A fact-finding hearing about public employee pensions this morning briefly devolved into jawboning between a Little Hoover Commission member and a public employee union lobbyist, touched off by the use of a single word: "only."
The heated exchange between Commissioner Marshall Geller and Dave Low, a lobbyist for the California School Employees Association, illustrated how politically and emotionally charged the topic of public employee pensions has become. It also echoed a confrontation between Low and David Crane, the Schwarzenegger administration's pension change point man, at a CalPERS' pension forum earlier this year. (Click here for more about that.)
Before the blowup, Low called for all sides of the public pension debate to find common ground, tone down their rhetoric, agree on facts and find common values. "I haven't seen a lot of that going on, on one side or the other," Low said.
He then made several points. Among them:
Public pension reformers often engage in hyperbole that "is offensive to us."
The group Low represents, about 235,000 school employees such as food service staff and bus drivers, and they're not retiring rich. Because many work half days, it takes them twice the time to build up service credit toward their pensions.
The unions recognize that governments at all levels are under financial pressure: "We're not tone deaf."
Public pensions, as a percentage of payroll, cost less now than they did 30 years ago.
It was clear that some commission members weren't satisfied with what they were hearing, however. Commissioner Marilyn Brewer, a former Republican assemblywoman from Orange County, aimed some sharp remarks at Low "and to all the union people in the room. ... There's a serious problem here. ... My advice to you is collectively solve it, because you're not going to like what the initiative process will bring about."
Low said that the unions have been polling the attitudes about pensions for seven years. That data indicates that the public at large wouldn't support a ballot initiative to rollback public employee pensions. "If (a measure) went to the ballot today, we would win," he said.
Referring to last week's news that four state unions have tentatively agreed to contracts that roll back retirement promises to new hires and raise what employees contribute to their own pensions, Commissioner Eugene Mitchell asked if Low thought other unions were ready to do the same.
"I cannot predict what will occur ... I wouldn't speak for other unions," Low said. He noted that his union's members' average pension is "only $1,134 per month" with an average service time of about 19 years. They also pay into and receive Social Security benefits. "I'd say it's inappropriate to impose" higher out-of-pocket pensions costs on them, Low said.
A few moments later, Geller, who has been a director of several of public companies and senior managing director for Bear, Stearns & Co., asked Low about his use of the word, "only."
"I'm only getting $1,500 per month (in Social Security benefits) after working 45 years," Geller said.
Low asked Geller if that was in addition to a pension or 401(k) through an employer. "I have an IRA," Geller said with a wry smile.
"So you're self-employed," Low said.
Geller: "I'm trying to juxtapose ... and you said 'only.' "
By now the two men were talking on top of each other, their words becoming obscured by murmurs from about 50 onlookers in the room.
Above the din, Low: "You were attacking me for using the word, 'only.' " And then: "I'd match my income to yours." That really set Geller off. More loud cross-talk as the room got louder.
Commission Chairman Daniel Hancock then took charge, and moved the questions to another member. And the session calmed down.