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Golden State Blues
How Kamala Harris Killed California Pension Reform

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.

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  • Andrew Allison

    I think the chances of another “black” first-term Senator being elected in the foreseeable future are slim to negligible.

  • Isaiah601

    She is an intellectual lightweight with impeccable far-left credentials. I hope she runs against Trump in 2020. Which 2016 red states does she win that Hillary did not?

    • f1b0nacc1

      Calling her a lightweight is an insult to helium and hot air

  • Anthony

    Something of a more serious electoral concern (given TAI’s expanse) than entertaining personalities and their credentials, pigmentation, experience, leanings,etc. may be: The electoral college is seriously broken – It’s not hard to fix. See:

    • Gary Hemminger

      As a Californian, I can say without any doubt that “fixing the electoral college” means NY, CA, or Illinois dominating US elections forever. This is something terrible for our nation. I am so thankful that our founders were a lot smarter than you, so that this never happens. I am glad that Penn, Ohio, Michigan and other midwestern states are the ones that decide the elections. They are the only ones with brains enough to actually change their vote. Californians like you always vote Democrat no matter what. I have a word for this…dumb.

      • Anthony

        As a Californian and one American of 320,000,000, your consideration (bias perhaps) can be freely expressed on-line. I suggest you read carefully the premise of essay (linked above) before you aimlessly ascribe positions and determinations anonymously.

    • ——————————

      It’s not a ‘better than’ solution, just a ‘different than’ solution, for too many reasons to list, and so creates a different set of issues and ignored voters.

      We are not a popular vote democracy, we are a republic. We value liberty over popularism.
      Our founders were smart enough to figure that out, and it has,worked quite well for over 200 years.

      Popular vote democracy is like 2 wolves and a lamb voting for what they are going to have for dinner….

      • Anthony

        Whatever that means fine but here’s something from 1915 that retains if you look outside you self:

        “I fear the plutocracy of wealth, I respect the aristocracy of learning, but I thank God for the democracy of the heart that makes it possible for every human being to do something to make life worth living while he lives and the world better for his existence in it.”

        (for 21st century purposes, we can insert she for he – and that’s not political correct just human recognition and species progress)

        • ——————————

          William Jennings Bryan…pretty much my antithesis…bravo!

          Actually my comment bears ‘all’ relationship to linked article.

          Perhaps an in-depth revisit of said article will bring clarity to my comment….

          • Anthony

            No clarity or revisiting needed as article premise is plain. Your reframing, though subjective, is yours to consider. Antithesis or not, quote’s subordinate clause retains. Thanks.

    • Blackbeard

      The “compact” the linked article mentions is probably unconstitutional but the bigger problem is that the smaller states would never agree just as they never would have signed the original constitution without something like the electoral college. Any popular vote system means, as the comment below notes, that a few big urban conglomerations will totally dominate national politics. Since liberals dominate in those areas I see why they would want such a change but why would the rest of us ever agree?

      • Anthony

        Well, I try to look at the proposition as an American (endeavoring for posterity) more than as a liberal or conservative, blue or red, urban or rural – despite the expected suspicion and Power interests. Essentially, I think respondents and I have a different view of what is at issue (generally labeled a verbal dispute). I try hard to avoid “verbal disputes” (opposed to real disputes – when one party believes a certain statement is true while another party believes the statement is false. I am neither arguing for NPV nor arguing against NPV. I linked the article to add both perspective sobriety. TAI’s audience expands regular chatters of the ‘why would….” and hopefully if they link, they will consider seriousness of proposition before emotive dismissal.

    • Angel Martin

      Translation – we can’t win with the current rules, so “justice” demands new rules.

      • Anthony


  • ——————————

    “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, ”

    With the Clinton’s past experience, and being in the spotlight since ’92, and still unable to trump Trump, I think the Libs are in utter denial if they think she has a chance against an incumbent, especially if he does at least a mediocre job.

    And a “resistance” campaign is an even more pathetic approach….

