SAN JOSE -- Mayor Chuck Reed on Friday abandoned plans for a November statewide pension reform initiative that had drawn national attention, handing a victory to unions that had made fighting the plan a top priority.
Reed maintained that he and a handful of other city leaders across California who had joined him in support would continue to pursue the proposed constitutional amendment for 2016. He blamed an unfavorable ballot summary from the attorney general and the upcoming mid-April deadline for qualifying a November initiative for the delay.
But many doubt the initiative will be any more viable in two years. Reed struggled to raise the millions of dollars needed to hire signature gatherers, while unions mounted an aggressive campaign to defeat it, even enlisting dozens of other California mayors to line up against it.
"I think the best opportunity was this year, and obviously the money wasn't there, and that has to be the principal reason he backed off," said Terry Christensen, a San Jose State professor emeritus of political science who has advised labor-backed candidates. "There are people around the country who can write those checks, but it's interesting that they haven't come forward yet."
Earlier efforts to secure statewide pension reforms at the ballot box in 2012 also collapsed after advocates encountered difficulty raising the funds needed to gather qualifying signatures.
"We're taking on the political machine that's the most powerful force in California," Reed said of organized labor. "You have to expect that they're going to mount an aggressive campaign at every step of the way."
What's more, Reed will be out of office at the end of this year and has indicated no plans to continue his political career, lowering his stature on the statewide political stage and his ability to reach a broad public audience.
While there was no independent polling on the measure, Reed maintained private surveys indicated support in the two-thirds range, while union critics proclaimed their own research showed little public enthusiasm.
Reed, a fiscally conservative Democrat, gained national recognition and the enmity of the government unions that bankroll his party when he won passage in 2012 of a San Jose measure reducing pensions for new city hires and making current employees either pay more for their retirement or choose a less-generous plan.
He has since traveled the state and to the nation's capital advocating changes to government pensions, the soaring costs of which have sucked up funds for municipal services and contributed to a handful of city bankruptcies.
But city unions sued to overturn Reed's Measure B, and a judge in December blocked the key provision that would make current city workers pay more toward their pensions, citing a series of earlier rulings that effectively guarantee government workers the same or better retirement plan throughout their careers.
Even before that ruling, Reed began gathering support for the statewide initiative that would change that doctrine, allowing elected officials to negotiate pension reductions as long as they applied only to employees' future years on the job. Reed complained that Attorney General Kamala Harris' ballot summary failed to make that distinction, suggesting instead that it would broadly "eliminate" pension protections for police, firefighters and teachers. A judge Friday ruled the summary wording was fair.
But public employee unions said the measure might be dead for 2016, as well.
"We continue to believe that the bargaining table -- not the ballot box -- is the proper place to address the budget challenges facing our communities and state," David Low, chairman of the union opposition group, Californians for Retirement Security, said in a statement. "California's teachers, firefighters, school bus drivers, nurses and other public employees remain committed to working to ensure that our public pension systems are healthy and provide the retirement security we have earned."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.