Will California Voters Support Pension Reform?

A bipartisan coalition led by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former City Councilman Carl DeMaio have filed a pension reform ballot measure in California. The group seeks to qualify the measure for a possible November 2016 vote by California voters.

The California Policy Center examined polling conducted by a variety of sources and CPC also commissioned its own polling study through the polling firm Penn Schoen Berland. CPC’s poll utilized online interviews in English and Spanish from August 17-21, 2015 among n=1,002 likely voters in California.

Overwhelming Public Support for Pension Reform

CPC’s review of a number of statewide polls conducted in recent years confirms that California voters have shown overwhelming support for pension reform.

A statewide poll issued by the Public Policy Institute of California in September found that 72 percent of likely voters say public pension costs are a problem and 70 percent say voters should make decisions about retirement benefits. As in previous PPIC polls, 70 percent favor giving new government employees a 401(k)-style plan rather than a pension. The change has strong bipartisan support: Republicans 74 percent, independents 69 percent, and Democrats 65 percent.

The CPC poll used several questions to examine voters knowledge of and assessment of issues facing state and local government pension funds – as well as the level of compensation and benefit packages provided to government employees.

(1) Would you say the financial health of the pension funds for state and local government employees in California are in a better place, worse place, or about the same place as they were ten years ago?

(%) California
Likely Voters
Better place 14
Worse place 46
About the same place 25
Don’t know 15

(2)  As far as you know, are CalPERS and CalSTRS in debt or do they have a surplus?

(%) California
Likely Voters
In debt 30
Have a surplus 16
Don’t know / unsure 55

(3)  As far as you know, on average, are state and local government employees…?

(%) California
Likely Voters
Paid more than employees in the private sector 41
Paid less than employees in the private sector 34
About the same 25

(4)  As far as you know, on average, do state and local government employees…?

(%) California
Likely Voters
Get bigger pensions than employees in the private sector 60
Get smaller pensions than employees in the private sector 19
About the same 21

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Attorney General’s Title and Summary Impacts Support

In August, the DeMaio and Reed blasted Attorney General Kamala Harris for issuing what they called a “biased” Title and Summary of the pension reform measure the coalition filed. The Title and Summary is what voters actually see on the ballot and the Attorney General has a Constitutional obligation to provide a fair and accurate description.

Putting aside the debate over whether the Title and Summary is fair and accurate, the polling shows the Attorney General’s Title and Summary from a polling perspective does indeed have a major negative impact on the ballot proposal.

In March 2015, the coalition conducted its own poll of California voters that demonstrated solid support for the concepts contained in the ballot proposal – specifically asking this question:

Would you vote yes – in favor of, or no – against a ballot measure that would give voters the right to reform pension benefits for state and local government workers, would require voter approval before obligating taxpayers to guarantee lifetime pensions benefits for new state and local government employees, and would require new government employees to contribute at least half the cost of their retirement benefits?

California Voter Support for Pension Reform


CPC’s poll used the Title and Summary provided by the Attorney General – with the Title and Summary crafted by the AG resulting in less support for the measure.

PUBLIC EMPLOYEES. PENSION AND RETIREE HEALTHCARE BENEFITS. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT. Eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree healthcare benefits for current public employees, including those working in K-12 schools, higher education, hospitals, and police protection, for future work performed. Adds initiative/referendum powers to Constitution, for determining public employee compensation and retirement benefits. Bars government employers from enrolling new employees in defined benefit plans, paying more than one-half cost of new employees’ retirement benefits, or enhancing retirement benefits, unless first approved by voters. Limits placement of financial conditions upon government employers closing defined benefit plans to new employees. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: Significant effects—savings and costs—on state and local governments relating to compensation for governmental employees. The magnitude and timing of these effects would depend heavily on future decisions made by voters, governmental employers, and the courts.

California Voter Support for Pension Reform
Using Attorney General’s Title & Summary

(%) California
Likely Voters
Vote yes to support 36
Vote no to oppose 33
Undecided 32

 *   *   *

Many Arguments in Favor of Pension Reform Poll Well

After testing the Title and Summary, CPC polled arguments that might be used by proponents of pension reform to justify major changes in state and local pension benefits.

