California pension reformer disputes write-up of initiative

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 07, 2014 7:39 PM
California pension reformer disputes write-up of initiative

By Jim Christie

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A controversial campaign to reform California's public pensions faces an uncertain future after the state attorney general chose what the measure's backers consider to be unfriendly language for their proposed ballot initiative.

Chuck Reed, the mayor of San Jose and the driving force behind the proposal, told Reuters on Tuesday he will confer with supporters on whether to press ahead with trying to get the overhaul before voters later this year, and he might sue over Attorney General Kamala Harris' wording for the ballot. A decision should be made by the end of January, Reed said.

"It's inaccurate and that's a bit of a problem," Reed said of the attorney general's ballot summary, published late on Monday. The attorney general's office is tasked with writing the title and summary, limited to 100 words, for state ballot initiatives.

A Democrat, Reed has raised the ire of California's powerful public sector unions with his initiative after rallying San Jose voters to reduce retirement-related spending with changes to pensions offered by California's third-largest city.

Reed is particularly upset by the ballot summary's first sentence, which includes examples of politically popular public-sector workers. It says his measure "Eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree healthcare benefits for current public employees, including teachers, nurses, and peace officers, for future work performed."

Reed's statewide measure has garnered national attention as it would amend California's Constitution to allow changes in the future pension benefits of current public employees to help local governments in the most populous U.S. state control rising retirement-related spending.

Courts have interpreted the Constitution as barring changes to pensions after a public employee was hired. A county judge recently ruled invalid a part of San Jose's pension reform requiring city employees to contribute more to their pensions to maintain pension benefits.

Pension spending has become a growing concern nationwide amid lean times for state and local governments, and is a prominent issue in municipal bankruptcy cases of Detroit and the California cities of Stockton and San Bernardino.

A top official in the union coalition set to fight Reed also criticized the description by Harris' office.

"We are disappointed that the Attorney General's title and summary of the Reed measure doesn't speak to the main motivation of its proponents: to slash the retirement benefits and retiree health care of current and future employees," Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, said in a statement.

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Reed's campaign would need to collect 807,615 valid voters' signatures by June 5 to get the measure before voters. That would require raising funds to hire signature gatherers and for a bitter battle unions have vowed against the measure if Reed proceeds.

His campaign will likely conduct polls of the description of its measure to gauge voter reaction. Harris, also a Democrat, came under fire in 2012 for a description of another proposed ballot measure focused on pension reform. Supporters called their effort off after polling the description.

Reed said his campaign could file a lawsuit to try to force Harris' office to rewrite its description.

(Reporting by Jim Christie. Editing by Andre Grenonditing by Andre Grenon)