The Left Stuff Blog: What Really Went Wrong with the California GOP’s Pension ‘Reform’ Effort

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The California Capitol in Sacramento

The California Capitol in Sacramento (File Photo)

There’s been plenty of hand-wringing during the last week about the decision by California Pension Reform to suspend their effort to put a measure on the November ballot that would have slashed retirement security for millions of Californians. The Sacramento Bee’s “State Worker” columnist Jon Ortiz had a post-mortem in the paper today http://www.sacbee.com/2012/02/16/4267755/the-state-worker-pension-measure.html that did a good job at summing things up but left a few items out that deserve to be mentioned.

Here’s my take.

* The Effort Behind the Measure Was Partisan — Instead of building bipartisan consensus for a ballot measure, the backers decided to try to make it an anti-union political play for Republicans. The chief fundraiser was a former GOP party chairman. The main proponent was a former Republican legislative and Schwarzenegger Administration aide. The architect/author of the plan, Mike Genest, was a long-time Republican legislative staffer and Schwarzenegger Department of Finance head. It boasted former Nixon cabinet secretary George Shultz as its big-name supporter. And the spokesperson was Schwarzenegger’s press secretary. That’s no way to make a measure appeal to Democrats and the growing number of independent voters in California. A smarter move would have been to involve Democrats on the ground floor of the campaign to make it bipartisan from the get-go.

* The Non-Partisan LAO, not the AG, Did It In — Opponents of the measure got an unexpected Christmas present when the nonpartisan Legislative Analysts Office gave the measures unexpected blistering assessments in late December. The LAO, which had cheered the Little Hoover Commission’s findings on pensions as well as the Governors proposal, put a pricetag on the measure of more than $1 billion per year for the next 30 years. It also said it had numerous legal and constitutional problems. While the initiative backers blasted the Attorney General for her Title and Summary, the real problem was the LAO’s scathing analysis. The AG simply drew her assessment from the LAO’s.

* The Campaign Overreached with Its Measures — Instead of a modest measure that would have addressed the headline-grabbing voter concerns about pension spiking, pensions awarded to felons, and the practice of buying additional years of state service known as “airtime,” the ballot measure authors bit off more than they could chew with an all encompassing attempt to pare back pensions for the long haul. The vast scope of the initiative left it vulnerable to the multiple weaknesses identified by the LAO.

* No Sugar Daddy — No matter how flawed, ballot measures often have backers willing to write fat checks to ensure they get on the ballot. This one was an orphan. The backers say that the Title & Summary chilled fundraising, but big bucks should have been banked long before that.

So now what?

There’s lots of sour grapes among the measures backers these days. They say the Governor and the Legislature won’t produce any real savings now that the initiatives are off the table.

But I wouldn’t be so sure. The Governor has put forward an ambitious 12-point reform plan. No one expects the Legislature to rubber stamp it, but I’d be surprised if lawmakers don’t move forward with enough changes in the state’s pension system to put this issue to rest for years to come.

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