(%) California Likely Voters


Much more likely Somewhat more likely Somewhat less


Much less


Many government employees are abusing the system to spike their pensions. In 2013, one former assistant fire chief in Los Angeles collected a government pension of $983,000. In San Diego, a former city librarian now collects $234,000 annually, and a politician in that same city started cashing full-pay pension checks at age 32. Last year alone, over 41,000 retired state and local government employees cashed pension checks of $100,000 or more! This proposal would end abuses like these. 52 27 12 9
This proposal does not take away any pension benefits lawfully earned by government employees. The proposal simply prevents any spiking of pensions going forward and also reforms benefits for any newly hired government employees going forward. It will not affect current retirees. In this way, we are fixing our pension problem while protecting the seniors and families who depend on current benefits. 47 40 8 5
Backroom deals by politicians created the California pension crisis. Politicians take campaign contributions and support from powerful government unions and in return, politicians give the unions sweetheart deals that mean bigger pension benefits. Politicians have even voted to spike their own pensions. This proposal provides a “check” on state and local politicians by requiring voter approval of any future pension deals. With this proposal, voters will be able to stop the politicians from doing backroom pension deals that taxpayers can’t afford. 47 31 13 9
If you are concerned about public safety you should support this pension reform proposal. If we don’t reform government pensions now, many cities and counties will be forced to cut police and fire services to divert our tax dollars to bail out government pension funds. For example, the Oakland Police Department no longer responds to 44 different crimes as a result of cutbacks that were necessary to fund pensions. Elsewhere in the state, fire stations have had to scale back hours of operation and in some cases close in order to pay rapidly rising pension costs. 44 40 8 8
Pension debt has grown exponentially in California, rising from $6.3 billion in 2003 to $198 billion in 2013. And when combined with unfunded liabilities for retiree healthcare programs, taxpayers owe almost $350 billion to fund future retirements for government employees. Without immediate action, the cost of government pensions will double in the next five years alone. This proposal will shrink the debt and save taxpayers billions. 44 34 14 7
Politicians and bureaucrats who run the government pension program are cooking the books and misleading the public. Last year the head of the pension program pled guilty to taking bribes and helping friends collect millions in a fraudulent investment scheme. The situation is getting worse as taxpayers lose billions from dubious investment decisions made by a board with significant conflicts of interest. This proposal would reform the government pension program, which is why the powerful elites who profit from the government pension program are opposing it. 44 30 15 11
Many government employees contribute nothing at all towards the costs of their pension benefits, leaving taxpayers to pick up the whole tab. This proposal would require new government employees to contribute at least half the cost of their retirement plans, similar to what most private sector employees have to contribute. 43 32 17 8
If you are concerned about quality education for our children you should support this pension reform proposal. If we don’t reform government pensions now, many cities and counties will be forced to cut after school programs, close libraries, and parks and recreation in order to divert our tax dollars to bail out government pension funds. For example, cities like San Jose had to restrict library hours of operation in order to pay for rapidly rising pension costs. 40 34 17 9
Mounting government pension debts have forced major cuts in important services. For example, pension contributions in Los Angeles have grown from 3% of the city’s overall budget to nearly 20% in just the last decade, crowding out other public needs. Already in cities and counties across California, higher pensions costs have meant cuts to after school programs, closures and brownouts at fire stations and cancellations of road repairs. With this pension reform proposal, we can generate savings to restore these important services. 39 34 20 7
Voters should take a close look at who opposes this pension reform proposal. One Sacramento union boss leading the charge against reform collects a pension of $183,690 annually. He says government employees trade off pay for a secure retirement. However, according to the Sacramento Bee newspaper, the average salary for employees like him is $163,000 annually plus health care and retirement at age 55. Those same union leaders are lying about this pension reform proposal because they want to keep their taxpayer-funded gravy train going. 39 29 18 15
Cities across California are being crushed under the weight of mounting pension debt. Because of pensions, major cities such as Vallejo, Stockton, and San Bernardino have already gone bankrupt, which resulted in massive cuts in important services such as police and fire protection. Unless we approve this pension reform proposal, many more cities throughout California will be forced to declare bankruptcy and make similar extreme cuts in our services. 38 36 16 9
Voters should take a close look who opposes this pension reform proposal. In 2012, the teachers unions blocked legislation that would have given local officials the power to fire teachers convicted of sexually abusing their own students even though this meant that sexually abusive teachers got to keep their jobs. Those same unions are lying about this pension reform proposal because they want to block the common-sense reform it would bring. 38 27 22 13
The pension reforms in this proposal are fair. The new benefits provided to government employees would be no better, and no worse, than the benefits provided to workers in the private and non-profit sectors. For police and fire, the measure provides a guarantee of death and disability benefits mirroring exactly what the US Military receives. 37 41 14 9

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Arguments in Opposition to Pension Reform Offer Mixed Bag of Results

(%) California Likely Voters
(among those who saw “anti” messaging first)
Much less


