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In this epic battle between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman, the question of which one will be most effective at reining in state employee pension benefits should make this a one-issue election. By comparison, nothing else really matters.

The fundamental problem begins with the Dills Act of 1977, which allowed public service employees to form unions in California. David Brooks in the New York Times points out that even staunch liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and George Meany of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. opposed public sector unions. Meany said that it is "impossible to bargain collectively with government." Presumably he was referring to the fact that everyone winds up on the same side of the table.

Since 1977, California's public service unions, with huge campaign war chests, have been effectively hiring the politicians that determine state employee pay scales. A private-sector analogy would be to have employees choosing who their boss will be, and who, not surprisingly, decide to go with the person who promises to pay them the most.

Obviously, in the private sector, employees don't have any way to "buy their bosses," so negotiations center around the weapons of mutual destruction -- managers choose between pay demands that could put them out of business versus crippling employee strikes and slowdowns.

State budgets

States don't go out of business, but they can reach a level of paralysis which is the public-sector equivalent. "Ford to New York, 'Drop Dead'" was the headline quoting the president when New York City faced default on its bonds and turned to Washington for help -- help that was denied. What happened next was a series of forced austerity measures that brought the state's budget back into line. With state employee benefits costing as much as 30 to 40 percent more than those offered by the average Fortune 500 company, there ought to be room for some cutbacks at some level.

As David Brooks points out, the Democratic Party has been taken over by the unions, and their excessive demands have crippled what can otherwise be a responsive, positive force of big government -- the same big government that built California's educational system, its freeways, parks and infrastructure. Thanks to the Dills Act, it is impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

We can't back up on retired people who spent a career with the understanding that their compensation included these promises. Part of the genie can be returned, however, with respect to compensation packages going forward -- money that would be paid to new employees or for the balance of today's employees' careers.

Candidates

So, which prospective governor do we think might actually accomplish what needs to get done with respect to California's runaway pension costs? For all of Meg Whitman's talk, she has in fact gained the support of two state law enforcement unions with a promise to not tamper with their pension benefits. So she hardly walks the walk. To Jerry Brown's similar detriment, he has the endorsement of the prison guards' union, but hasn't promised anything for it -- at least not for publication. These guards, incidentally, are the people Arnold Schwarzenegger reportedly referred to as "thugs" after his frustrated efforts to get them to accept some benefit cuts. They systematically spend money to successfully defeat any assemblyman who raises the possibility of benefit cuts.

Considering the power held by Democrats in this state, Jerry's challenge, and possibly his gift if elected, will be to shame his fellow party members and union members into behaving responsibly.

The "Terminator" certainly learned that they won't respond to being bludgeoned. For what it may be worth, Jerry Brown is the only governor who successfully vetoed pension increases, and his austere lifestyle while in office set a tone for lowering our expectations at the time.

Given the limitations of a governor who has to convince a legislature, the best we can hope for is someone who can lead us down a path of minimum regret.

I have no illusions of either candidate leading us out of the wilderness.