When Democratic former San Jose mayor Chuck Reed and Republican ex-San Diego councilmember Carl DeMaio finally unveiled the language for a promised attempt at getting a statewide public pension cutting measure to 2016 voters, the expectation was that Reed II would be a reined-in and more realistically-framed version of Reed I – last year’s failed attempt at undermining the public pension system.
That try for the 2014 ballot was aborted after Attorney General Kamala Harris slapped it with a candid, albeit politically untenable summary that frankly described the proposed constitutional amendment as targeting longstanding legal rights—rights that protect the pensions and retirement health care of the 1.64 million Californians enrolled in the state’s public pension systems.
But even veterans of the state’s public-sector retirement wars were unprepared for the sheer scale of what awaited them this time around.
The newest front in the battle over the retirement security of California’s public employees opened June 4 with the release of the language for a proposed ballot initiative that would rewrite the state’s constitution to virtually outlaw traditional defined-benefit pension plans for future state and municipal workers.
The measure, dubbed “The Voter Empowerment Act of 2016,” would effectively shift all new public employees from the various defined-benefit plans currently in place to 401(k) plans, beginning in 2019. It would then lock those plans in place by adding the burden of direct voter approval on government employers who want to continue offering traditional pensions after 2019.
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The security offered by defined-benefit retirement plans has been typically used by government employers to compete with the private sector in recruiting quality candidates for public workforces.
No city offers Californians a better example of voter-approved pension-cutting than San Jose. In 2012, then-mayor Chuck Reed, who is the co-author of the new “Voter Empowerment Act of 2016,” persuaded citizens to pass Measure B. Some provisions of the San Jose law were later thrown out by a Santa Clara County Superior Court, but an uneasy atmosphere lingers over this city whose public employees were vilified by Measure B’s supporters. Capital & Main recently discussed the fallout from Measure B and previous budget cuts, with a city firefighter who requested that only his first name be used.
Capital & Main: What do you see as the biggest problem facing the San Jose Fire Department today?
Matt: Don’t get me wrong, I love the department I work for . . . Unfortunately with the budget cuts that our department [has] faced [for] over a decade,
“California pension funds are running dry,” warned a recent Los Angeles Times headline.
“The unfunded liability— that’s the difference between promised benefits and projected funds to fulfill those obligations — grew from about $6.3 billion in 2003 to a little more than $198 billion in 2013,” Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat chimed in, helpfully doing the math to point out that’s a 30-fold increase in 11 years.
“The system, in short, is completely, utterly broken,” concluded the Orange County Register.
Despite nothing significant changing in the retirement plans themselves, public employee pensions are back in the news, and apparently panic is in the air.
A Ventura County judge Monday issued a setback to anti-pension zealots who have been working to roll back public employee benefits. The judge’s tentative ruling found fundamental flaws in a ballot measure to cut county employee pensions and concluded that putting it before voters would amount to nothing more than a waste of public tax dollars – a rebuke that must smart among groups who identify themselves as taxpayer advocates.
One of their central tactics has been to stir up resentment among the public, most of whom have seen their own benefits shrivel up over the years, then place measures on the ballot to slash public employee pensions. As Capital & Main’s Gary Cohn reported, anti-tax activists saw this particular Ventura measure as a template for what would be a wave of pension rollback measures.
“I guarantee you that when this passes, in 2016 every ’37 Act county will have this on their ballot,” Ventura County Supervisor Peter Foy said at the time.
Jon Coupal is nothing if not blunt when he describes one motive behind a Ventura County ballot measure that would replace the “defined benefit” pensions currently enjoyed by county employees and replace them with 401(k)-type plans for all future hires.
“This is meant to be a template for other counties,” Coupal tells Capital & Main. By that, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association’s president means the measure’s conservative and libertarian backers see the “Sustainable Retirement System Initiative” as the newest and most promising weapon in their assault on California’s public employee retirement plans. Having failed to place similar measures on state ballots in 2012 and 2014, a coalition of wealthy individuals, anti-tax activists and government privatizers has seized on an aspect of California law that allows 20 counties to fashion their own public employee retirement policies apart from the CalPERS system that administers such policies for nearly all of the state’s remaining 38 counties.
In 2011, the University of California, Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education put out a study that should have sparked mass rallies up and down the Golden State. The report found that nearly half of California workers will retire in or near poverty. In other words, a state once synonymous with the American Dream of economic opportunity and security is on a path to become a purgatory for millions of seniors.
It’s hard to square this alarming fact with the revelation last month that a group of mostly ultra-conservative electeds and activists will try to place a statewide measure on the 2014 ballot that would slash the pensions of government workers. The group, headed by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, includes Texas billionaire John Arnold, who has made “pension reform” a personal crusade.
