Proponents of a California ballot initiative requiring pension changes to go through a public vote on Tuesday rejected Attorney General Kamala Harris’ official description of the measure as an attempt “to try to mislead the public.”
For every ballot measure, the attorney general’s office issues a short name and description to appear on the petitions that backers use to get signatures. Because it is often the entry point for voters to understand what’s in a ballot initiative, the wording carries high stakes.
Backers of a similar pension-altering measure sued Harris last year over her office’s description of that initiative, arguing that the characterization would bias voters against the measure. The court ruled against them, saying there was “nothing false or misleading” about Harris’ description.
They had similar criticisms for the title and summary issued Tuesday, which state that the measure “eliminates constitutional protections” for current employees and would lead to “significant effects – savings and costs – on state and local governments.”
“This simple initiative gives voters the ability to stop sweetheart and unsustainable pension deals that politicians concoct behind closed doors with government union bosses,” former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, the measure’s proponents, said in a joint statement. “That’s why the politicians and union bosses oppose this initiative – and why they continue to try to mislead the public on what the initiative does.”
Opponents of the measure said the opposite, arguing that by failing to explicitly name affected public employees, such as teachers and firefighters, the summary “falls far short of describing the chaos and uncertainty that would occur” if the measure passed.
“This Tea Party-backed measure is a back-door way of repealing Constitutionally-vested and promised rights to retirement security and health care and breaks contracts negotiated through collective bargaining,” Dave Low, the head of a union-backed group called Californians for Retirement Security, said in a statement.
Kristin Ford, Harris’ press secretary, defended the office’s work. “We issued a title and summary that is based on independent analyses and gives voters a clear and accurate description of the proposed initiative,” she said in a statement.
Despite their concerns, Reed and DeMaio showed no sign of pulling back the initiative, saying they were “very confident” voters would pass the measure.
The proposal sustains a long-running battle over public pensions, with Reed and DeMaio championing the argument that California’s long-term pension debt will cripple the state over the long term.
In addition to allowing voters to weigh in on public employee compensation, the initiative would mandate that voters approve any increases in pension benefits, sign off on new state and local employees being enrolled in the “defined-benefit” plans that are now commonplace, and OK governments covering more than half of retirement costs.
While Reed’s camp has cast the measure as a way to give all Californians a stake in a pressing budget crisis, dubbing it the “Voter Empowerment Act of 2016,” union opponents have decried it as an attack on workers and their retirement guarantees.