Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California pension reform movement clears one hurdle

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Two years ago, a campaign to overhaul public pensions in California was short-circuited when Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office issued a “title and summary” that was obviously slanted against the proposed ballot measure.

Knowing that a large number of voters react to the brief descriptions of ballot measures, the measure’s sponsors backed away, thus handing their political foes – public employee unions – a cheap victory.

Given that experience with political manipulation of what should have been a straightforward, ministerial function, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and other sponsors of a new pension reform measure understandably had trepidations.

This time, however, the state’s major newspapers weighed in, editorially admonishing Harris, in effect, to play it straight. And Harris pretty much did so.

While the union coalition, Californians for Retirement Security, did get a buzzword it had wanted – “eliminates” – in referring to the proposed constitutional change, and the summary did mention “teachers, nurses and peace officers” that would be affected, the synopsis was, on balance, accurate and fairly straightforward.

The measure, it said, “permits government employers to reduce employee benefits and increase employee contributions for future work if retirement plans are substantially underfunded or government employer declares fiscal emergency.”

And that’s what it does, carving out an important exception to the state constitution’s prohibition on “impairment of contract.”

That provision has figured prominently in legal battles over pensions in the bankruptcies in Stockton and San Bernardino and a similar passage of Michigan’s constitution is a big issue in Detroit’s bankruptcy.

So if Reed & Co. haven’t been strangled by Harris’ summary, as was the 2012 effort, does that mean clear sailing for pension reform?

Not by a long shot, although having it in hand could make it easier for the reformers to persuade deep-pocketed backers to pony up the millions of dollars – perhaps $10 million-plus – that they would need to qualify the measure and wage a competitive campaign for it.

The critical reaction from Californians for Retirement Security to the summary implies a concern that should the reform movement secure the wherewithal, it would have a chance of winning.

The standing of public employee unions among California voters has suffered lately and local pension reforms in Reed’s city and San Diego, both of which have generally liberal bents, indicate that the movement has traction.

Money will be the critical factor. The public unions have no natural enemies among the usual political interest groups, so campaign money for a measure would probably have to come from wealthy individuals and they would be publicly pilloried by the unions.

Editor's Note: This post was updated at 11 a.m. Jan. 8, 2013 from print and online versions to correct the reference to fundraising from billions of dollars to millions of dollars.