Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?

Gimmick – a concealed, usually devious aspect or feature of something, as a plan or deal.
– Dictionary.com

SACRAMENTO, CA - JULY 21: A sign stands in front of California Public Employees' Retirement System building July 21, 2009 in Sacramento, California. CalPERS, the state's public employees retirement fund, reported a loss of 23.4%, its largest annual loss. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

In the past week, from Millbrae’s city hall to the inner sanctum of the CalPERS leviathan in Sacramento, defenders of pensions have been active. In particular, they have criticized the recent analysis, published by the California Policy Center, “How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?” It would advance the ongoing debate over pensions to summarize the points of the CPC analysis, how CalPERS and their allies attacked those points, and how those attacks might be challenged.

On January 19th, in a report published online by Chief Investment Officer magazine entitled “CalPERS: Ring’s Flippant Claim of ‘Tricky Accounting Gimmicks’ Is False,” author Christine Giordano interviewed CalPERS spokesperson Amy Morgan. Tellingly, they did not discuss the substance of the CPC analysis, which specified, using CalPERS’ own data, how much more cities and counties are going to have to pay CalPERS. They focused instead on specific criticisms of CalPERS that followed those payment calculations.

As noted by the title of the report, CalPERS spokesperson Amy Morgan seemed to suggest the characterization of their accounting practices as employing “gimmicks” is not backed up by evidence. Morgan is invited to review the following evidence, after which she may join our readers in deciding whether or not “gimmicks” were employed.

GIMMICK #1  –  THE CORRUPTION OF “ASSET SMOOTHING”

Asset smoothing is a practice whereby pension funds do not overestimate their assets after years of good returns, nor underestimate their assets after years of poor returns. It is a good way to avoid overreacting to market volatility. But in 2001, when the Dow Jones stock index had already been correcting for over a year and the Nasdaq was collapsing, CalPERS abdicated their responsibility to set the rules on smoothing.

When participating agencies in the CalPERS system were contemplating whether or not to follow the lead of the California Highway Patrol (SB 400, 1999) and retroactively increase pension benefits, CalPERS sent projections to these agencies in which a CalPERS actuary presented to elected officials three distinct values for the assets they had invested with CalPERS. Remarkably, that document gave these agency officials the liberty to choose which one they’d like to use – the higher the value they chose for their existing assets, the lower the cost from CalPERS to pay for the benefit enhancements they were contemplating. The usual disclaimers were present, but the mere fact that city officials were given three scenarios is suspect. Obviously these officials would be under pressure to pick the scenario that provided the biggest benefit enhancement for the lowest cost. Read “Did CalPERS Fail to Disclose Costs of Historic Bump in Pension Benefits?” for more details including several source documents.

One of the most revealing documents is exemplified by the “Contract Amendment Cost Analysis,” sent to Pacific Grove by CalPERS in July, 2001. Here is an excerpt from that document, showing the choices CalPERS offered Pacific Grove:

The available rate choices are offered under three different Alternatives:
Alternative 1 – No increase in Actuarial Value of Assets
Alternative 2 – Actuarial Value of Assets increased by twice the increase in the Present Value of Benefits due to the amendment, limited to 100% of Market Value of Assets
Alternative 3 – Actuarial Value of Assets increased by twice the increase in the Present Value of Benefits due to the amendment, limited to 110% of Market Value of Assets

To reiterate: CalPERS provided abundant disclaimers. They suggested that given recent “market volatility,” city officials “are strongly encouraged to have in-depth discussions with your CalPERS actuary about the financial consequences of any amendment.”

Now let’s get real: Further on in this same letter, CalPERS provides a breakdown of how much pension benefit enhancements will cost in terms of annual contributions as a percent of payroll under each of these three scenarios:

Alternative 1 – The actuarial value of the assets is not tampered with, the normal cost goes from 4.6% to 25.0%.
Alternative 2 – The actuarial value of the assets is lifted up to market value, the normal cost goes from 4.6% to 19.9%.
Alternative 3 – The actuarial value of assets goes up to 110% of the market value, the normal cost – to implement a massive, retroactive enhancement to pension benefits – goes from 4.6% to 6.2%.

What option would you choose, if you were a city manager whose own pension would be enhanced, or a city council member who has to answer to powerful unions whose members want more generous pension formulas?

