Consumer Friendly Legislators

by Paul Ekins, Press Telegram

When the state Legislature starts its new session in January, Assemblyman Warren Furutani may find himself in an attention-grabbing position.

Furutani has been appointed chairman of the Assembly Committee on Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security, just at a time when public workers’ pensions are at the forefront of the political zeitgeist.

California cities, counties, school districts, the state and other agencies are all feeling the pinch of unaffordable and unsustainable employee pensions.

A Stanford University report this year calculated that the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, and the pension systems for public school teachers and the University of California will face a $500 billion shortfall in the near future. Long Beach is expected to fall $1.2billion short of its CalPERS obligations by 2041, according to a recent independent analysis.

In a telephone conversation this week with the Press-Telegram, Furutani, a Democrat whose 55th District includes Lakewood, parts of Long Beach, Carson, Harbor City and the Harbor Gateway, and Wilmington, discussed his new position.

He said that the committee’s role is largely as a watchdog for pension systems, noting that they each have their own governing boards.

"We (the Assembly) can exert influence because we have control over budget, and I think one of the key places to start is to separate reality from hyperbole," Furutani said.

For example, after the Bell salary scandal broke, legislators rushed to draft bills, he said. Now that the smoke has cleared, Furutani said he wants to study exactly what local governments are doing to address the pension crisis and look at other answers.

"One thing I’ve learned is … the solution is not always legislation," Furutani said.

The fact of the matter is, he noted, the Legislature can’t fix the pension problem alone. In most cases, local governments have contracts with their employee groups, so it will be up to them to negotiate less costly plans, which is exactly what Long Beach has been trying to do.

Still, Furutani said, the Assembly’s pension committee can keep an eye on the agencies that oversee the pensions to ensure they are wisely spending money and investing.

A long-term solution is needed to the pension system, he noted, but that doesn’t mean that public employees should be callously tossed aside either, he said.

"These are big issues that are going to impact future generations," Furutani said. But, "just because someone has a pension doesn’t make them a bad guy."

Consumer-friendly legislators

The Consumer Federation of California has given three area legislators a perfect ranking for voting on consumer-friendly legislation in 2010.

Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal and state Sen. Alan Lowenthal both received a score of 100 percent. State Sen. Jenny Oropeza, who died shortly before winning re-election in the Nov. 2 election, also received a 100 percent score, but she missed most of the consumer-related votes because of health problems.

According to the federation, the scores included legislation related to campaign finance reform, financial privacy protection, health care reform, drug safety, false advertising and other issues.

Among other area legislators, Furutani scored 88 percent, Assemblyman Hector De la Torre scored 73 percent, Assemblyman Tony Mendoza received 89 percent, Assemblyman Isadore Hall got 73 percent and Sen. Rod Wright scored 54 percent.

Lerch named to Housing Commission

Former 9th District Councilman Val Lerch has been named to the Los Angeles County Housing Commission.

County Supervisor Don Knabe nominated Lerch for the position, which the Board of Supervisors approved Dec. 14.

The Housing Commission makes recommendations to the board on public housing issues.