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Fight over public pensions to widen after Republican election gains

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[November 06, 2014]  By Tim Reid
 LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Union-backed defenders of public pensions and their opponents expect their battle to expand to more states next year in the fight over U.S. entitlements after Tuesday's mid-term elections.

Despite defeat for a hotly contested ballot measure that sought to end traditional public pensions in Phoenix, a fight which drew millions of dollars in outside money, Republican gains in some state houses and governors' mansions mean the battle over public pensions will likely intensify.

Defenders of public pensions say they will be particularly focused on Colorado, Florida and Nevada, where they expect moves to reform pensions will gain steam after Republican gains on Tuesday.

"This fight is not going away," said Jordan Marks of the National Public Pension Coalition, a national union-funded group that seeks to protect public pensions. "There are a number of states, including Colorado and Nevada. We are looking at next year."

Paul Jacob, a libertarian whose Virginia-based Liberty Initiative Fund gave $15,000 to the Phoenix measure and who has given over $200,000 to efforts in Tucson and Cincinnati to reform pensions, agreed.


"The cost of public pensions is a serious problem across the country. We are going to see these fights again and again. This is a policy battle between folks who want to be fiscally responsible and unions who want to get what they can."

Reformers, such as Jacob, believe the pensions promised to many public workers have not been properly funded and pensions are crippling budgets. Union defenders say most workers receive small pensions and are being unfairly blamed.

In Colorado, three pension studies mandated by law arrive in the state house next year. One looks at switching pensions from the traditional defined-benefit structure to a defined-contribution system, more like a 401(k)-style retirement system in the private sector.

Control of the Colorado state Senate hung in the balance on Wednesday, with votes still being counted and hoping to gain power. The NPPC's Marks said Colorado was high on their agenda next year.

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In Nevada, Republicans wrested control of both the state assembly and senate from Democrats. Lawmakers reconvene in February.

A Republican bill to switch Nevada's pensions to a hybrid system was killed by Democrats in 2013. Analysts expect Republicans to reintroduce the measure next year.

In Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, the state treasurer who spearheaded pension reform measures in 2011, was elected governor despite union opposition. Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker, an avowed enemy of unions after taking them on in 2011, was re-elected.

In California, an effort to get a measure on the 2016 ballot that would give local governments more leeway to cut public pension plans will also be renewed, according to the outgoing mayor of San Jose, Chuck Reed, the measure's main proponent and a rare Democratic advocate for pension reform.

Victory for Reed's successor in San Jose, Democrat Sam Liccardo, another vocal pension reformer, means a fight between police and the city over retirement benefits will continue unabated.

(Reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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