Ballot-measure duel may end up killing pension reform

Now that pension reform has become the most popular bandwagon since the 2010 Giants, the question is how many people will jump on.

Will it be too many or not enough?

With two measures speeding toward a collision course on the November ballot, a recent notion has emerged that since everyone agrees pension reform is a swell idea, why not just pass them both and let the chips fall where they may.

The problem, according to backers of a coalition plan including city officials, labor leaders and others, is that if a rival proposal authored by Public Defender Jeff Adachi passes, there may not be any chips left at all.

Adachi’s reform plan, which requires more contributions from public employees, would save The City up to $143 million over the next five years, according to a city controller’s report. The coalition proposal, which is backed by Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, would, by contrast, save only up to $81 million over the same time period.

Adachi says that is the rival plan’s primary weakness, which he hopes will be strengthened by the Board of Supervisors, a body famous for tweaking even the most-benign issues. If not, he says, he will continue to push his effort forward and let the voters have final say.

“I’ve told the mayor that they needed to get closer to the cost savings in our plan and right now they’re fairly far away,” Adachi said. “It makes more sense to do it right from the beginning so we don’t have to come back in a couple of years and do it over again.”

That’s where matters get complicated. If both measures go forward, make the ballot and are approved, the one with the highest number of votes takes precedent. However, in that scenario, provisions in one that are not included in the other would also be enacted.

Adachi said that if that happened, it could be the best of both worlds. But according to Elsbernd and others involved with the coalition plan, passage of Adachi’s measure could doom pension reform entirely, sending all scrambling back to the starting gate.

Elsbernd maintains that state laws governing vested rights for employees say that if you take away a contribution provision, as Adachi’s measure does, you have to give them commensurate compensation, which it does not. That, he insists, makes it illegal, an opinion held by the city attorney but one with which Adachi disagrees.

“I give Jeff a lot of credit for moving the issue forward,” Elsbernd told me. “But the real concern in this case if that his measure passes and gets more votes, it’s so legally tenuous the courts will throw it out and we’ll be back at zero. That’s a very risky legal throw of the dice.”

So Adachi insists that he will go ahead with his measure if the one at the board doesn’t up the ante to include more savings for The City. Yet critics contend that the savings aren’t real because it won’t pass muster with the courts. Here we are six months from the election and voters are already being thrown a ball of confusion.

And lest we forget the politics involved, the coalition group plans to mount an aggressive campaign to defeat Adachi’s measure, while it’s unclear whether he plans to try and follow a similar tactic. It’s worth remembering that the group undid Adachi’s initial flawed bid called Proposition B last year.

Still, there’s no argument about the stakes. San Francisco currently has $1.57 billion in unfunded liability for The City’s public employee retirement system. The level of unfunded health care benefits is far worse, standing at $4.36 billion.

That’s a financial tsunami that is not going to be stopped with two thumbs stuck in a dam. If Adachi’s team doesn’t believe the legal advice from the City Attorney’s Office then they should hire an independent counsel to get a reality check.

And if supervisors can increase the level of savings in the coalition plan, they should.

At this point, pension reform in plan A, B or C is going to look mighty fine to voters — much better than the Giants’ chances at this stage last year.

Bay Area Newsken garciaLocalNews ColumnistsSan Francisco

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