Did he mean it?
If Gov. Jerry Brown was serious about curbing public employee retirement costs, he should step up and defend a bill he signed to end some of the worst pension spiking.
Employees in three counties -- Contra Costa, Alameda and Merced -- have sued to block implementation of the new law. If they prevail, they will continue counting unused vacation time as income when computing pensions.
An appellate decision in their favor could invalidate the law statewide, leaving a new legal loophole that would allow workers in 17 other counties, including Marin and San Mateo in the Bay Area, to start boosting pensions, too.
Pensions are calculated based on years of service, retirement age and final salary. By increasing final salary, employees can fatten retirement pay. In Contra Costa, the worst case, abusive spiking adds as much as 15 percent.
Employees sued the retirement systems that administer pensions in the three counties. But the systems say they are indifferent and will abide by whatever the courts decide.
The retirement systems don't ultimately pay the bill. The cost is passed on to taxpayer-supported local governments. Yet the three counties' boards of supervisors have sat on the sidelines, as has Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose job includes defending state laws, and Gov. Brown, who vowed to end this sort of abuse.
In Contra Costa Superior Court on Thursday, Judge David Flinn, calling the case there "a very significant economic matter," said he found it "troubling" that only one side was represented. "Where are the real parties in interest?"
Flinn and Alameda County Judge Evelio Grillo have struggled with whether they can rule on the constitutionality of the law if no one defends it. Grillo seems ready to move forward anyway and Flynn may also.
This pension boosting differs from the problem I reported two weeks ago. In that situation, the huge California Public Employees' Retirement System announced plans to broadly interpret part of last summer's main pension bill that affects new employees. By counting as income nearly 100 different pay premiums, for everything from marksmanship and longevity to being a notary or working on a library reference desk, CalPERS will increase future pensions beyond what the new law seems to permit.
The cases in the three counties also challenge what should be counted as income when computing pensions. But the fight affects new and current employees in 20 county-level pension systems that operate under different rules. The issue is how much accumulated leave paid off in lump sum at termination can be counted.
Brown said last summer that he was trying to end spiking abuses. But I reported in this column the day before the Aug. 31 Assembly and Senate votes that the main legislation did just the opposite because of a loophole. It would have not only permitted the pension spiking to continue in the three counties, it would have permitted it to begin in the 17 other county-level systems.
In response, the Legislature rushed through a companion bill to close the loophole. It's that bill that's at issue in the litigation.
Employees claim they had irrevocable agreements allowing them to spike. But the Contra Costa pension system's attorney advised his board more than three years ago that the promises violated appellate court rulings.
The pending pension cases raise an issue similar to one involving Proposition 8, the voter-approved gay-marriage ban: Who can defend a law if the state refuses? One issue before the U.S. Supreme Court is whether initiative backers can defend it in court.
Brown, then attorney general, originally refused to defend Proposition 8, which he said was unconstitutional. But that case involved an initiative, whereas Brown helped draft and signed the pension law.
He did so at a time when he needed pension changes to win votes for his tax measure on the November ballot. Now that his tax passed, does he care about preserving the pension law?
Will he or Harris, who aspires to higher office, buck employee unions to defend it? And, in Contra Costa, will county supervisors walk their constant talk about pension reform?
Right now, their silence speaks volumes.