Local News
12:00 am
Sun September 22, 2013

Democrats use tea party to battle Issue 4

It’s not every day that you come across an issue that unites the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council and the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.

Nor are there many issues on which the two Democratic candidates for Cincinnati mayor, John Cranley and Roxanne Qualls, agree.

But Issue 4, the tea party-backed charter amendment that will be on the Nov. 5 ballot, is one of them.  

A group of Cincinnatians who call themselves Cincinnati For Pension Reform – some of them tea party activists – mounted a successful petition drive to put Issue 4, which would essentially switch city employees to a 401K system, on the ballot.

They paid $70,000 to a California firm that specializes in petition drives to mount the campaign, with the money coming from a variety of conservative and tea-party affiliated groups in Ohio and around the country – including the Virginia-based Liberty Initiative Fund, which is backing a similar ballot issue in Tucson, Arizona.

Here’s the problem:

The city of Cincinnati’s pension system is in serious trouble. It has a shortfall of somewhere in the neighborhood of $872 million now; and that will grow unless something is done.

The city’s pension fund is 61 percent funded. Without changes, it could fall below 40 percent in about 30 years. A pension fund is considered healthy when it is at least 80 percent funded.

It’s already led to the down-grading of Cincinnati’s bond rating; and some say it could lead to bankruptcy for the city unless it is fixed.

“Unfunded pension is the monster that’s going to eat Cincinnati,’’ Ohio State Auditor Dave Yost said recently.

Here’s Cincinnati for Pension Reform’s plan to fix this:

  • All employees hired after Jan. 2014 would go into a retirement plan not unlike many in the private sector, with the city contributing up to nine percent of an employee’s base pay into their retirement plan.
  • Current employees can stay in their current program if that’s what they want, but, at retirement, they would be eligible for a pension that is 60 percent of their average five highest years of pay. Right now, it is 80 percent, based on the top three years of pay.
  • Current pension recipients would see no change in their benefits or pensions, with the exception of a three-percent cap on cost-of-living increases in any one year.

City Council members, who are unanimously opposed to Issue 4, say it would undo a lot of the reforms that are already underway; and the unions that represent city workers say it would leave retirees with meager retirement benefits.

The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, a major business organization, took an interesting position on this issue – the Chamber made it clear it is against Issue 4, but spanked city council at the same time.

Issue 4, the Chamber said in a release this week, “is not the best solution. There are too many unanswered questions surround the amendment including increased costs to the city and concerns regarding its legality. Therefore, city council and the mayor should act before the election to make meaningful and responsible pension reforms.”

In other words, Council, get off your duffs.

The Hamilton County Republican Party, which has benefitted from tea party support in recent years, wanted no part of Issue 4.

County GOP chairman Alex Triantafilou said the party won’t take a position on Issue 4, but not for the reason you might expect.

“One of the leaders of this movement came to us and said they didn’t want an endorsement; they said they want this to be a non-partisan issue,’’ Triantafilou said.

“Our council candidates are for pension reform, but not this ballot issue,’’ Triantafilou said. “The party will stay out of it.”

It was probably good thinking on the part of Issue 4 proponents. Cincinnati is a heavily Democratic city; and a Republican party endorsement might do more harm than good.

No such problem when it comes to the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

They are on the warpath over Issue 4. Some in the party see it as the kind of issue that could motivate their Democratic base the way Senate Bill 5 did in Ohio in 2011.

Go to the Hamilton County Democratic Party’s website, hamiltoncountydems.org. There, at the top of the home page, you will see a bright blue billboard. You may have already seen it on Facebook, if you have Democratic Facebook friends.

The top line says, in big, bold letters, “No on 4.” The “o” in “No” has a tea cup with a line crossed through it. The second line hammers the message home: “Say ‘No’ to the Tea Party.”

Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke said that billboard “will be on every mail piece and lit piece we produce in this election.”

In addition, Burke said, Cincinnati city council and mayoral candidates who want to use the Ohio Democratic Party’s bulk mailing permit to mail out their own literature will be required to use it on their campaign literature.

“That won’t be a problem, because all of our council candidates are opposed to Issue 4, as are the two Democrats running for mayor,”

Chris Littleton, a long-time tea party activist who is acting as a consultant to the pro-Issue 4 campaign, said “that’s fine. They can do that. They are saying no to saving this city. Cincinnati is facing bankruptcy unless there is a real reform.”

Of course, you wouldn’t send a campaign mail piece like this to voters in Green Township or Anderson Township, rock-ribbed Republican areas where the tea party thrives.

But people in Green and Anderson townships don’t get to vote on Issue 4.

Only people within the confines of the city of Cincinnati do. And they are, by a sizeable majority, Democrats.

And, to them, the word “tea party” raises their blood pressure to unhealthy levels. Probably enough to vote no on Issue 4.