An elected official speaking about public pensions last week described them as "not sustainable." He said, "So, either systems are going to crash or they are going to be reformed...we decided that we wanted to make sure that our employees got paid what they had earned when they retired, and that we could provide services to our people. So we are bringing the cost of the benefit down. The fundamental problem is that benefits are too costly. Nobody can afford them." That wasn't Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin but rather Democratic Mayor Chuck Reed of San Jose, California.

Reed, speaking on the program "Your World With Neil Cavuto" said he failed to reach agreement with his city's 11 unions over his pension reform efforts and faces lawsuits from the city's police force. While he maintains pension reforms cross "all political lines" he argues, "It is a Democrat issue because we are trying to provide services to the people. And if you are pouring money into retirement, you can`t provide the services that the taxpayers expect." Reed's pension reform ballot measure passed with 70 percent of the vote reducing not only benefits to future hires but also current city employees.

Reed is not alone among Democrats reigning in retirement spending: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to suspend cost-of living adjustments (COLA) for retirees (Mississippians call such payments the "13th check" because some retirees opt to take it as a lump sum at the end of the year); Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts raised minimum retirement from 55 to 60; Illinois Governor Pat Quinn seeks to cut pensions of current state employees; Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York seeks to raise retirement from 62 to 65 and cut benefits from 60 percent of salary to 50 percent; Providence, Rhode Island Mayor Angel Taveras also seeks to halt COLA for retirees.

When Democrats suggest cutting benefits to current retirees, they make the mild recommendations last year by then Governor Haley Barbour's Public Employees' Retirement System (PERS) Study Commission look down-right liberal, and the Commission's suggestion to freeze COLA for three years and then tie it to inflation a pretty moderate idea.

Democrats and unions utilized pension reform politics masterfully during the 2011 Mississippi elections. It isn't often you can win an issue before the election; but they did. Following a few phone calls, some direct mail, advertising and newspaper articles, suddenly Republican candidates were pledging and promising and assuring away significant PERS reforms. Conservative candidates distanced themselves from the PERS Study Commission and political pundits on the left gleefully echoed those on the right who could not understand why such a seasoned political operator like Barbour would drop such a recommendation during an election year.

I imagine you can look at Barbour's oft quoted adage, "good policy makes good politics." Barbour was not afraid to make a fight over good policies, especially when they were winnable fights. Public pension reforms are winnable fights.

You can win as a Democrat in San Jose, California. After Reed's 70 percent victory he said, "The public is solidly behind these reforms. And I think that is the message for mayors across the country, is you can explain this to the voters, they get it. They will support you. You can take it to the ballot if you can`t negotiate it. You can take it to the ballot. And you will win."

You can win as a Republican in Wisconsin. After enacting his bold reforms curtailing collective bargaining and ending mandatory union membership, Wisconsin's American Federation of Teachers lost 6,000 of its 17,000 members and Wisconsin's American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees dropped from 62,818 members to 28,745 members. For the unions - and the Democrats they fund - this is a political tsunami. When these members left the unions, so did their automatically deducted union dues. Walker's boldness faced controversy; he became the third governor in United States history to face a recall election. But he won and earned more votes and a greater percentage of votes than he did before the reforms two years earlier. He even won 29 percent of union members and split non-union members in union households. Good policies make good politics.

Now around the country, in a struggling economy with tight budgets and ballooning pension payments, even Democrats are wondering why they should kowtow to unions whose falling membership decreases the dollars they can deliver to campaigns, and who even when motivated in Wisconsin fail to deliver votes.

Barbour's PERS Study Commission presented reasonable and moderate reforms to strengthen Mississippi's public pension fund. Unions and allied organizations objected. Republicans retreated. Now is the time for conservative policy makers to move forward with reforms. The result may be a political battle; but it is winnable, and the right thing to do for retirees, public employees and Mississippi.


Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.