Trickle-Down Misery in L.A

Article excerpt

Byline: George F. Will

Mayor Villaraigosa's nightmare numbers.

Los Angeles--to get from downtown to the residence of the man who, in 2005, became the first Hispanic elected mayor since 1870, you drive through a sliver of Korea. With 125,000 people packed into 2.7 of the city's 469 square miles, Koreatown is typical of this polyglot city where more than 100 languages are spoken and nothing is typical except recentness: 46 percent of the residents are foreign-born.

So when His Honor Antonio Villaraigosa was invited to appear at a recent rally protesting Arizona's law concerning illegal immigrants, he went. But he stipulated: "I want American flags." He knows that protesting immigrants should not carry the flags of Mexico and other nations where they have chosen not to live.

The city is chin-deep in California's trickle-down misery, and last week Richard Riordan, who was L.A. mayor from 1993 to 2001, coauthored with Alexander Rubalcava--an investment adviser--a Wall Street Journal column declaring the city's fiscal crisis "terminal." They say Villaraigosa should "face the fact" that "between now and 2014 the city will likely declare bankruptcy." Villaraigosa says that will not happen. But look what has happened.

For 15 years Villaraigosa was an organizer for the Service Employees International Union and the city's teachers' union. Now he is trying to cope with, and partially undo, largesse for unionized public employees: "I have to sign the checks on the front, not just the back."

Riordan and Rubalcava say two numbers--8 percent and 5,000--define the city's crisis. L.A. has conveniently but unrealistically assumed 8apercent annual growth of the assets of the city's pension funds. The two main funds' actual growth over the last decade have been 3.5 percent and 2.8 percent. And Villaraigosa added 5,000 people to the city's payroll in his first term.

Nationwide, government employees are most of what remains of "defined benefit" America. More than 80 percent of government workers have defined benefits--as opposed to defined-contribution--pension plans. Only about 20 percent of private-sector workers have defined-benefit plans. California's parlous condition owes much to burdensome health-care and pension promises negotiated with public employees' unions, promises that are suffocating the state's economic growth.

Riordan and Rubalcava suggest replacing defined-benefit pensions with 401(k) accounts for new public employees. …