We expect all sides to fight hard in politics given the stakes involved, but our system rests on the broad acceptance of a set of fairly applied rules. We know, for instance, that no matter how nasty the coming presidential election that the loser will ultimately cede power after the final count is in. This isn’t a kleptocracy where the only redress for the losing side is to take to the streets in a violent revolt.
Unfortunately, California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ recent misuse of power to provide a dishonest title and summary to proposed pension-reform initiatives she opposes comes right out of the totalitarian playbook, where those wielding power recognize no rules of decency or fairness.
We expect judges, no matter their political stripes, to apply the law as written. We expect election officials to battle election fraud no matter their personal preference for the outcome. Likewise, we expect state attorney generals, who are the head of California’s "Justice" Department after all, to provide fair title and summaries of all initiatives that are submitted to that office—even ones the AG personally doesn’t like. Without any civic spiritedness, people eventually will lose faith that they can make change by following the rules.
Harris, however, is a close ally of the public sector unions. And she has designs on higher office. Those unions have an iron grip on Sacramento politics, and they are doing all they can to stop the burgeoning pension reform movement. So when California Pension Reform submitted two initiatives that would rein in the unsustainable costs of the state’s pension system, Harris decided to behave as a political operative and besmirch the office she holds by distorting the official descriptions that most voters rely upon when making their voting decision.
In January, she provided a title to the measures: “Reduces pensions for public employees.” That’s flat-out wrong. Her summary was filled with distortions meant to sway voters against them. As result, last week the pension reform group dropped the initiative. They couldn’t raise the $2 million needed to gather the signatures given the overwhelming obstacle Harris put in their way. This never was going to be a fair fight. Unions would have outspent pension reformers by many multiples, but union supporters don’t want to take any chances given the growing pension backlash.
It’s certainly OK to hire a Democratic hack to wage a slash-and-burn anti-reform campaign as the unions already have been doing, but it’s another thing to abuse the office of attorney general and rig the process.
Now that the pension reform measure is dead, union allies in the Legislature are saying that Gov. Jerry Brown’s modest pension reform measures are dead also. As the San Diego Union-Tribune explained, one main fear the unions had was that the initiatives would give the governor leverage to force his reforms through the Democratic, union-friendly Legislature. You don’t want my reforms? the governor could ask. Then you’ll be stuck with tougher reforms at the ballot. That fear is gone.
Right-leaning blogger Chris Reed wrote on Calwhine.com, “There are plenty of signs that many … liberals were quite willing to believe that pensions are far too generous for public employees. But not union thug Kamala Harris. She’s in the tank for the union status quo. This is only the start of how the state government is rigged against the interests of regular Californians.”
Reed wasn’t the only one appalled by this increasingly rigged system. The Modesto Bee’s liberal editorial page opined that pension reformers are “right about the Harris title and summary. Her office’s official description of the two measures read like talking points taken straight from a public employee union boss’ campaign handbook. Harris claimed the measures would reduce retirement income for current employees, which is not true. She also claimed that future government employees would lose survivor and death benefits, also not true.”
The summary also described supposed “cuts” to “teachers, nurses and peace officers, but excluding judges.” That’s campaign lingo, not the description of a fair-minded AG. As the reformers explained in their statement, “The AG selectively lists three positive poll-tested jobs out of thousands of government employee job classifications when both measures apply to all public employees, except constitutionally-protected judges.” The San Diego Union-Tribune, referring to a pension system that is consuming upwards of 30 percent of municipal budgets, complained about “Kamala Harris’ dirty trick on California.”
Ironically, these proposed initiatives were far from radical. They offered alternative plans for new hires as a way to rein in an unfunded pension liability, or debt, that is estimated as high as a half trillion dollars by a Stanford University study. One measure would have put new workers only in a defined-contribution, 401/k-style plan. The alternative would have created a hybrid plan that mixed the current defined-benefit pension with the 401/k program.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, in its analysis, argued that the initiatives wouldn’t have achieved savings for many years. By focusing on new hires, the initiatives wouldn’t save too much until these new workers start retiring. That would argue for a tougher reform, but the state’s unions and their newfound heroine, Harris, want to block all reform.
California Cities are facing potential bankruptcy, localities are cutting services, and there’s much pressure for tax hikes in an already highly taxed state to pay for public employee pensions that are far more generous than those typically earned in the private sector. The problem is real and the situation is unfair to taxpayers.
It’s made even more fair by the tactics of an attorney general who is happy to distort the democratic process to do the bidding of a special interest group that already has nearly unchecked power in the Capitol. Don’t be surprised if more Californians lose faith in their ability to effect meaningful change.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.