Hoodwinking Voters and Empowering Politicians

Paul Jacob

7/13/2014 12:01:00 AM - 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.

“The action by the Phoenix City Council last week to try to kill a pension reform initiative by adopting a wildly misleading ballot description was dirty,” wrote Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb. He concluded by noting that the council “betrayed the voters and dishonored themselves.”

Que sera, sera.

This week, in a state far from Arizona, but also starting with the letter “A,” I visited with the leaders of Arkansas Term Limits, a grassroots group formed to oppose Issue 3, which was placed on this November’s ballot by state legislators.

What is Issue 3?

When Arkansans step into the voting booth, they’ll see the following language: “An Amendment Regulating Contributions to Candidates for State or Local Office, Barring Gifts from Lobbyists to Certain State Officials, Providing for Setting Salaries for Certain State Officials, and Setting Term Limits for Members of the General Assembly.”

It is what voters won’t be told that has term limits supporters up in arms. You see, Issue 3 doesn’t set term limits at all. Voters already did that by citizen initiative back in 1992 — and then reaffirmed those same limits in 2004, when state legislators tried a different scam to undo them.

Issue 3 re-sets term limits . . . doubling time allowed, or more!

Currently, state representatives are limited to three two-year terms or six years. Issue 3 would allow them more than twice that: eight terms or 16 years. State senators are now capped at two four-year terms or eight years. Issue 3 doubles that limit to four terms or 16 years.

If state legislators desire weaker term limits (and insist on being told loudly NO by the electorate), then let them put the measure on the ballot and provide voters the facts necessary to decide. But since legislators know darn good and well that voters do not support weakening the limits, their plan is simply to hoodwink the people.

The people they say they serve.

Furthermore, the anti-term limits amendment is being pushed as an ethics reform — a very unethical ethics reform. It’s not enough that these wannabe careerists attempt to trick voters about “setting” term limits, they also seek to sneak this most significant provision by voters by hiding it behind so-called ethics reforms that might appeal to voters.

Again and again, our representatives not only fail to represent us, they aggressively lie and cheat us. Thank goodness, we still have the right under the First Amendment to speak out and criticize their reprehensible behavior.

Of course, those pesky free speech rights may be jettisoned, too, if politicians have their way. As I wrote in this space weeks ago, Senate Joint Resolution 19 — introduced by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and co-sponsored by 45 other Democrat senators — would take a Sharpie and cross “freedom of speech” out of our Bill of Rights, replacing the First Amendment’s restriction that “Congress shall pass no law” with giving Congress complete, unrestrained power to control any and all fundraising and spending in congressional elections.

SJR 19 is repeatedly billed as overturning Citizens United and other U.S. Supreme Court decisions, thus ending “corporate personhood.” But it just simply doesn’t do that. Instead, it hands all power to Congress, which may or may not reverse those decisions in the course of regulating their own campaigns and the money their challengers and other individuals and groups may raise or spend against them.

After passage of SJR 19, if Congress enacted a statute banning citizens from spending any money that could conceivably be construed as affecting a congressional race, it would be perfectly constitutional. Your First Amendment right to speak out to your fellow citizens?

What First Amendment right?

Last Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send this constitutional amendment to the full Senate.

Que sera, sera.