A majority of California voters support Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to dial back public employee pensions and a plurality think that state and local government retirements are "too generous," according to a new Field Poll.
A little more than half – 51 percent – said that Brown's pension proposal "strikes about the right balance."
Poll director Mark DiCamillo said that finding shows that Brown, a union-backed Democrat who introduced a 12-point pension reform plan last month, has credibility with voters.
"He hasn't riled up one side or the other," DiCamillo said. "He's managed to strike the middle ground on a very polarizing issue."
Brown's proposals offer less generous state and local pension benefits for new hires and raises the retirement age for many, among other changes. The governor's plan also would increase how much current employees pay toward their pensions and reduce how much employers pay in.
The slim majority of voters polled agreed with Brown's proposals included 55 percent of registered Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans. Nearly one in four felt the plan "goes too far."
Meanwhile, 41 percent of voters said that public retirement benefits are "too generous," essentially mirroring a March Field Poll survey. That compares with 35 percent who said pensions are "about right" and 14 percent who believe the benefits "aren't generous enough."
Democrat Herb Thompson, who works in the Bakersfield oil industry, said the focus on pensions is really a thinly veiled attack on labor and the middle class.
"Even though I'm not a union guy," Thompson said, "the unions help me," noting that they set competitive pay and benefits that affect the state's workforce. "I don't think the real discussion here is about pensions. It's about getting rid of the unions."
Anyone who envies public employee benefits can apply for civil service, he said, "so I don't understand why middle-class people are hating on middle-class people."
Loomis Republican Nicollett Bowler, a 62-year-old retired business consultant, is one of the 23 percent of Republicans who thinks Brown's plan doesn't go far enough.
"Public employee pensions, in my opinion, are unsustainable," Bowler said, and she blames unions' influence for it. "We're going to have to see some serious rollbacks or we're going to see a lot of people lose their pensions."
Field pollsters also asked whether pension rollbacks should apply to both future workers and current employees. A government commission suggested earlier this year that governments should freeze accrued benefits for current employees and lower them in the future.
The idea is legally suspect, however, and neither Brown's plan nor two ballot proposals backed by California Pension Reform, a locally based advocacy group, alter pension guarantees for current employees.
Still, 64 percent of Field respondents said enacted pension rollbacks should apply to current and newly hired employees, compared with 22 percent who think changes should mainly apply to new workers and 6 percent who think they should apply mostly to current workers.