Kamala Harris

California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris. (Los Angeles Times / March 11, 2010)

Let the California public employee pension war of 2014 begin.

On Monday, state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris released the ballot title and summary for San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s pension initiative, which would allow government agencies to negotiate changes to current employees’ future retirement benefits. He’s now free to poll on the language and begin collecting the signatures needed to put in on the ballot.

Advocates on both sides of the pension debate have been waiting for Harris’ title and summary because those 100 or so words can make or break an initiative. They may be the only information voters have when they ink their ballots. Harris, like attorney generals before her, has been accused of writing ballot language to suit her politics instead of producing an evenhanded title and summary not “likely to create prejudice.” Last month, The Times’ editorial board urged Harris to draft a spin-free summary.

Harris did a fair job. The title is straightforward: Public employees. Pension and Retiree Healthcare Benefits. Her ballot language is unlikely to bias voters in any major way. The title and summary are boring and wonky, but that’s the nature of pension and government finance discussions.

Harris seems to have annoyed everyone. Both sides put out statements criticizing the summary. Reed says the overview misstates what the initiative would do, and he refers to “poll-tested words.” That may be a reference to Harris’ description of public employees as “teachers, nurses, and peace officers” — jobs that are consistently ranked among the most respected professions and don’t carry the same kind of negative baggage that other public jobs, such as parking enforcement, do.

David Low with Californians for Retirement Security, which works with organized labor, wrote that the “title should have prominently noted the elimination or cuts to pensions and retiree healthcare that this measure authorizes.”

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