Local Government
Opinion: What’s in a Word? When It Comes to Chuck Reed’s Pension Reform, Plenty

Opinion: What’s in a Word? When It Comes to Chuck Reed’s Pension Reform, Plenty

By Jim Unland, President, San Jose Police Officers’ Association

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed announced last week that he planned to file a lawsuit against California Attorney General Kamala Harris over the title and summary for his proposed measure to enable elected officials to reduce the retirement benefits of teachers, firefighters, police officers, school bus drivers and other public employees

The reason, Reed says, is that the Attorney General used the word “eliminate” in describing his proposal to end the vested benefit rights of public employees.

“This is the only recourse we have to correct something that is inaccurate and misleading,” said Reed of the Attorney General’s description of his measure.

But Reed has a problem: he and his allies used the same word he’s criticizing the Attorney General for using – “eliminate” – when detailing his ballot measure.

On January 2, 2014 the exact time period when the Attorney General’s office was crafting the Title and Summary, Reed and Pacific Grove Mayor Bill Kampe penned  an op-ed for Fox & Hounds, where they referred to their plan to end vested rights benefit by writing “To eliminate these roadblocks to reform, we have authored a ballot initiative that would empower state and local leaders to negotiate changes to employees’ future retirement benefit accruals, while protecting the benefits they have earned.”

Reed is not alone among pension slashers who have used the word “eliminate” when describing the initiative. Writing for Bloomberg, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Steven Malanga, noted “Reed’s proposed ballot initiative to change the state constitution would specifically eliminate the notion that employee benefits are a contractual right that bars all future changes.”

Another problem for Reed is that even the state’s newspapers credited the Attorney General for her even-handedness in describing his measure. Here’s the state’s largest newspaper’s assessment: “Last month, The LA Times’ editorial board urged Harris to draft a spin-free summary. Harris did a fair job. The title is straightforward: Public employees. Pension and Retiree Healthcare Benefits. Her ballot language is unlikely to bias voters in any major way. The title and summary are boring and wonky, but that’s the nature of pension and government finance discussions.”

Conservative Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters also piped in with a similar review of the Attorney General’s assessment. He credited newspaper editorials pressuring “Harris, in effect, to play it straight…the synopsis was, on balance, accurate and fairly straightforward.”

The irony of Reed complaining about the description of this measure being unfair is not lost on many of us who watched the San Jose mayor’s attempt to manipulate the description of Measure B, his city’s pension measure that was recently ruled unconstitutional by a California court. Reed and his political allies attempted to put the measure on the ballot with a slanted description. A court ruled against Reed, requiring changes in the description.

Why is Reed’s initiative unlikely to make the ballot? Because the smart money in California knows it is destined to fail. Voters may support ending pension system abuses, but they don’t back, as Reed would say, “eliminating” the retirement security of those who keep our streets safe, teach our kids, and protect our property over the title and summary for his proposed measure to enable elected officials to reduce the retirement benefits of teachers, firefighters, police officers, school bus drivers and other public employees.

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Jim Unland is the President of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association.

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