Somewhat less


Somewhat more likely Much more likely
This pension proposal is promoted and funded by Tea Party Republicans including a young billionaire Texan who is spending $50+ million dollars to take away from school bus drivers, teachers, nurses, and firefighters their hard-earned retirement benefits. He hates government so much that he wants to strip millions of middle and working class Californians of their retirement security. 53 19 17 11
This proposal to eliminate public pensions in California is led and funded by a Texas wheeler-dealer billionaire named John Arnold. Arnold is spending $50+ million dollars of his fortune to dismantle retirement plans for firefighters, nurses, and teachers. Moving California state and local government employees to 401(k) accounts would mean billions more for Arnold and his cronies to split in higher Wall Street fees. 48 21 19 13
Many public employees like teachers, police, and fire fighters do not receive Social Security or have very limited benefits. This proposal would eliminate their pensions and would undermine their ability to retire with dignity, as they will have no safety net if their 401(k) investments lose their value before or during their retirement through no fault of their own. 47 25 19 9
This pension reform proposal would likely eliminate the current death and disability benefits for new police, firefighters, and other public employees. It would be disgraceful to take these important protections away from families of police and fire fighters who make the ultimate sacrifice to protect Californians. 47 24 20 9
If enacted, this ballot measure will cost the taxpayers millions, or even billions for extra elections. Every contract at all levels of government could be on the ballot, costing school districts, cities, and counties millions of dollars to hold these elections. And it will unleash expensive lawsuits which will be litigated in the courts, with taxpayers footing the bill. 45 34 14 7
This proposal would eliminate state constitutional protections for current and future employees, breaking promises made to teachers, nurses, and firefighters by rewriting their pension benefits without negotiation. This would devastate middle class families who have contributed to these pension plans and have made long-term financial planning decisions based on the promises made to them when they were hired. 45 25 19 11
This proposal to eliminate public pensions in California is led and funded by greedy investors including America’s youngest Wall Street billionaire who made his stash out of the collapse of Enron. If a statewide pension-gutting proposal is passed in California, public sector employees will be moved to 401(k) plans, which would mean a windfall in investment fees for Wall Street. It’s as bad as when George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security. 44 27 19 10
Pensions are important compensation for public employees, including those who work in K-12 schools, higher education, hospitals, and police protection.  Public employees earn an average of 7% less than their private sector counterparts. Adequate pensions also serve as valuable recruitment and retention tool. If we approve this proposal’s massive cuts in pension benefits, we will need to either pay government employees more or risk hiring less-qualified government employees, which will lead to lower-quality services. 38 26 20 16
This measure is part of an extreme agenda to eliminate collective bargaining for government employees in California. The proposal allows voters to increase or decrease compensation and retirement benefits of government employees without any negotiation or collective bargaining. This undermines the ability of the government and employees to negotiate and agree on contracts. These complex issues should be settled at a bargaining table, not the ballot box. 38 24 24 14
This proposal would take away vested benefits that were promised to current public employees. For example, a state employee with 8 years of service could lose retiree healthcare benefits she would have earned after 10 years under her current employment contract. This is unfair to workers and their middle-class families, especially single mothers, because many accepted lower as a tradeoff better retirement and healthcare plans. 37 32 20 11
This proposal exaggerates the pension problem. Public employees are not retiring to lavish and luxurious pensions. In 2012, California passed extensive pension changes that raised the retirement age for new workers and require all employees to pay half of their pension costs. Thanks to Governor Brown’s reforms, $100,000 plus pension payments have all but been eliminated. The average public employee pension is just $2,500 a month – hardly the gold-plated plan overhaul that the other side claims. 31 29 28 11

 *   *   *

Significant Support for Pension Reform After Title and Summary Is Explained

Among voters who were exposed to the case for pension reform immediately after the Title and Summary was provided, support shifted dramatically back in favor of the pension reform proposal.  CPC concludes that the Title and Summary as currently written confuses and scares voters, but once the proposal is clearly explained to voters, confident support returns.

(%) CA Likely Voters
Vote yes to support 63
Vote no to oppose 18
Undecided 19

 *   *   *

Pension Reform Likely to Have Major Impact on 2016 Elections

The presence of a pension reform issue in the midst of the 2016 elections in California could have a profound effect on both candidate races and the debate over a variety of tax increase measures being considered for the 2016 ballot.

(1)  In the November 2016 election, which of the following types of candidate would you be most likely to vote for?

