Obscure state agency continues assault on direct democracy

jerry.brown.peopleFeb. 13, 2013

By Chris Reed

Jerry Brown’s nonstop self-accolades for his alleged genius in bringing California back to solid ground are rather dubious. But it is with pensions that Brown’s self-congratulation is most incoherent. While he congratulates himself for achieving moderate pension reform via the Legislature last summer, his appointees continue their anti-reform rampage on the state Public Employment Relations Board.

On Tuesday night, the latest PERB outrage arrived with the release of a ruling from a PERB administrative law judge which gives labor unions a leg up in their push to invalidate Proposition B, the unprecedentedly ambitious pension reform measure approved by San Diego voters in a landslide last June. The judge held that state courts should find the measure illegal because city officials should have engaged in collective bargaining with city labor unions before pursuing a ballot initiative, a ruling in keeping with PERB’s emerging view that collective bargaining trumps state law.

Brown appointees go where no bureaucrats have gone before

As I detailed for CalWatchDog.com in September, the radicalization of PERB came as an unexpected consequence of the California Nurses Association’s war with Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The CNA was furious with PERB for preventing illegal strikes at UC hospitals as a tactic to win raises, and the union got Brown to install former CNA counsel M. Suzanne Murphy as PERB’s general counsel, and to appoint union-beholden members to the agency’s governing board.

The result of this turnover has been much more than the CNA getting its way on a new contract. Instead, it’s resulted in a widening of the war on direct democracy from the California Attorney General’s Office, whose Democratic occupants always write dishonest ballot language to undercut initiatives that unions don’t like; and from a previously obscure government bureaucracy:

“In February 2012, PERB’s radical change in course first became apparent when the agency for the first time in California history sought to keep a pending San Diego pension reform ballot measure from going before voters in June. Murphy’s argument held that, because elected officials in San Diego were involved in drafting the measure, it amounted to an attempt to circumvent and thus violate union collective bargaining rights — even though the San Diego City Council had taken a stand against the measure and it had been organized by private groups.

“This argument, if upheld, arguably would set a precedent under which elected officials could never join in ballot petition campaigns to try to force changes in government policies, because such changes would have affected employees, and thus needed to be collectively bargained.”

Dan Borenstein’s recent column underscores another example of Brown’s incoherence on pensions. In his bizarre effort to declare California’s structural deficit as having vanished, the governor simply ignores the vast underfunding of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. By doing so, he makes the problem more intractable, as Borenstein detailed in his Bay Area News Group op-ed:

“Gov. Jerry Brown’s claim that he balanced his proposed 2013-14 budget ignores that he’s driving the state teacher pension system deeper into debt by shortchanging it at least $4.5 billion.

“Teachers will almost certainly receive retirement payments they have earned. It’s our children, the next generation of taxpayers, who will suffer. They will be stuck with an astronomical bill we should be paying now.”

But at least Brown doesn’t have to stop patting himself on the back if he ignores CalSTRS’ woes.

San Diego city attorney: Real judges will do right thing

As for PERB, San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith predicted in an email Tuesday night that the administrative law judge’s ruling would be seen as a rogue act and wouldn’t hold up in court — a real court, not the PERB kangaroo court.

“We expected it. Barely mentioned are the 120,000 voters who signed petitions to get Prop B on the ballot and had a constitutional right to have it placed on the ballot or the voters who approved it last June,” Goldsmith wrote. “We look forward to returning to the courts where the constitution and the rule of law applies. Recall that PERB filed a lawsuit to stop the city from placing Prop B on the ballot and proceeded to lose three attempts to get an injunction in court; then, PERB dismissed its lawsuit.”

Goldsmith did a good job in an op-ed last summer of exposing the absurdity of the PERB stance:

“Citizen initiatives have been around for over 100 years. Yet never before has any initiative that qualified for the ballot through petition signatures been deemed a ‘sham’ citizen initiative. Governors (including Jerry Brown on his current tax initiative), mayors and other political leaders have regularly supported citizen initiatives and never has that support rendered those citizen initiatives ‘shams.’

“Since 1911, the right to place citizen initiatives on the ballot through voter petitions has been a constitutional right in California reserved by the people to bypass politicians and special interests. This right is not conditioned upon the approval of those special interests and is not something to be bargained over.”

The issue the San Diego city attorney identifies is even bigger than pension reform. It’s likely that the Yale Law School graduate who governs this state understands this.

But Jerry Brown would rather pretend he’s figured out how to make California thrive than acknowledge the undemocratic ways his appointees are behaving at the state Public Employment Relations Board.

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