SACRAMENTO -- State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg on Thursday calmed fears of elected officials in San Diego and San Jose that pension-reform measures passed overwhelmingly last month by voters in the two cities could be overridden by state legislation on pensions.
"I would not favor doing anything that would affect the voter-approved initiatives," the Senate president pro tem told reporters Thursday, a day before the Legislature breaks for its summer recess.
A spokesman for the Sacramento Democrat had said earlier that his boss "respects the will of the voters. ... It is presumed that any local initiative passed this year will be grandfathered-in to the eventual pension-reform legislation."
The Legislature is expected to pass some kind of pension reform in August. Gov. Jerry Brown has promised to meet with legislative leaders over the monthlong summer break to hammer out differences that still remain.
The potentially explosive issue of pension "pre-emption" surfaced this week after San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders sent Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, a letter outlining concerns that the state would seek to "usurp the will of the people" by forcing San Diego to swallow its version of pension reform.
"Doing so would be tragic," Sanders wrote, noting that as a charter city, San Diego is governed by its own charter document rather than the state's.
A spokesman for Sanderssaid Thursday that Steinberg has since assured the mayor that "whatever the state ends up doing will not impact San Diego's initiative."
Just in case, however, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed reiterated those same concerns in a two-page letter he sent Thursday afternoon to Steinberg and Perez, as well as their Republican counterparts.
"The people of San Jose have decided that reducing the cost of pensions is far better than continuing to reduce services and employee pay," Reed wrote. "The Legislature should respect that decision, and a similar decision in San Diego, as it attempts to deal with the statewide issues."
Added Reed: "Any legislative effort to override the reforms approved by our voters would be a travesty of the democratic process and a violation of the voters' Constitutional rights."
San Jose and San Diego are two of five charter cities in California that have their own pension systems, a distinction that separates them from most of the state's other cities -- including the 116 charter cities covered by CalPERS, the California Public Employees' Retirement System.
"The California constitution gives charter cities complete authority over employee compensation, so I don't think they (legislators) can undo what the voters have done," Reed told this newspaper, adding that only a constitutional amendment could alter that.
San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle agreed.
"The bottom line is that when you have your own pension plan, it's your business as to how you want to structure your pension plan," he said. "If we were part of CalPERS, we would have to play by CalPERS' rules."
Dwight Stenbakken, deputy executive director of the League of California Cities, said that charter cities that belong to CalPERS would have to adhere to any future state pension reform.
San Jose's pension-reform Measure B, which won 69 percent of the vote on June 5, does not change pension benefits employees and retirees have already earned. But it limits retirement benefits for new hires and requires current employees to either pay up to 16 percent of their salaries for their current pension plan or switch to one that is less generous. It also would allow the city to temporarily suspend cost-of-living pension increases for retirees in a fiscal emergency.
The measure is being challenged in court by San Jose employee unions.
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