California Ballot Measure Would Cut Public Pensions

A proposed ballot measure unveiled Thursday would reduce pension payments for state and local government employees in the nation's most populous state.

Former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio and former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed will try to tap the same sense of unease that led voters in those cities to approve pension-cutting plans for city workers in 2012 and apply it on a much bigger scale. Supporters say pension liabilities will keep libraries closed, potholes unfilled and deprive taxpayers of basic public services.

The measure would extend to state, county, and city employees in California, as well as public schools, public universities and other local boards and agencies. It will face spirited opposition from organized labor.

The proposal would require voter approval for any defined benefit for new hires and pension increases for existing workers. It also says voters would have to allow the government to cut pensions or contribute more than half of an employee's retirement costs.

"We're not making the decision on what type of plan will be implemented,'' DeMaio said. "We're simply saying, going forward, voters will have a seat at the table.''

Attorney General Kamala Harris must craft a title and short summary before backers can begin collecting 585,407 voter signatures to qualify for the November 2016 ballot. The number of signatures – based on turnout in the last statewide election in 2014 – is a relatively low threshold and is expected to produce a crowded ballot topped by the U.S. presidential race.

Reed's last attempt to cut pensions through a statewide vote in 2014 fizzled early when a state court rejected his challenge to the attorney general's description of the measure. Reed contended that Harris' language cast the measure in a negative light and hampered his ability to collect signatures. The former mayor dropped his bid after the legal setback.

DeMaio, who is now a San Diego radio host, said the latest effort will avoid that pitfall by allowing voters to approve any pension-cutting moves outlined in the proposed constitutional amendment.

Unions have battled repeatedly with DeMaio, a Republican who lost bids for San Diego mayor in 2012 and Congress in 2014, and Reed, a Democrat who was forced from office last year by term limits.

"This is yet another destined-to-fail attempt to eliminate the retirement security of teachers, firefighters, school bus drivers and other public employees they have earned and agreed to in good faith at the bargaining table,'' said Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, a group that says it represents 1.6 million public employees and retirees.

DeMaio said organizers plan to collect between 650,000 and 750,000 signatures and raise $2.5 million to $3.5 million for the signature-gathering drive. He declined to say how much is already in the bank.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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