ESTRAGON: “We are happy. (Silence.) What do we do now, now that we are happy?”
VLADIMIR: “Wait for Godot. Things have changed here since yesterday.”
ESTRAGON: “And if he doesn’t come?”
VLADIMIR: (After a moment of bewilderment). “We’ll see when the time comes.”
— “Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Beckett
And so we wait.
In talking to political candidates in the June 8 primary, it sometimes feels as if we’re observing some new Beckett play.
Call it, “Waiting for good times.”
Some seem to believe that the key to getting through the budgetary challenges that face government at every level is just to wait it out. Things will get better.
And what if they don’t?
Well, as Vladimir said, “We’ll see when the time comes.”
Unfortunately, those of us on The Press Democrat Editorial Board have heard that kind of answer more than once as we have interviewed candidates for endorsements over the past four weeks. This is particularly true concerning the issue of public employee pensions, the elephant in the room in this election.
For example, when we asked Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, a candidate for the 2nd state Senate District seat, about this on Friday, her response was that the state shouldn’t try to fix pensions during an economic crisis.
“Making a decision during a crisis is not a good way of making decisions,” said Evans, D-Santa Rosa, the Assembly majority whip. The state is more likely to make bad decisions when times are bad, she added.
So how long should the state wait to address the pension problem? “We’ve got to look at where we’re at in a year or so,” she said.
A year or so? Pardon me, but that sounds a little like saying we should wait until the house burns down before we talk about how to fight the fire.
As the former Assembly Budget Committee chairwoman and chairwoman of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, Evans has fought the good fight in trying to preserve state parks and a number of important state programs including Cal-Works and Cal Grants from budget cuts. But her response to the pension issue shows a certain disconnect.
Surveys, online comments and letters to the editor suggest this will be a major issue for voters when they go to the polls this year. “No single issue threatens the fiscal health of this state more than our exploding pension obligations,” Schwarzenegger told the Sacramento Press Club recently.
Here’s the problem in a nutshell: When the economy was rolling back in 1999, state lawmakers passed SB 400, which gave generous and retroactive pension boosts to state employees, benefits that eventually were given to many city and county employees as well.
For example, SB 400 created the much-debated “3 percent at 50” provision for California Highway Patrol officers allowing them to retire at age 50, receiving 3 percent of their final year’s pay for each year they worked. Many public safety employees were given the same benefit.
But with the economic downturn, California and local governments can no longer afford to keep those promises.
A recent Stanford University study, overseen by former North Bay Assemblyman Joe Nation, found that California taxpayers would need to pony up another $500 billion — six times the size of the annual state budget — in order to meet its retirement obligations over the next 20 years.
Officials from the California’s Public Employee Pension Systems (CalPERS) contend the study is flawed, but the disagreement seems to center on projections on how investments will perform over the next two decades. If you expect the economy to bounce back to the way things were, then California may only have a $100 billion problem. If the stock market and real estate prices grow much more slowly, as many economists project, then the $500 billion number may be optimistic.
Either way we’re debating the size of the elephant — not its existence.
For Sonoma County, the unfunded liability is estimated at more than $400 million, about four times the size of the county government budget.
As we’ve interviewed election candidates, this has been a focal point of our talks. And, as noted in our editorials, we’ve tended to endorse those whom we believe are more likely to take this and other economic issues seriously.
This is not to say anything against public employees. We have great respect for those in public service, particularly those in uniform. But we don’t see fiscal responsibility as the contradictory to any particular political faction. It’s where all good government should start.
On that note, we invite readers to join us for an hour-long online discussion with the two 4th District Sonoma County supervisor candidates in the June 8 election. We will begin on Wednesday at 10 a.m. with Healdsburg City Councilman Mike McGuire. This will be followed on Thursday at the same time with Windsor City Councilwoman Debora Fudge.
Join us by going to watchsonomacounty.com and log in to the online discussion.
We plan to talk about a number of issues, not the least of which is how the county plans to address its $61 million budget deficit and deal with its own $400 million problem with unfunded pensions and retirement obligations.
We will let you draw your own conclusions about the candidates’ answers. But keep in mind that the end of Beckett’s theatre of the absurd, Godot never shows up.
Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.