An election night that began with Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker winning his recall election grew progressively worse for public-sector unions as California voters approved steep pension-cutting measures in two major cities.
Voters in San Diego and San Jose overwhelmingly passed ballot initiatives Tuesday to reduce retirement benefits for city workers by switching from traditional plans to 401(k)-style contribution plans. San Diego voters also approved a second proposition allowing the city to hire non-union labor on construction contracts.
“I think when we finally highlighted to San Diegans that there’s no reason why one class of employees should get better retirement benefits than another class of employees — and it also means we have fewer services because of that — I think the voters made an overwhelming choice,” Mayor Jerry Sanders told KGTV-TV in San Diego.
Political analysts said cash-strapped city and country officials around the country are likely to note the California results with interest.
“What happened in California and Wisconsin will have profound effects in November, with the public-sector unions going into defensive mode,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in Sacramento. “The pension reform issue is clearly something that cuts across party lines.”
Both cities had struggled with budget cuts even as retirement costs soared. In San Diego, retirement payments increased from $43 million in 1999 to $231.2 million this year, representing about 20 percent of the city’s budget.
The city had responded by cutting road repairs and hours at libraries and recreation centers. Since Mr. Sanders became mayor in 2005, San Diego has also cut its workforce by 14 percent.
In San Jose, pension payments accounted for 27 percent of the budget in 2012. Four libraries and a police station paid for by construction bonds have never opened because there is not enough funding to operate them, even though the city has cut 27 percent of its employees in the past 10 years.
Unhappy unions are expected to challenge the measures in court, and in fact San Diego’s Proposition B, the pension reform measure, had already been hit with lawsuits even before Tuesday’s vote.
“While we respect the decision of San Diego and San Jose voters, these measures will have perilous long-term consequences for workers, the economy and the public,” said Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, a union-backed group opposing the measures.
Separately, a proposition to boost tobacco taxes suffered a close defeat with 49 percent in favor and 51 percent against. The fate of Proposition 29 was seen as a harbinger for the November election, which is expected to feature an income and sales tax increase sponsored by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
“Here you have a close vote on the cigarette tax, which only affects a minority of voters, whereas in November, you have the Brown sales tax, which would affect all voters,” said Claremont McKenna College politics professor John Pitney Jr. “That’s not a good sign for the Brown measure.”
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein coasted to the top spot in her Senate primary against 23 lesser-known candidates with 49.3 percent of the vote. The second-place finisher, former IBM executive and autism advocate Elizabeth Emken, took 12.5 percent.
Orly Taitz, a nationally known leader of the “birther” movement running as a Republican in the Senate primary, placed fifth with 3.1 percent of the vote. Analysts had predicted a second-place finish for Mrs. Taitz would have tarred other Republican candidates by association.
“The Republicans dodged a bullet because they got a credible candidate. Elizabeth Emken is an underdog, but a sympathetic underdog,” said Mr. Pitney. “They could have ended up with a real nut.”
• This story was based in part on wire service reports.