Pensions ‘on the chopping block’? + Rendon and Atkins split on return + A drive-by protest

Andrew Sheeler

Happy Thursday! We’re almost to the weekend! Stay safe if you choose to go outside.

WHAT TIMING!

A lawsuit filed eight years over California pension promises is heading to the California Supreme Court just at the state of a new recession.

Here’s the lead from The Sacramento Bee’s Wes Venteicher:

Former Gov. Jerry Brown predicted two years ago that public pensions would be “on the chopping block” during the next economic downturn.

Next week, with state and local budgets teetering amid the coronavirus outbreak, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could determine in part whether Brown’s prediction will come true.

Alameda County Deputy Sheriff’s Association v. Alameda County Employees’ Retirement Association, scheduled for oral arguments Tuesday, is the next big test of the so-called California rule.

The rule is a set of legal precedents dating to the 1950s that have protected public pensions from any reductions without new and equal benefits.

Dozens of unions and associations representing employees and retirees have joined the case to try to prevent employers from reneging on pension promises, while local governments and organizations representing employers have joined with the state to argue pensions may under certain circumstances be reduced for workers who haven’t yet retired.

The case focuses on the pay workers receive in their last one to three years of employment, which, along with their length of public service and other factors, determines the size of their pensions.

Over the years, some public workers found creative ways to make their pensions bigger by adding pay at the end of their careers. Strategies included cashing out accrued leave balances, working hundreds of on call hours and receiving bonuses shortly before retiring.

Some local pension boards eliminated some of those tactics on their own amid the dot-com bust and the Great Recession. Brown targeted the practice, known as pension “spiking,” in a broader statewide overhaul of pension law in 2012.

“At a time when taxpayers are already struggling to pay for legitimate pension liabilities, they should not be forced to absorb unlawfully calculated pension liabilities as well,” state attorneys said in a 2018 brief in the case.

Brown’s law, known as the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act, targeted end-of-career payments “paid to enhance a member’s retirement benefit.” The law said those payments couldn’t figure in pension calculations for any public employees.

The Alameda County Deputy Sheriff’s Association filed a lawsuit over the change in December 2012, just before the law took effect on Jan. 1, 2013.

Read more on the case and what’s at stake in Venteicher’s story at this link.

YOU SAY YES, I SAY NO

YOU SAY STOP, I SAY GO, GO, GO

With apologies to Sir Paul McCartney

In the California Capitol, the Senate and Assembly traditionally operate under similar rules, but not when it comes to the coronavirus.

Lawmakers from both houses left the Capitol last month because of the coronavirus outbreak. They passed a measure allowing Gov. Gavin Newsom to spend $1.1 billion to fight the virus, and put their legislative session on hiatus.

Since then, the two chambers have set different dates for when they expect lawmakers to return to the Capitol. The Assembly reconvenes on Monday; the Senate is waiting one more week and returning on May 11.

And, even though they share the same attorneys, the Assembly and Senate came to different decisions on whether remote voting is allowed by the state’s constitution.

“We were told that it was not something our attorney felt was constitutional,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood. “So we chose to follow that advice. (Remote participation) is a constitutional issue and it requires changes to the constitution, to state statute, joint rules and also our Assembly rules. It’s quite a process.”

The Senate, based on the same legal advice, passed an emergency resolution that allows senators to participate and vote remotely as long as one member convenes the meeting in-person at the Capitol.

Read more here in this story by Hannah Wiley on why Rendon’s staff believes lawmakers will be safe when they return, and why Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins says remote voting might be avoided.

DEMONSTRATION PLANNED FOR FRIDAY

Get ready, Sacramento.

Thousands are expected to attend a protest of California Gov. Newsom’s stay-at-home order this Friday, according to protest organizers.

The protest will take the form of protesters remaining in their vehicles, as they drive around the Capitol and surrounding gardens, beginning at noon on Friday.

“The demonstration is expected to be the largest such ‘Re-Open’ protest to date in the nation,” according to organizers.

The protest will include small business owners, farmers, truckers, recreational vehicle drivers and others, according to a statement put out by organizers.

It follows the California Highway Patrol’s decision to ban protests on the Capitol grounds after crowds at an April 20 rally with a similar theme got a little close for comfort.

It has been six weeks since the governor issued his stay-at-home order, and there’s no official timeline for the state to reopen, though he has said that it will be “weeks, not months,” until we begin the gradual process of reopening.

SEAT AT THE TABLE

As the number of coronavirus cases increased in California, so too did the state’s understanding of where infection disparities exist.

According to the California Department of Public Health, Latino Californians represent more than 44 percent of cases so far, but make up only 40 percent of the population. African Americans comprise nearly 11 percent of the total deaths, while representing only 6 percent of all Californians.

The disparities have frightened some advocates, who say communities of color already lack equitable health care access and suffer at higher rates from chronic conditions that make them more vulnerable to a worst-case coronavirus.

In a letter to Newsom dated April 20, the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network asked for a “seat at the response table” so the needs of California’s most at-risk groups have their needs heard.

“California needs to take action now so that the pandemic does not magnify or further reinforce persistent health inequities,” said CPEHN Executive Director Kiran Savage in a press release.

The coalition is asking for, among other things, for testing to remain free and accessible for all Californians, and for a range of health care workers to target under-served communities of color. They’re also asking for access to behavioral health treatment and expanded funding for community-based programs, in the hope that these mitigation strategies soften the blow of COVID-19.

“If we don’t deploy proactive disparity reduction measures,” the group wrote in the letter, “we will run the risk of exacerbating infection rates and creating a cascading set of additional health and socio-economic problems to solve in future.”

For your radar — The Sacramento Press Club is hosting a Facebook Live discussion today at 4 pm on how California’s farm-to-table community might survive the coronavirus.

You can tune in to the event here.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

“Traveled to Sacramento yesterday for a hearing of the Budget Subcommittee on Education. It was the first time the Subcommittee has physically met since the Stay-at-Home order went into effect. To protect ourselves and others, we all practiced social distancing and wore masks.”

- Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Rolling Hills Estates, via Twitter.

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