As a proponent of a tough workers compensation reform initiative, I sat in the gallery of the State Assembly in 2004 to watch the final vote on a legislative version of reforming the workers compensation system (the no-fault system of insurance for workplace injuries.) I heard over and over again from legislators who rose to speak on the Assembly floor that day something to the effect: “If it weren’t for that cursed initiative I would vote against this bill, but I will vote Yes.”

The measure passed the Assembly 77-3 despite the surly attitudes toward it by many of the speakers. They preferred the legislative reform to the initiative reform we were about to file, because we gathered enough signatures. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had achieved a major victory for his agenda of improving the business climate in the state.

The pressure of an initiative reform forced the legislature to reach agreement on a more mutually agreed to, many would argue, less severe reform on an important statewide issue. That strategy could play out again over pension reform.

With two initiatives filed yesterday by the California Pension Reform organization, Democrats and their public employee union allies are taking a second look at the pension reform proposal put forth by Governor Jerry Brown last week.

When Brown first announced his 12-point plan, he heard negative responses from the unions. Now David Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, which represents public employees and retirees, is saying: “We will continue to work with the governor and legislature to craft changes in the state’s complex pension system rather than have extremist politically motivated ballot box measures like this one.”

Echoes of the workers comp fight from eight years ago.

While we decided not to file the workers comp initiative signatures because we felt the legislative reforms would be a great improvement over the current system, as the Brown proposals now stand they don’t go far enough to fix the growing financial pressure exerted on government budgets by pension obligations.

The initiative proponents will have to judge if the reform legislation, as it works its way through the legislature, comes close enough to solving the problem so that initiative proponents will decide not to go forward with the initiative. As the San Jose Mercury News reported, Mike Genest, a former state finance director for Schwarzenegger working with the pension reform initiative group, said,  “We would prefer to see a legislative solution to this problem….”

Anyone interested in a blow-by-blow telling of the workers comp reform battle should check out the chapter dedicated to the issue in Joe Mathews’ book on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election and first term in office, The People’s Machine.