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  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed tells a gathering at the Sacramento Press Club on Thursday that the courts will eventually give him the language he requires to get a California public pension overhaul measure on the ballot in 2016.

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed discusses his failed effort to put a public pension reform measure on the ballot at the Sacramento Press Club on Thursday.

San Jose mayor vows his pension measure will resurface in 2016

Published: Friday, Apr. 4, 2014 - 12:00 am

Vowing to revive his campaign to overhaul California’s public-pension laws, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed predicted Thursday that the courts will eventually give him the language he wants and that a ballot measure will go to voters in two years.

“We will press ahead with it,” Reed said at a Sacramento Press Club luncheon, “and so 2016 will be another round.”

Reed and a handful of officials from other cities who are backing the plan recently sued Attorney General Kamala Harris over what they said was biased, inaccurate language she used to describe the measure for signature collection. A trial court last month sided with Harris. Reed has appealed the decision. A ruling could take up to a year.

“The trial court gave deference to the attorney general, “Reed said. “(That) pretty much makes meaningless the statutory requirement to be fair.”

Even if the 65-year-old Democrat wins in court, his success at the ballot box is far from assured. With unions driving the opposition, voter turnout will be stacked against him in the presidential election year. And, assuming the economy and the state’s budget fortunes continue to improve, the issue may recede further in voters’ collective consciousness.

“It’s always easier to get away with cuts when you’re facing financial disaster,” said University of California, Berkeley, political scientist Jack Citrin.

Reed’s pension proposal would, under certain conditions, give government employers the constitutional authority to freeze their employees’ accrued retirement benefits and then downgrade them in the future. If approved by voters, it would make moot decades of court decisions widely interpreted as banning government pension reductions without giving workers an offsetting benefit.

The mayor says that his plan gives cities the means to control pension costs instead of cutting vital services, laying off workers and slashing employees’ wages.

San Jose has cut city workers’ pay 10 percent to offset rising pension costs, he said, and many employees have left because of it.

“Nobody escaped” the cuts, Reed said, including city police officers and firefighters.

Failure to act, he says, could force government leaders to dump guaranteed pensions entirely to avoid financial ruin.

“If you wait too long, bankruptcy is your only option, as we’ve seen in some cities,” Reed said, referencing high-profile cases in San Bernardino, Stockton and Detroit.

Unions have blasted Reed for a proposal that they say exaggerates the problem, scapegoats civil servants, breaks promises to them and circumvents the collective bargaining process. If his plan does stage a 2016 comeback, organized labor would undoubtedly mount an all-out campaign to defeat it.

Aside from that opposition, Reed also would have to win over more liberal voters, a bloc less likely to support downgrading public pensions.

Democrats tend to turn out in bigger numbers in left-leaning California during presidential election years. That would complicate recruiting deep-pocketed campaign underwriters for a signature-collection effort that experts say would cost at least $2 million, plus several times that much to wage a campaign that would come up against heavy union opposition.

Aside from about $200,000 to cover some research and consulting costs, Reed didn’t raise any money for his measure this year.

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043.

Read more articles by Jon Ortiz

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