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Whitman says pension-reform plans don't apply to police, firefighters

September 15, 2010 |  1:01 pm

Not all public-employee pensions are created equal -- at least not in the eyes of Meg Whitman.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman has made reforming public-employee pensions a centerpiece of her campaign. But Whitman's campaign says that two-tiered pension plan does not apply to police, firefighters and other state law-enforcement officers.

"New government employees, not public safety employees but new government employees beyond the public-safety realm, are going to have to come on under a different deal," Whitman said at a campaign event earlier this year. "They're going to have to come in under a 401(k) program, what we call a defined contribution program, as opposed to a defined benefit program, and this will get us a long way home towards reducing this huge unfunded pension liability."

That distinction between public-safety workers and all other state employees is reaping benefits. Last week, Whitman secured the endorsement of the California Statewide Law Enforcement Assn. The association's president, Alan Barcelona, cited in a new release last week Whitman's stance on pensions as a major reason for the endorsement.

"Her early embrace of the anti-public-employee rhetoric and proposal for 401(k)s as a panacea for what ails the state's retirement obligations concerned us deeply. But her famous talent for being a quick study has tempered that to where she now understands that public employees are not one lumpen mass, but that some, like our members, pin on badges, put out fires, answer 911 calls, and investigate and inspect the worst of crimes. She informed the CSLEA Board that she now sees the value in keeping defined-benefits retirement for public safety employees."

Barcelona also cited Brown's vows to revamp pensions -- and his failure to distinguish between law enforcement and other state employees -- as a reason for backing Whitman. "Jerry Brown said ... that if elected governor he would have to 'do things that labor doesn't like,' including cutting pension benefits for employees and asking labor leaders to put everything on the table," Barcelona wrote. "He cannot be unaware of the pension reforms currently underway, so why strike the pose of wanting to punitively beat more out of us while claiming to be our friend?"

Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford dismissed Whitman's positions as unworkable because of the way the state's pension system worked. And, he said, Whitman's calls to maintain the current pensions for public-safety workers was little more than a crass campaign maneuver.

"It is a political ploy to pander to law enforcement," Clifford said. "Meg Whitman, from the beginning of this campaign, has walked into every group and told them exactly what they wanted to hear, no matter which of her previous statements it conflicted with."

Brown has called for pension changes for all new state hires, including law enforcement. But he does not support the concept of moving to a 401(k)-style program for any state workers. Clifford said Brown believed concessions can be gained through the collective-bargaining process and that legislation imposing massive pension changes was likely not necessary

Earlier this year, state firefighters and California Highway Patrol officers reached an agreement with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration to accept a two-tiered pension system. New hires must now wait until they are 55 years old to receive their full pension benefits. Current employees may collect full pensions at 50. The Highway Patrol and state firefighters also agreed to increase their contributions to their own pensions and agreed to some anti-pension-spiking measures. Schwarzenegger backed a bill by Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) that would have imposed pension changes on all state workers.

-- Anthony York

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