Governor pushes ‘reform agenda’ amid noisy contention

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Proposed pension revamp is a target

The San Diego Union Tribune

Amid the din of dueling supporters and protesters, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited a San Diego radio station parking lot Thursday to collect signatures for his ballot proposals and try to stamp out a controversy about his plan to overhaul public pension systems.

Schwarzenegger promoted his four-part “reform agenda” during an hourlong appearance on the Roger Hedgecock show broadcast from the KOGO parking lot as lines of drivers passed through to sign petitions to put the Republican governor’s initiatives on a special election ballot.

“I’m going to go up and down the state and I’m going to campaign to give the power back to the people. Let them sign up. Give me those signatures so we can go directly to the ballot if the legislators don’t do their jobs,” Schwarzenegger said.

The governor is campaigning for proposals to rein in state spending, change teacher compensation, take the power to configure political districts away from the Legislature and replace the guaranteed benefits of public pensions systems with 401(k)-style retirement plans.

The pension initiative has become a lightning rod for the sharpest attacks. Some critics contend it would rob the widows of police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty of their survivor benefits.

“We’re calling on Schwarzenegger to stop fund raising and stop campaigning for this initiative and to announce that he now opposes that initiative given that it goes far beyond what he says it’s supposed to be,” said Jerry Flanagan of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

Schwarzenegger insisted his critics are off base.

“I can guarantee you that as long as I’m governor there will never be any death benefits or disability benefits taken away from the police officers, from law enforcement and firefighters,” he said. “It won’t happen.”

Besides, the governor said, the phasing in of the new system would not begin for two years and only for newly hired workers.

“Number one, it doesn’t kick in until 2007 and, number two, the most important thing is that no one that is working right now for state government will be affected by this,” Schwarzenegger said. “This is for new employees only.”

At issue is the official analysis of the pension initiative by Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s office, which says the measure would eliminate survivor benefits.

A Schwarzenegger spokesman Thursday accused Lockyer, a probable Democratic candidate for governor next year, of doing the bidding of his allies in organized labor by producing a partisan analysis.

“It’s definitely politically motivated by Lockyer to take care of his special-interest constituents,” said Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger’s communications director.

Stutzman said he assumed the initiative’s official sponsor — Assemblyman Keith Richman, R-Chatsworth — would at some point file a legal challenge to the title and summary drafted by Lockyer’s office.

A Lockyer spokesman maintained the summary is accurate because the initiative proposes ending the current public pension plans and all of their components, including survivor benefits.

“We’re accurately describing what the initiative does,” said Lockyer spokesman Nathan Barankin. “They don’t like it. Well, that’s tough.

“The proposed initiative eliminated the existing pension system, which contains a death and disability benefit, and replaces it with a new pension system that does not have a death and disability benefit,” Barankin said.

As Schwarzenegger spoke from a makeshift radio studio outside KOGO, there was a constant roar of cheers and jeers from an audience behind ropes across the parking lot.

Supporters cheered the governor’s every statement and waved signs reading “Thank you, governor” and “Join Arnold ’06” — a gesture of support for a re-election campaign Schwarzenegger has not yet said he intends to wage.

Schwarzenegger demurred when asked about re-election by Hedgecock. “I want to fix the problems this year and then we’ll see about next year,” he said.

Interspersed with the Schwarzenegger fans were Democratic hecklers, particularly from labor, and especially the California Nurses Association and the California Teachers Association. One protester wore a Schwarzenegger mask and hoisted a placard reading “True Liar.”

A loud chorus of boos erupted when Schwarzenegger brought up the pension initiative.

“I always said we have to fix a broken system. That’s what the people sent me up to Sacramento to do,” the governor said. “I also said during my State of the State address that I know that as soon as I announced those reforms there will be special interests out there protesting. You can hear them right now because it’s the special interests that don’t like these reforms. They like the status quo.”

After the event, the California Democratic Party objected to the large San Diego police presence on hand to direct traffic around the Serra Mesa radio station.

“Schwarzenegger somehow got San Diego to provide more than 100 police officers to direct traffic, some of which were for a drive-through to sign the campaign initiatives, including the one gutting public employee pensions,” said Bob Mulholland, campaign adviser to state Democrats.

San Diego Police Department spokesman Dave Cohen said the event was handled through normal “dignitary protection” channels in response to a request from the California Highway Patrol, which protects the governor.

“I have to think that (the claim of) 100 San Diego police officers is ludicrous at best,” Cohen said. “I don’t know that we’d have that many to put on a presidential event, let alone a gubernatorial event.”

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