Riverside County's State Senator Bill Emmerson (R-37) could hardly be called a liberal. Over the past few years Emmerson's votes have consistently place him on the right-hand side of the Culture Wars. He's voted to deny minors the ability to seek treatment for STDs. He's voted against protection of transgendered people from discrimination. He's voted against conserving water and honoring slain LGBT pioneer Harvey Milk. He's voted against single-payer health care and in favor of gender discrimination by health insurance carriers.. In 2009, Capitol Weekly rated Emmerson's voting record on a handful of key bills at 17 percent, where 100 is the "perfect" liberal score and zero the perfect conservative score.
So why does the right-most wing of his own party reject him?
For the last few months, Emmerson's been focusing on one particular hot-button issue: California's pension system for government employees. In constituent emails and OpEds Emmerson has been campaigning in support of a multi-pronged approach to remaking the state retirement system. He's started to get some traction, or at least his ideas have; the suggestions Emmerson and a few of his GOP colleagues have offered were essentially borrowed wholesale in Governor Brown's recent proposal to overhaul state pension practices.
You'd think that would be seen as a significant tactical victory by Emmerson's GOP colleagues and their electoral base. You'd be wrong.
No one disputes that the state's retirement system is having problems, and expensive problems at that. A 2010 Stanford University study declared that the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS), the largest of the state's three main public employee pension funds, was underfunded to the tune of about $500 billion. That assessment has been challenged by CalPERS, which accused the Stanford researchers of using flawed methodology. CalPERS maintained that its underfunding was actually closer to the official stated figure of $55 billion.
That's still a lot of money, even when you account for the fact that we're talking about future pension obligations to current state and local government employees that CalPERS may not have to meet for some years.
The Stanford group recommended a number of fixes, some of them common-sensical, and those suggestions are mirrored in both Emmerson's and Brown's proposals. Limiting "spiking" is one such proposal. "Spiking" happens when an employee nearing retirement age has his or her salary padded with bonuses, expensing, or other add-ons that are then reflected in his or her pension calculations. There seems to be consensus across the board that eliminating spiking would be a good thing, and CalPERS and the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) already have measures in place to reduce the effect of spiking on their payout calculations.
Sadly common-sense, cost-cutting measures like eliminating spiking won't have that great an effect on the bottom line. Eliminating spiking would save an estimated $100 million a year, which is about one five-thousandth of the underfunding the Stanford group alleged. Reform advocates also cite "double-dipping" -- collecting a pension check and a payroll check from a subsequent government job -- as a significant cost, but others allege that eliminating double-dipping would have an insignificant effect on net costs. Labor unions representing government workers have signed off on those reforms, as well as increasing employee contributions and a few other tweaks.
There are some parts of the Emmerson/Brown reform package that advocates for government workers have more trouble with. Raising the retirement age is one of them. The push to convert to a "hybrid" system, in which some state pension fund money would be spun out into 401(k)s managed by the individual worker -- is another.
The hybrid system proposal is especially controversial, given the abysmal performance of 401(k)s over the last few years. Most current pension fund woes can be traced to the market crash of 2008-2009, largely caused by overvaluation of stocks for the benefit of powerful speculators. Large pension funds are vulnerable to market fluctuations, but 401(k)s are even more so. CalPERS suffered additional losses when the real estate bubble burst, having invested substantially in highly-rated ventures that turned out to be based on junk mortgages. It's now suing Standard and Poor's and Moody's over allegations of misleading ratings for those junk mortgage ventures.
The stereotypical lavishly paid government retiree is a popular right-wing bête noire, but the typical payout for newly retired government workers is almost shockingly modest. Just two percent of CalSTRS retirees collect $100K or more a year. The average monthly CalSTRS check is a little over $4,000 -- comfortable enough if you don't live in L.A. or the Bay Area, and if your house is already paid off and you're not putting kids through school. A study last year by the Salinas Californian found that half the government retirees in Monterey County received less than $20,000 a year in pension benefits.
Aside from poorly-placed investments, a large amount of the pension funds' shortfall can be credited to two factors: cutbacks in government employment, which translates to fewer employee contributions; and the ever-spiraling cost of health care, which erodes the pension funds' medical and dental budgets.
And though the popular image of government workers we're talking about probably runs along the lines of the last person that annoyed you at the DMV, the retirees we're talking about include firefighters, police officers, nurses, public school teachers, and others who work grueling, unpleasant, occasionally dangerous jobs to make life better for the rest of us. It's hard to argue that they haven't earned their meager pensions.
Unless, that is, you're opposed to any government spending at all on ideological grounds. A recent update to the Stanford study was co-authored by Evan Storms,a devotee of Ayn Rand. The studies were done by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, lately in partnership with a mysteriously well-funded non-profit called California Common Sense. CACS's Chairman of the Board is Joe Lonsdale, a wealthy libertarian activist best known for his "Seasteading" initiative," in which politically motivated investors would build floating libertarian paradises in international waters. He discusses that idea in the video below with former Fox host Glenn Beck:
With fellow travelers like this, and Emmerson's apparent success in moving ideas from libertarian think tanks to the Governor's desk, you'd think he'd be a darling of the California right wing. In this age of intense polarization on the right, however, that couldn't be farther from the truth. The problem is that Bill Emmerson, along with four other Republicans in the State Senate, agreed to meet with Governor Brown to attempt to work out solutions to the state's gargantuan budget shortfall. Emmerson also refused to sign a "No-Tax Pledge pushed by the California Republican Assembly, despite threats of censure and expulsion for non-signers made by that Tea-Party-influenced hardline group.
Emmerson implied in comments to the Riverside Press Enterprise that while he opposed new taxes, he was willing to consider putting a tax increase on the ballot in exchange for pension reform, spending cuts, and a rollback of regulations.
The result was that Emmerson was lambasted by the rightmost elements of his own party -- right-wing talk show hosts "John and Ken" photoshopped him being run over by their bus along with a few other "Republicans in Name Only," and union officials praised Emmerson in public, saying that they'd soft-pedaled campaign criticism of the Senator while hammering his GOP colleagues.
In the meantime, Governor Brown has lately been rebuffing calls and emails from the "GOP 5," leaving Emmerson and his colleagues somewhat isolated in the right-most part of the political middle.
Does this bode poorly for his career? Maybe not. Emmerson is seeking reelection in the redistricted Senate District 23, which includes part of San Bernardino, Yucaipa and Banning, the Hemet area, and the mountains around Cajon Pass. His opponent in the 2012 election Democrat Melissa Ruth O'Donnell, would seem to be a long shot in a somewhat conservative district, an apparently underfunded candidate with a single-issue campaign. Though the new 23rd is conservative, it's considerably more urban than Emmerson's current, sprawling desert district. A bit of distance from the most extreme and intransigent elements of his party may not hurt him at all.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every week. He lives in Palm Springs. Read his previous posts here.