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San Diego Pension Ballot Test is On

Joel Fox
Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee

A judge has ruled that the San Diego pension reform measure can stay on the June ballot and the rest of the state and nation will be watching.

Public employee pensions have become a big issue nationally. Polls have indicated voters are concerned that pensions will eat into revenue used for other government services, however, there has not been a major test at the polls on both establishing a remodeled pension program for new hires and also making changes in the pension system for current workers.

The San Diego proposal does both.

If the initiative passes, new city workers will be moved into a 401 (k) type plan and a freeze on pensionable pay for current workers will be put in place for five years.

A few days ago, I argued that with state pension initiatives sidelined, union efforts were underway to knock off some local pension challenges.

Trying to remove from the ballot a pension reform championed by Mayor Jerry Sanders, city councilman Carl DeMaio and others, local public employee unions, supported by the Public Employee Retirement Board, asked a judge to postpone the vote while the Retirement Board looked into charges of unfair labor practices.

Last week, San Diego Superior Court Judge William Dato turned away the challenge. However, he said the labor unions could come back to court to invalidate the measure if it should pass.

Unlikely a court would reverse the will of the voters in such a case.

If both sides go through the rigor of a campaign and the people decide that San Diego has to change its pension system, is a judge really going to throw out the people’s will? The argument is over a vague notion that the mayor refused to negotiate over pension policy while at the same time pursuing a ballot measure as a private citizen.

I doubt the courts would step in if the measure passes. Remember humorist Finley Peter Dunne’s much repeated phrase: “The Supreme Court follows the election returns.” Other courts, as well.

Certainly there are instances when courts have overturned the voters’ decision, especially when constitutional questions arise. We are in the middle of what could turn out to be such an instance with the legal fight over Prop 8.

However, the San Diego legal challenge seems to be no more than a political move. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to use the courts as a political tool when it comes to ballot measures.

The San Diego pension measure election results would be an important marker on how the electorate feels about pension reforms. Given Judge Dato’s ruling to keep the measure on the ballot, we are about to find out what the voters think.

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