The State Worker

Pollster gives unions roadmap to fight California pension proposal

A new memo from a Washington polling firm lays out tactics for labor unions to fight against a proposed public pension ballot measure that could go to California voters next year.

Leaning on findings of its recent survey of voters, Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group suggests, for example, that the unions play up San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s measure as “eliminating” public employee pensions.

“Note that ‘eliminating’ fosters a visceral negative response from voters. Over 50 percent are VERY unfavorable to ‘Eliminating Police, Firefighters, and Other Public Employees’ Vested Pension Benefits’ (54% VERY unfavorable) AND “Eliminating Public Employees’ Vested Benefits” (51% VERY unfavorable),” the Garin memo says. “In short, ‘eliminating’ appears to nearly usurp the advantage that naming specific workers brings to the debate.”

“That is consistent with their messages so far,” Reed said. His measure doesn’t eliminate pension benefits, “but (the unions) have to mischaracterize what we’re doing ... We’re not proposing to eliminate public pensions.”

Californians for Retirement Security, a union coalition, paid the Garin group to take the public’s political pulse on pensions. The unions oppose the proposal Reed wants to put on the November 2014 ballot that would, among other things, give state and local governments authority to prospectively reduce pensions for current employees.

Reed and his supporters contend the measure is vital to dealing with mounting pension obligations that are threatening core public services, particularly at the local government level. The unions counter that pension terms should be bargained, not imposed, that retirement costs are overblown and that Reed’s measure legalizes reneging on contractual benefits.

The Garin group concludes that labor has a head start if the measure makes the ballot:

“The bottom line is that your coalition beats the opposition at the ballot box regardless of how the ballot language is written, and even after hearing facts about the initiative, as well as positive and negative messages, you are still up over the opposition by 8 points. Your base of support is broader than Reed’s, you start ahead, and the public does NOT seem to fundamentally want drastic pension reform – but this will still be a hard fought battle.”

Reed disputed the notion that public sentiment is running against his measure, citing lopsided wins for local pension-reform measures in San Jose and San Diego last year.

“You can vary the results of any poll by the way you ask the quesitons,” he said during a brief telephone interview on Wednesday. “The polls that really matter are Election Day polls.”

The Garin memo to the union coalition indicates a big chunk of the electorate doesn’t have a fixed opinion about Reed’s proposal and that money could narrow the anti-pension-measure side’s lead.

“The political environment has a potential to change if your opposition spends significant resources speaking to voters,” pollsters concluded.

Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group public pension poll

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