The State Worker

The State Worker: Pension movement’s new playbook

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

If ballot measures are like football games, then the proposed 2014 public pension initiative announced this week by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed is putting on its pads.

Reed and the four other California mayors who joined him to file the proposal, which would change the state constitution so governments could lower current employees’ pension and retiree health benefits prospectively, have a campaign committee and little else.

No official ballot title and summary yet. No reported money, although at the mayor’s request a Texas millionaire last summer gave $200,000 to Reed’s local chamber of commerce for issue research.

No big-name coach/cheerleader besides the 65-year-old Reed. Although San Jose voters last year approved a city pension measure he backed, he remains a relative unknown outside of Silicon Valley and the political class.

Still, campaign strategy experts say it’s clear that Team Pension Reform has a playbook built from three failed attempts to put a pension measure before voters. A few pages:

Let Democrats play quarterback. It’s easy to dismiss Republicans who talk about dialing down pensions in deep-blue California. It’s how they’re wired. But when Democrats like Reed say pensions are out of control, they’re bucking the usual party line and welcoming attack from the party’s traditional union allies. Sell it as conviction.

Pound the local government angle. Cities are reeling from rising retirement costs that will only get more expensive over the next few years as CalPERS’ new push to pay down unfunded liabilities produces higher pension bills. Cue the pictures of forlorn, bankrupt Detroit under headlines of pension battles in Stockton, San Bernardino and Vallejo. Cite union wars waged by former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (both high-profile Democrats.) Local services or public pensions? You decide, voters.

Attack the ridiculous. Play up outrageous stories about pension spiking, double dipping, triple dipping, felons who receive a public pension – anything else that makes voters ask, “What the heck??!!” Demagoguery 101.

Define “fair.” In 2011, according to statistics analyzed by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, less than 3 percent of private-sector workers in America had the kind of guaranteed pensions common in state and local government. The natural question: Why should the state constitution protect a public-employee benefit that most of the public lost long ago?

Split the unions. Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, thinks that private sector unions represent the swing vote. Will they vote as private sector union members or private sector union members?

“If the proponents convince them to separate from the public-sector workers, it becomes a competitive campaign,” Schnur said.

Next week: Pages from the pension initiative opponents’ political playbook.

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