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Voters Overwhelmingly Support Effort To Block Pension Spikes

Voters Overwhelmingly Support Effort To Block Pension Spikes 

Measure requiring public vote for future pension increases wins handily

November 5, 2008

By NORBERTO SANTANA Jr.
The Orange County Register

Voters have overwhelmingly endorsed limiting the power of county supervisors to sweeten pension payouts for public employees supporting Measure J by a whopping 75 percent.

The measure is a public rebuke of the stewardship that county supervisors have given the pension system, which is now only 73 percent funded and runs a $3 billion unfunded liability.

It's also a distinguishing mark of the times, where most voters working in the private sector have seen the value of their 401K retirement accounts erode while watching public workers have their retirement benefits expanded.

Under Measure J, any future labor contract negotiated by county supervisors that would increase the retirement benefits of any public employee or elected official would have to then be approved at the ballot. While the county could negotiate such increases, none could take effect until approved by voters.

Unlike the two pension spikes approved in 2001 and 2004 – that triggered the county's soaring unfunded liability - Measure J would force county officials to present voters with an actuarial study detailing the full cost of pension enhancements as well as its impact on the county's unfunded liability. General cost of living adjustments are exempted.

County Supervisors' Chairman John Moorlach was the main sponsor of the measure, which also was supported unanimously by all county supervisors.

"The voters in Orange County get it," said Moorlach after hearing the results while he was attending the main Republican party election night gathering in Irvine. “County supervisors didn't handle it properly in the past. You don't take anything away from people who handle it properly.”

Moorlach called Measure J "an insurance policy for the taxpayer," because it would hamper the kinds of private labor negotiations that produced recent pension enhancements. While both measures were voted on in public by county supervisors, Moorlach and other opponents of such enhancements criticize the public votes as largely rubber stamps on deals that are already negotiated.

Orange County supervisors in 2001 granted public safety employees – deputy sheriffs and firefighters – a radically enhanced retirement benefit that allows many to retire at age 50 with a significant portion of their paycheck guaranteed for life. In 2004, supervisors again granted general government employees a similar benefit that allows them to retire at age 55.

While the general employees contribute toward their benefit, public safety workers do not with taxpayers footing the entire bill.

Since both benefits were enacted, the county's pension system has seen a $3 billion unfunded liability continue to balloon.

While labor leaders across the county were incensed by the text and inspiration behind Measure J, they all but conceded it's broad support. Not one labor group even filed a response in the ballot arguments that voters received on Measure J.