Friday, November 11, 2011





Political landmarks that can properly be labeled “Nixon-to-China” moments are rare, usually occurring only once in a career, if ever.

But his actions on prisons and pensions gave Gov. Jerry Brown two of them this summer and fall.

The term Nixon-to-China stems from President Richard Nixon’s 1972 opening to what was then called Red China, where he sipped tea with Mao Zedong after spending a career vilifying others for “losing China” and otherwise blasting Mao and his fellow Chinese Communists. Had a Democratic resident done the same thing, Nixon and his Republican Party mates would have labeled it traitorous. This was something only a Republican could do.

So a Nixon-to-China moment comes when a politician makes a move counter to his previous type and one that someone from the rival party probably could not so much as attempt.

Brown’s latest such moment came, when he proposed a package of public employee pension changes the state Legislature’s big Democratic majorities would automatically reject if it had come from a Republican. Even coming from a Democratic governor, Brown’s plan has drawn skepticism from legislative leaders.

This proposal would give new state workers something akin to the 401(K) retirement plans common in private business, while still keeping elements of a traditional guaranteed pension system. Brown seeks to raise the age at which new state employees can draw full benefits to 67, rather than today’s 55, and to have many current employees boost their pension contributions. This would put state, city and county pensioners nearly on a par with people on Social Security.

When Republicans proposed similar items months ago, they were virtually ignored. For parts of Brown’s plan will need legislative approval and other portions can’t happen without a vote of the people, both of which would take Democratic support.

Brown also wants an end or limit to double-dipping, which sometimes sees people draw two pensions or go back to work with full pay for the very agencies from which they've retired. And he's targeting “air time,” where employees can raise their retirement benefits by paying to add as many as five fictitious years to the time they actually were in the public employ.

Republicans habitually blast Brown as a creature of public employee unions, since he granted them new bargaining powers during his first term as governor in the 1970s. Unions were the leading contributors to his campaign last year, but some will fight his new proposals.

“We are disappointed that the governor is proposing pension changes that will undermine retirement security for public employees,” griped Dave Low, chairman of a union coalition called Californians for Retirement Security. He sounded a bit like Republicans who complained about Nixon’s China trip.

Brown’s other Nixon-to-China moment came when he signed a bill now shifting tens of thousands of non-violent convicts from state prisons to county jails. This draws loud beefs from local officials who claim it will break their bank accounts, even though they are getting state subsidies.

Brown made this move both to help balance the state budget and to comply with federal court orders to ease overcrowding in state prisons within months.

The outfit taking the biggest cuts as this happens might be the state prison guards union, 26,000 of whose members are now receiving pink slips like those that have gone to schoolteachers in several recent years. Notices of potential layoffs went not just to guards, but also cooks, janitors and counselors. Almost certainly, the number of actual layoffs will be much smaller, but any loss of membership will reduce the bargaining power and political clout of a union that has been a huge force in California since ex-Gov. Gray Davis granted its members a fat raise just after they backed his reelection in 2002.

“Every (prisoner) that goes to the local level should be seen as a threat to the guards’ union,” Frank Zimring, a prison expert and UC Berkeley law professor, told a reporter.

Republicans made Davis’ concession to the guards a major issue during the election to recall him one year later, but it’s highly unlikely any GOP governor could have gotten Democratic lawmakers to okay a prisoner shift doing the union potential harm. Brown did it, despite Republican charges that he’s “owned” by that union and others.

It adds up to the kind of independence Brown promised when he ran for the third term that no other California governor since Earl Warren has won. Now it will be up to Republicans to decide whether they'll vote for a considerable change in public employee pensions, even if it doesn’t give them everything they’ve wanted.

Brown’s pension plan falls far short of the ideal for both unionists and conservatives who like to blame them for many ills. But there’s no doubt it will help ease the state’s financial troubles. So one question now is how many legislators will let the perfect become the enemy of the good.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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