The State Worker

Chuck Reed abandons push for California pension measure on 2014 ballot

The push for a government pension measure on the November ballot died Friday when its most public backer called it quits.

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and his allies officially gave up after a judge rejected Reed’s challenge to language describing the measure for purposes of signature collection.

Despite the loss in court, the Democratic mayor said he and his allies “remain committed” to rolling back what they believe are unaffordable government pensions and will be “targeting the 2016 election cycle for our proposed pension reform initiative.”

The measure would have changed the state constitution to give government employers, under certain circumstances, the authority to freeze accrued retirement benefits for current employees and then reduce them in the future. A body of case law says that public pensions, once promised, cannot be cut without an offsetting benefit.

Reed and others who backed his measure say public pensions cannot be sustained at the benefit levels promised without siphoning money from crucial government services. Unions counter that the measure scapegoats government workers, that changes must be bargained and that officials such as Reed exaggerate the issue for personal political gain.

The delays caused by the litigation and the court’s ruling itself afforded Reed a relatively graceful political path to retreat. His campaign was starved for money with no reported contributions except for $200,000 given last year by Enron Corp. trader John D. Arnold – and that was money given at Reed’s behest to his local chamber of commerce.

Political experts estimated Reed would have needed at least $2 million to gather enough signatures had he started in January, plus many times that much to wage a campaign against organized labor.

Reed’s political task may be even tougher in 2016 because in California, more Democratic voters typically vote in presidential elections than midterm contests.

Other pension-initiative campaigns over the last several years have failed to launch because no one would write big checks, said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, because potential donors aren’t eager to tangle with the unions.

“Nobody wants to take on Goliath,” Pitney said, “because Goliath usually wins.”