The State Worker

Pensions, contracts on August agenda

The thermometer flirts with triple digits. The Legislature is in Week 3 of a month-long recess. Fewer luxury cars are parked around the Capitol, signaling that lobbyists are on hiatus, too.

So during this regularly scheduled break, let’s look at two stories California state workers should watch in coming weeks.

Pensions: Attorney General Kamala Harris has until Aug. 11 to issue the official title and summary language for a ballot proposal on public pensions. Former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, and former Republican San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio are behind it.

Both backed successful local pension-change ballot measures in their respective cities in 2012 and figure they can bring that mojo to a statewide proposal in 2016. Their plan would, among other things, require that voters authorize future public pension benefit increases. Beginning in 2019, new employees would not go into a traditional pension plan without voters’ OK.

Harris, who is running for U.S. Senate, must give the 1,200-word proposal a title and summary of no more than 100 words for use on petition materials.

Based on fights over the attorney general’s interpretation of previous pension measures, don’t be surprised if the proponents claim that Harris used poll-tested poison-pill language to misrepresent their plan and spin it against voters’ biases.

If that happens, Reed and DeMaio have three options: Fight the wording in court (Reed tried that with another pension measure and lost), start signature collection (but who would throw money into near-certain loser?) or submit a rewritten proposal crafted to counter Harris’ analysis.

The proposal’s proponents filed their measure early enough to allow for that third option without running afoul of deadlines that will loom late this year. So look for a revised proposal this fall.

Contracts: Labor pacts covering state craft and maintenance workers, correctional officers, scientists and engineers expired around the June 30 end of the fiscal year and their unions are now bargaining for new agreements. A fifth union representing firefighters is still under contract, but has reopened talks over pay.

The negotiations with Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration appear to have bogged down over salaries and retiree health benefits. The governor has offered modest raises, but also wants employees to contribute to retiree medical coverage, something most don’t do now.

Negotiations have to wrap up by early September or lawmakers, who must approve any labor deals, will be on recess (again) until January. The unions don’t want bad contracts, but they don’t want talks to drag out, either.

Watch for what Brown negotiates with the 30,000-member correctional officers union, which will send a clear message to the smaller groups now and set the stage for talks with other state-employee unions next year.