In his State of the State Address, Gov. Jerry Brown acknowledged the dire need for pension reform in California. But the immediate question on the minds of political insiders was two-fold: First, whether the governor would support substantive reform (as opposed to just window dressing) and, second, how much, if any, political capital he would expend to see his plan enacted into law.
On the first point, Brown surprised us by proposing a fairly detailed 12-point plan that even his harshest critics had to concede was substantive. But, regrettably, as we predicted, the answer to the second question of how much effort he would use to see the plan to fruition was, simply, not much.
That Gov. Brown would not push pension reform is really not all that surprising. First, labor brought him to the governor’s office and he is on a short leash. Second, the Democrat dominated Legislature isn’t about to do anything that hurts the primary source of their political power and campaign funds.
But it is one thing to say that you are for pension reform and not really mean it and entirely another thing to actively sabotage meaningful pension reform in those places where it is actually happening — at the local level.
In February, the California Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) ruled that a pension reform measure that is to appear on the June ballot in San Diego is an unfair labor practice. Over 115,000 voters signed petitions to qualify an initiative, which would provide a private sector style 401(k) plan to new employees. Government employee union bosses, objecting to any change to the guaranteed benefit system that has nearly bankrupted the city, sent out “goon squads” to try to “influence” petition signers, but voters refused to be intimidated.
Failing to block reform from going on the ballot, the unions sought the help of the friendly PERB that is stacked with Brown appointees. Their argument, with which the board agreed, is that because the ballot measure is supported by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and City Council members Kevin Faulconer and Carl DeMaio, the measure is de facto city-sponsored, and therefore San Diego is violating the requirement that officials meet and confer — negotiate with the unions — prior to any changes to the pension system.
Fortunately, the unions’ move to prevent the pension reform initiative from going before the voters was rejected by Judge William Dato, who said there is no established case law that would allow him to block the measure from going to the ballot based on the PERB’s findings. (Kudos to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith who vigorously fought the union effort).
The upshot is that San Diego voters will indeed have the opportunity to vote on pension reform this June, assuming that any further legal challenges by the unions and Brown’s handpicked PERB members get the judicial rebuff they so richly deserve.
But, hypothetically, what if the governor’s cronies on PERB succeeded in their legal challenge so that Sanders and the City Council members were found to be officially representing the city rather than themselves as private citizens? Wouldn’t this also mean that Gov. Brown is actually representing the state of California, rather than himself, as an advocate for his tax increase initiative? After all, not only is he is listed as the official “proponent” of his plan to increase both the income and sales tax, he readily admits that he has been working the phones to raise money for the proposal and also to dissuade competing measures from appearing on the ballot.
The State Constitution, as amended by Proposition 13, is clear. For the state to raise taxes, it must receive approval from two-thirds of each house of the Legislature. Even to place the measure on the ballot for voter approval requires a two-thirds vote. But Brown is totally bypassing the Legislature and, therefore, by the logic of the PERB members that he appointed, isn’t he in violation of the law?
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has never maintained that an elected official gives up his or her right to endorse or support a ballot measure by virtue of holding office. However, if the governor’s appointees persist in maintaining that a legitimate local ballot measure, qualified through the efforts of over a hundred-thousand voters, is null and void because it is also supported by local officials, we might have to rethink our position.
In the end, Gov. Brown can do what he wants, as can the local officials in San Diego and other municipalities where officials are actually demonstrating leadership to address a serious issue. But the actions of his PERB members make it abundantly clear: Jerry is a labor guy and he, like the Democrats in the Legislature, will do nothing to anger or upset their most valued constituency.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -– California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.