Chuck Reed Takes Pension Reform to Public

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

In politics, if you’re not making someone mad, you’re not doing your job. When a person is elected, we expect him or her to decide what the important problems are and then work to fix them, regardless of whose toes get stepped on.

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s plan for a 2014 initiative to reform the state’s public employee pension system has brought non-stop attacks from California’s powerful labor unions, something few Democratic politicians are willing to risk. But Reed has decided to challenge a system he believes threatens the financial future of the state and its cities and counties. That willingness to make a tough political call makes Reed my choice for Californian of the year.

Reed was in his 50s when he ventured into politics. An Air Force veteran and longtime environmental and land-use attorney, he won a San Jose City Council seat in 2000 and parlayed that into a 59 percent landslide in the 2006 mayor’s race. He was re-elected in 2010 with nearly 77 percent of the vote.

Distinctly short of the easy-going charisma most successful politicians seem to be born with, the 65-year-old Reed is known as an anti-schmoozer, someone more comfortable talking about government finance and green construction than with the back-slapping and ribbon cutting that makes up a big part of every mayor’s day.

But Reed’s blunt manner and continuing efforts to stabilize the long-shaky finances of the country’s 10th largest city have been a hit with voters. And when he argued in 2012 that the city’s soaring pension costs were forcing San Jose to lay off workers and cut services in the fast-growing city, they listened.

Measure B on the June 2012 ballot called for city workers to pay more into their pension plans, gave the City Council the right to suspend cost of living increases in a fiscal emergency and required a city-wide vote before retirement benefits could be increased. It passed with 69 percent of the vote.

Reed’s proposed statewide initiative, which is expected to be approved by the Attorney General for circulation in January, is a constitutional amendment that would allow state and local government to cut future retirement benefits for public workers, but would not affect any benefits already earned. It also allows voters to amend pension and retiree healthcare benefits.

Currently, current employees can only have their increased, not reduced. Pension benefits public workers receive on their first day of employment serve as a floor, but not a ceiling.

As a mayor, Reed has seen “how the rising cost of public employee retirement benefits have forced cities, counties and other government agencies to cut public services, lay off hard-working employees and defer badly needed improvements to critical infrastructure,” he said in an Oct. 26 letter to California labor leaders. “The system is simply unsustainable.”

Not surprisingly, the unions disagree. The proposed initiative would “allow employers to unilaterally cut, or even completely eliminate the retirement benefits and retiree health care of those public servants in the middle of their careers,” the labor leaders said in a response. The measure “punishes the middle-class workers who teach our children, build our roads and keep our communities safe.”

The reality, as is usually the case, likely lies somewhere in the middle. But what can’t be denied is that public pension and retiree health care costs are taking up a steadily growing chunk of state and local budgets and that every dollar that goes toward retirement benefits is a dollar that can’t be used for programs and infrastructure that serve the people of California.

Is Reed’s initiative the best way to deal with the problem? Well, that likely will be up to the voters to decide.

But public pensions and retirement costs are vital issues that affect everyone in California. They deserve a wider discussion than those held behind closed doors every few years in state and local contract negotiations.

With less than a year left in his final term as San Jose mayor, Chuck Reed could easily have coasted to the finish line, content with what he’s done for the city. Instead, he’s taking the pension reform issue to a wider stage, braving what’s guaranteed to be a storm of personal attacks to get a controversial initiative before the public

Win or lose, it’s a discussion – and a fight – California needs to have. And for having the courage to start that fight, Chuck Reed has my vote for Californian of the year.

Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano made his mark this year by demonstrating that when it comes to what’s best for Californians, results should trump philosophy.

A year ago, Ammiano backed what he called the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which essentially extended all protections other California workers have – overtime, meal breaks, uninterrupted time off, sick days and other benefits – to maids, health care attendants, personal aides and other domestic workers.

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed that wide-ranging measure in 2012, saying that was just too expensive.

But instead of standing his ideological ground and declaring there could be no compromise, Ammiano acted like a politician – in the best sense of the word. He worked with the governor to come up with a much narrower bill Brown could sign.

As a result, tens of thousands of the state’s lowest-paid workers will get a much-needed raise and improved working conditions. And California legislators will get a reminder of just how government should work.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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