The State Worker

Pension proposal fight a war over words

Mayor Chuck Reed’s public pension-change initiative is all but dead for this election cycle, but the court fight over its wording is alive. At stake: whether Reed can come back with a similar measure in in two years.

The latest combatant, a Washington D.C.-based public pension-fund trade group, entered the fray with a Monday filing in Sacramento Superior Court.

The National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems says Attorney Kamala Harris “accurately and fairly” described Reed’s proposal, which under certain circumstances would give state and local officials authority to freeze current employees’ accrued pension benefits and then downgrade them going forward.

Reed sued Harris last month, saying the measure’s summary, which would appear on signature-gathering materials, uses “false, misleading words and phrases” intended to create “prejudice against the measure.” His lawsuit focuses on one summary sentence: “Eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree healthcare benefits for current public employees, including teachers, nurses, and peace officers, for future work performed.”

Reed objects to “eliminate,” “vested” and Harris’ reference to jobs generally held in high esteem by voters.

The pension-fund association says Reed’s objections are nonsense. The jobs referenced are among the largest groups Reed’s proposal would impact, according to the Monday court filing. “Vested” rights includes future benefits, it says, and Reed used “eliminate” and “vested” in a co-authored opinion piece about the measure on the conservative Fox & Hounds blog.

“Having previously used the word ‘eliminates’ to tout this very aspect of the initiative to their constituency, Petitioners now apparently fear that the voters at large will not embrace such a dramatic elimination of constitutional protections,” the association argues in its court filing. “That fear does not, however, justify this Court’s intervention to replace a perfectly accurate word, here, ‘eliminates.’”

Reed, a Democrat, said in a telephone interview that the last argument takes the words in his blog column out of context: “I don’t deny ‘eliminate’ is a word,” he said, “it just doesn’t apply to what we’re doing.”

A court hearing to debate the issue is set for Friday. Meanwhile, a mid-April deadline is bearing down on the mayor to collect more than 800,000 signatures from registered voters to qualify his proposal for this November’s ballot, and he hasn’t reported any money to launch a campaign. It’s likely that potential donors have concluded that the current ballot language is too toxic to support the initiative. Reed cannot begin collecting signatures until he’s done fighting over the summary language.

Reed stopped short of saying a 2014 effort is dead, but he acknowledged, “Practically, you cannot get 800,000 signatures in a month.”

So the lawsuit means less to this year’s effort but is crucial to reviving it in 2016, which Reed has always held out as a possibility.

“This has to be dealt with,” he said, “before we can move on.”

Reed v. Harris Amicus Brief

Related stories from Sacramento Bee