Today, a bipartisan coalition in California has filed the VoterEmpowerment Act of 2016 with the Secretary of State, which seeks toamend the state’s constitution by referendum and give voters inlocal elections final say in government employees’ pensionbenefits.

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Spearheaded by former Democratic San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who led anongoing battle to reform that city’s pension system, and formerRepublican San Diego city councilman Carl DeMaio, the measure wouldrequire local governments put to referendum any increases indefined benefits to existing government employees.

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It would also require voter approval for defined benefit pensionplans to be offered to new hires.

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READ: 10 worst states for public employees'pensions

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And it would limit governments’ annual contributions for pensionplans at 50 percent of the required amount, unless votersauthorized a higher contribution rate.

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California state law has been “impeding common sense solutionsin our local communities,” said DeMaio in a news conferenceannouncing the filing of the initiative.

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Politicians at the local and state level have propped upunsustainable pension systems throughout the state, caving to thepower and political influence of government employee unions, headded.

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READ: Illinois bid to solve historic pensionshortfall dies

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In California, public employee pension debt grew from $6.3billion in 2003 to $198 billion in 2013.

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DeMaio noted that CalPERS has said local and statepension plans will require 50 percent increases in annualcontributions over the next five years, and CalSTRS will require100 percent increases.

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“It’s very clear politicians have failed,” said DeMaio. “Thishas had the impact of creating a government that costs us more anddelivers less.”

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The State’s Attorney General will be responsible for craftingthe title and summary of the provision voters will see on theballot in the November 2016 election.

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Once language for the referendum has been crafted, the coalitionwill have six months to collect 560,000 signatures for the measureto be put to voters.

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DeMaio said he expects little trouble getting the signatures,and that ultimately voters across party lines would support theinitiative. Polling shows two-thirds of Californians supportputting pension benefit increases up to a vote at the local level,he said.

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Unless voters approved extending defined benefits to new hires,they would be enrolled in a defined contribution plan. A governmentemployer would not be required to get voter approval to enroll newhires in defined contribution plans.

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Both former elected officials emphasized that the measure wouldnot affect existing retirement benefits to existing employees orretirees. If voters pass the amendment to the constitution, therestrictions on new government hires would begin Jan1, 2019.

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Language in the amendment would require local governments toimplement voter-approved changes to pension plans, according tolanguage in the act.

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That provision was in part influenced by efforts in VenturaCountry in 2014.

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The Ventura County Taxpayers Association crated pension reformthat would have moved some of that county’s employees to a definedcontribution system.

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Shortly after the measure was approved to appear on the November2014 ballot, a local judge ruled the measure was illegal, and hadit removed from the ballot.

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DeMaio said the measure ultimately will cut the “Gordian knot wehave seen in courts that prohibits common sense pensionreforms.”

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In San Jose, former Mayor Chuck Reed’s effort to bring pensionreform to voters was hampered by an inaccurate title and summary of the provision voters were tovote on last year, he said.

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Also, a decision at the district court level said the provisionwas illegal. Efforts to appeal that decision were too late, and themeasure ultimately was left off of last year’s ballot.

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But this time Reed is “cautiously optimistic,” he said, as theprocess for getting the Voter Empowerment Act of 2016 on nextyear’s ballot has begun early enough to survive legalchallenges.

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Other members of the coalition behind the proposed amendment areformer San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris, former Vallejo Vice MayorStephanie Gomes and current Pacific Grove Mayor Bill Kampe, allDemocrats.

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Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, a Republican, is also formally a part ofthe coalition.

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Nick Thornton

Nick Thornton is a financial writer covering retirement and health care issues for BenefitsPRO and ALM Media. He greatly enjoys learning from the vast minds in the legal, academic, advisory and money management communities when covering the retirement space. He's also written on international marketing trends, financial institution risk management, defense and energy issues, the restaurant industry in New York City, surfing, cigars, rum, travel, and fishing. When not writing, he's pushing into some land or water.