I popped into San Francisco the other day, its windswept sky deep cerulean, the streets and sidewalks a high-voltage chiaroscuro, the coffee at Trieste Café like something in a barrel depending from the neck of a bear-sized dog that finds you buried in the Alps.
I had hoped to drop in on Jeff Adachi, for 10 years that city’s public defender, and now one of California’s most important politicians: a progressive Democrat who is fighting for pension reform in one of the nation’s most liberal cities. We spoke later by phone.
“What got me focused on the issue of pensions was that I saw, year after year, basic services slashed at the same time our pension costs were going through the roof,” Adachi says. “In San Francisco, four years ago, we saw annual pension costs under $175 million; now they’re close to $500 million, and we’re paying for that through drastic cuts in many of the city’s progressive institutions and services.” In four more years, he says, “that number will grow to $800 million.” The city owes another $4.6 billion in unfunded healthcare liabilities for current and retired workers.
He doesn’t oppose pensions in general. “The idea of a pension, I think, is a good idea, and the reforms I’ve proposed would protect the system from total failure.” Without reform, he says, San Francisco will end up the worst of both worlds—with neither social services nor the pensions promised retired workers.
Adachi’s reform proposals are indeed modest, depending as they do primarily on a requirement that employees pay into the system. “I saw it as way to preserve the system by insuring it was properly funded,” he says. “Otherwise, they’re going to run out. We saw that in Vallejo, which went bankrupt three years ago.”
With that sort of evidence widely available, why has it been so difficult to reform the system? “Labor unions have steadfastly taken the position that pension reform is not a progressive issue,” he says. Then, too, there’s been the successful political tactic, popular among those unions and the lawmakers they support, of “simply pushing pension costs into the future. Now, of course, they’re coming home to roost.”
Labor has been especially hard on Adachi. Last summer, when the public defender showed up at the funeral of a city firefighter, union members, offended by his pension reform proposal, asked him to leave. When he was asked a second time, he obliged.
A few months later, San Franciscans went to the polls and crushed Adachi’s reform measure, supporting the union’s measure in what the San Francisco Chronicle called “a surprisingly easy victory.”
“The reality,” says Adachi, “is that if we don’t fix this problem, we’re going to see cuts in every social service.”
That makes pension reform a progressive issue. “If progressives don’t insure that that government finances are sound,” Adachi concludes, “we’ll see the dismantling of everything we’ve fought hard to implement.”