The reason CalPERS was able to cram this through, in July 2001 as the market was cratering, was based on their decision to present various asset “smoothing” options to members. Why? Because the smoothing options they’d been using were understating the value of their assets because stock values had exploded in the final years of the 1990s. One can only speculate as to why they did this as late as July 2001 when it was obvious the internet stock bubble had popped. It’s possible CalPERS officials knew several agencies had already lobbied for pension benefit enhancements and the officials were under pressure to leave no agency behind. But to offer local bureaucrats and elected officials a choice of various asset smoothing methods was passing the buck.

Overnight, the CalPERS practice of asset smoothing went from being a prudent accounting guideline to a clever rationalization for disastrous policy decisions. If that’s not a gimmick, I don’t know what is.

GIMMICK #2 – CREATIVE AMORTIZATION OF UNFUNDED LIABILITY

When you talk about “tricky accounting gimmicks,” it’s hard to find one worse than the methods the participating agencies chose to amortize their unfunded liability. To be fair, final responsibility for these decisions usually rests with the cities and counties. But CalPERS should have tried to crack down on these practices a long time ago, and indeed, has recently become more aggressive in doing just that. The basic choice facing agencies with huge unfunded liabilities is whether they want to pay them off aggressively, or come up with creative accounting techniques that push the tough repayments into the future. For example, instead of using a “level payment” repayment calculation, many of them use a “percent of payroll” scheme which allows for graduated payments.

In practice, this means calculating a stream of payments that will pay off the liability in 30 years, but varying the payments so that as projected payroll increases, the payment increases. This allows agencies to make low payments in the early years of the amortization term, which frequently means the unfunded liability isn’t even being reduced in the early years of the amortization term. Then when the payments become burdensome, they refinance the new, larger unfunded liability, to get that unfunded payment down again, in a new tranche, again using the same “level percent of payroll method.”

Anyone who lost their home because a “negative amortization” loan conned them into buying something they couldn’t afford would likely call that type of loan a “gimmick.” Similarly, negative amortization payment schedules on unfunded pension liabilities are also gimmicks. To their credit, CalPERS is now recommending 20-year straight line amortization. Which begs the question, why didn’t they do this all along?

GIMMICK #3 – OVERESTIMATING LONG-TERM RATE-OF-RETURN ASSUMPTIONS

CalPERS spokesperson Morgan correctly claims that CalPERS returns have averaged an 8.4% return over the past 30 years. But Morgan conveniently selects the 30 year timeframe to capture all of the pre-1999 run-up in stocks that began in the Reagan years as interest rates were reduced from inflation-fighting highs of 16% (30 year T-bill in the early 1980s) and American consumers began piling on debt. The 20-year return for CalPERS investments through June 30, 2017 is 6.58%. And these last 20 years of returns are far more relevant, because not quite 20 years ago is when CalPERS began to offer pension benefit enhancements that were sold as affordable when they clearly are not.

But if CalPERS is exceeding its projected rates of return over the past 30 years, why is it only 68% funded (ref. CalPERS 2016-17 CAFR, page 4, “Funding”)? At the end of a prolonged bull market, pension systems should be overfunded. Being 68% funded would not be terribly alarming if we were at the end of a prolonged bear market, but we’re in the opposite place. How can CalPERS possibly claim their actuaries are doing a competent job, if the system is this underfunded at this point in the market cycle? For more on this, read “If You Think the Bull Market Rescued Pensions, Think Again.”

It is important to emphasize that even if CalPERS can get a 7.0% return on investment – and there is some chance that they can – why did the agency wait until it was 68% funded to announce the drop in its projected returns from 7.5% to 7.0%? The United States economy is in the terminal phases of a more than 60 year long-term credit cycle, and one might argue there is a stronger case to be made that even 7.0% is highly optimistic. But we like optimism, so never mind that for now. Why wait until 2018 to phase in that half-point drop? The actuaries at CalPERS are well aware how sensitive their payment schedules are to even half-point drops in long-term rate-of-return assumptions. Overstating returns understates true cost. Is this an accounting gimmick? Only if you can prove intent. But read on.

GIMMICK #4 – QUIETLY ALLOWING THE UNFUNDED PAYMENT TO DWARF THE “NORMAL” PAYMENT

Every year, each active worker who gets CalPERS benefits vests another year of service. This means that in the future, during their retirement years, they will have an incrementally greater pension benefit in recognition of one more year of work. To pay for that incrementally greater pension benefit in the future, additional money must be invested today. That amount of money is called the “normal” contribution. But when the “normal” contribution isn’t enough, and it hasn’t been for years, the so-called unfunded liability grows. This unfunded liability represents the amount by which invested pension assets need to increase in order to earn enough to eventually pay for all the future pensions that have been promised.

