Rhode Island’s Democratic state treasurer, Gina Raimondo, is fond of saying that pension reform is about math, not politics. Other blue-state politicians, ranging from New York governor Andrew Cuomo to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, have moved toward fixing unsustainable pensions. But California’s top statewide political leaders have mostly shrugged at the problems caused by excessive pay and benefit packages granted to public-sector workers. The state faces an unfunded pension liability of at least $300 billion, and major cities—notably Stockton and San Bernardino—are taking the municipal-bankruptcy route; even Los Angeles is mulling the option. Until recently, even the most modest reforms to California’s public-employee compensation have gone nowhere—and though Democrats are now suddenly talking about tackling some kind of pension reform within the next four weeks, history suggests that it’s wise to be skeptical.
What is it about California’s Democratic leaders that makes them ignore fiscal reality and put politics above mathematics? Conventional wisdom holds that unions elect these politicians and that the politicians do the unions’ bidding. But in reality, the unions are the legislature. Most of the Democratic leadership in the state assembly and senate comes directly out of the union movement and identifies with the public sector. For these union Democrats, government is primarily a means to improve the financial condition of those who work for the government.