A Pension Initiative Could Affect Other Election Issues

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Few would disagree with public employee union leaders when they declare their coalition would be out in force to defeat the new pension reform initiative filed by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and others.  The question is how such an organized effort to defeat this one measure will play with other candidate and ballot issues in the same election?

Warning: Mayor conjecturing ahead with inevitable twists and turns on the political trail that could disrupt this current view.

This speculation assumes the pension plan makes the ballot. That is not a sure thing. Many dollars would be needed to qualify the measure, let alone run a difficult statewide campaign, and there is little indication that the needed revenue is available at this point.

If the pension reform does make the ballot and produces a surge of union coalition voters, it could have an affect on a ballot that seems to have little draw at this point. A low turnout election with one major issue driving voters means those one-issue voters could propel other contests in unexpected ways.

Little buzz has been building over the election of statewide officers in the 2014 general election. Governor Jerry Brown is considered an odds-on-favorite to win re-election. If that situation doesn’t change, the top state job won’t rally voters to the polls.

Some have conjectured that under the top-two primary system a couple of Democrats in this heavily blue state may face off in the general election for one of the lower constitutional offices. That might see both candidates in a particular statewide race appealing to the union coalition for support with the one stronger on the pension issue getting endorsements.

A cautionary tale for this scenario comes from Los Angeles, where a major issue in the recent mayoral campaign was public union support from Department of Water and Power workers. The candidate spurned by the union, Eric Garcetti, won.

Other potential measures on the November 2014 ballot could feel the influence of voters coming to the polls for the pension initiative. A number of possible tax items could be on the ballot. Oil severance tax and cigarette tax propositions have been filed. The issue of lowering vote requirements to raise taxes on the local level will be discussed in the legislature early next year and one or more could find their way on the ballot.

The tax measures become intertwined in the pension debate.

The mayors behind the pension reform argue that without pension changes more and more of local public services have to be cut to use available money for pension and health benefits for retired workers. Those opposed to changes in the pension plan may see voting for higher taxes as the way to have their cake and eat it, too.

However, even a high turnout of voters affected by the pension issue doesn’t mean this battle is decided before it even begins.

If the pension plan is on the ballot it could well pass even if outspent and with a high turnout of union coalition members. The reason: Pension envy.

Many voters look at the benefits public sector workers receive and the age at which they receive those benefits and are jealous. As the Los Angeles Times reported according to a new poll, 82-percent of Americans 50 and over who currently have jobs expect to be working in some form during retirement. As the Times put it, “In other words, “retirement” is increasingly becoming a misnomer.”

And one group that traditionally goes to the polls even in low-interest elections is the 50 and over set.

There is a long way to go before the picture of Election 2014 comes into focus, but political operatives are already considering the potential vibrations that could be set off if certain ballot measures appear. The new pension proposal likely could set off the widest ripples on the election sea.

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