Public safety dominates Prop 487 debate
Hundreds of firefighters and police officers chant “No on 487!” outside an upscale Biltmore office tower, rallying against a ballot initiative they contend will gut their most critical benefits.
The first responders demand that initiative supporters remove a TV ad saying Proposition 487 is good for police and firefighters. They say the measure is just the opposite, saying it would jeopardize their retirement security and death and disability benefits.
That dire situation they portrayed at the protest earlier this month — suggesting Prop. 487 will eviscerate the pensions of officers and firefighters and leave families of fallen first responders without benefits — is improbable given that state law prohibits it.
Nevertheless, the hotly disputed claim has become the dominant argument in the final stretches of the campaign over the measure, which would close Phoenix’s employee-pension system for new hires and replace it with a 401(k)-type plan. The initiative is on the Nov. 4 ballot for city voters.
There’s disagreement over the idea that Prop. 487 could apply to public- safety workers, but many concede significant legal obstacles could prevent such a scenario from unfolding.
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Attorneys on both sides say it’s unlikely state law would allow the city to stop contributing money to the state retirement plan for public-safety workers. Prop. 487 opponents say its passage would stop the city’s payments to a state-run pension system for police and firefighters, thus stripping their pensions and the death and disability benefits the system pays for.
But the Arizona Constitution states “public retirement system benefits shall not be diminished or impaired,” and county judges have a track record of blocking changes to pension benefits of existing employees.
Still, public-safety unions stand behind the claim, saying any risk is too much.
“Given that police officers and firefighters don’t receive Social Security and judges are apt to make unpredictable rulings, we refuse to take such risks with the public safety of our community,” leaders of the city’s police and fire unions wrote in a joint letter this week.
The powerful fire union has driven the opposition campaign, blanketing the city with red “No” signs, filling voters’ mailboxes with ads, going door to door and running TV commercials featuring the family members of dead first responders.
Prop. 487’s core provision would close the pension system and create a 401(k)-style retirement plan for general city employees hired in the future, excluding police and firefighters. There’s disagreement about whether its other provisions could have unintended consequences for public-safety workers.
Initiative supporters say the claim that it will affect current or future police officers and firefighters is a farce to distract voters. They’ve pointed to Prop. 487’s intent language, which states it is “not intended to affect” members of the Arizona Public Safety Employees’ Retirement System, a plan separate from the city’s pension for general employees.
“They continue to make this claim that is completely untrue,” said Scot Mussi, chairman of the pro-reform group Citizens for Phoenix Pension Reform. “It’s getting scandalous, because they provide no evidence.”
Political consultants close to both campaigns said the tactic appears to be resonating, making the contest more competitive than earlier polling suggested. Neither campaign would release their polling figures.
Initially, both sides had focused their arguments on Prop. 487’s potential impact on the city budget. That emphasis shifted in July, when the City Council rebuffed union demands that they adopt a ballot description emphasizing its potential costs — figures supporters dispute.
Mayor Greg Stanton and a majority of the council instead adopted ballot language that emphasized the public-safety claim.
City officials point to the language in Prop. 487’s amendment to the city charter, saying it could outlaw the city’s contributions to retirement plans other than its pension system for current workers or the new 401(k)-type plan for new employees.
However, initiative supporters say Prop. 487 excludes public-safety workers from its definition of “current employee” since they aren’t in the city’s pension system.
Deputy City Manager Rick Naimark reiterated that the city isn’t “saying with certainty” Prop. 487 would affect first responders. He said Phoenix must interpret the ballot language as it appears.
“We need to describe the effect of the charter amendment regardless of whether it’s unconstitutional or conflicts with state law or anything else,” Naimark said.
If Prop. 487 passes, the city council will meet with its attorneys and could decide to implement it in a way that doesn’t impact police or fire. Either way, their decision risks a lawsuit.
Stanton has been among the opponents of Prop. 487 who’ve claimed it “will” end death and disability benefits for public-safety employees. When asked if state law would allow that, Stanton said it would be inappropriate to make predictions.
“The drafters wrote this incorrectly,” Stanton said. “Now, they’re hoping against hope that a state law is going to save them.”
Vice Mayor Jim Waring, who supports Prop. 487, said while the race seems to have tightened over the public-safety argument, many voters in his northeast Phoenix district are more concerned about the notion “that we’re spending way too much money.”