The State Worker

California attorney general clears pension-change ballot measure for signature-gathering

California Attorney General Kamala Harris issued the official description of a controversial ballot measure late Monday, with language that displeased both the proposal’s author and its union opponents.

The step clears the way for signature-gathering to put the measure on the November ballot.

The initiative is now officially titled “Public Employees Pension and Retiree Healthcare Benefits Initiative Constitutional Amendment.” Harris’ summary says, among other things, that it “eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree healthcare benefits for current public employees, including teachers, nurses, and peace officers, for future work performed.”

Chuck Reed, the Democratic mayor of San Jose behind the measure, has said he wants to give state and local governments the authority to cut pension costs even if it means changing future benefits for current workers. He said he thought the newly released language isn’t clear and that the word “eliminate” is “pejorative.”

“You read this and you don’t know what we’re trying to do,” Reed said. He said the summary focuses on the measure’s pension takeaways when it should state that the initiative it also locks in accrued benefits.

He stopped short of saying whether the language would kill his effort or left room to raise money and begin collecting signatures.

“I need to talk to stakeholders and my advisers first,” Reed said in a Monday night telephone interview. “By the end of January, we have to make a decision.”

Minutes after Harris issued the title and summary, leaders of a union coalition fighting the proposal said in an emailed statement that they were “disappointed” with Harris’ analysis.

Organized labor said the language doesn’t emphasize the risk they believe the measure poses to the retirement security of both current and future public workers. The unions also wanted Harris to cast the proposal as sanctioning the abrogation of contracts, since pension and benefits health are normally negotiated.

“While the title and summary describes the repeal of Constitutionally vested rights to pensions and retiree health care, teachers, nurses, and firefighters – by far the largest groups of municipal public employees – deserve to have voters know exactly how their retirement security will be put at risk with this measure,” the union coalition’s press release said.

By law, the attorney general crafts state ballot measures’ titles and summaries in 100 words or less. The language goes on materials proponents use when collecting signatures to the proposal for a statewide election.

Over the years, ballot measures’ proponents and opponents have blasted attorneys general for allegedly skewing title and summaries for political effect. Supporters of a 2008 ballot measure banning same-sex marriage, for example, sued then-Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown for writing that Proposition 8 “eliminates the right of same-sex couples to marry.”

The proponents sued. They contended the wording aimed to stack opinion against a constitutional amendment would merely restore definition of “marriage” struck down by the state Supreme Court: the union of a man and a woman. An appropriate description, the Yes on Prop 8 side argued, would have been, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

Brown’s description wound up on the ballot, but voters approved the measure anyway. The courts eventually allowed same-sex marriages to resume.

Backers of a different pension-change measure in 2012 blasted Harris for making what they said were “statements that are either provably false or grossly misleading” about their proposal. That title and summary, like this latest one, emphasizing the impact on “teachers, nurses and peace officers” to exploit public good will toward those professions. Editorial boards and columnists throughout California also said Harris, a Democrat who enjoys strong backing from organized labor, let politics trump serving voters with an objective title and summary.

The 2012 effort died when its supporters tested Harris’ summary and concluded the measure had no chance to pass. The group did not sue.