The Schwarzenegger administration Monday accused Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer of playing partisan politics with the election process by saying that police and firefighters would lose death benefits under the governor’s pension overhaul.
Lockyer’s office wrote an official summary of the governor’s proposal, which would move teachers and state workers into 401(k)-type retirement plans instead of the public pension system.
The second sentence in the summary said death and disability benefits would be “eliminated” under the plan.
The legal summary, which carries the attorney general’s imprimatur, is intended to make it easier for voters to understand the proposed measure. It is especially important to campaigners because the words appear on the top of petitions to place measures on the ballot.
Noting that Democrat Lockyer is planning to run for governor in 2006 -- possibly against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- the Republican administration called his description a red herring and politically motivated.
They said death and disability benefits would indeed be provided to police and firefighters.
“I think it raises real questions as to whether there was political motivation in the way the legal office wrote the title and summary,” said Rob Stutzman, the governor’s communications director.
Stutzman said Lockyer “will be trying to curry favor from the various special interests that are vested in keeping the pension system the way it is.”
Changing the state’s pension system has enraged teacher and state employee groups, which traditionally have donated to Democratic candidates.
“For someone who wants to run for governor, the politics are pretty transparent,” said Reed Dickens, a spokesman for Citizens to Save California, which is promoting Schwarzenegger’s agenda for the ballot.
Officials in Lockyer’s office rejected Stutzman’s contention that they were injecting politics into the election through the summary.
Schwarzenegger and his allies “can’t refute the A.G.'s argument, because it’s true: The initiative eliminates the existing pension system. The existing system provides death and disability benefits. It’s not rocket science,” said Nathan Barankin, Lockyer’s spokesman.
Barankin said Schwarzenegger “thinks governing is like marketing, like we’re some late-night infomercial peddling the latest get-thin-quick scheme. The voters deserve the truth, describing what an initiative does, instead of peddling it from some partisan perspective. We have fulfilled that obligation.”
Schwarzenegger has said that the escalating costs of pension benefits are burdening taxpayers. Under his proposal, all government workers hired after June 2007 would be eligible only for the 401(k)-style plans, which require employee contributions.
Citizens to Save California is circulating an initiative on the pension plan, and lawmakers are debating similar legislation in the Capitol. The governor wants voters to decide the matter in a special election, probably this November.
The initiative doesn’t explicitly say that the benefits would be dropped.
But employees hired after July 2007 would be ineligible for the old retirement plan and therefore would technically be ineligible for the benefits provided to current employees, opponents contend.
Supporters of the pension overhaul contend that police and firefighters hired after July 2007 would not see lesser benefits than their colleagues -- but some benefit issues must be negotiated separately. Schwarzenegger has promised that the benefits will not decline.
Public unions have characterized Schwarzenegger’s plan as mean-spirited and devastating to the morale of police and firefighters.
They quickly began sending widows of police officers to testify at legislative hearings.
“His ‘pension reforms’ would leave the family of a slain officer nearly destitute,” said Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a union that represents LAPD officers.
Doug Rose, a deputy district attorney and pension board member in San Diego County, said the initiative raises big questions about disability benefits. He said no insurance company would provide the same service and benefits to injured police and firefighters now provided by the public system.
“I think people are beginning to understand this is one of the many flaws in the plan,” Rose said.
But Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), who is carrying the legislation to install the retirement changes, said the initiative was a broad constitutional change that simply would move new employees into the new system.
It doesn’t address issues that would have to be worked out later, he said.
The spouse of a police officer killed in the line of duty, for example, typically is eligible for 50% of the officer’s salary annually. Under the new plan, survivors would get whatever the officer had saved in the 401(k). Annual death benefits would have to be negotiated with local governments or mandated by state legislation.
“To say it eliminates death and disability benefits is just factually wrong,” said Richman, noting that California lawmakers have death and disability benefits but no pension.
Meanwhile, the governor was in New York on Monday to raise money for his various campaigns.
Democrats accused him of spending too much time outside of California and consorting with donors since his election.
Flanked by giant postcards saying “Greetings from New York,” “Greetings from Cincinnati” and “Greetings from Washington D.C.,” three Democratic Assembly members called on the governor to return to California from a fitness exhibition and fundraising trip and start working on solutions to the state’s budget, healthcare, education and transportation troubles.
“Californians should be asking themselves, from a man who ran promising to remove money from politics, how much more of this can we take?” said Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco).
Schwarzenegger was expected to raise about $300,000 to $400,000 at a fundraising dinner Monday night at New York’s 21 Club. About two dozen people were expected to attend, including billionaire cosmetics executive Ron Perelman, according to a member of the governor’s political team.
Protesters crowded outside the 21 Club to oppose Schwarzenegger’s pension plans. Demonstrators included nurses and firefighters from California.
“To pay five- and six-figures to sit at a table to get an opportunity to speak to him -- what’s that?” said Andy Doyle, director of L.A. County Firefighters Local 1014, a demonstrator. “That’s not a special interest?”
Stutzman said the governor is unapologetic about having to spend money to succeed. “They’re stuck in process,” he said of lawmakers. “They think it’s all about politics and maybe for them it is all about politics, but for the governor it’s about real reform and real reform now in 2005.”
Times staff writers Peter Nicholas in New York and Nancy Vogel in Sacramento contributed to this report.