San Diego mayoral candidate Bob Filner came under fire last night for comments he made in an interview with the UT San Diego, saying that “he would push for the freeze even if the courts ruled Prop B illegal because two-thirds of city voters favored the plan.” The UT San Diego headline reads “New backer of SD pension overhaul: Bob Filner.” The Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis took to Twitter, more or less accusing Filner of flip-flopping on Prop B:
— Scott Lewis (@vosdscott) July 26, 2012
For those who might not remember, @AlvarezSD proposed just what Filner’s saying: A pensionable pay freeze for five years. Where was Filner?
— Scott Lewis (@vosdscott) July 26, 2012
Filner was among the plan’s most vehement opponents during the primary election, and he still is. However, Filner also said during the final mayoral debate before the primary election that should Prop B be passed by the voters, it would become the law of the city, and therefore he would be obligated to implement it as mayor. He said he would follow the law and the will of the voters. And the voters have spoken.
Filner told the UT that he’s better suited to negotiate the freeze with the public employee unions because of his Republican opponent’s outright hostility to unions and public workers. The pay freeze, after all, is what the voters wanted.
And now Filner’s being criticized for saying he’d implement the law—as would be his duty as mayor—just like he said he would. The UT and Lewis are mocking him because he says that as mayor he thinks he would be able to avoid the oncoming lawsuit by being able to negotiate with the unions where DeMaio could not.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind here. Prop B essentially consists of two basic parts: The switch from defined benefit pensions for public employees to a defined contribution 401k plan. Studies by the city’s independent budget analyst determined that switching to a 401k plan would save the city almost nothing as opposed to the pension system, and could end up costing the city $56 million. The second part of the plan is the mandate of a pensionable pay freeze for city employees for five years. The pay freeze is where the entirety of the $963 million that proponents of Prop B claim the city would save would come from.
I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty certain that a voter mandate of a switch to a 401k plan for city employees is not illegal. It may be ill advised cheap theatrics in order to take a swipe at public workers, but it’s perfectly legal. I am just as certain, however, that a voter mandated pay freeze on public employee salaries is perfectly illegal, as state law requires that all public employee pay agreements be collectively bargained. Prop B is deliberately and directly in defiance of state law.
Carl DeMaio—one of the main authors of Prop B–and his friends despise unions and don’t like public workers very much, and Prop B is their way of sticking it to them.
There is a way around the pensionable pay freeze, though, that might stop an all out mutiny among the public employee unions, and Bob Filner knows this. “Pensionable salaries” refers to the amount of pay that is used to calculate how much is put toward a worker’s pension. Freezing the pensionable pay “freezes” the amount of money the city has to put into the pension system (the switch to 401k’s will start with new hires only).
What “pensionable pay” does not include are cash bonuses that may be awarded to city workers. This is merely supposition on my part, but my guess is that Filner’s negotiating plan with the unions includes freezing pensionable pay for five years as called for by Prop B, but he would also likely write in certain bonuses into the labor contract, effectively giving city workers the raises that they’ve been denied for the last five years and that Prop B would deny them for another five years. Those “raises” would simply not be reflected in the pension payments they would receive upon retirement.
Hell would freeze over before a Mayor DeMaio would agree to any such deal, and off to court we’d go.
This is really not all that much different from what Filner proposed during the primary. In his own alternative plan, Filner said that he would negotiate a five year deal with the public employee unions that would ideally include a two year pensionable pay freeze and cap pay increases at 2% for the three subsequent years. Replace the 2% raises with equivalent cash bonuses and you’ve got pretty much the same deal.
In essence it breaks down this way: Follow Filner’s approach and negotiate in good faith with the unions, and the city has a good chance of realizing significant savings from pension reform. Certainly not the full $963 million promised (wink-wink-nudge-nudge) by the backers of Prop B, but there will be real savings. Follow DeMaio’s approach and try to strong-arm and bully the unions and the public workers, and the city will be forced to spend millions on litigation costs, will lose in court, and there will be no pensionable pay freeze. Without the pay freeze, according to the Independent Budget Analyst, there are no savings from pension reform, and in fact the city will lose money (the switch to 401k’s is estimated to cost $56 million, in addition to the lawsuit).
Filner’s way actually has a chance at salvaging something positive from this whole mess.
So here’s my final question to the UT’s Craig Gustafson and the Voice’s Scott Lewis: What would you have Filner say? Should he openly defy the will of the voters who passed Prop B with 65% of the vote–the very same voters he is asking to elect him Mayor of San Diego—and vow to fight the law in court to the bitter end? Or should he do what he said he would do and work to implement the law in as reasonable and responsible a way as possible, following the will of the voters?
Only one of those options would appear to be at all politically expedient. And Bob Filner is, after all, a master politician.
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