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Pension proposal cast similarly to failed bid
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — California Attorney General Kamala Harris is using the same words to describe a public pension proposal as she did on a previous failed bid.

Harris on Tuesday issued the title and summary on an initiative that would require voters to approve pension benefits for new public workers.

She wrote that it would eliminate constitutional protections on pension and health care benefits for public employees.

That was similar to the way she characterized another pension measure in 2014.

Proponents led by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio say they will conduct a legal review of the language.

David Low, chairman of the labor-backed Californians for Retirement Security, said he wanted Harris to list public employees as teachers, nurses and police as she did before.

Harris, a Democrat, has tot issue the title and summary on a ballot question before backers can begin collecting the 585,407 voter signatures needed to qualify for the November 2016 ballot.

The wording is considered crucial to whether voters are likely to support the push to require public votes on defined benefits for new employees and increased benefits for existing workers.

The initiative’s proponents accused Harris in 2014 of using false and misleading phrases to create prejudice against another pension-reform proposal. Then-San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed abandoned that attempt to enable governments in California to cut future pension benefits for current workers after losing a court fight over the attorney general’s legal description.

Now Reed is partnering with former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio on a new tactic. Rather than allow cities, counties and other California governments to reduce future benefits through collective bargaining or a local vote, the so-called “Voter Empowerment Act of 2016” requires voters to approve any new pension benefits or upgrades to current ones.

The proposal would require voters to approve defined benefits for new employees hired starting Jan. 1, 2019, as well as pension enhancements for existing workers. Voters also would have to give authorization if the state or a local government wanted to contribute more than half of pension costs for their employees.

Unions have battled repeatedly with DeMaio, a Republican who lost bids for San Diego mayor in 2012 and Congress in 2014, and Reed, a Democrat who was forced from office last year by term limits. Both Reed and DeMaio successfully led voters in San Jose and San Diego to approve local pension-cutting plans in 2012.

Their latest effort is an extension of that campaign to reduce taxpayer spending on public pension costs in the nation’s most populous state by applying to state, county and city employees throughout California, as well as public schools and universities and other local boards and agencies.

Pension-reform advocates say unchecked retirement benefits will keep libraries closed, leave potholes unfilled and deprive residents of key public services as resources are increasingly diverted to pay for pensions. Labor unions say the cost-cutting push deprives workers of collective bargaining and make crucial jobs less attractive to potential recruits.

The Legislature’s nonpartisan budget analyst, Mac Taylor, and Gov. Jerry Brown’s finance director, Michael Cohen, recently described the proposal as creating “significant uncertainty” on current and future government employee compensation.

They noted that measure could face legal challenges. And while it could yield large savings on defined pension benefits and lower retiree health care costs for taxpayers, the two say it could drive costs elsewhere such as into defined contribution plans like 401(k)s, higher wages and shift more public workers onto Social Security.

“The magnitude and timing of these effects would depend heavily on future decisions made by voters, governmental employers, and the courts,” Taylor and Cohen wrote.