California’s public employee pension system, over a trillion dollars in the red, started defaulting on its promised payments to some retirees earlier this year. And one of the figures most responsible for this crisis is now a rising star in the Democratic Party in Washington D.C.: Kamala Harris, the newly-minted Senator and former attorney general from the Golden State.
As the Los Angeles Times notes, California’s Democratic attorneys general have represented a major and often-overlooked stumbling block to reforming the state’s pension system. That’s because they are charged with writing the ballot measures that voters must approve to cut back on public sector benefit accruals. (Under California law the legislature can increase public sector pensions but cannot reduce them without a constitutional amendment). And though there is significant public support, even in deep-blue California, for modestly scaling back pensions, the attorney generals can ensure that no language with an actual chance of passing makes it onto the ballot.
Harris record on this front is particularly troubling. When the mayor of San Jose and a former city councilman from San Diego attempted to put the issue on the ballot in 2013 in order to forestall defaults, then-Attorney General Harris opted to use ballot language recommended by an interest group campaign against the measure:
A survey conducted for labor groups opposed to the initiative found that majority support for pension reform collapsed if it was described as “eliminating police, firefighters, and other public employees’ vested pension benefits” or “eliminating state constitutional protections.”
The word “eliminate” “fosters a visceral negative response from voters,” according to a memo by the labor coalition’s Washington pollsters.
The Sacramento Bee published an article about the memo in December 2013. Three weeks later, then-Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris issued her summary of the initiative.
It said the Reed-DeMaio measure “eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree healthcare benefits for current public employees, including teachers, nurses, and peace officers, for future work performed.”
In other words, California’s junior Senator seemed to use her official position to tilt the playing field in favor of a well-heeled interest group instead of presenting the question fairly to her state’s voters.
Since Californians elected her the U.S. Senate last November, Harris has been touted by liberal Democrats as a potential challenger to President Trump in 2020. And in her first three months on the job, she has tried to brand herself as a leader of the “resistance” to the new president, voting against the majority of his nominees and leaning in to blue tribe messaging on climate change and identity politics.
Perhaps Harris’ record of favoring unionized public sector workers even at the expense of her state’s solvency will ingratiate her with the Democratic base. But if, as seems plausible, California’s finances are in an even more dire shape by the time 2020 rolls around, the 2013 pension stunt could be a liability if she does make a bid for national office.