“The fight demonstrates the distrust and antipathy that exists between union-backed defenders of public pensions, and reformers who believe the unfunded costs of such plans need to be reined in. ‘Both sides have a very strong sense that we are at a tipping point when it comes to public pensions,’ said David Skeel, a bankruptcy law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. ‘The outside groups funding these fights are not mistaken to think there is a lot at stake.’
“Pension costs and debt were significant factors in the bankruptcies of Detroit, and California's Stockton and San Bernardino, where the bankruptcy judges have said public pensions are no longer inviolate. Efforts to reform pensions are ongoing in California and Illinois.
“In the Phoenix battle, over $40,000 has come from the Action Now Initiative, a non-profit fund run by John Arnold, a former trader at Enron, the defunct energy company. Arnold went on to make an estimated $3 billion running Centaurus, a Houston-based natural gas trading hedge fund.
“Arnold is a marked man by unions. The National Public Pension Coalition, which is mostly funded by national unions, asserts that through his philanthropic foundation, personal gifts and donations from the action fund, Arnold has given over $53 million to groups backing pension reform efforts in 17 states since 2008, including California, Rhode Island, New York, Florida, and now Arizona.
“An NPPC spreadsheet of purported Arnold pension-related donations ‘lays out for the first time in a very compelling way how bent on eliminating public pensions John Arnold is,’ said Jordan Marks, the NPPC's executive director. ‘Money speaks louder than words. John Arnold may claim that his aim is not to gut public pensions, but financing nearly every effort to attack pension benefits definitively proves otherwise.’
“Arnold, in an interview and through emails, denied allegations that he wants to eliminate public pensions. He said the NPPC spreadsheet is riddled with errors, shoddy methodology and bias, and has grossly and falsely inflated his pension-related giving. It is the latest in a long line of smear tactics to discredit his work and attack him personally, he said.
“Private Money: fierce fights, with successes and failures on both sides and bankrolled with tens of millions of dollars, have already been waged in Rhode Island and Kentucky, where laws altering retirement benefits for public workers were passed in 2011 and 2013, and California, where an effort for a statewide pension reform initiative faltered this year. Arnold bankrolled reform efforts in all three states.
“A ballot initiative to change the public pension system was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in Cincinnati last year, despite almost $500,000 in contributions, mostly from outside non-profit groups who did not disclose their funding sources. An effort in Tucson was knocked off the ballot after a lawsuit. The Liberty Initiative Fund, a Virginia non-profit organization which has given the Phoenix pension reform campaign $15,000, gave $100,000 to both the Tucson and Cincinnati efforts, according to the fund's founder, Paul Jacob. Jacob declined to identify his fund's donors. According to Arnold's own website, he and his wife made personal contributions of between $1 million and $5 million to the Liberty Initiative Fund between 2008 and 2014.
“One of America's most expensive ballot initiatives next month comes in Michigan: a constitutional amendment to guarantee collective bargaining, pitting unions against big business. Proponents have raised about $22 million, with opponents amassing $26 million.
“Addressing the NPPC spreadsheet, Arnold said some of the grants it cites have not even been made. Millions of dollars included have nothing to do with pensions, he added. The spreadsheet also assumes the absolute maximum for grants when a range of giving is reported…
“In 2012 Arnold turned full-time to running a philanthropic foundation with his wife Laura. According to the most recent tax filings the Laura and John Arnold Foundation has assets of almost $1.3 billion. Its goals are to improve outcomes for criminal justice, education, public accountability and research integrity. Arnold said the foundation also seeks to address the historical underfunding of public pensions, which he says is harmful to workers, taxpayers and cities and states, and to help find long term structural solutions fair to all parties…”