The State Worker

California pension overhaul advocates move forward after Kamala Harris issues analyses

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed meets the press to talk about his failed effort to put a public pension reform measure on the ballot at the Sacramento Press Club Thursday April 3, 2014.
San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed meets the press to talk about his failed effort to put a public pension reform measure on the ballot at the Sacramento Press Club Thursday April 3, 2014.

California moved one step closer to a public retirement fight after the state issued official summaries for two pension-change ballot proposals on Thursday – and for the first time neither labor unions nor the measures’ proponents griped that the language was politically slanted or inaccurate.

“It’s not the most positive way to describe the initiative,” said Chuck Reed, the former San Jose mayor who is backing the proposal, “but a least it meets the legal requirement to be accurate.”

Union spokesman Steve Maviglio said his clients wouldn’t criticize the language, but predicted that if a measure reaches the November 2016 ballot, “We’ll throw the kitchen sink at it.”

One proposal would put state and local employees who first join a public pension system on Jan. 1, 2019, or later into 401(k)-style retirement savings plans that guarantee fixed contributions from employers instead of guaranteed retirement payments by government agencies.

The second plan would cap the amount of money government employers could pay for new hires’ retirement benefits to a certain percentage of their salary. For most new employees, employers could contribute no more than 11 percent of wages, or a maximum of 13 percent for police, firefighters and other public safety workers.

Voters could override the downgraded benefits or the cost caps at the ballot box.

Harris’ title and summary of the measures are key, since that’s the language that voters see during a signature collection campaign. Reed must gather 585,407 signatures from registered voters to put either measure on the ballot.

Reed and pension-change proponents before him have disagreed with the words that Harris, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate, has used to describe their measures. Prior titles and summaries have called out the impact of the proposals on “teachers, nurses, and peace officers,” whose jobs are held in high esteem by voters.

Those prior descriptions also said the proposals would alter vested benefits for current employees, which union polling showed was anathema to voters.

Reed sued Harris over the title and summary assigned to his 2014 measure, but an appellate court dismissed the case as moot last summer.

This time, Harris’ new titles and summaries don’t name specific job classes. Instead, they say Reed’s proposals amend the state constitution “to impose restrictions on pension and retiree health care benefits for new public employees, including those working in K-12 schools, higher education, hospitals and police protection.”

There’s no mention of changing vested benefits since the measures were written to unambiguously affect future hires and leave current employees untouched.

Now Reed’s attention will turn to quickly polling voter response to both measures, he said, looking for one with at least 60 percent support, a margin, he says, that can withstand erosion that will occur in a heated campaign.

He will then peddle the one with the highest favorable numbers to potential donors. He estimates he’ll need roughly $2 million to $3 million for a three-month signature collection effort.

Assuming the measure qualifies, Reed said he figures “we’re in the ballpark of $25 million to run a statewide campaign.”