Opinion: We Can Protect Public Employee Pensions and the Environment

Before being elected to the State Assembly, I spent nearly three decades of my career as a public employee, serving the Los Angeles County Department of Social Services and the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

Asm. Tina McKinnor (D- Los Angeles)

By Assemblymember Tina McKinnor | Special to California Black Media Partners 

Before being elected to the State Assembly, I spent nearly three decades of my career as a public employee, serving the Los Angeles County Department of Social Services and the Los Angeles County Office of Education. For almost 30 years, I faithfully contributed a portion of my hard-earned salary to the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) knowing that someday my investments would be there for me. Today, I am a CalPERS retiree and rely upon my retirement benefits – just like millions of CalPERS and California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) retirees. CalPERS and CalSTRS know that their fiduciary responsibility is to their members, beneficiaries and survivors.

I trust CalSTRS and CalPERS to make sound investment decisions that prioritize stable, dignified retirement benefits for California teachers and public employees. I also believe that the climate crisis is a real, existential threat to our state, nation and world. California can and must act to reverse this crisis and preserve our fragile environment for generations to come. That is why California has led our nation by phasing out the sale of new internal combustion vehicles by 2035 and becoming carbon net-zero by 2045.

As Chair of the Assembly Committee on Public Employment and Retirement, I am committed to protecting the retirement funds of teachers and other public employees. My record is clear. I also represent a coastal district, home to some of California’s most famous beaches along with majority Black and Brown communities that are working to achieve the environmental justice that they and all communities deserve. My record is clear here too: I have, and will continue, to be a champion for protecting the environment. 

Last year, SB 252, by Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), came before my committee, which would require CalPERS and CalSTRS to divest from its fossil fuel investments by 2031. At the time, I expressed concern that teachers and other public employees were largely absent from the conversation – after all, it is their money – and asked that the Author and the bill’s supporters work with public sector labor unions to take a position on this legislation.

A year later, although a few public sector labor unions expressed their support for SB 252, many others did not. In fact, a number of police, fire, and other public employee unions oppose the bill. As a compromise, I offered the Author amendments that would align CalPERS and CalSTRS divestment from fossil fuels with California’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045. It was a real path to divestment that still allowed CalPERS and CalSTRS to take early divestment action if they decided to do so. The Author declined to accept the amendments, which was followed by her decision to cancel the bill being heard in my committee. Unfortunately, this was a missed opportunity to protect public employee pensions and show global leadership by divesting from fossil fuel companies once and for all.

To be clear, if CalPERS and CalSTRS wanted to divest from fossil fuel companies they could – today. Together, CalPERS and CalSTRS have committed over $100 billion in investments to sustainable energy and using the power of their investment portfolios to hold fossil fuel companies accountable. More can and must be done to not just green our economy, but green our public pension systems.

I encourage the author and the supporters of SB 252 to reintroduce the measure next legislative session with my proposed amendments and work closely with our public sector labor partners to find greater consensus with the environmental community on this issue. We do not have to choose between protecting public employee pensions and protecting the environment – we can do both. But we cannot risk the solvency of current and future public employee retirement benefits without consensus from our public workers. 

It is their money after all.

About the Author 

Assemblymember Tina McKinnor serves as Chair of the Assembly Public Employment and Retirement Committee and represents the cities and communities of El Segundo, Gardena, Hawthorne, Inglewood, Lawndale, Lenox, Los Angeles, Marina del Rey, Venice, West Athens, Westchester and Westmont in Los Angeles County.

Connect with Assemblymember McKinnor on social media: @AsmTinaMcKinnor