Issue 4, the ballot initiative that would semi-privatize Cincinnati’s pension system, obtained most of its financial support from out-of-town tea party groups, according to financial disclosure forms filed to the Hamilton County Board of Elections on Oct. 24.
The report confirms concerns previously raised by city officials, unions and mayoral and City Council candidates: The pension privatization effort is coming from outside Cincinnati and, in some instances, Ohio.
Up to Oct. 16, Cincinnati for Pension Reform, which successfully placed Issue 4 on the ballot, received more than $231,000 from campaign contributors. Of that money, $209,500 came from groups in West Chester, Ohio — organizations called Jobs and Progress Fund, A Public Voice, Ohio 2.0 and Ohio Rising — and $20,000 came from the Virginia-based Liberty Initiative Fund, which CityBeat previously reported as an early supporter of pension privatization schemes around the country.
Chris Littleton, a leading consultant for Issue 4 and long-time tea party activist, is also based in West Chester. He’s blogged about his involvement in Ohio Rising and Ohio 2.0, and he helped create the Cincinnati Tea Party and Ohio Liberty Coalition, another tea party group.
Upon receiving the contributions, Cincinnati for Pension Reform used more than $215,000 to circulate petitions, email blasts, advertisements and other typical campaign expenses.
The infusion of cash from out-of-town sources also helps explain why Cincinnati for Pension Reform managed to mobilize its efforts so quickly and without the knowledge of many city officials, who previously said they’re bewildered by the effort and don’t know where it came from.
If approved by voters, Issue 4 would semi-privatize Cincinnati’s pension system so city employees hired after January 2014 would contribute to and manage individual retirement accounts, which would also be supported by a proportional match from the city.
The conservative Buckeye Institute, which supports Issue 4, previously studied the proposal and found it could greatly reduce retirement benefits for city employees. Although the Buckeye Institute’s report claims Issue 4 could ultimately save Cincinnati money, it was laced with caveats that could actually lead to higher costs for the city.
Another study from a finance professor at Xavier University found Issue 4, if approved, could force the city to cut services, excluding police and firefighters, by up to 41 percent or increase taxes by a similar amount in the near term by mandating that the city more expediently pay off the current pension system’s $862 million unfunded liability.
A major concern for critics of Issue 4 is that it could cost the city its Social Security exemption. Under the current pension system, the city doesn’t have to pay into Social Security. If Issue 4 passes, the city’s contributions to the pension system might not be generous enough to keep the exemption, which could force the city to make costly Social Security payments.
And if the city doesn’t lose its exemption, city workers would be left with an individual retirement plan that wouldn’t have the safety net of Social Security — unlike private-sector workers who get both an individual retirement account and Social Security.
Supporters of Issue 4 dismiss the criticisms. They say that Issue 4 is necessary to address Cincinnati’s large unfunded pension liability, which credit ratings agency Moody’s cited as one of the reasons it downgraded the city’s bond rating in July.
The city’s leaders, who unanimously oppose Issue 4, say they are working on solving the liability, but they argue it’s better to reform the system, not scrap it altogether.
Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls previously told CityBeat that pension issues for current city employees are covered by reforms passed in 2011, and she says City Council will take up further reforms to address the unfunded liability after the election in November.
Voters will make the final decision on Issue 4 on Nov. 5.
The full financial report:
Updated with more information Chris Littleton and the involved groups.