The State Worker

California pension reformers rev up for 2016 ballot

Carl DeMaio, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Carl DeMaio, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. AP

Two former city officials who persuaded voters to accept local public pension rollbacks have teamed up for another stab at putting the issue to a statewide vote.

Republican Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman, and former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, plan to issue a proposal within the next six weeks, DeMaio said in a recent telephone interview. He declined to disclose specifics.

“We’re taking our time, doing our due diligence,” DeMaio said. “And we’re listening and soliciting thoughts and views from potential coalition members.”

Although DeMaio and Reed belong to different political parties, they both believe pension obligations are siphoning money from local governments’ core services. As city officials in 2012, both backed successful local ballot measures intended to curtail public-pension costs. About two-thirds of voters in San Diego and San Jose approved the proposals. Unions immediately challenged their legality.

By contrast, no pension-change measure has ever gone to a statewide vote. Proponents have never found funding to cover the $10 million or more required to put a proposal on the ballot and then fight what would undoubtedly be an epic battle with labor unions.

Squabbles with Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris over title and summary language assigned to the proposals have hamstrung the last two attempts – including a Reed-backed proposal last year. Reed sued, saying Harris’ wording was biased. The trial court sided with Harris and an appellate court dismissed the case as “moot” last November – after the election.

Reed said then that he would start much earlier next time to allow for more court fighting, so it’s no surprise that he and DeMaio plan to put out a proposal a year before they would turn in signatures for it and 19 months ahead of the next general election.

Labor unions aren’t holding back their criticism until a proposal emerges.

Steve Maviglio, speaking for a coalition of unions opposed to public-pension changes, dismissed DeMaio and Reed as revving up “a political campaign funded by Tea Party backers and out-of-state billionaires,” a reference to former Enron executive John Arnold paying $200,000 at Reed’s behest to a Silicon Valley chamber of commerce for research into pensions a few years ago.

Success after a string of pension-change failures would undoubtedly revive the flagging political profiles of both politicians. DeMaio lost the 2012 San Diego mayoral race and two years later narrowly lost a bid for Congress. Reed termed out as mayor last year.

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

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