California’s pension-reform movement is back, as reformers on Thursday announced the long-awaited details of a statewide ballot initiative targeted for the November 2016 ballot. The measure, one of its main backers said, will cut the “Gordian Knot” that has halted reform—in particular, the tangle of court cases that has made it nearly impossible to control benefit costs.
In the legend, the King of Phrygia tied a complicated knot and prophesied that the one person who could undo it would rule Asia. Alexander the Great glared at the entangled mess and, unexpectedly, whacked through it with his sword. The “Gordian Knot” refers now to complex situations that can only be fixed with an unconventional approach.
Pension reformers have tried many conventional approaches, but they’ve been stymied by an intractable legal problem called the “California Rule”—court interpretations that forbid any reduction in benefits for current employees, even on a going-forward basis. And they’ve been stymied by a Legislature that – after passing modest reform in 2012—declared the mission accomplished and moved on to other things.
Reformers have backed statewide initiatives before. But titles and summaries issued by the attorney general have been criticized as biased. Voters who sign petitions tend only to read those short descriptions, so biased ones can be the death knell. Reformers even attempted a county-by-county approach, but the first test case, in Ventura County, was kept off the ballot by a judge.