Pension Crisis

Pension Reform Initiative in California Getting a Rewrite

Proponents trying to get past problems with how A.G. Harris officially summarizes proposal.


Flag looks tattered because they can't afford new ones.
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Maybe the third time will be the charm. A ballot initiative to try to reform public employee pension methods in California is being yanked, rewritten, and submitted yet again. The plan is still to get the vote on the 2016 November ballot, but proponents are trying to deal with the way Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris (now running to fill Sen. Barbara Boxer's seat when Boxer steps down) has summarized their initiative.

A quick bit of background: Former San Diego City Council member Carl DeMaio (a Republican) and former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed (a Democrat) are working together to introduce a ballot initiative that would give California voters more control over how their municipalities handle benefits for public employees moving forward. The initiative is not intended to let the state or municipalities skip out on existing pension obligations. Rather, it's intended to amend California's constitution to force a public vote to add new public employees to any pension program, not-so-subtly directing cities to consider 401(k)-style plans instead. It's an attempt to keep California's massive problem with underfunded pension debts from getting any worse.

The state's constitution protects public employee pensions and benefits from being cut. So when Harris summarized DeMaio and Reed's ballot initiative, as the law requires her to do, she declared that it "Eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree healthcare benefits for current public employees, including those working in K-12 schools, higher education, hospitals, and police protection, for future work performed." This is an extremely misleading way of describing the proposition that seems designed to make it look as though something could be taken away from existing employees.

Believing that Harris is carrying water for the extremely powerful California public sector unions, DeMaio and Reed are going to essentially try to set a trap for her with a "totally different approach" to a pension reform initiative. From the Sacramento Bee:

The idea, DeMaio said, was to see whether Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris used what they consider "poison pill" language to describe the new measures as she has three previous pension change proposals since 2011. If she does, DeMaio said, "we think she'll be giving us the evidence we need" to successfully sue Harris for unfairly skewing her description of pension initiatives.

The attorney general's office writes the short title and summary of all ballot initiative proposals. The language is important because it appears on petition materials used to qualify them for the ballot, often shaping voters' first impression of an initiative's contents. Perhaps even more important, the wording affects potential contributors' willingness to underwrite a campaign. …

Harris, who is running for U.S. Senate, has been accused of employing poll-tested language about previous pension measures to make them as politically unpalatable as possible. In 2014, Reed took Harris to court, alleging she described a pension measure he proposed with "false and misleading words and phrases which argue for the measure's defeat, is argumentative, and creates prejudice against the measure, rather than merely informing voters of its chief purposes and points …"

The courts ruled against Reed. Harris' representatives have said throughout that she has fairly characterized the pension measures that came across her desk. They say claims of bias are commonly leveled at attorneys general writing titles and summaries.

We don't know what the new wording of the initiative will be (DeMaio declined to respond to an email and phone message from Reason), but we'll take a look at the new language once new initiatives are released.

(Disclosure: DeMaio has previously worked with the Reason Foundation as an independent contractor on pension reform.)