The State Worker

The State Worker: California Attorney General Harris has power to influence pension-change efforts

A single word could send a game-changing California public pension proposal into political oblivion early next month.

Within the next few weeks, Attorney General Kamala Harris will issue a title and summary of not more than 100 words to describe a ballot initiative that would, among other things, give state and local government agencies power to change retirement benefits prospectively for current employees.

The language Harris uses to describe San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s measure is key because that’s what voters will see. Once she issues the language, Reed will focus test it and then shop the measure to potential campaign underwriters.

Reed’s side worries that Harris, who enjoys strong labor support, will live up to the ballot-bias rap she got in 2012. A pension-change measure that year failed to raise signature-collection money after the title and summary falsely said, among other things, that the proposal would change benefits for current employees and monkey with death and disability benefits. Editorials and political columnists from both sides of the aisle blasted Harris for politicizing the process.

At the time, Harris stood by her take on the measure. She still does, spokesman Nicolas Pacilio said. The proponents could have sued her over the 2012 title and summary she issued, but didn’t.

Now Reed needs to raise least $2 million to collect 807,615 qualifying signatures for a pension initiative, “and that’s just to get a seat at the table,” said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for GOP Gov. Pete Wilson. The subsequent campaign would cost tens of millions of dollars more.

What will Harris do this time? An internal memo to labor leaders from Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group mined a recent union-commissioned survey to suggest messages that would bury the initiative.

“Note that ‘eliminating’ fosters a visceral negative response from voters. Over 50% 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.

Reed’s measure doesn’t “eliminate” pensions. It eliminates the guarantee that pensions can never be altered once promised. Employees would vest as they work, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. Under certain circumstances, employers could cut benefits prospectively, reduce cost-of-living adjustments, increase the retirement age for future benefits and require employees to pay more. Anything within the scope of collective bargaining would have to be negotiated to impasse before the employer could impose changes.

Sure, some might dump their defined-benefit pension plans, but Reed’s measure doesn’t prescribe it.

Still, a single word to the contrary could kill Reed’s efforts.

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