San Francisco pension reform measure leads in polls, but fiercely opposed

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 07-Oct-2010

Although enjoying a substantial edge in early opinion surveys, advocates of San Francisco Proposition B are getting “shelled” by negative advertising and a cluster of political “dirty tricks,” Bay Area sources told CapitolBeatOK this week.

The measure, an unusual attempt to reform a pension system through direct democracy, came to ballot after a petition campaign led by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. 

The initiative survived legal attacks and gained ballot status in early August.

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Prop B campaign spokeswoman Darcy Brown said “our phones are getting jammed, opponents are tearing down our signs, the other side has ‘flipped’ a major donor, and they are threatening our volunteers during literature drops in the neighborhoods.”

Despite the flurry of opposition activity, the measure has 53% support with only 21% opposed. Adachi has repeatedly stated his view: “This isn’t an attack on labor. It’s a math problem.”

Adachi, known as a progressive San Francisco Democrat, has garnered worldwide attention for the reform campaign. Public employee pensions throughout the United States, including in Oklahoma, do not have adequate resources to meet financial obligations. The Sooner State’s Teacher Retirement System is considered among the two or three weakest in the U.S.

For these reasons, Adachi’s proposal is deemed a potential model for policymakers seeking a way out of the pension and retirement system morass across America.

If approved by San Francisco voters in November, the Adachi proposal will save taxpayers some $170 million by requiring employees to contribute 9% into their own pensions. The initiative includes elected officials. Police and fire employees, with comparatively more generous benefits, will begin to contribute 10%.

Ballotpedia, the online monitor of American direct democracy, has reported:

“When the economy was booming, San Francisco’s pension liability was largely covered by investment returns. That is no longer the case. In 2010, the city is expected to have to contribute (according to different estimates) between $300 and $575 million to pension costs directly from its general operating budget. The amount of the required direct contribution from city coffers is expected to go as high as $600 million by 2015 if nothing changes. This pressure on the city’s general operating budget from contributions to pensions means that there is less money available for all the other services provided by the city.”

In a new report released yesterday, “Reforming Public Employee Compensation and Pensions,” The California Center for Public Policynoted that Prop B is not the only potential reform model on this year’s local ballots in California:

“A number of other local measures are on the ballot on November 2nd, including Measure D in Bakersfield, which would reduce pension benefits for newly-hired public safety personnel; Proposition G in Carlsbad, which would require a vote of the people to increase public employee pensions; and Measure L in Menlo Park, which would increase the retirement age of new city employees from age 55 to 60 and decrease the percentage of final salary times the number of years worked in determining retirement benefits from 2.7 to 2.0 percent. In addition, there are several local advisory measures on the ballot on public employee compensation reform.”

While underscoring what the center considered the importance of the other propositions, the report stressed Prop B, technically the Sustainable City Employees Benefits Reform Act, was “the most significant” of all the pension reform measures under consideration in California.

When the report was released, Dr. Lanny Ebenstein of the University of California at Santa Barbara, noted, “We are appropriately concerned when executives on Wall Street receive million dollar golden parachutes, but California has created $1 million to $5 million golden parachute pension plans for more than one million public employees. California public employee compensation urgently requires reform.”

In a press release, the center’s staff summarized the detailed analysis as follows: “The problem of public employee pensions on the State level is even greater than previously believed.” CalWatchdog reported this summer that the state’s public pension system is at least $500 billion underfunded .

Despite overwhelming opposition from labor unions, Adachi earlier this week garnered support from the San Francisco Urban Research Association.  Additionally, a wave of endorsements from the leadership of Chinatown boosted the reform initiative last week.