After eight months of unsuccessful efforts to get U.S. Treasury officials to approve a regulatory change in the county’s retirement system, county officials may be changing their focus toward the U.S. Congress.
On Tuesday, County Supervisor Bill Campbell is expected to seek support from his colleagues to submit legislation to Congress that would give local governments the ability to allow new hires and current employees to select between different retirement benefit plans. In the case of Orange County, one option would provide a lower benefit and allow employees to pay less into the system.
Officials have no estimates on how many employees would choose a lower benefit option, and therefore no idea of how much such legislation would save the county’s pension system. But it does have the potential to slow the growth of the system’s unfunded liability, which currently stands at about $2.3 billion.
This weekend, Campbell and Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berardino met in Los Angeles with Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sander Levin, D-Detroit.
Campbell, who described Levin as “very approachable,” said he and Berardino had a very productive meeting explaining their proposal and how it could impact Orange County.
Berardino declined comment on the meeting.
Currently, a glitch in the tax code meant for private companies doesn’t allow such changes without triggering higher taxes.
After unveiling the pension change proposal last year, Orange County officials have been working with Treasury officials but it’s beginning to look as if changing regulations through administrative mechanism may take too long.
Campbell said Levin — who practiced pension law early in his career — told him that the committee is currently considering pension reform legislation, and he seemed supportive.
“He told us he would review it when he got back to Washington, DC and contact Congresswoman Sanchez,” Campbell said. “This is very clean and simple if we can pull it off.”
Given the partnership with labor, and the efforts of Supervisor Janet Nguyen and CEO Tom Mauk — who recently traveled to Washington, D.C and lobbied for the change — the plan has a good chance because it’s a collaborative solution to a thorny and politically divisive topic, Campbell said.
That’s why at Tuesday’s meeting, supervisors are expected to take a vote on whether to support such a proposed legislative amendment.
The upside, Campbell added, is “this gives the ability to get a local solution. If it works, it really could be the beginning of a possible way out.”
Correction: A previous version of the story inaccurately described the details of the legislation being sought by county officials. We regret the error.
— NORBERTO SANTANA, JR.