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ilbegone
10-18-2009, 09:41 PM
Most California voters back public pension changes

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

Californians favor changing the pension system for newly hired state and local government employees, and most back three possible scenarios that could reduce benefits, a new poll finds.

In today's Field Poll, 60 percent of California voters back setting a cap on the amount of benefits paid to government workers, 56 percent support replacing the current pension system with a 401(k) retirement savings plan and 51 percent favor making the current formulas less generous -- all for newly hired workers.

Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said this is the first time the firm sought public opinion on pension issues, and respondents were asked to think as broadly as possible.

"We are talking about all police, all fire, all teachers and all other state and local government workers," he said. This is not just the bureaucrats in Sacramento. This is the people in your community as well."

But given recent media coverage of some retirees receiving annual pensions of more than $100,000, the state's voters have a fairly moderate view, he said.

Indeed, while voters back a less-generous system for newly hired workers, the largest group -- 40 percent -- say current pension benefits are about right, the poll found.

The poll found 58 percent of voters oppose imposing a tax on pension benefits exceeding $50,000 a year. And voters by a 52 to 41 percent margin continue to favor providing public-safety workers, such as police officers and firefighters, more generous pensions than other public employees, the poll found.

"They are not particularly harsh for what is in place for the current retirees," DiCamillo said.

Still, there are signs that views could shift, he said. Of those who do not believe benefits are about right, twice as many think they are too generous, the poll found.

Republicans, conservatives, men and those who follow government closely are more likely to think pension benefits are too lavish, the poll found.

Forty-five percent who say they pay a "great deal" of attention to government say pensions are too generous.

"That's an ominous finding," DiCamillo said. "Their opinions are usually good indicators on how future voters will decide when they learn more."

Mary Gutierrez, the communications director of Service Employees International Union in California, said there are always movements during election cycles to target pension benefits. The union represents tens of thousands of state and local government workers.

But three-fourths of public pensions are less than $30,000, and rank-and-file employees generally aren't receiving lavish benefits, she said.

"We have to a better job of educating the public," she said.

The poll was conducted from Sept. 18 to Oct. 6 for The Press-Enterprise and other California media subscribers.

The poll surveyed 1,005 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent.