Beware the California Pension Reform Foxes


June 4, 2012

By Wayne Lusvardi

Two big pension reform measures are on Tuesday’s ballots in San Jose and San Diego. For advancing the measures, the cities’ mayors are being lionized: Democrat Chuck Reed in San Jose and Jerry Sanders in San Diego.

Budget expert David Crane called Reed “the most courageous leader in California.”  But are Reed and Sanders’ actions like those of a courageous lion– or a clever fox?

This is the question that 15th Century political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli once tried to answer.  His advice to politicians was that they should try to be perceived as a lion, while at the same time being clever as a fox.  A leader must avoid being despised and should be a master of deception.  And the way to best do this was for a leader to be a sort of half-breed of a lion and a fox.

A No-Lose Proposition 

There is no better way to avoid being despised in California by either pension advocates or reformers than to put the contentious issue of municipal pension reform on the ballot in a low turnout primary election.

If the reform effort fails, those who sought reform will nonetheless still praise — lionize — both mayors for their virtuous effort in attempting to get reform.

At the same time, public employee unions will likewise not scorn a mayor for putting a pension reform measure on a primary ballot where it can be more easily defeated.  Reportedly, in San Jose unions weren’t vigorously fighting the pension-reform measure.  Instead, the unions are gearing up for a court fight where they believe they will prevail. And the history of California is full of court cases that invalidated the will of the voters.

Putting pension reform on the ballot is a no-lose proposition for local politicians.

Low Voter Turnout in Union’s Favor

As Joel Fox points out at his website Foxes and Hounds, voter turnout is likely to be low.  Fox cites California election watcher Tony Quinn who co-edits the California Target Book – which profiles each candidate and proposition in upcoming elections – as forecasting a voter turnout under 30 percent of registered voters statewide.  It almost goes without saying that a low voter turnout favors unions who are opposed to pension reform and the most organized in getting the vote out.  If the two pension reform efforts fail the Democrats and unions will hail this as indicating public opinion has turned against pension reform.

Polls Trending Toward Reform?

Statewide opinion polls have shown consistent support for public pension reform.  But even if the pension reform proposition passes in San Jose, Mayor Reed is going to seek a pre-emptive judicial review.

An opinion poll in May showed the San Diego pension reform measure leading widely in a poll with 52 percent support and 29 percent opposed.  But 19 percent were reportedly undecided.  With this high of an undecided count the poll isn’t considered that reliable.

A CBS Channel 5 poll in San Jose found that the pension reform was leading in San Jose a few days before the election. But that poll was reportedly only of a sample of a little over 400 likely voters —  typically not enough to be considered for a reliable poll result.

Beware Pension Reform Foxes

Are the unions relying on a low profile before the elections hoping to snatch victory from defeat?  Are Democrats hoping to use the election to catapult pension reform into the courts where they hope to get the result they want?  We don’t know.

Machiavelli warned that you should not rely on the promises of leaders. Politicians will present the appearance of being courageous as a clever ploy.  As long as a leader appears to act courageous voters will likely judge their leader on appearance.  Leaders often delegate or appeal the implementation of unpopular policies to the courts or bureaucracies so as to keep their own power over the distribution of favors.

History is full of revolutions and reforms being ripped off by the foxes from the courageous lions.

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