Ex-Politicians Propose Putting Pension Reform to California Voters

by | June 5, 2015

By Kathleen Wilson

Under a proposed initiative filed Thursday for the November 2016 ballot, voters would decide on pension benefits offered to government workers in California.

The statewide measure requires voter approval to provide pensions to state and local workers hired after 2018 or boost the benefits of current employees, according to the coalition backing the measure.

Employees of cities, counties, the state and public schools would all be affected by the measure, said former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio, leaders of the coalition. The Ventura County Taxpayers Association also is involved in the effort.

David Grau, a taxpayers association board member, said the measure was inspired in part by a judge's decision last year to remove a Ventura County pension initiative from the November 2014 ballot.

That proposal, which was backed by leaders of the taxpayers group, would have required new employees of county government to be enrolled in a defined contribution plan like the 401(k) programs common in private industry.

Elections officials determined that 32,000 valid signatures of county registered voters had been collected in a petition drive, enough to qualify the measure for the ballot. But Superior Court Judge Kent Kellegrew declared the initiative invalid, finding that a local measure could not be used to withdraw from a statewide system enacted by the Legislature.

Leaders of the association decided not to appeal, turning their efforts to a state measure they hoped would be upheld legally.

The association will now collect signatures and raise funds for the state measure, Grau said.

"We can't give up on something like this because we realize it is a significant issue for California," he said.

The initiative also would prohibit government employers from paying more than 50 percent of the cost of retirement benefits for new employees unless voters OK the exception. The requirement would apply to not only the ongoing or normal costs but the unfunded liabilities.

Both newly hired and veteran Ventura County government employees have begun paying half the costs of their pensions. They do not pay into the unfunded liability, which exceeded $800 million in the latest actuarial valuation in June 2014.

Labor interests predicted that the measure would fail and said a state law that took effect in 2013 had created billions in savings.

"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.

Unions likely will mount a "full court press" to make the public aware of the folly of the measure, said Ed Lacey, member of a group that opposed the local initiative.

Coalition leaders said they plan to collect 660,000 signatures, about 100,000 more than the requirement, over the next six months.

(c)2015 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)