The most recent alarmist language from pension opponents is that Californians must make a choice between providing a secure retirement for our state's seniors and paying for every other social service and progressive cause. The warning bells are earsplitting, as fear mongers go to such extremes as to tell us that California won't be able to tackle climate change unless we overhaul the pension system.
This is not only a false choice, it is an absurd one, used strategically to accomplish three things:
- It attempts to create a wedge between voters who support both retirement security and things like K-12 education and social services. Retirement security for seniors and good public services are both worthy goals.
- It shifts blame away from those elected officials who failed to fund retirement plans or the Wall Street bankers who engaged in the malpractice that crippled funds, and attempts to place it squarely on the fire fighters, police officers and teachers who rely on pensions for a secure retirement.
- It turns California's budget into a zero-sum game between social programs and pensions, and fails to address the role that corporate subsidies play in our budget. State pensions make up about 5 percent of the budget, while corporate loopholes are ten times more. The state could close corporate loopholes in order to fund important social programs.
It's not one or the other, because budgets are made up of thousands of decisions. There are several reasonable ways that the state could raise revenue without impacting social services, without impacting taxes, and without crippling the retirement system that so many of our friends and neighbors have paid into and now rely on for retirement security.
We cannot expect to shore up the budget on the backs of hardworking Californians without facing significant consequences. Retirees rely on their pension benefits to cover their basic costs of living, and they spend those dollars in their local communities at the diner, movie theater, and small business. Each $1 in state and local pension benefits paid to California residents ultimately supports $1.75 in total output in the state.
We continue to hear that our state must choose between critical investments in our future and honoring our past obligations, between economic prosperity and social justice, between maintaining the institutions that serve our citizens and providing services that are worthy of the 21st century. The California we know is better than this. The California we know can serve all of its people in a way that is just and economically sustainable.
Let's not sink to such lows by pitting our most vulnerable citizens against each other and making them battle for education, for social services, or for retirement benefits. We are better than that.
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Dave Low is chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, a 1.6 million member coalition representing teachers, firefighters, police officers, school employees and other active and retired public employees.