Pension reform is a particularly sensitive topic in Ventura County, whether for it or against it. In the last year, proponents of pension reform made headway by gathering more than 40,500 signatures for a measure that would shift the pension system to a 401K plan for new county employees. In June, with more than enough valid signatures, the measure qualified for the ballot. There was a glitch, however, as there had been a question about its legality. While the proponents were confident no such glitch existed, on Monday, a Ventura County Superior Court judge ruled that the measure was not legal and it therefore could not go on the ballot for the November election. Judge Kent Kellegrew said that the county had joined a statewide retirement system in the mid-1940s and the measure, if passed, could not be upheld as it is not up to the voters to make such a change. He also said that putting the measure on the ballot would only result in a waste of public resources.
This situation has brought to light two points, one about pension reform and the other about the initiative process. First, the initiative process.
We find it admirable that the opponents of this pension reform measure didn’t delay in challenging the legality of this measure. Though we are still a few weeks away from the printing of the ballots and anything could change as we wait on the appeal process, if there will be any at all, when it comes to leaving such things in the hands of the voters, it’s important to know whether certain laws are in fact legal or constitutional before voting on them. Take, for instance, Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. More than $75 million and a ton of time and energy were spent for and against passing it in 2008 only to be overturned a few years later by the Supreme Court. In Ventura, on the other hand, those against the parking meters in Downtown gathered signatures and placed an initiative on the ballot in 2011 to let the voters decide if they wanted them. Opponents of the measure took the case to court, where a judge ordered that the measure be removed from the ballot, recommending that those against the meters use the referendum process instead while stating that the power to rip out or install parking meters was solely the City Council’s.
We understand these are sticky issues, that not everyone has the money to challenge measures and propositions before they go up for a vote; but all the time, money and even heartache, in some cases, could be avoided if these proposed laws could be determined legal or constitutional in the first place. We are an advocate of the initiative process and believe that voters can take some things into their own hands; but in the end, if it won’t be upheld, it would make sense to find that out beforehand. Perhaps our legislators are the ones to help streamline the initiative process. Until there is initiative reform, we urge activists to keep fighting for answers.
Second, this particular situation also reveals the hurdles in pension reform. Right now, as we speak, there is an unfunded liability of $1 billion in Ventura County. Looking at counties across the state, from state employees to teachers to city workers, we are in big trouble. While pensions may have been the name of the game in the 1950s, as people began to live longer while working the same number of years, the debts grew. And so did the number of employees tapping into the system. Without pension reform, California residents are on the hook indefinitely for promises made by legislators and there is no apparent solution to this harsh reality. The fact of the matter is that current pension formulas just aren’t sustainable and we are looking to our legislators to act and stop worrying about stepping on the toes of those who fund their campaigns. Now is the time for change.