By Robert Salladay
Times Staff Writer
April 1, 2005
SACRAMENTO ‹ Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is working to quell a political firestorm over death and disability benefits for public employees ‹ even while accusing unions that oppose him of spreading "propaganda."
The governor is on the defensive about his plan to overhaul California's public pension system, after police and firefighters seized on a critical part of the proposal, saying it would end death and disability benefits for public safety officers hired after June 2007.
Schwarzenegger has said the benefits would be protected through legislation. But the issue has soured his relationship with law enforcement as he prepares for a possible special election this year to ask voters to approve his far-reaching changes to state government.
Reforming the financially burdened public pension system is one of four major components of his agenda ‹ and is proving to be perhaps the most controversial.
Schwarzenegger held five private meetings with police chiefs, police officers, fire chiefs, narcotics agents and county sheriffs in the Capitol on Thursday to hear their complaints.
He has scheduled a meeting with two fathers and a widow of slain officers at his Santa Monica office Monday.
"We're trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. We feel he has been receiving the wrong information," said Linda Soubirous, 43, the wife of a Riverside sheriff's deputy who was gunned down in 1993, leaving her widowed with a 1-year-old and a baby on the way.
Schwarzenegger canceled a meeting Monday with two widows, police union officials said, after the women participated in radio ads saying the governor's plan "will hurt the families of those who die keeping California safe."
The ads, sponsored by the 9,000-member Los Angeles Police Protective League, are running in Southern California and on Armed Forces Radio. California Families Against Privatized Retirement, a coalition that includes firefighters, police and teachers is running a second ad criticizing the governor on the issue.
Tammy Monego, whose husband was shot six times and killed by a robbery suspect in 1998, speaks in one of the L.A. police union radio ads. She won't be attending the governor's meeting.
"I was certainly willing to sit and speak with him, but apparently my verbal discontent has offended him in some manner," said Monego, 39, a law enforcement officer. "That is too bad. It's politics. But I didn't start this, he did."
The governor's office said the invitation to the meeting was not withdrawn. But in speaking with Soubirous, the governor's aides expressed disappointment that the women appeared to have formed hard-set opinions about the issue without first talking with the governor.
Schwarzenegger blamed unions for causing an unneeded stir.
"That's just propaganda that they are spreading out there, that the unions are spreading," Schwarzenegger said on KFI-AM (640) this week. "They are saying that I'm trying to take away those benefits. I'm not. What we are trying to do is just reform the pension part of the whole deal so that it is fair and that we don't get bankrupt."
Currently, state employees and teachers get a guaranteed pension amount when they retire. If the financial markets or the state's fiscal health falls dramatically, as happened four years ago, taxpayers must fund the difference to pay the guaranteed benefits. Schwarzenegger wants to end that up-and-down effect.
Under Schwarzenegger's plan, the guaranteed amount would be eliminated and replaced with a system in which employees and the state set the amount going into pensions. His plan has been compared to a 401(k), but details of how it would work remain vague.
Death and disability benefits are considered a defined benefit and would therefore be eliminated under Schwarzenegger's plan, according to a legal analysis by the state attorney general's office.
Lawmakers are preparing a bill that would give local governments authority to provide the benefits.
Thursday, after weeks of criticism on the issue, Schwarzenegger held back-to-back meetings with the California Peace Officers Assn., the California Police Chiefs Assn., the California Fire Chiefs Assn., the California Narcotics Officers Assn. and the California State Sheriffs Assn.
The governor's office said several of the participants appealed to Schwarzenegger by reminding him that his father was a police officer in Austria. Schwarzenegger's father, a member of the Nazi Party during World War II, served as a regional police official when the governor was growing up.
After a 30-minute meeting with Schwarzenegger in the Ronald Reagan Cabinet Room, Lodi Police Chief Jerry Adams said the governor was cordial but that no negotiations had taken place. More meetings are planned.
"I don't think the 'error' word was used, but the governor realizes that certainly the death benefits issue is a huge issue for firefighters and law enforcement all across the state," Adams said.
The 30,000-member California Professional Firefighters union has called Schwarzenegger's plan a "full-throated assault on retirement security Š that guarantees profits for Wall Street."
Spokesman Carroll Wills said the governor has alienated his group, which internal surveys show is 55% Republican or independents who "lean Republican."
"The governor has picked the one issue that is guaranteed to galvanize first-responders," Wills said, "And that is their pension security."
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times