The National Conference on Public Retirement Systems filed an amicus brief in the Sacramento County Superior Court this week supporting a factual and explicit summary of a ballot initiative being proposed that would eliminate a provision in the state constitution that protects the retirement benefits of California’s public employees.
San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who authored the ballot measure, sued state Attorney General Kamala Harris because he and his supporters dislike how she worded the summary for the initiative.
The summary states that the initiative “eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree health care benefits for current public employees, including teachers, nurses, and peace officers, for future work performed.”
Reed and his supporters take issue with the phrases “eliminates constitutional protections,” “vested,” and “teachers, nurses and peace officers.”
NCPERS, which represents more than 550 public pension funds in the U.S. and Canada, including most of California’s state and county public retirement systems and several major city retirement systems, wrote that it supports the title and summary Harris wrote.
What Reed and his fellow petitioners are attempting to do in their lawsuit against Harris is “propose a significant change to our state constitution, then shield the voters from knowing the truth about what (Reed and his fellow petitioners) seek to accomplish,” NCPERS said in the amicus brief. “Petitioners’ objections….are merely an effort to hide the truth about the initiative from voters.”
Harris’ title and summary for Reed’s proposal “accurately and fairly informs voters that the initiative would eliminate existing state constitutional protections that the California Supreme Court has long held apply to state and local employees. Under the Court’s prior decisions, current employees possess a ‘vested’ right to accrue retirement benefits for future work based on the benefits promised at the time they commenced employment – a right the Court has held is protected from impairment by the Contract Clause of the California Constitution,” according to NCPERS.
NCPERS said that Reed and supporters of the initiative have used the same language to promote the bill in interviews and opinion pieces where they argued that “government leaders have their hands tied by the ‘California Rule’ on vested rights … To eliminate these roadblocks to reform, we have authored a ballot initiative that would empower state and local leaders to negotiate changes to employees’ future retirement accruals…”
“Having previously used the word “eliminates” to tout this very aspect of the initiative to their constituency, Petitioners now apparently fear that the voters at large will not embrace such a dramatic elimination of constitutional protections,” NCPERS argues in its brief. “That fear does not, however, justify this Court’s intervention to replace a perfectly accurate word, here, ‘eliminates.’”
With regard to Reed’s objection to the term “teachers, nurses, and peace officers,” NCPERS points out that half of California’s approximately 2.1 million public employees fall into those categories. “Given this, it is entirely reasonable – and appropriate – for the Attorney General to specifically mention these groups so that voters are aware which professions constitute the largest sub-groups of ‘public employees’ who will be affected by the Initiative.”