The initiative would not only cut the retirement benefits of future public sector workers,
Last week San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed delivered his usual speech about the benefits of slashing the retirement benefits of his city’s public employees – and why he is now pushing for a statewide ballot measure that could dramatically change the lives of hundreds of thousands of Californians. Reed’s initiative – which he characterizes as a bipartisan effort and which hasn’t yet qualified for the 2014 ballot — would allow the state and local governments to reduce retirement benefits for current employees for the years of work they perform after the measure’s changes go into effect. What was not usual about Reed’s speech was its setting: The Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, 3,000 miles from California.
The latest chapter in the efforts to dismantle California’s public-sector retirement system was officially opened Tuesday when San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed submitted paperwork that begins the process of qualifying his latest pension initiative for next year’s statewide ballot.
The filing brings to a climax weeks of speculation about the timing of the proposed law after Frying Pan News first confirmed rumors of its existence when Gary Cohn published a leaked draft version last month and when we reported Reed’s remarks, delivered before a Hoover Institution conference on pensions, that indicated he was uncertain whether he would file for the 2014 or 2016 ballot. Now Reed is certain: It’s 2014 or never.
Called the Pension Reform Act of 2014, the measure seeks to rewrite California’s constitution in order to bypass its current guarantees of public pension rights. If passed by voters,
San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed made it official today – sort of. Speaking to a pension “restructuring” conference at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Reed said he hoped to file papers “in a few days” to put a ballot measure before voters that would allow cities in California to gut the retirement plans of their public employees. But he acknowledged that he and a group of fellow activists weren’t sure whether to put the measure on the ballot for November 2014 or sometime in 2016. (If the pension group wants to beat an approaching deadline and keep 2014 open as an option, it has to file papers soon.)
The lack of urgency contrasted with Reed’s half-hour talk, during which he painted a picture of a California teetering on the brink of pension-fund disaster, in which public safety employees would be laid off, libraries closed and retirement benefits decimated.
“Time is of the essence,” Reed warned – claiming that the longer his proposed amendment to the state constitution is postponed,
In a move to slash the retirement benefits of public employees in California, a group of mostly conservative policy advocates has been working behind the scenes on a possible 2014 ballot initiative. A copy of the still-secret draft initiative, which could dramatically impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Californians and send a signal nationwide, has been obtained by Frying Pan News. (See the document’s text following this article or click here.)
If enacted, the proposed law would allow the state and local governments to cut back retirement benefits for current employees for the years of work they perform after the changes go into effect. Previous efforts to curb retirement benefits for public employees have largely focused on newly hired workers, but the initiative would shrink pensions for workers who are currently on the job.
“This initiative defines that a government employee’s ‘vested rights’ only applies to pension and retiree healthcare benefits earned for service already rendered,
When Kentucky’s legislature adopted a bill intended to transform the Bluegrass State’s troubled pension system last spring, state officials were ecstatic. Signing the bill into law on April 4, Democratic governor Steve Beshear hailed it as groundbreaking legislation that would “solve the most pressing financial problem facing our state – our monstrous unfunded pension liability and the financial instability of our pension fund.”
Not everyone was convinced.
Critics, who include pension-fund experts, lawmakers and AARP Kentucky, claim the new law will hurt workers, taxpayers and retirees. What’s more, they say the law was largely crafted behind the scenes by an unusual alliance between two out-of-state organizations: the Pew Center on the States and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Some detractors go further and assert that the Arnold Foundation is using Pew’s sterling reputation for academic integrity as a fig leaf to hide its own free-market agenda.
See original feature by Gary Cohn, “Slash and Burn: The War Against California Pensions.”
Benjamin Gamboa doesn’t know John Arnold, but they are linked by a shared concern over the fate of public-employee pensions in California.
“I’m proud to have a pension,” the 30-year-old Gamboa says. “I believe every American should have a pension.”
The two men live in very different worlds. Gamboa is a research analyst at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, California. Arnold is a hedge-fund billionaire from Houston, Texas.
There’s another difference between them: Arnold recently had a representative present at a secret “pension summit” held at a Sacramento hotel, where strategies to limit public employee retirement benefits were discussed; Gamboa, a union member, did not – representatives of labor were specifically not invited.
“Pension reform” has become the latest battle cry in a seemingly endless war that has ostensibly been declared against tax-dollar waste, but whose single-minded purpose has been to slash the job protections and benefits enjoyed by California’s working middle class.
The headline to Daniel Borenstein’s recent Contra Costa Times column didn’t leave much to the imagination: “CalPERS planning to gut a key cost-control provision of new pension law.” Pairing CalPERS – the nation’s largest public employee retirement fund – with pension-reform sabotage promised red meat for conservatives who share the columnist’s disdain for unions. Borenstein didn’t let them down.
“By administrative fiat,” he wrote, “the California Public Employees’ Retirement System has undermined a key anti-spiking provision of the new state pension law that Gov. Jerry Brown signed last summer.” Not true, responded CalPERS, which claims Borenstein’s political biases led him to completely misrepresent its actions.
After sounding the alarm, Borenstein accused the government-run CalPERS of attempting to “fatten” pensions for new public employees while “eroding” the billions in tax dollar savings that the new law, crafted by Brown, was intended to create.