Politics & Government

The State Worker: Battle over pensions goes local

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s proposed public pension ballot measure absorbed another political hit this week, this time from about two dozen local politicians who have asked him to drop the idea.

Their Tuesday letter argues that “pension matters are best decided locally and addressed at the bargaining table rather than at the ballot box.” Unions across the state have bargained cuts, they say, and a new state law is already lowering benefits for new hires.

Democrat Reed has support from three mayors and a Vallejo vice mayor. No word on what other elected officials in California’s 482 cities and 58 counties think.

The pension-change camp says rising retirement costs are draining money for basic services, especially at local agencies where employee compensation is a big chunk of budgets. Reed’s proposal would change California’s constitution to upend decades of case law widely thought to lock in pension terms promised to government employees on their first day at work. That would allow prospective cuts in pensions earned by current workers but leave earned benefits unchanged.

When Reed filed papers last month hoping to put the measure on next November’s ballot, he made sure that everyone knew four mayors had co-signed. (Vallejo Vice Mayor Stephanie Gomes has since replaced Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido.) The Economist branded Reed “a standard-bearer for pension reform” in an article titled, “Mayors to the rescue.”

The opposition letter issued by a union coalition this week counters both notions with signatures from 18 mayors and a combined seven city council members and county supervisors. The biggest names: Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and San Francisco Supervisor David Chiu. Sacramento-area officials include Sacramento City Councilman Kevin McCarty, Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis, West Sacramento City Councilman Mark Johannasen, Mayor Joe Kravoza and city Councilman Dan Wolk, both from Davis.

Most are Democrats. Three are Republicans. Rusty Bailey, Riverside’s mayor, has no stated party affiliation. Many are running for office next year. All stand to gain points with labor by signing the letter.

Although the pension initiative campaign is still in the embryonic stage, the unions will keep looking for city and county politicians who agree with them to overwhelm the local pension-tension argument. It keeps the fight from being seen as a union cause, said Democratic strategist Brian Brokaw, who isn’t working on either side of the pension debate.

Reed, meanwhile, needs backing from more local pols to deflect criticism if he has to rely on a few wealthy individuals for campaign cash. A $3 million check for signature collection will draw fire quicker than you can say “Koch brothers.”

“Funders become the face of initiative campaigns,” Brokaw said. “So both sides will bring in more and more faces. They don’t want it to be just about labor unions on one side and billionaires on the other.”