By Jon Ortiz
Published: Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010 – 6:39 am

Despite their full-throated support for cutting public employee pension costs, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the leading GOP candidate to replace him, Meg Whitman, have backed away from supporting a ballot measure that would do just that.

Their decisions, part of the complex calculus of California politics, are the death knell for the initiative drafted the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility. The Citrus Heights-based group had courted both the governor and the former eBay CEO.

“The governor felt he’d be a hindrance to us,” said Marcia Fritz, president of the Citrus Heights-based foundation. “Meg is not supporting us. That’s pretty much it.”

The foundation qualified the measure for signature collection late last year, thinking Schwarzenegger or Whitman would lend a hand, maybe even write a few checks.

Fritz estimated it would take $2 million to collect the nearly 700,000 valid signatures needed by a June 14 deadline to get the measure before voters in November.

It seemed like the right time. Schwarzenegger has made cutting pension costs a centerpiece of his administration’s final-year agenda. Whitman’s campaign talking points include making deep cuts to the size and cost of the state work force.

“This is a deal we can no longer afford,” she said, referring to state worker pensions during a November campaign Q&A with the Sacramento Republican Party. “New civil servants have to come in under a different deal.”

But political consultants from both major parties said Republicans were worried such a measure simply would mobilize public employee unions and bring more liberal voters to the polls in November, when Whitman hopes to be her party’s nominee for governor.

Fritz didn’t name Whitman but said, “Certain people didn’t want this on the ballot with them. We got torpedoed. … We were led to believe we’d have supporters and they withdrew – win at all costs.”

Calls to the Whitman campaign seeking comment were not returned Tuesday.

Bill Carrick, a long-time Democratic political adviser, said Whitman, who has spent $39 million of her own cash on her campaign run, likely isn’t interested in helping finance a measure that would galvanize unions against it.

“Instead of inspiring fiscal conservatives to the polls, you inspire unions and public employees to the polls,” he said.

Republican political consultant Ray McNally said that after thinking it over, “Everybody took a breath and decided to stand down.”

If the measure had reached the ballot it would have triggered Armageddon with government labor, McNally said. “Public employee unions might have put forth their own initiatives, some of them punitive, like tax increases on business.”

The pension measure would have inflamed labor, he said, and helped them organize for the election, “but it’s not going to inflame most voters. People don’t get out of bed in the morning and say, ‘My God, we’ve got to sock it to the cops.’ ”

The foundation’s measure aimed to reduce benefits for state, local, county and regional government workers hired after July 1, 2011. For example, peace officers and firefighters now can retire at 3 percent of their annual pay multiplied by their years of service at age 50. The initiative would have cut that to 2.3 percent at age 58 for new hires.

Fritz estimated the new arrangement would have saved the state a total $14 billion over its first six years.

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