple of examples of taxes that are targeted at a certain group of people. Instead of punishing the new worker and the tax payer the State of Ca. can tax the pensioners. The smaller pensions that are in line with the private sector can be left alone, while the outrageous pensions held by fire, police, legislatures, and city managers, etc… can be taxed at a rate to bring them in line with the private sector. The tax revenue gained from this levy will then go back into the system alleviating the pressure on the tax payer, making the pension system fiscally sound.

  • John W

    Re: #5

    Increasing the employee contribution need not and should not be limited to new employees. The problem can’t be fixed by just addressing newbies. I think most of the actions taken by local and state governments so far include current employees in the contribtuion increases but not in changes to pension accrual rates, age of retirement etc. I’m not sure what the legal basis is for doing that, since it amounts to a backdoor pension reduction; but they seem to be doing it anyway. Pensions are already taxed in California. Social Security isn’t. However, many people with generous public pensions skip town and leave for places without a state income tax (NV, TX, WA, FL).