SAN DIEGO — A proposed ballot measure unveiled Thursday would aim to reduce government pension spending for state and local employees in the nation's most populous state by requiring voters to approve new benefits.
Former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio and former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed will try to tap the same sense of unease that led voters in those cities to approve pension-cutting plans in 2012. Their measure would apply to state, county and city employees throughout California, as well as public schools and universities and other local boards and agencies.
The campaign could become the latest high-profile showdown over taxpayer-funded retirement funds. Supporters say pension liabilities will keep libraries closed, leave potholes unfilled and deprive residents of key public services. Opponents say the cost-cutting measures deprive workers of rights gained at the bargaining table and make crucial jobs less attractive to potential recruits.
The proposal would require voters to approve defined benefits for new hires and pension increases for existing workers. Voters also would have to green-light a government that pays more than half of pension contributions for new hires.
"We're not making the decision on what type of plan will be implemented," said DeMaio, now a San Diego radio host. "We're simply saying, going forward, voters will have a seat at the table."
Attorney General Kamala Harris must craft a title and short summary before backers can begin collecting 585,407 voter signatures to qualify for the November 2016 ballot. The number of signatures — based on turnout in the last statewide election in 2014 — is a relatively low threshold and is expected to produce a crowded ballot topped by the U.S. presidential race.
Reed's last attempt to cut pensions through a statewide vote in 2014 fizzled when a state court rejected his challenge to the attorney general's description of the measure. Reed contended that Harris' language cast the measure in a negative light and hampered his ability to collect signatures. The former mayor dropped his bid after the legal setback.
Unions have battled repeatedly with DeMaio, a Republican who lost bids for San Diego mayor in 2012 and Congress in 2014, and Reed, a Democrat who was forced from office last year by term limits.
"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, a group that says it represents 1.6 million public employees and retirees.
DeMaio said organizers plan to collect between 650,000 and 750,000 signatures and raise $2.5 million to $3.5 million for the signature-gathering drive. DeMaio declined to say how much money has been committed.
Pension obligations figured prominently in settlement negotiations over the city of Stockton, which in 2012 became the nation's largest city to seek bankruptcy protection until Detroit replaced it. In the end, pensions in Stockton were untouched.
The California effort comes as Illinois lawmakers grapple with how to fix that state's worst-in-the-nation public-pension shortfall. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled last month that a 2013 law to fix it was unconstitutional.