This “unfunded liability” may seem theoretical when a pension system has hundreds of billions in assets. But it has to get paid down, because when there aren’t enough assets in the pension system earning interest, higher contributions are inevitably required from the participating agencies. If the unfunded liability isn’t reduced via catch-up payments, it will grow even if the normal contributions are adequate to cover newly earned benefits.

This reality is corroborated using CalPERS’ own data, which announces that payments required, as a percent of payroll, are set to increase by 50% (in some cases much more) over the next six years in nearly every agency it serves. And where are these projected increases most pronounced? In the unfunded contribution – that payment to reduce the unfunded liability.

And why does the unfunded liability grow in the first place? Because the normal contribution is too low. Why is the normal contribution too low? Could it be because public employees are only required to assist (via payroll withholding) to pay the normal contribution? Could that be the reason that lifespans were underestimated and returns were overestimated? The actuaries obviously got something wrong, because CalPERS is only around 68% funded. You can download the spreadsheet that shows the impact of this on California’s cities and counties here – CalPERS-Actuarial-Report-Data-Cities-and-Counties.xlsx.

In the original CPC report, along with the term “gimmick,” the term “outrageous” was used. If you don’t think sparing the beneficiaries of these pensions any responsibility to share in the costs to pay down the unfunded liability isn’t outrageous, you aren’t paying attention. For example, by 2024, using CalPERS own data, the City of Millbrae will be paying CalPERS a normal contribution of $1.0 million, and an unfunded, or “catch-up” contribution of $5.8 million – nearly six times as much! Is Millbrae just an isolated example? Not really.

Again, using CalPERS’ own data, in 2017-18, their 426 participating cities will contribute $3.1 billion to CalPERS, an amount equal to 32% of their cumulative payroll. In 2024-25, just six years from now, they are estimated to contribute 5.8 billion, 48% of payroll. And the normal vs unfunded contributions? This year in the cities in the CalPERS system, 13% of payroll constitutes the normal contribution and 19% of payroll constitutes the unfunded contribution – for which current employees and retirees have no responsibility to help pay down. In 2024-25? The normal contribution is estimated to increase to 16% of payroll, and the unfunded contribution, rising to $4.0 billion, is estimated to increase to 33% of payroll.

Put another way, today the unfunded “catch-up” pension contribution for California’s cities, cumulatively, is 140% of the normal contribution. By 2024-25, that “catch-up” contribution is going to be 210% of the normal contribution, more than twice as much! And participating individual employees and retirees have zero obligation to help pay it down, even though that payment is now twice as much as the normal payment.

But it’s not the fault of the individual beneficiaries. The responsibility lies with CalPERS and the politicians they reassured for all these years, using gimmicks.

Let’s review these practices: (1) Letting the agencies decide which type of asset smoothing they’d like to employ, (2) permitting the agencies to make minimal payments on the unfunded liability so the liability would actually increase despite the payments, (3) making overly optimistic actuarial assumptions, (4) not taking action sooner so the unfunded payment wouldn’t end up being more than twice as much as the normal payment.

“Gimmicks”? You decide.

THE CASE OF MILLBRAE

On January 22, the San Mateo Daily Journal published an article entitled “Millbrae officials question, criticize pension cost report.”

The paper’s Austin Walsh reports that Millbrae officials told him that using staffing projections to calculate Millbrae’s future pension burden won’t work because Millbrae has fewer employees than most municipalities. Here’s how Millbrae’s Finance Director DeAnna Hilbrants put it: To limit pension costs, Millbrae contracts for positions in police, fire and public works departments. Quote: “Most notably, Hillbrants pointed to Millbrae joining the Central County Fire Department with Burlingame and Hillsborough and contracting with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement.”

What Millbrae officials are saying is that because they contract out much if not most of their personnel costs, their pension contribution is a small percent of their total budget. What they neglect to acknowledge is the fact that the Central County Fire Department and the San Mateo Sheriff’s Office themselves have pension costs, which are passed on to Millbrae to the extent Millbrae uses their services. Millbrae may have made a financially beneficial decision to outsource its public safety requirements. But they did not escape the pension albatross.

