Efforts to put a public pension measure on the November ballot dimmed Thursday when proponents said they would sue to challenge the language assigned their measure by California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
The challenge, likely to be filed in Sacramento Superior Court within the next few days, will take at least a few weeks to resolve, shortening the time the measure’s proponents have to seek petition signatures.
“Every day that goes by is one less day to collect signatures,” San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, the initiative’s primary backer, said in a telephone interview. “Realistically, it would be extremely difficult” to qualify the proposal for the November ballot, he said, leaving the presidential election in 2016 as the next opportunity to put his plan before California voters.
Reed’s admission delays the latest in a long line of attempts to give California voters a measure aimed at cutting public pension costs. Proponents say that something must be done to corral multibillion-dollar pension obligations that are outstripping government’s ability to pay them. They attribute municipal bankruptcies in San Bernardino and Stockton to pension obligations, while maintaining benefits, they say, are crowding out core services elsewhere.
Public employee unions counter that pension terms must be bargained, not imposed, that a 2013 pension law is already saving money and that Reed, a Democrat, has political motives for pressing a pension agenda.
Reed’s measure would change the California Constitution to give state and local governments authority to alter future pension formulas for current employees. Decades of case law, including a recent ruling on a voter-approved San Jose measure that Reed backed, treat pensions as a vested right from an employee’s first day on the job.
Reed said his group is challenging Harris’ summary as “both inaccurate and unfair” because it says his measure “eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree healthcare benefits for current public employees, including teachers, nurses, and peace officers, for future work performed.”
“That’s just not what it’s about,” Reed said, casting the proposal as a much-needed tool that gives employers in dire fiscal circumstances the option to reduce pension benefits if bargaining fails.
Reed also accused Harris of stoking voter prejudice against the proposal by citing its impact on “teachers, nurses, and peace officers,” public employee groups that generally enjoy high regard among voters.
Harris’ communications director, David Beltran, disagreed. “The attorney general has issued an accurate title and summary,” he said.
Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043.