A debate over taxing and spending appeared to be brewing in next year's Los Angeles city elections, with voters first being asked whether to boost the sales tax by half a cent on the dollar to help close a budget gap and, two months later, whether to trim pensions for city workers.
Never mind the second part. With former Mayor Richard Riordan on Monday suspending his effort to put the pension measure on the May 21 ballot, voters will now get to decide whether to pay more but not whether to ask the city to pay less. We had misgivings about Riordan's proposal, but its premature disappearance closes off discussion of a genuinely important issue and eliminates a possible solution to L.A.'s budget problems.
Riordan is an outspoken critic of public employee pensions, which he claims could eventually bankrupt the city. Last month he announced a signature-gathering drive to put an initiative on the May ballot switching newly hired workers to 401(k)-style retirement plans rather than defined-benefit pensions and requiring existing workers to pay more toward their benefits.
Obtaining the necessary 265,000 signatures before the Dec. 28 deadline would have been a challenge under any circumstances, but public employee unions, seeing the proposal as a serious threat, mounted a strong campaign against it, sending members to supermarkets and strip malls to talk voters out of signing the petition. On Monday, Riordan's spokesman, John Schwada, said it would be impossible to meet the deadline, putting the issue to rest.
The leading candidates for mayor — Councilman Eric Garcetti, Councilwoman Jan Perry and City Controller Wendy Greuel — opposed Riordan's measure, contending it would be too costly in the short term. They may have had a point; with new workers no longer contributing toward the pension benefits of retired workers, the city would have had to make up the shortfall, meaning it might have taken many years before the switch to 401(k)s started to pay off. Independent study of the plan's costs and benefits was sorely needed, but now that it's off the ballot, that's not in the cards.
The City Council has taken steps to rein in expenses, such as reducing benefits for workers who retire before age 65, but that doesn't apply to firefighters or police officers. Meanwhile, city officials say retirement costs for sworn personnel alone are expected to consume $789 million of the general fund budget in 2016 (up from $506 million this year), thus degrading the city's ability to pay for important services. Whether or not Riordan's pension measure was flawed, it at least made pensions a top political issue, as they should be. The mayoral candidates should not use the withdrawal of the ballot measure as an opportunity to duck the discussion.