Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Kamala Harris’ summary miscasts measure

Attorney General Kamala Harris issued a summary for a measure that would empower voters to approve any increases in public employee pensions, proposed by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio.
Attorney General Kamala Harris issued a summary for a measure that would empower voters to approve any increases in public employee pensions, proposed by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Kamala Harris is not only California’s attorney general, but a very ambitious politician who hopes to become a U.S. senator.

As attorney general, her office prepares the official “title and summary” for every proposed ballot measure.

This week, she issued a summary for a measure that would empower voters to approve any increases in public employee pensions, proposed by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio.

But it didn’t mention “approved by voters” until 83 words into her 100-word summary.

In contrast, the summary’s first sentence says the measure “eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree benefits for current public employees, including those working in K-12 schools, higher education, hospitals, and police protection, for future work performed.”

That’s almost identical to her description of a previous, much different, pension overhaul proposed last year by DeMaio and Reed. They challenged the wording in court, but lost, then dropped the measure.

The description of the new Reed-DeMaio constitutional amendment, of course, pleases public employee unions.

They want to depict it as a gratuitous assault on those who provide vital public services such as those listed by Harris, who excluded from her description less popular employees, such as prison guards or parking meter readers.

But is it a fair summary? Reed and DeMaio say it would not affect the pension benefits promised to any current employees, and there’s nothing in a plain language reading of the measure to prove that it does.

Harris’ office is hanging its legal hat on one sentence that declares “notwithstanding any other provision of the Constitution or any other law,” voters have the right “to determine the amount of and manner in which compensation and retirement benefits are provided …”

However, it’s a stretch to declare flatly, as Harris does, that such broad language would automatically eliminate the “California rule” – court decisions declaring that pension benefits, once granted, are constitutionally protected contracts that cannot be abrogated.

DeMaio says “there’s no justification for that. It’s all political,” adding that Harris “is doing everything she needs to do to get cash for her Senate fund.”

He and Reed are coy about challenging the language in court again and risking another rejection, but are pledging to continue for the 2016 ballot despite the seemingly hostile summary – if, of course, they can raise enough money.

Does Harris’ summary invent an unjustified description? It certainly appears so.

Did she do it for political reasons?

Whatever her motives, it could backfire.

As DeMaio points out, were the measure to pass with Harris’ summary, it could create a legal argument that it does, in fact, go beyond requiring voter approval for future pension enhancements and would, therefore, allow current benefits and promises of benefits to be reduced.

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