Pension Reform Waits for California Supreme Court

With markets fitfully advancing after a nearly two year pause, the need for pension reform again fades from public discussion. And it’s easy for pension reformers to forget that even when funds are obviously imperiled, with growing unfunded liabilities and continuously increasing demands from the pension funds, hardly anyone understands what’s going on. Unless you are sitting on a city council and facing a 10 percent budget deficit at the same time as your required pension contribution is increasing (again) by 20 percent, pension finance is eye-glazing arcana that is best ignored.

But when your local government has reached the point where it’s spending nearly as much on pensions as it spends on base salaries, and pension finance commands your attention, you still can’t do much. Pension reforms were approved by voters in San Jose and San Diego, among other places, but their impact was significantly reduced because of court challenges. Similarly, a moderate statewide pension reform passed by California’s legislature and signed by Governor Brown in 2013 has been repeatedly challenged in court.

The primary legal dispute is over what is referred to as the “California Rule.” According to this interpretation of California contract law, pension benefit accruals – the amount of additional pension benefit an employee earns each year – cannot be reduced, even for future work. Reformers find this appallingly unfair, based on the fact that when California’s public employee pension benefit accruals were enhanced, the enhancement was applied retroactively. Suddenly […] Read More

How Can California Reduce the Costs of Incarceration?

California Governor Gavin Newsom has agreed to give state prison correctional officers a 3 percent raise. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, there is “no evident justification” for this raise.

A recent article in the Sacramento Bee summarizes portions of the LAO report, writing “The last time the state compared state correctional officers’ salaries to their local government counterparts, in 2013, state correctional officers made 40 percent more than officers in county-run jails, according to the LAO analysis,” and, “Since 2013, salary increases for state correctional officers have increased by a compounded 24 percent, according to the LAO.”

Within the LAO report, it is made clear that the rising cost for pensions is a major factor in escalating compensation costs for California’s prison guards. In theory, the cost to provide pension benefits is reasonable. The so-called “normal cost” of a pension is how much you have to pay if your pension system is fully funded. Unfortunately, that’s a big if. Today, the normal cost is only a small fraction of total pension costs. Most of the money going to CalPERS is to pay down their unfunded liability, built up over years of insufficient annual payments, along with lower than projected investment returns, and benefit enhancements that were justified using overly optimistic financial projections. CalPERS, the pension system that serves the California Correctional Officers, is underfunded by at least $138 billion. It is only 71 percent funded.

To see how this translates into the cost of individual pension […] Read More

The Coming Impact of Pension Payments on California’s Cities, and How Reforms Could Happen

AUDIO: Part One – Employer contributions to pension systems for state/local workers are set to double in the next six years, best case. Ways agencies are trying to increase taxes and cut services to find the money – 10 minutes on 1440 AM KUHL Santa Barbara – Edward Ring on the Andy Caldwell Show.

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AUDIO: Part Two – A discussion of how California’s pension crisis began, what potential reforms could make pensions financially sustainable, and the organizations that could successfully push these reforms – 10 minutes on 1440 AM KUHL Santa Barbara – Edward Ring on the Andy Caldwell Show.

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Pension Rhetoric vs. Pension Reality

As California’s public employee retirement system teeters on the verge of complete financial collapse, defenders of the current system continue to deny this, often accusing reformers of being “public servant bashers.” But politically motivated rhetoric will not change financial reality – or the pursuit of reforms so private workers don’t endure punitive taxation to sustain a privileged class of government employees. Last week the Sacramento Bee published a guest viewpoint written by Bruce Blanning, the Executive Director of the Professional Engineers in California Government. His commentary, entitled “State retirement benefits make an easy – and unfair – target,” invites a rebuttal.

The “real truth” about CalPERS, and other public employee pension funds, is they have consistently overestimated their long-term rates of return, adjusted for inflation. Currently CalPERS official rate of return, used for projecting the funds they will have available in the future, is 4.75%. This rate exceeds key long-term indicators that should govern these projections. For example, the inflation adjusted rate of return for the Dow Jones stock index for the period 1925 through 2008 averaged 2.8% per year. Similarly, the real rate of global economic growth for the period 1950 through 2000 averaged barely 4.0% per year, and this rate was skewed upwards by debt-fueled, unsustainable growth during the 1990’s. Even at a rate of 4.75% per year, CalPERS and the other pension funds are in a precarious state, because their asset values have been hammered […] Read More