CALPERS IS NOT UNIQUE

What has been described here does not just apply to CalPERS. It is the rule, not the exception, for every one of California’s pension systems to engage in the same gimmickry. The consequences for California’s cities, counties, agencies, and system of public education are just beginning to be felt.

How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?

Calpers headquarters is seen in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

When speaking about pension burdens on California’s cities and counties, a perennial question is how much are the costs going to increase? In recent years, California’s biggest pension system, CalPERS, has offered “Public Agency Actuarial Valuation Reports” that purport to answer that question. Notwithstanding the fact that CalPERS predictive credibility is questionable – i.e., they’ve gotten it wrong before – these reports are quite useful. Before delving into them, it is reasonable to assert that what is presented here, using CalPERS data, are best case scenarios.

In partnership with researchers at the Reason Foundation, the California Policy Center has compiled the data for every agency client of CalPERS, including 427 cities and 36 counties. In this summary, that data has been distilled to present two sets of numbers – payments to CalPERS for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, and officially estimated payments to CalPERS in the 2024-25 fiscal year. In calculating these results, the only assumption we made (apart from the assumptions made by CalPERS), was for estimated payroll costs in 2024. We used a 3% annual growth rate for payroll expenses, the rate most commonly used in official actuarial analyses on this topic.

So how much more will cities and counties have to pay CalPERS between now and 2024? How much more will pensions cost, six years from now?

On the table below, we provide information for the 20 cities that are going to be hit the hardest by pension cost increases. To view this same information for all cities and counties that participate in the CalPERS system, download the spreadsheet “CalPERS Actuarial Report Data – Cities and Counties.”

CalPERS Actuarial Report Data
The Twenty California Cities With the Highest Pension Burden ($=M)

Payments to CalPERS

If you are a local elected official, or if you are an activist, journalist, or anyone else with a keen interest in pensions, these tables merit close scrutiny. Because they not only show costs estimates today, and seven years from now, but they break these costs into two very distinct areas – the so-called “normal” costs, which are how much employers have to pay into the pension fund for current workers who are vesting one more year of future benefits, and the “catch-up” costs, which are what CalPERS charges employers whose pension plan is underfunded.

Take the first city listed, Millbrae. By 2024, we predict Millbrae will have the highest total pension payments of any city in California that belongs to the CalPERS system.

The table presents are two blocks of data – the set of columns on the left show current costs for pensions, and the set of columns on the right show the predicted cost for pensions. In all cases, the cost in millions is shown, along with the cost in terms of percent of total payroll.

Currently, as can be seen on the table, for every dollar it pays active employees in base wages, Millbrae must contribute 59 cents to CalPERS. This does not include payments to CalPERS that Millbrae collects from its employees via withholding. The same data show that, by 2024, for every dollar Millbrae pays active employees in base wages, they will have to contribute 89 cents to CalPERS. Put another way, while Millbrae may expect its payroll costs to increase by $1.4 million, from $6.3 million today to $7.7 million in six years, their payment to CalPERS will increase by $3.1 million, from $3.7 million today to $6.8 million in 2024.

But here’s the rub. Nearly all of this increase to Millbrae’s pension costs are the “catch-up” payments on the city’s unfunded liability. In just six years Millbrae’s payment on its unfunded liability will increase by 99%, from $2.9 million today to $5.8 million in 2024.

Why?

What are the implications?

It is difficult to overstate how outrageous this is. Here’s a list:

1 – Virtually every pension “reform” over the past decade or so has exempted active public employees from helping to pay down the unfunded liability via withholding. Instead, their increased withholding – in some cases supposedly rising to “fifty percent of pension costs” (the PEPRA reforms) – only apply to the normal contribution.

2 – In order to appease the unions who, quite understandably, lobby for the lowest possible employee contributions to pension funds, the “normal cost” is calculated based on financially optimistic projections. The less time an actuary predicts a retiree will live, and the more an actuary predicts investments will earn, the lower the normal contribution.

3 – In order to cajole local elected officials to agree to pension benefit enhancements, the same overly optimistic, misleading projections were provided, duping decision makers into thinking pension contributions would never become a significant burden on cities and counties, and by extension, taxpayers.

4 – Because cities and counties couldn’t afford to pay down the growing unfunded liabilities attached to their pension plans, tricky accounting gimmicks were employed, where minimal catch-up payments were made in the present in exchange for bigger catch-up payments in the future. The closest financial analogy to what they did would be the “negative amortization” mortgages that were popular prior to the housing crash of 2008.

