By Ed Mendel
Thursday, November 3, 2011

A pension reform group that filed two versions of an initiative yesterday faces two tests: raising $3 million to place the proposal on the November ballot next year, and a court battle over making current workers pay more for their pensions if the measure passes.

As public pension costs have risen while government services are being cut in a weak economy, the reform group has filed initiatives in the past, which failed to attract funding even though some polls have shown 70 percent support for pension reform.

This time the group, now led by Dan Pellissier, raised $250,000 for polling and legal experts before filing initiatives designed to withstand court challenges and quickly cut government pension costs, particularly important for some struggling cities.

He said the next step is to raise about $3 million, enough to pay for a drive to gather 1.3 million voter signatures and provide a cushion well above the minimum needed to place a state constitutional amendment on the ballot.

“Not today,” Pellissier said, when asked at a news conference if the group had the money. “But we have some commitments for future funding, and we have what we think is a good path in order to raise that amount of money.”

He said George Shultz, a former U.S. secretary of state in the Reagan administration, is a part of the campaign team and “has a tremendous amount of influence with major donors.”

In addition, Mike Genest, a finance director for former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said he was “happy to be part of what’s become a pretty large coalition of people who have been trying for quite some time to make some progress on this issue.”

Aaron McLear, Schwarzenegger’s former press secretary, told the news conference fundraising should be aided by having agreement among reformers, who have not always been “on the same page,” and a firm proposal to show potential donors.

But some separation quickly emerged when Marcia Fritz, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, told the Sacramento Bee she was “not a part of this,” even though she was mentioned at the news conference.

The California Pension Reform group led by Pellissier is a spin-off from the foundation founded by the late former Assemblyman Keith Richman, R-Northridge. Pellissier, a former Richman aide, said the initiative is a Richman “legacy.”

A Fritz article in the Los Angeles Times yesterday urged legislators to find “common ground” for taxpayers and public employees “within the framework” of a pension reform proposed by Gov. Brown, some parts requiring voter approval.

Pellissier and Genest said the governor’s plan needs to be “more aggressive.” They were skeptical that Democratic legislative legislators and their union allies will agree to the governor’s plan, much less add more cuts in employer costs.

“It is possible, very unlikely, that the Legislature could pass something that would be strong enough to have our team decide that we would not move ahead with our proposal,” said Pellissier.

Brown’s proposal is designed to avoid a court challenge on a key issue: The widely held view that court rulings mean pensions promised state and local government employees on the date of hire can’t be cut without a new benefit of equal value.

The reform group’s plan is designed to withstand a court challenge because current workers could be required to “pay more for their same benefits and for a share of unfunded liabilities.”

In the reform group’s initiatives a curb on “spiking” (boosting pensions by cashing out unused sick leave, vacation time and other things to increase final pay) covers current workers, not just new hires as in the governor’s proposal.

To read entire story, click here.