Jerry Brown, the Old Plymouth, and Pension Reform

For many years, Jerry Brown has been considered the master of political symbolism.

Middle-aged and older voters will remember the “boy” governor of the 1970s as the politician who eschewed the lavish trappings of office. He famously refused to take up residence in the Governor’s Mansion and slept on a mattress on the floor of his bachelor pad.

For transportation, the governor chose a light blue Plymouth Satellite from the motor pool, in which Sacramento residents could see him driving himself. Although he actually had two Plymouths — the second based in Southern California — and he was often driven about by a Highway Patrol officer, the image of the frugal sage became part of his mystique.

On returning to the Governor’s office last year, Brown returned to his old playbook. He immediately announced that some state employees would lose their cellphone privileges. While it is hard for a taxpayers’ advocate to argue against this move, the actual savings to the state were minuscule. But what must have made Brown smile was that his token savings generated laudatory headlines from a new generation of reporters agog over the governor’s parsimony in defense of taxpayers.

Benito Mussolini — no relation to Jerry Brown — was a newspaper editor before becoming Il Duce and he, too, understood the value of political symbolism. It is said that he believed in governing through press release — that merely saying you had solved a problem was 99 percent of the solution. And, with his new pension reform measure, it appears that Jerry Brown believes this too.

What is actually included in this ballyhooed government employee pension reform measure is much less important than what it does not include: Real reform that will lift the overwhelming burden of the unfunded pension liability from average Californians. Analysts are saying the typical California family is on the hook for at least $23,000 to cover pensions to government employees, some of whom are retiring as young as 50 with full benefits. If Californians are lucky, the agreement the governor has made with his allies in the Legislature may reduce the bill for these families to $18,000.

So while Brown will trumpet his success, here is what is really going on. His goal, and that of most of the Sacramento politicians, is to convince voters to approve Proposition 30, a $50 billion increase in sales and income taxes. The governor, a smart guy, knows that average voters are less likely to give the politicians more money if they believe that the tax increase is to shore up salaries and pensions for those who work in government.

Brown’s pension reform is just political theater, a symbolic fig leaf to cover our state’s out-of-control pension system and its $500 billion unfunded liability and make Proposition 30 more palatable to voters.

And here is the rub. If Proposition 30 passes, what is to keep the governor and lawmakers from reversing course and eliminating what small gains have been made for taxpayers? If this happens, the fig leaf will have been proven to be poison oak for California taxpayers.

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.