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Voters in California Appear to Approve Pension Cuts

Ian Lovett|The New York Times
Wednesday, 6 Jun 2012 | 11:41 AM ET

As Wisconsin residents voted on Tuesday not to recall Gov. Scott Walker — who has become an enemy of labor unions nationwide — two California cities dealt blows of their own to organized labor.

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In both San Diego and San Jose, voters appeared to overwhelmingly approve ballot initiatives designed to help balance ailing municipal budgets by cutting retirement benefits for city workers.

Around 70 percent of San Jose voters favored the pension reform measure, with almost 80 percent of precincts reporting. In San Diego, 67 percent had supported a similar pension reform measure, with more than 65 percent of precincts reporting.

“This is really important to our taxpayers,” Chuck Reed, the mayor of San Jose, said Tuesday night. “We’ll get control over these skyrocketing retirement costs and be able to provide the services they are paying for.”

Statewide, voters also remained very closely divided on a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes, which would be the first increase in the cigarette tax here in 14 years. Proceeds from the tax would not go to state coffers, but would instead fund cancer research.

Just past midnight, opponents of the measure held a razor-thin lead, with about 65 percent of precincts reporting.

Antismoking advocates, who promoted the tax as the best way to reduce smoking rates, were outspent nearly four to one. Their opponents, financed largely by the tobacco industry, spent almost $47 million in advertisements to defeat the measure.

Public employee unions, meanwhile, had fought hard against the two pension reform initiatives.

The San Diego Municipal Employees Association brought an unsuccessful legal challenge in an effort to keep the measure off the ballot.

Speaking to KPBS, a local television station, Michael Zucchet, general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, said last month the ballot initiative would not save the city money.

“This initiative doesn’t save anything,” Mr. Zucchet said. “You are basically cutting off your nose to spite your face for pension reform.”

Mr. Zucchet did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday night.

But the mayors of both cities pushed the pension reforms hard, arguing that changes to city worker pensions were essential to keep municipal budgets in the black.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said he hoped the initiatives would provide models for other cities and for the state government, where pension reform efforts have stalled. “The appetite for pension reform in California is huge,” Mr. Coupal said.

Tuesday also offered the first widespread test of the state’s new primary system, in which the top two vote-getters move on to a runoff, irrespective of party affiliation.

One of the most heavily funded races will pit two sitting Democratic representatives against each other: Brad Sherman and Howard L. Berman, colleagues in the House for 15 years who were thrown together by redistricting.

Mr. Sherman had collected about 40 percent of the vote, while Mr. Berman had 33 percent, with about 18 percent of precincts reporting late Tuesday. They will face each other again in the November runoff.

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