The State Worker

California pension initiative backers preparing new measures

Then-San Diego mayoral candidate and city councilman Carl DeMaio walks out of a polling place in 2012.
Then-San Diego mayoral candidate and city councilman Carl DeMaio walks out of a polling place in 2012. AP

A group hoping to put a public pension overhaul before California voters next year will soon file two new initiatives they say will get around a political obstacle that has blocked previous measures.

Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman who is spearheading the initiative effort along with former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, wouldn’t disclose details about the new proposals, but indicated in a telephone interview that they would take “a totally different approach” than a measure his group filed over the summer.

The idea, DeMaio said, was to see whether Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris used what they consider “poison pill” language to describe the new measures as she has three previous pension change proposals since 2011. If she does, DeMaio said, “we think she’ll be giving us the evidence we need” to successfully sue Harris for unfairly skewing her description of pension initiatives.

The attorney general’s office writes the short title and summary of all ballot initiative proposals. The language is important because it appears on petition materials used to qualify them for the ballot, often shaping voters’ first impression of an initiative’s contents. Perhaps even more important, the wording affects potential contributors’ willingness to underwrite a campaign.

Unions, which strongly oppose the Reed/DeMaio effort, note that the campaign has virtually no funding yet. Labor spokesman Steve Maviglio recently ridiculed an online drive to gather volunteer signature gatherers as “nothing more than a way to boost the finances of DeMaio’s political committee.”

“This is the gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” Maviglio said Friday, in reference to former pension measure attempts. “They’ve messed this up so many times, we have complete confidence they’ll do it again.”

Harris, who is running for U.S. Senate, has been accused of employing poll-tested language about previous pension measures to make them as politically unpalatable as possible. In 2014, Reed took Harris to court, alleging she described a pension measure he proposed with “false and misleading words and phrases which argue for the measure’s defeat, is argumentative, and creates prejudice against the measure, rather than merely informing voters of its chief purposes and points ...”

The courts ruled against Reed. Harris’ representatives have said throughout that she has fairly characterized the pension measures that came across her desk. They say claims of bias are commonly leveled at attorneys general writing titles and summaries.

Reed and DeMaio took similar stock of Harris’ analysis of their measure this year, noting that she used similar language to describe their proposal to require voters approve increases to public pensions and other local and state government retirement benefits.

Harris said the proposal “eliminates constitutional protections” for current employees, including those in “K-12 schools, higher education, hospitals, and police protection” and would lead to “significant effects – savings and costs – on state and local governments.”

DeMaio this week accused Harris of “collusion” with labor unions to keep the proposal off the ballot. If the same thing happens to the new proposals, he said, “she’s going to have to explain to California voters why she’s using poll-tested lines. And that will really look bad in an election season.”

The new pension proposals, DeMaio said, “will be filed within the next week or so.”

Stay on top of news about where you work and what you earn. Sign up for The State Worker newsletter, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for the latest events, insight and analysis of politics, policy and trends that matter to California’s state government employees.