California Pension Follies Continue

Steven Maviglio
Principal of Forza Communications, a Sacramento-based public affairs/campaign firm

When San Diego radio talk show host and failed Congressional candidate Carl DeMaio first unveiled his pension measure in March of this year, he boasted to Reuters news that “We have done a lot of legal work to make sure this initiative is bulletproof.”

Turns out, the measure had more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. Independent legal experts like Clark Kelso panned it, saying that it did apply to existing public workers — directly contradicting DeMaio’s statements that it didn’t.

Even one of the state’s most ardent pension bashers, Contra Costa Times editorial writer Dan Borenstein trashed the initiative, admonishing DeMaio not to “continue to falsely pitch the measure.” Bornstein also gave Attorney General Kamala Harris kudos for correctly describing the impact of the measure in its title and summary — undercutting DeMaio’s insistence that the Attorney General had falsely labeled it for political reasons.

Knowing that the provisions facing criticism would make the measure dead on arrival if it ever appeared on the ballot, DeMaio shelved it.  The new plan: introduce measures that will presumably only affect new employees.

Once again, DeMaio said these measures were legally airtight. He threatened the Attorney General with a lawsuit if she described them otherwise (DeMaio’s partner in the endeavor, former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, previously failed in his suit against the AG).

Yet two weeks later, DeMaio amended the two versions of these same measures. Once again, more flaws were noted in the press. For example, as submitted, the measures would have wiped out the pensions of teachers who transferred from one school district to another, for example.

No one is sure if DeMaio will go back to the drawing board yet again. Pension experts say there continue to be provisions in the latest round of measures that would affect existing employees (including their death and disability benefits). Financial analysts say they threaten the sustainability of the state’s pension funds. Meanwhile, conservative critics say the new measures do nothing to affect existing liabilities — the main reason Reed and DeMaio say they filed them in the first place.

Meanwhile, even Republican activists are wary of the measures. They failed to endorse the DeMaio efforts at their recent convention. Many quietly fear that they will propel labor turnout in key districts and endanger Legislative seats that GOP won in the last election. And the sloppy political and legal efforts by DeMaio (who lost his last Congressional race because of campaign miscues) are enough to scare off anyone — even out-of-state billionaires — who might be thinking of funding this effort.

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