    • CaliforniaStark

      Yes, but you realize it was Russian hackers who stole the election from Clinton, by using what she has referred to as the “weaponization of information.” In simple terms what “weaponization of information” means is: “They spilled the beans by making public my real E-mails, and showing how big of a liar I am.” Those dastardly Russians. Who ever thought they would use truth as a weapon.

  • Gary Hemminger

    No California Democratic legislator has a remote chance of winning the electoral college.

    • Blackbeard

      I’m curious why you say that. Clinton came very close and she was a terrible candidate. Harris seems much more electable and that worries me. Sure she’s hard Left but do average voters across the country follow California politics all that closely? Certainly the media will portray her as the soul of moderation.

      • ARMSTROB

        Clinton won the popular vote in only 19 states while Trump took 31 and did very well in the Electoral vote. 306 to 232. You can not say Trump was a good candidate either. Whether you like him or not he made quite a few mistakes as a candidate especially because he was not a life long politician as Clinton was. Then take away the presses allegiance to Clinton and the progressives look even worse. It was Obama’s failed policies that took the biggest loss in the election.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Words matter. Democrats are several years late catching up to the phraseology mind game Republicans have been using to spin their preferences, but not any more.

    • Tom

      Sorry, FG, but you’ve got that backwards.

      • f1b0nacc1

        And this is something new?

        • Tom

          No, but I keep hoping that his TDS will break eventually and he’ll return to reality.

          • ——————————

            Yeah, but even if he is cured of TDS he’ll still have RDS – Republican Derangement Syndrome….

      • FriendlyGoat

        Death panels and death tax come to mind. So does “religious freedom” (to whack people one way or another). Then there was “natural rights” (for the purpose of diminishing other peoples’ rights. People buy into or oppose all kinds of things based on poll-tested words from researchers like Frank Luntz and Kellyanne Conway. Dems have been behind the curve on this.

        • Tom

          Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, throw granny off a cliff, put y’all back in chains, undocumented immigrants, vast right-wing conspiracy, putting “religious freedom” in scare quotes (as you just did, aping your side’s propagandists), banning birth control…
          Get over it. Your side is not a band of saints forced, by the NEFARIOUS EVIL of their opponents, to engage in overheated rhetoric. The left and right have been doing this for a long time, FG, and that you’ve managed to memory hole that does not indicate good things. At all.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Ya know? I’ve been enjoying “religious freedom” from JR so much since I blocked my view of him last week, I just decided to up it a notch and block you too. We’ve been around the barn on every possible subject anyway, so what’s the point of enduring your ridicule? You can now go find someone else to flame. Bye, Tom.

          • Tom

            In other words: I can’t refute your point, so I’m going to block you.
            Congratulations on furthering your epistemic closure.

  • D4x

    Oprah2020. Now, can we try to break the habit of the endless presidential campaign?

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    First term Senators, should be seen and not heard. Obama turned out to be the “Worst President in History”. America shouldn’t risk the future on another first term Senator, even if she has more experience.

    • SAWZ

      No……Donald Trump is the “Worst President in History”.

      • Angel Martin

        then Trump compiles a record like: watching ISIS capture 40 percent of Iraq while proclaiming them to be a JV team; or claiming that all chemical weapons are gone from Syria; or announcing that “if you like your Dr you can keep your Dr”; or delaying the Bin Laden hit for months (in the hope that the opportunity would go away?) …

        Then we assess how bad Trump is compared to Obama.

  • LEretort

    Why not acknowledge some facts from the other side of this “opinion” piece. Mainly, that the proposed ballot measure didn’t poll well with any summary because of the extreme terms. Harris just didn’t want the proponents to pass it off as something other than.

    I’m glad you mentioned old Chucky Reed from San Jose. How’d that work out for the city??? It was a horrible fiasco that put the citizens in danger, and didn’t save a dime. And you mention Carl “sexual man harasser” DeMaio. They’re the dysfunction Bert and Ernie of pension reform. Then you have out of state billionaires financing these things. What a load of crap.

    We all just need to wait and see how the CA Supremes are going rule. If they uphold the CA Rule, then all your little measures are a waste of time.

  • SAWZ

    A ballot description is supposed to describe the facts. If her facts were accurate–then so be it!

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