2018 Will Be No Better for Reed/DeMaio Pension Measures

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

In their decision this week to abandon their 2016 ballot measures designed to slash retirement security for teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public workers, former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio predicted that their chances would be better in 2018.

Their thinking? It’s an off-year election, more communities will be facing increases in their pension payments, and because of the pending Supreme Court case, unions won’t be able to compete with the out-of-state funding that Texas Enron billionaire John Arnold might put in their pockets for a pension measure.

They’re wrong.

  • The top-of-the-ticket races in 2018 will be for U.S. Senate and Governor. In both cases, the battles could very likely be between two Democrats (particularly if Sen. Dianne Feinstein decides against re-election). Instead of depressing the Democratic base, this could likely spur higher-than-usual Democratic turnout. The old rules of a more conservative electorate in off-years no longer apply as the GOP/conservative base continues its decline.
  • Protecting retirement security will always be the #1 issue for labor. It impacts every union member and millions of voting retirees. Whatever happens at the Supreme Court, this will be labor’s top ballot box priority. Unions will continue to throw the kitchen sink at whatever Reed and DeMaio craft for 2018.
  • The Reed/DeMaio political track record is one of continual failure. Both measures they pushed at the local level, in San Diego and San Jose, have been blown up. Their 2014 effort, as well as well as their finger-pointing lawsuit against the Attorney General, was a flop. Their 2016 measures went through multiple reiterations. None of them polled well – even with the title and summary from the AG that satisfied their bellyaching. Fatigued donors rightfully will have little faith in their political acumen, particularly after they called this year’s original measures “bulletproof.”
  • Smart Republican political operatives don’t want to see anti-union measures on the ballot. Ever. Neither do corporate interests. The reason is simple: it energizes union turnout. If Republicans are to make any legislative gains in 2018, the last thing they want is millions of union members – whose pensions would be at stake – to show up to the polls.
  • Anti-union measures have repeatedly failed in California, even in off-year and special elections. The first major anti-pension measure, backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, dates back to 2005 and failed before it made the ballot. Prop 32, on the 2012 ballot, was overwhelmingly defeated despite strong early polling showing it would win and considerable funding behind it from the same forces advocating pension cutting. Even in red states, dramatic anti-pension measures get turned down at the polls. Witness the overwhelming rejection of a proposal similar to Reed and DeMaio’s in Arizona and another one in Ohio.
  • Unless there’s a dramatic U-turn, California’s economy should continue to be in relatively strong shape. Communities have been adding police, fire, parks staff, and other government services in the past few years – not cutting them. The argument that pension costs squeeze out other services simply won’t resonate, just as it doesn’t now.
  • Thanks to the Rainy Day fund and prudent fiscal management by the Governor and Legislature, the state is likely to continue to be in the black as well. That provides an overall positive fiscal environment instead of the gloom and doom messaging anti-pension advocates unsuccessfully have pushed.

For all these reasons, a 2018 ballot measure attacking pensions faces an uphill climb. The most likely scenario: pension changes will continue to be negotiated at the bargaining table – right where those discussions should occur – instead of on the ballot.

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