The battle over pension promises and payments now raging across the country is nowhere better exemplified than in California, where rosy predictions of a golden future are forever baked into our collective psyche. Over the past two decades, California public servants have enjoyed the bounty of an expanding economy and competitive compensation, including a broad safety net of post-employment benefits. Today, however, this rosy picture is in danger of fading with the sunset, the victim of fiscal and political imprudence.
Across the nation, leaders of state and local governments are blaming the collective bargaining process for getting them into their financial fixes, and promoting the idea that by corralling the collective power of their employees, they can force the runaway cost of benefits back into the barn. States also are attempting to rein in promised benefits unilaterally, without seeking the consent of those to whom the promises were made. Polarization, demoralization and litigation are the natural consequences of these actions, whatever their eventual success.
In California, public employee retirement benefits are premised on two equally important public policies: the sanctity of contract and the sanctity of collective bargaining.
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