By HANEY HONG | SDCTA
Last month’s season opening of our San Diego Symphony was a significant milestone that put us on the big city map. It was exciting to welcome an internationally renowned conductor and feel like we’re a part of something so culturally important.
It was a nice contrast to my day-to-day duties as the president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. Insiders here often say that we San Diegans behave like small-towners.
I understand why. I’ve been at the association for only four years out of its 74-year history, and I already have observed we sometimes get in our own way of progress as we repeat the same old political fight songs. And I’ll be the first to admit that I have sometimes contributed to this lack of progress, playing my instrument in the way I’m familiar.
But there’s some serious work to do here in the region, and we need to get past some of the ever-repeating verse and chorus of the same public policy issues. That’s how we get to be world class like our San Diego Symphony.
The recent lawsuit by the unions of city of San Diego employees starts what will be the last refrain of this movement in the local pension reform “symphony.” We are going through the playful scherzo of political and legal strategies that will likely result in the invalidation of Proposition B from June 2012. The third movement of this public policy symphony will likely overturn the voter-approved measure that shifted city employees to 401k-style retirement programs from the legacy pension-for-life programs that are turning out to be unsustainable.
Now the question is whether we as a community are going to write a fourth movement finale that would be considered world class.
A boring and unremarkable finale is easy to compose. This is one where organizations like mine keep trying to highlight the financial unsustainability and risks of the current setup. We’ll remind everyone of the first movement in this piece called “San Diego is Enron by the Sea.” Governments all across the country had underfunded pensions while being over-generous with salaries and benefits. Maybe after that refrain, we’ll get folks excited about the second movement of Proposition B and bring those versus and choruses back.
But if this discussion on numbers and analysis of risk is the melody ever present, it will be hard to focus on it when the trumpets of partisanship turn this issue into a left or right issue. The candidates and elected officials on the right will talk about public employees like librarians making more in retirement than when they were working, and their counterparts on the left will be expected to dig in and stand the picket line with the public employee unions.
If this is how the finale goes, we won’t compose anything worth remembering. And this will be yet another example of San Diego going into the archives of same old and unoriginal songs, because we won’t solve the public policy challenge.
But now since we’ve got this world-class orchestra in our fair town, maybe instead we can write an epic finale, one that other municipalities can play themselves to transition from small town to big city.
We can orchestrate a finale in pension reform where civic leaders on all sides can get together, lay out their differences, and develop a reasonable way ahead. I have ideas, but more important is that we agree to stop our traditional dissonance and try to get to some harmony. It means leadership and meaningfully working through the give-and-take while committing no one will leave the stage mid-performance. If Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill could figure out a way in the ’80s to talk about social security reform, we in San Diego can figure out today how to be sustainable financially while also compensating top-notch public employees fairly. That’s how we become the world-class city we can be.
That means we have to stop the same musical refrains by being open-minded and developing new ideas. It means that I personally might have to be OK with taxpayers accepting some risk, while public employee union leaders have to exercise some forbearance on what they fight for in terms of benefits and salaries. It also means that we have to be empathetic with one another as we agree that a world-class city should have solid financials and solid public servants at the same time.
We can match the musical prowess of the San Diego Symphony if we toot our horns differently in repeating public policy problems. That’s the new chord we need to play.
— Haney Hong is president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization, dedicated to promoting accountable, cost-effective and efficient government and opposing unnecessary new taxes and fees. For the last 74 years, SDCTA has served as “San Diego’s Taxpayer Watchdog Group” by educating the public and helping save the region’s citizens millions of dollars. You can reach Haney via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.