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.)

NEXT: The Maddening World of Hospital Pricing

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  1. The initiative is not intended to let the state or municipalities skip out on existing pension obligations.

    Suckers, that’s exactly what government would do in every other situation.

    1. Eventually, it is what government will do – skip out on obligations. At some point, pension reform won’t be voluntary any more. See Detroit, soon to be Chicago and PR.

      The public unions are idiots for not taking advantage of these fairly generous options. As time and the economy moves forward, those options we be less and less attractive.

      1. They won’t take them because most of the people in the system (and more importantly the people representing them at the table) will be long gone before things get bad enough to force reform. Between here and default are the taxpayers filling in progressively bigger gaps in pension liabilities.

  2. Let’s give this a try:

    “The initiative would require the state and all municipalities to terminate pension payments, leaving noble public servants to beg, and eventually die, in the streets. Taxes on the wealthy would also be cut, to allow income inequality to soar to historic levels.”

    1. This is standard operating procedure in California. The summaries of propositions which the establishment does not like are written in a biased way.

  3. Lets jsut roll with the passion dude.

    1. Anonbot knows us so well.

      1. I thought it was advocating crucifixion for Harris!?!

  4. Students warned: Bulging biceps advance unhealthy masculinity.

    Read this, it’ll cheer y’all up to no end.

    1. More gun control, I see.

      1. *narrows gaze*

        *resists asking where the beach is*

  5. We don’t know what the new wording of the initiative will be…

    I’m guessing something to the effect of:

    “Are you the kind of puppy-kicking bastard who’d reduce grandma and grandpa to living in a cardboard box and eating cat-food because you reneged on labor contracts with selfless civil servants so that bloated plutocrats can feast on caviar and fois gras?”

    My further guess is that the judge will rule this totally unbiased.

    1. It doesn’t go nearly too far enough.

  6. Keep in mind the dirty little secret of the racial make-up of public employees as a whole. You might think “sustainable” would be a handy buzzword to use to argue for limiting the growth of pubsec spending, but it don’t beat “disparate impact”. Or “racist”.

    1. Forgot the link and the money quote.

      The public sector is the largest employer of Black
      workers; there is a greater likelihood that a Black worker will be employed in the public sector
      compared to a non-Black worker; wages earned by Blacks in that industry are higher than
      those earned by Blacks in other sectors; and inequality within an industry is less in the public
      sector compared to other industries. It is important to note that this data reflects the national
      workforce; it is a plausible assumption that in many cities where Blacks are a larger proportion
      of the general population and a larger proportion of the workforce, the importance of the
      public sector to Black employment prospects will rise. Consequently, any analysis of the
      impact to society of additional layoffs in the public sector as a strategy to address the fiscal
      crisis should take into account the disproportionate impact that reductions in government
      employment have on the Black community.

  7. They say claims of bias are commonly leveled at attorneys general writing titles and summaries.

    They’re actually correct about this, but the reason why they’re correct is that Harris is just as much of a political animal as her predecessors. Jerry Brown and Bill Lockyer were equally hackish in producing summaries for ballot propositions they opposed.

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