In Wake of Prop B, Filner Sidelines Pension Refinance Plan

Candidate accepts the will of the voters; critics accuse him of abandoning his principles

Mayoral candidate Bob Filner is taking heat again this week for saying that he would go along with the law.  Last week he was challenged for saying that as mayor he would enforce Prop B—the so called pension reform initiative that he so vehemently opposed during the primary—and essentially flip-flopping and supporting the controversial plan.  This time he’s being accused of abandoning his own principles.

During the primary Filner touted a plan to refinance the pension debt, issuing 30 year bonds to do so.  It was a plan he claimed would save the city $500,000 over the next 10 years, citing historically low interest rates and comparing it to a homeowner who refinances his or her mortgage and in the process cuts the interest rate they pay nearly in half.  That’s a lot of money the homeowner gets to keep.

Back then Filner said it would be foolish not to refinance the pension debt, pointing out that it was a tactic used repeatedly by the County of San Diego, a governmental entity that has been able to maintain a sterling credit rating in the process and that has been praised repeatedly for keeping its financial house in order.  Critics, however (i.e. supporters of Prop B) railed against the refinance plan as irresponsible; as just another way to “kick the can down the road” and pass the debt off to the next generation.

Now, writes the Voice of San Diego’s Liam Dillon, Filner is “abandoning his signature pension fix” in favor of enforcing Prop B.  In a subsequent Twitter exchange, Dillon pointed out that Filner repeatedly referred to Prop B as a “fraud that doesn’t solve the problem,” and questioned why he would abandon the refinancing plan, saying that there’s no reason the two plans can’t coexist if Prop B will fail to solve the problem as Filner insisted it would.

Now, it may seem like I’m picking on the Voice, but the truth is that I have a tremendous amount of respect for the work that they do, particularly when it comes to their local political coverage.  No one has done a more thorough job of covering San Diego’s elections than they have, and they have established themselves as the go-to source for information in that regard.  Their coverage of the Balboa Park mess was peerless.

And I have to say that Dillon is not wrong on the policy here.  Technically there is no reason that Prop B and a pension refi can’t coexist.  Technically Filner could still pursue refinancing as a way to save the city a boatload of money.  Prop B is still bad policy that won’t come anywhere close to saving the city the $963 million Carl DeMaio promised unless the full city worker salary freeze is enacted and no bonuses are awarded.  That, I don’t think, will happen, as I noted last week.

But they’re looking at this in entirely the wrong way.  Just like Scott Lewis last week, Dillon is completely missing the point:  Filner’s acceptance of Prop B as settled law has absolutely nothing to do with policy and everything to do with politics.   His acceptance of the election results does not necessarily mean he’s changed his mind.

You may not have noticed, but Bob Filner is in a pretty tough race.  He finished second in the primary to Carl DeMaio by less than a percentage point.  A poll released yesterday has Filner ahead by eight points with 40% of the vote to DeMaio’s 32%.  There is still roughly 29%, according to the poll, that has not yet made up its mind on who they are going to vote for.  It showed a split almost strictly along party lines, including reflecting the “decline to state” voters who, the poll says, make up 29% of the electorate within the boundaries of the San Diego Unified School district.

It should be noted, however, that the poll had a small sample size of 400 likely voters leaving roughly a 4.5% margin of error, and that the poll was conducted by the firm known as FM3, the same firm that showed Lori Saldaña with an eight point lead over Scott Peters in the 52nd Congressional District race.

The voters passed Prop B with 65.81% of the vote—nearly a clean two-thirds majority.  Even in a low turnout primary that’s significant.  The voters bought hook, line, and sinker the Prop B proponents’ assertion that the initiative would be a panacea, and that by passing it the pension “crisis” would be solved.  That’s not the case, and Filner did his best to get that message across all through the primary.  But the voters chose Prop B over Filner’s alternative.  The voters have spoken, and overwhelmingly so.

As far as the voters are concerned, the pension issue is settled.  Prop B passed and is now the law.  Time to move on.  Politically it would make absolutely no sense for Filner to continue to harp on the initiative as bad policy that won’t solve any of our problems.  By continuing to tout his plan to refinance the pension debt, he would only serve to confuse the issue, and in the process antagonize the voters:  He would basically be telling the electorate that they were wrong and that they made a colossal mistake in passing Prop B, and that he knows better than they do (he probably does, but that’s entirely beside the point).

Keep in mind that these are the very same voters that he is asking to choose him as the next Mayor of San Diego, and according to the FM3 poll, there are an awful lot of undecideds out there that he has yet to win over; votes he will need in order to win in November.  Contesting a matter that was settled less than two months ago is not exactly a great way to endear one’s self to that constituency.  Insulting the people is not a great way to win an election.  He fought that battle, and he lost.  Continuing to fight that decision won’t help him get elected.

Besides, it would hand DeMaio, his opponent, a whole new, irresistible (and effective) line of attack for the general election.  I can see the ads now:  “How can you choose a candidate that doesn’t respect the will of the voters?  Vote for Carl DeMaio!  He’s got your back!”

And so Filner accepts the voters’ choice as settled law, and pledges in the heat of a campaign to do everything he can to give the people what they said they want.  I don’t think he believes it will work, but in his mind as mayor he would have an obligation to try.  If (when) it fails, then he can revisit his refinancing plan.  As I’ve said before, it’s the politically expedient thing to do, even if it’s not sound policy.  And when you’re in the middle of a campaign, sometimes it’s necessary for politics to trump policy.


Andy Cohen

Andy spent 15 years working in the highest levels of the San Diego professional sports world, including both the Padres and the Chargers. He began his foray into writing while a volunteer for Francine Busby's 2010 Congressional campaign, eventually becoming a contributor to the now defunct SDNN. He has reported on local and national politics for both the OB Rag and the San Diego Free Press. When not reporting news and events, he offers political and policy commentary from a liberal perspective, occasionally turning back to his sports roots. While he does not hide his more liberal political bent, Andy always strives for fairness in the telling of a story.