Lawmakers still working on pension reform, deadline this week

Lawmakers still working on pension reform, deadline this week
The room of the California State Assembly is seen in a photo used under Creative Commons license from David Monniaux)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California lawmakers head into their final deadline rush this week with some of the most pressing legislative matters still to be resolved, or even publicly revealed.

Democratic leaders are pledging to pass comprehensive changes to the state's overburdened public pension systems before they adjourn on Friday, as Gov. Jerry Brown has been asking them to do. But Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said lawmakers are still working out the details with the Democratic governor.

Similarly opaque is a proposal to overhaul the state's $16 billion system for providing medical care and compensation to injured workers.

Brown is supporting the late-developing workers' compensation negotiations. Business and labor interests say change is needed to improve benefits for injured workers and keep costs down for employers.

But supporters have yet to reveal specific language, instead releasing a 45-point outline. The proposed changes could increase benefits for disabled workers by about $700 million while saving businesses and government employers twice that amount by cutting benefits for some conditions and putting less weight on lost potential earnings.

If it passes, the deal would seek to make improvements on a round of reforms passed in 2004 under then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Lawmakers also are considering whether last-minute legislation would be needed to enable the California Department of Motor Vehicles to give driver's licenses to an estimated 350,000 young immigrants who are in the country illegally but are now eligible for federal work permits under President Obama's deferred deportation program.

A bill by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, would allow any federal document received by a person eligible for the deportation deferral to be used when applying for a state driver's license. Cedillo's previous proposals to allow licenses for all illegal immigrants have failed or been vetoed over security concerns.

"''We obviously still have to complete the pension package. There's work being done on workers' compensation," said Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "There's a lot of important public policy at stake, so it will be a hustle and bustle, but what I expect to come out of it are some important advancements around education, the economy and other important subjects."

Lawmakers face a midnight Friday deadline to send bills to Brown before they adjourn until after the November election.

Among the details still being worked out on public pension reform are minimum retirement ages and how much employees contribute to their own benefits.

The governor proposed a 12-point pension plan that raises the retirement age to 67 to match Social Security and moves new workers to a hybrid system in which defined benefits are combined with a 401(k)-style plan like those widely used in the private sector.

Brown also wants public employees to contribute a minimum of 50 percent of their pension costs, but Democrats and labor organizations want to be able to negotiate the level of contributions through collective bargaining.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff complained that the Democratic majority has dragged its feet as pension problems worsen beyond the $150 billion unfunded liability reported by the state's public pension funds for government workers and teachers.

"We were promised pension reform," said Huff, R-Diamond Bar. "There's something floating around out there. We haven't seen what that is."

Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, criticized the late flurry of untested bills, even as he said they are sometimes necessary.

"I hate them all," Perez said. However, "If someone comes up with a huge solution to a huge problem that makes sense, we're going to move forward with it."

Sometimes as important as what lawmakers do is what they don't.

Among the bills that stalled this session were ones attempting to restrict bulk ammunition sales and rapid reloading of assault weapons, despite last month's mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater, although the authors promised to continue pushing for the changes.

Lawmakers also refused to consider legislation that would ban certain gifts given to them by lobbyists, exempt Olympic medalists from paying state income taxes on their medals and honorariums, and let Californians start betting on professional sporting events.

Republicans and some Democrats also sought to reform California's landmark environmental regulation law, which they have long said overburdens businesses. Critics even found an unlikely ally in Brown, who called streamlining the law's many requirements "the Lord's work."

But an 11th hour effort to soften parts of the California Environmental Quality Act was quashed last week when Steinberg said the Senate would not consider a last-minute bill by Sen. Michael Rubio, which had been chosen as the vehicle for the reforms.

Rubio, D-Shafter, said he would take up the effort again next year, and urged Brown to call a special session for the purpose.

"If he can call a special session for health care, why not do it for putting people back to work?" he said.

Brown has signaled he intends to call lawmakers back in December for a special session to implement legal changes needed to meet a Jan 1, 2014, deadline for launching a health care exchange as part of federal health care reforms.

Lawmakers' activities have recently been overshadowed by a budget scandal in the Department of Parks and Recreation, disclosures of pay increases for hundreds of legislative employees and Brown's decision to move ahead with a $68 billion high-speed rail project and a $24 billion plan to build massive water tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Among the nearly 400 bills awaiting final action next week is a late-breaking budget measure that would devote $20 million found hidden in a state parks special fund to help keep open 70 parks previously. The recreation areas had been slated for closure last month, until local governments and community organizations stepped up to provide money or oversight.

Other major pending bills lawmakers are likely to consider in their final week include:

—SB1234, by Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, which would create the nation's first state-run retirement program for private-sector workers. Businesses, insurance companies and financial services firms oppose the bill, which would establish the California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program for nearly 7 million low-income workers whose private employers don't offer retirement plans.

—AB1500 and AB1501, by Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, which would close a tax loophole for out-of-state corporations and use the resulting $1 billion to reduce college tuition for middle class families. AB1500 would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority, which would require support from Senate Republicans who oppose the measure.

—AB889, by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, which would make domestic workers eligible for overtime pay and meal breaks. Live-in workers also would have to be compensated if their eight-hour rest period was interrupted. There are an estimated 60,000 to 200,000 domestic work employees in California.

___

Associated Press writer Judy Lin contributed to this report.

 

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press