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New Backer of SD Pension Overhaul: Bob Filner

New backer of SD pension overhaul: Bob Filner. Proponents of San Diego’s voter-mandated pension overhaul have an unlikely new ally: Mayoral candidate and Democratic Rep. Bob Filner.

Mayoral candidate opposed Proposition B but says he’s the one who can implement it

July 25, 2012

Filner, who opposed Proposition B on the June ballot, said the legal wrangling over the initiative would be rendered moot if he’s elected mayor because he would be able to convince labor unions to agree to one of its most controversial element — a five-year freeze the pensionable pay of current city workers.

Filner, who is running for mayor against Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio, said he would push for the freeze in labor negotiations even if the courts rule Proposition B is illegal because two-thirds of city voters favored the plan. Besides the freeze, the DeMaio-backed initiative also calls for replacing guaranteed pensions with 401(k)-style plans for most new city hires. 


In an interview Wednesday, Filner said he’s the candidate best suited to negotiate a freeze and forego a long legal battle with an uncertain outcome. He said DeMaio’s hostility toward unions ensures that the fight would continue for years and the estimated $963 million in taxpayer savings from a freeze would be delayed or evaporate altogether.

“In this chaos that the legal situation might create, I don’t think Carl has any ability to negotiate a solution,” Filner said. “Now I’m going to go, in this lack of a legal solution, and say to labor ‘Look, the voters have voted for a freeze on pensionable pay. I want to negotiate a five-year agreement … five years with no pensionable pay increase, just as Prop. B says.’ So you can negotiate that even in the absence of Prop. B, even in the absence of its validation, because that’s what voters have voted.”

The comments from Filner were his strongest yet in saying he’ll abide by the will of the voters even though he called Proposition B a fraud during the primary campaign. The move could also be seen as part of Filner’s strategy for the fall campaign to mute at least some of the criticism from DeMaio on city pension issues.

DeMaio, who helped craft Proposition B and made it the centerpiece of his campaign, called Filner’s new stance on a pay freeze “a fig-leaf promise” that voters shouldn’t trust. He pointed to Filner’s pension plan during the primary campaign which called for keeping pensions in place and borrowing money to pay down the city’s $2.2 billion pension deficit.

“He wants to continue the government pension system and borrow billions of dollars to prop it up whereas I’ve said you need to close it, go to a 401(k) system and you can’t be paying one credit card with another,” DeMaio said. “… For him to come along now and say he’ll take an element of Prop. B and trust me at my word that I’ll do it, well, I think voters are smart enough to see through a guy who has not moved from his core position, which is he wants to keep the government pension system open.”

The proposed freeze would only affect the portion of each worker’s salary that is applied toward a future pension. Employees could still receive raises or bonuses that would increase take-home pay but not affect their pension.

The implementation of Proposition B has been put on temporary hold by Superior Court Judge Luis Vargas while a union complaint that it violates labor law is heard by the state Public Employment Relations Board. At issue is whether current Mayor Jerry Sanders, as the city’s lead labor negotiator, violated the law by crafting Proposition B as a citizens’ initiative — one placed on the ballot via signatures — to avoid negotiating its terms with unions.

A PERB administrative law judge heard four days of testimony over the past couple weeks and is expected to make a ruling in the next few months. Any decision could lead to multiple appeals before a final determination is made in court.

Union leader Michael Zucchet said he would welcome talks with Filner over a long-term labor contract that would save significant taxpayer dollars while providing certainty for city workers. He said he wasn’t surprised by Filner comments about a pay freeze because they were based on the premise that it should be negotiated rather than put on the ballot.

“We agree that Congressman Filner is the person who will approach the bargaining from that perspective as opposed to the perspective of how can I best get a headline out of this or how can I craft a ballot initiative or how can I initiate litigation so I have good issues to fight about in the newspaper instead of actually reaching agreement and moving the city forward,” Zucchet said.

Filner has enjoyed significant financial support from labor unions throughout his political career and is expected to rely heavily on it again for the November election. He said that close relationship give him confidence that he can strike a deal that is in everyone’s best interest.

Asked if he would impose the freeze if unions balk at a deal, Filner said, “If it came to that, yeah.”

By: Craig Gustafson, San Diego Union-Tribune

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