(%) California
Likely Voters
A Democrat who opposes the proposal 24
A Democrat who supports the proposal 18
A Republican who opposes the proposal 12
A Republican who supports the proposal 20
None of the above 5
Not sure 22

(2)  If a candidate from a political party different from your own supported this proposal, would that make you…?

(%) California
Likely Voters
Much more likely to support that candidate 9
Somewhat more likely to support that candidate 23
Somewhat less likely to support that candidate 11
Much less likely to support that candidate 17
No difference 41

(3)  Some people say that we should approve tax increases on the wealthy and extend the temporary sales tax enacted in 2012, because the state still need that money to close the budget deficit. Without these funds, we will have to cut funding for schools and for other important public services.

Other people say that the politicians are only raising taxes to pump more money into these failing state and local government pension systems to continue unsustainable government pension payouts (including their own) with our tax dollars. None of this money will go to school funding. We should enact pension reform first before considering any more tax increases.

Which of the following comes closer to your view?

(%) California
Likely Voters
Approve tax increases  on the wealthy and extend 2012 tax increases 37
Enact pension reform first 32
Neither of the above 15
Unsure 17

 *   *   *

Voters Not Swayed Significantly By Groups on Pro and Con Side of Pension Reform

CPC evaluated voter views of a variety of groups that are likely to take positions both for and against pension reform proposals.

As it related to this proposal, how much would you trust the information you might receive from the following organizations or institutions?

(%) California Likely Voters A lot of trust /

very credible

Somewhat trust / somewhat credible Trust just a little / not very credible Do not trust at all / not at all credible
Police and firefighter unions 22 39 25 14
Teachers’ unions 18 35 23 23
CalPERS 13 35 33 19
Government employees’ unions 11 31 27 31
Public sector unions 11 30 34 25
California Chamber of Commerce 10 41 33 16

 *   *   *

About the Author:  Former San Diego city councilman and lifelong entrepreneur Carl DeMaio is now tackling state-wide fiscal reform policy. While on the City Council, DeMaio led the effort to cut red tape on small businesses, reform the city’s contracting processes to expedite infrastructure projects, and enact some of the toughest “Sunshine Law” open government requirements in the nation. In 2012, DeMaio crafted and led a citizens campaign to qualify and pass the “Comprehensive Pension Reform” Initiative – the first-of-its kind measure to switch San Diego from a Defined Benefit Pension Plan to a 401(k) retirement program. In 2003, DeMaio founded the American Strategic Management Institute (ASMI), which provides training and education in corporate financial and performance management. In late 2007, DeMaio sold both of his companies to Thompson Publishing Group. DeMaio holds a BA in International Politics and Business from Georgetown University.

4 replies
  1. Avatar
    john m. moore says:

    Reform only for new hires going forward is a mistake. It makes reformers feel they are helping when they are playing into the pension tyranny systems hands. There is no need for new state legislation. If legislative bodies at the local level(counties, cities, districts) elected bona fide pension reform majorities, they have the means to correct the system. I am not aware of a single agency in Ca. that intends to institute pension reform by taking control away from unions, de facto union administrators and agency attorneys(“license to steal”legal opinions). In CERL agencies, the legislative bodies are in on the tyranny because they are major beneficiaries. The grand jury reports from Marin and Sonoma county reveal numerous criminal act, but those with the duty to indict were and are part of the on going theft via illegal pensions.
    Avoid candidates and reformers who pledge a solution without a specific agenda. Without a pension reform majority in the agency legislative body, everything is simply noise.

  2. Avatar
    Isaac says:

    If you think there’s a chance these “reform” candidates are going to get elected just look a this bonehead Carl DeMaio. This big reformer couldn’t even stay in office, and most all of Reed’s changes have been thrown out. The problem is that these chicken littles have been saying the sky was falling, and now they have no credibility. Funding these campaigns with out of state billionaire money just adds to the public’s skepticism of their true intentions. People are starting to get wise to their (your) intentions. They think that if special interests can demolish vested rights and the retirement security of cops, firefighters and teachers, what will happen to them.

  3. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Spoken like a true Public Sector worker/retiree on the receiving end of one of CA’s grossly excessive (by every reasonable metric) pensions.

    Greed HAS consequences ….. it won’t be pretty when (not if) your Plan fails.

  4. Avatar
    Greg Lamon says:

    I am writing this on January 21, 2016 after it has been announced that Msrs. Reed and DeMaio have abandoned efforts to place one or more reform initiatives on the California ballot in 2016. Since this paper communicates that “Pension Reform Likely to Have a Major Impact on 2016 Elections” it would seem timely to have a post mortem on what happened.

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