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· October 8, 2013

Cincinnati pension system targeted by tea party activists

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This November, voters in Cincinnati will be asked to support a tea party backed plan to privatize the city’s retirement system by closing the pension system to all future employees and enrolling them in 401(k) style accounts. Cincinnati’s ballot initiative is the latest step in a nationwide effort to eliminate public pension systems and move individuals into riskier retirement accounts. The effort here in Ohio is being spearheaded by anti-government, tea party activists that are backed by wealthy out-of-state funders who paint a bleak picture for the City of Cincinnati if radical changes are not made to its pension system. This is the first part in a three part series examining the Cincinnati pension issue, its backers, and how it will impact the city for years to come.

In recent years, public pension systems from California to Rhode Island have come under attack by conservative organizations and activists from around the country drafting model amendments and legislation, collecting signatures, and helping to lead the effort to eliminate public pension. It now seems that a very similar effort is afoot in Cincinnati where tea party activists are pushing an effort to repeal the city’s pension system for its employees and force all new employees into alternative retirement programs.

This effort to dismantle Cincinnati’s pension system and portray it as an unsustainable train wreck is straight from the conservative playbook being used in other cities and states across the U.S. Conservative activists and lawmakers will first decree the insurmountable pensions costs and conclude that the only sustainable path forward is to eliminate the public pensions all together and turn the system over to enormous banks that stand to profit handsomely from such a plan. While the sustainability of public pensions is a complicated matter, these so called “reformers” routinely exaggerate the fiscal health of public pensions and fail to point out that the main culprit in all this is the financial crisis of 2007-2008 which was a huge hit to pensions and was caused by the same people who now stand to profit from these changes.

In just the last year cities across the nation went to the ballot to determine the fate of public pensions in their municipalities. Likewise, Cincinnati is not the only city going to the ballot this November. Voters in Tucson, Arizona will be asked to decide on a similar effort there, which resembles two initiatives that passed in California just last year. Tucson Voters will also be considering a tea party backed proposal to put new city workers into 401(k) style plans and eliminate the city’s public pension.

While, the Tucson effort has been almost entirely funded by two Virginia-based national right-wing organizations it remains unknown whether the same groups are behind the Cincinnati effort. But at least one connected to funding the Tucson effort has backed the Cincinnati effort publicly. The Liberty Initiative Fund is a Virginia based advocacy group dedicated to implementing term limits and eliminating public pensions through the initiative and referendum process and connected with spending $45,000 on collecting signatures in the Tucson pension initiative. On their website, in one of two posts on their site, there is a piece in support of the Cincinnati initiative and the changes it will bring upon the city’s pension system.

In Cincinnati, the committee behind the effort, Cincinnati for Pension Reform, is mostly individuals from the area associated with the tea party. One member of the committee in particular, Chris Littleton has a long track record of working to advance extreme policies that are often in line with tea party principals. Mr. Littleton is a co-founder of the state tea party umbrella group Ohio Liberty Coalition. In the past the organization fought for right to work legislation, opposed Medicaid expansion in Ohio, and worked against the implementation of Obamacare in Ohio. In addition, the ballot language for the proposal was drafted by the Executive Director and Founder of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law Center – a strongly conservative Columbus based organization that advocates for limited government.

Not only is the committee behind the effort being driving by local tea party activists but their supposed grassroots effort was helped significantly by a mysterious $70,000 used to gather petitions in Cincinnati. It was reported this summer that California based Arno Political Consultants was paid to collect more than 8,000 signatures from Cincinnati residents to put the initiative on the ballot this November. Arno Political used out-of-state individuals to act as petition gathers and to go door-to-door to collect valid signatures. When asked, Cincinnati for Pension Reform refused to disclose where it received the $70,000 to pay for petition circulators.

In opposition to the effort is a bipartisan group of individuals and organizations that rarely find themselves in agreement on much. To date, Democratic Mayor Mark Mallory, all Republican and Democratic City Council Members, both Mayoral Candidates, organized labor, and the regional Chamber of Commerce all come out in opposition to the initiative. In addition, City Manager Milton Dohoney, Jr. outlined in a letter to City leaders the many unintended impacts the proposal could have on the city for years to come, including much higher pension costs. The document broke down in detail how the proposal would not save the city any money for years to come and, in the short term, would increase the financial stress on the city.

Lacking support from mainstream political parties and candidates, opposed by both labor and business groups and reflective of national conservative movement to dismantle public pensions, the November ballot initiative is an extreme proposal that will cost Cincinnati taxpayers more. Voters should be aware who is behind this effort both locally and nationwide.

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