Kamala Harris Distorts Pension Referendum

Kamala Harris (AP)
Associated Press

State Attorney General Kamala Harris, eager to please public employee unions, has cunningly limned the title and summary of an amendment to the state Constitution that would legislate pension reform.

The amendment, called the Voter Empowerment Act of 2016, was offered by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, and would give voters the power to approve increases in public employee pensions.

The summary for the ballot started with an attack on the measure, saying it “eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree benefits for current public employees, including those working in K-12 schools, higher education, hospitals, and police protection, for future work performed.” Of course, the summary fails to mention other, less popular, employees, such as prison guards or parking meter readers, as Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee pointed out. He also noted that the summary spoke of the limitations posed by the amendment and did not mention that they had to be “approved by voters” until the summary was 80% complete.

To buttress its insinuation that the amendment would skirt court decisions calling granted pension benefits constitutionally protected, the Attorney General’s office relies on the amendment’s assertion that “notwithstanding any other provision of the Constitution or any other law,” voters can “determine the amount of and manner in which compensation and retirement benefits are provided.”

But nothing in the measure says anything about pension benefits already granted. The measure reads:

Government employers shall not enhance the pension benefits of any employee in a defined benefit pension plan unless the voters of that jurisdiction approve that enhancement.

Government employers shall not allow new government employees to enroll in a defined benefit pension plan unless the voters of that jurisdiction approve enrollment in such a plan for new employees.

Government employers shall not pay more than one-half of the total cost, including unfunded liability costs, of retirement benefits for new government employees unless the voters of that jurisdiction have approved paying that higher amount for such new employees.

Government agencies and retirement boards must fully and faithfully implement voter approved initiatives that affect government employee compensation and retirement benefits approved by voters, whether placed on the ballot by a government agency or by voters.

Challenges to the legality or application of an initiative and referendum affecting government employee compensation and retirement benefits may only be brought in the courts of California exercising judicial power as provided in Article VI or in the courts of the United States.