By Steven Greenhut | Gov. Jerry Brown has more political capital than, perhaps, any modern politician has had in this state. He’s an iconic figure and smarter than almost anyone else in the Capitol, so he can pretty much have his way with the Legislature. A lot of us have wondered, though, why — almost seven years into his latest governorship — he has been so unwilling to tap that treasure trove and spend it on something really important.
Until now. Brown recently has weighed in on a state Supreme Court case that — without exaggeration — will determine the fiscal future of California’s municipalities. It’s a seemingly obscure case about a union benefit known as “airtime,” but it’s really about the ability of state and local governments to roll back future pension benefits they can no longer afford.
Brown has had major accomplishments, but mostly of the type (tax raising, extending cap and trade) one should expect from a governor working with supermajorities in his own party. Political capital is about investing in something important that cuts against the grain. In this case, Brown is taking on the public-sector unions he has spent his career empowering.
There’s no question Brown and his team understand what’s at stake. In 1999, California passed a law that started a wave of retroactive pension increases that were predicated on the idea that stock-market increases would endlessly pay for all those six-figure pensions and spiking gimmicks. But what goes up must come down. Instead, the state’s pension funds are dangerously underfunded and localities are slashing services to pay for golden retiree deals.
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