Gov. Jerry Brown has promised to end abusive public employee pension spiking. In September, he signed legislation that would stop some of the worst practices, in Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
Now, with the battle over the new law moving to the courts, we'll find out whether the governor and Attorney General Kamala Harris intend to press for compliance or cave to union pressure.
Contra Costa deputy sheriffs and firefighters on Tuesday brought the issue to a head by suing to block the law and preserve their ability to boost their pensions by as much as 15 percent.
They claim they, and other Contra Costa employees, have a right to continue adding the value of unused vacation time to the final salary used for calculating retirement pay. Alameda County has allowed similar spiking, although on a smaller scale.
The new law was scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. Hundreds of workers would have had to decide before then whether to retire or lose the boost to their pensions. But a judge Thursday ordered a delay in Contra Costa until the law's legality is settled.
That's fair. Employees shouldn't have to make life-altering choices without knowing whether the law passes legal muster. If courts were to later find it unconstitutional, new retirees would probably not be able to get their jobs back.
The legal fight stems from last summer's rewrite of state public employee pension law. One of two bills passed by the Legislature and signed by Brown contains anti-spiking provisions affecting 20 county-level retirement systems. Those provisions do not affect the much-larger California Public Employees' Retirement System.
Of the county-level systems, Contra Costa is most affected. Workers there claim they were promised they could spike their pensions and that such a "vested right" cannot be abridged by the Legislature and governor. We think they're wrong.
As the Contra Costa Employees' Retirement Association's own attorney pointed out in a legal memo three years ago, the promise violated past court rulings and consequently employees have been receiving improperly inflated retirement pay for years. The new law would put a long-overdue end to that practice.
But, setting aside the legal arguments, the first question is, who will defend the new law? As the retirement association attorney made clear in court this week, it won't be him. His board will follow the law if it withstands legal challenge, but it won't take sides.
The logical defender would be the attorney general. Harris' press secretary told us Thursday the office had not received notice of the case and had made no decision on it. As we saw when Brown headed that office, in a case involving a state initiative banning gay marriage, the attorney general can opt out.
That would leave the governor. Indeed, whether or not Harris steps in, we urge Brown to do so. It's important that the courts and the public see that he was serious about pension reform, and that he stands solidly behind the bills he signed.