The State Worker

Questions about the latest public-pension proposal

FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2015 file photo, California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris speaks at the UCLA Law Review Symposium in Los Angeles.
FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2015 file photo, California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris speaks at the UCLA Law Review Symposium in Los Angeles. AP

So now we know details of the latest public-pension proposal from Chuck Reed and Carl DeMaio. There’s also a whole lot about what happens next that we don’t know.

The measure would change California’s Constitution to require voters to approve pay and benefits increases for state and local government employees. Those hired in 2019 and later would go into 401(k)-style plans instead of current traditional pensions, unless voters authorized otherwise.

Reed, San Jose’s former Democratic mayor, and Republican former San Diego City Councilman DeMaio, filed the proposal last week.

Here are some of the questions:

How will Attorney General Kamala Harris describe it? Harris has been accused of crafting slanted title and summary descriptions of 2012 and 2014 pension proposals to bias voters against them. Reed sued Harris over the 2014 language and lost.

Reed and Co. filed earlier this year, in part to make time for language litigation.

As for the AG, she has shown zero appetite for controversy since announcing her U.S. Senate campaign. Still, she enjoys labor’s backing, and this measure strikes at unions’ core: collective bargaining, pay and benefits.

Will it get on the ballot? The number of signatures required to qualify a constitutional amendment is based on a percentage of participants in the last gubernatorial election. Turnout was so abysmally low last year that pension-plan proponents need just 585,407 qualified signatures.

“That’s about 60 percent of the signatures you needed in 2014,” said Mike Arno, who heads a Sacramento-based signature-gathering firm. “It doesn’t cut the price in half, but it nearly does.”

Who will pay the freight? Just a handful of wealthy donors have the means to fund a pension campaign that will spark a titanic battle with labor a la the 2012 fight over payroll-deducted union dues. Unions won that tussle while also backing Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 tax increase.

Now there’s buzz about another tax initiative in 2016. If that happens, it could put labor in a bind, said political consultant Aaron McLear. Someone interested in backing Republican candidates might see the pension measure as a relatively cheap chance to siphon off labor’s political cash from a tax measure or local races.

“Advocates of higher taxes, including the unions, will likely have more voters in 2016,” said McLear, who worked on a 2012 pension measure that didn’t find funding. “But they would also be forced to expend more resources fighting the pension measure should it qualify.”

Is it bad timing? The measure would be on the same 2016 ballot as a presidential election, so more Democrats, who tend to support unions would turn out, right?

It might not matter, both McLear and Republican political consultant Wayne Johnson said. Successful local pension measures in San Diego and San Jose three years ago indicate the issue crosses party lines. “And it’s always a jump ball when you try to put something on the ballot that spurs turnout,” Johnson said. “It spurs turnout on both sides.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee