As California begins to look for ways of dealing with the problem of its chronically underfunded public employee pensions, a new Field Poll is providing some guidance about what citizens of the Golden State think.The poll’s findings are somewhat mixed. On the one hand, it found majorities in favor of placing a cap on pension benefits, increasing the retirement age for state workers (from its current 50), and merging existing plans with elements of a 401k plan. On the other hand, most voters oppose the idea of curbing the bargaining rights of public-sector unions a la Wisconsin.The San Francisco Chronicle’s take on this poll is that pension reform is “not a priority with voters”:
“I was thinking that maybe this was an issue where attitudes continue to harden. . . . What we’re finding in the results of this survey is no, not really,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.While voters expressed support for changes in some pension rules – including increasing the retirement age and creating a salary cap for determining benefits – 50 percent of voters said they opposed taking away collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions. Forty percent said they support doing so.“That’s the most extreme, and it came through in Wisconsin. It’s been a very prominent issue nationally because of Wisconsin, and it’s just not supported here,” DiCamillo said.
The Chronicle gets some thing right, but it is also guilty of spinning the poll’s results. Voters want to limit and reform the pension system, and proposals like salary caps and a higher retirement age—proposals that public unions consider horrible, unfair barbarities—get solid support from Golden State voters.To be sure, Californians haven’t embraced the Scott Walker agenda. By and large, they don’t want to make public unions illegal. Further, while there is much less support for raising pensions than there is for cutting them, there isn’t a majority for either position.Nonetheless, this poll is very bad news for the unions. Their key demands in the pension fight have been resoundingly rejected. Voters want a salary cap for determining benefits, they want to raise the retirement age, and they support a hybrid pension system that mixes in elements of a traditional, defined-contribution plan.What makes this all very much worse from the unions’ point of view is that if (and when) a truly major and prolonged statewide budget emergency comes, attitudes are likely to harden against them even more. When voters “get” just how much of a tradeoff they face between services for kids and old people vs. paying pensions, then sentiment will likely harden on the pension front. Better schools for your kids, or better pensions for people who taught other peoples’ kids twenty years ago?With luck, this may point to more room in California politics for a statewide alternative that is to the left of Scott Walker but well to the right of the current Democratic establishment. This could be exactly the political shift California needs to pull itself out of its rut.