Paul Jacob

"Political language,” warned George Orwell, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Politicians understand that words matter and can be used to trick people. Which is why they can hardly be trusted to express themselves candidly in their own campaigns — or, heaven forbid, write ballot titles for important measures upon which citizens will vote.

Earlier this year, citizens in Phoenix, Arizona, gathered more than 50,000 voter signatures to put an initiative on the ballot to reform their public employee pension system. The initiative moves new city hires to a 401(k)-style retirement system. While it does not affect any retirement benefits already earned by current workers or retirees, the measure would also end what’s known as “pension spiking,” the practice whereby government workers manipulate overtime, vacation and sick leave in their final months and years of employment to dramatically increase their pension payments for as long as they live.

Spiking costs city taxpayers $12 million a year.

That’s especially troublesome considering the pension system is already underfunded by $1.5 billion.

The annual price tag to the city for the pension mess has grown a whopping 40 percent since 2011. In dollar terms, Phoenix pension costs have gone from $35 million in 2003 to $266 million this year. Not surprisingly, the tab for pensions is burning a huge hole in the budget, threatening both higher taxes and service reductions. The city’s credit rating has already been downgraded

The one thing the initiative doesn’t touch? Pensions for policemen and fire fighters. These public safety workers are part of a statewide system, which is why the initiative specifically states that it does not “affect individuals who are members of, or are eligible to join, any other public retirement system in the State of Arizona such as the Public Safety Employees’ Retirement System.”

The Phoenix Pension Reform Act seems quite popular with the public, but not with public employee unions or a majority of the Phoenix City Council. Last week, the council officially set the ballot language voters will read when they go to the polls in November. Knowing the political popularity of police and fire, the council wrote a title claiming the measure would prevent the city from supporting public safety employees through the statewide system.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.