'How Many Divisions Does the Pope Have?'

In the waning days of WW II, during a discussion of the future of Eastern Europe, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill cautioned Joseph Stalin to consider the views of the Vatican. To this the Soviet leader responded, "How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?"

Stalin’s brutal sense of humor demonstrated that he only respected force. Since the Pope had nothing he feared or wanted, Stalin would ignore him.

Now that Governor Brown has announced his intention to reform unsustainable government employee pensions that threaten to bankrupt state and local government, he finds himself in the position of the Pope. In the struggle to come with the public employee unions who will fight change, he has no leverage.

How did Brown come to this state of impotence when the government employee unions who will now oppose him, owe him so much? While governor in the 1970s, he signed off on legislation that significantly expanded the collective bargaining rights and power of the very groups that now threaten California with insolvency. This power has allowed government employees to become the highest compensated in all 50 states.

While running as a new incarnation of himself for governor, Brown relied on funding from his public sector union allies. In response to questions about how much influence state workers would have on his administration, he repeatedly assured voters he would govern independently. After all, he said, he is older and wiser, not interested in higher office and has nothing to prove.

However, upon assuming office, when Brown’s bargaining power was at its zenith, like a Santa on “Weight Watchers,” he set about fulfilling the government unions’ “Christmas wish list.”

Brown immediately agreed to five new contracts giving the unions nearly everything they wanted including, for the prison guards, the ability to “bank” unlimited vacation time that could be cashed in on retirement at the guards’ highest pay rate. And with only a few minor exceptions, the governor signed off on the unions’ legislative agenda, including postponing for two years a public vote on a reform requiring the state to maintain a prudent reserve to allow it to fund programs in difficult times. This vote on the rainy day fund was part of the deal that put in place the massive tax increases of 2009, but the unions now fear that if money is set aside, it would leave less in the pot for government worker raises and benefit increases. With Brown’s signature, the state has reneged on the deal it made with taxpayers and there is no reason to believe that the vote will not be postponed again and again, each time it is rescheduled.

Now that the governor has so thoroughly done the unions’ bidding, they no longer need or fear him. They have what they want, and he has no leverage to bring them to the table. The union bosses are free to thumb their noses at the governor because they know that through millions of dollars in campaign cash they still control the majority of lawmakers. The chances of the Legislature passing meaningful pension reform are slim and none, and slim is getting on his horse.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -– California's largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers' rights.