5 – The consequence of this chicanery is that today, as can be seen, catch-up payments on the unfunded liability are typically two to three times greater than the normal contribution. And it’s getting worse. In 2024, Millbrae, for example, will have a catch-up contribution that is nearly six times as much as their normal contribution.

6 – When a normal contribution isn’t enough, and the plan becomes underfunded, the level of underfunding is compounded every year because there isn’t enough money in the fund earning interest. The longer catch-up payments are deferred, the worse the situation gets.

Yet the normal contribution has always been represented as all that should be required for pension plans to remain fully funded. Just how bad it has gotten can be clearly seen on the table.

Take a look at Pacific Grove, fourth on the list of CalPERS cities with the highest pension burden. Pacific Grove is already paying 40 cents to CalPERS for every dollar it pays to its active employees. But in six years, that amount will go up to 75 cents to CalPERS per dollar of salary to active employees. And take a look at where the increase comes from: Their catch-up payment goes from 1.7 million to $4.4 million in just six years.

Why?

Why isn’t Pacific Grove paying more, now, so that it can avoid more years of having too little money in its pension plan, earning interest to properly fund future pensions? The reason is simple: Telling Pacific Grove to go out and find another $2.7 million, right now, is politically unpalatable. In six years, most of the local elected officials in Pacific Grove will be gone. But where is Pacific Grove going to find this kind of money? Where are any of California’s cities and counties going to find this kind of money?

One final point: These pension plans are underfunded after a bull market in stocks has doubled since it’s last peak in June 2007, and has nearly quadrupled since it’s last low in March 2009. When stocks and real estate have been running up in value for eight years, pension plans should not be underfunded. But they are. CalPERS should be overfunded at a time like this, not underfunded. That bodes ill for the financial status of CalPERS if and when stocks and real estate undergo a downward correction.

CalPERS, and the public employee unions that dominate CalPERS, have done a disservice to taxpayers, public agencies, and ultimately, to the individual participants who are counting on them to know what they’re doing. They were too optimistic, and the consequences are just beginning to be felt.

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Dubious Investments Further Imperil California Pension Plan Already in Crisis

pension-2The California Public Employee Retirement System, known as CalPERS, is in crisis. And it sure looks like things are going to get a whole lot worse before they can get a whole lot better.

The system already has a $153 billion unfunded liability, one of the largest shortfalls of any state, and it only has funds to cover 68 percent of promised benefits into the future. And because CalPERS is already cash negative, paying out $5 billion more in benefits to retirees each year than it takes in, there aren’t many scenarios whereby the system would be able to make good on those promises absent outside intervention (read: taxpayer bailout).

Lawmakers and the fund’s board should be considering reforms to improve the system, but California voters and taxpayers faced another setback recently. Overseers of the pension plan — the nation’s largest — passed a funding plan earlier this year that projects shortfalls over the next decade but assumes rosy investment returns in coming decades to make up the difference. Given the high market valuations today, that assumption seems dubious.

When the CalPERS investment committee reallocated its investments recently, it assumed a 7 percent annualized rate of return. While CalPERS has enjoyed some good years — for example, its 2017 return may exceed 11 percent — that’s not the norm. The fund has averaged a 4.6 percent rate over the past decade, and its 2016 rate was an abysmal 0.6 percent.

CalPERS’ strategy — and to a large extent that of the state in general — seems crafted first and foremost to advance the interest of public sector labor unions. The high compensation for state government workers and the state’s munificent retirement benefits make it difficult for local government officials to find the money necessary to meet their obligations. Rising contribution rates for local governments mean that municipalities and schools have less money to educate children, build roads or provide other essential government functions.

CalPERS’s school district contribution rates to the pension plan are projected to skyrocket in the near future. The rates have risen to 15.5 percent from 11.8 percent in the 2015-2016 fiscal year, and are scheduled to reach 22.7 percent in 2020. School districts have little power to fight the increases, which are mandated at the state level. The only way to reduce pension contributions is to cut staff. Some layoffs may make sense for districts facing declining enrollment, but they can also harm educational outcomes.

Fund managers should be laser-focused on increasing investment returns for its beneficiaries, which would lessen the fund’s burden on taxpayers. But its board is more interested in pursuing a political agenda. For the majority of California taxpayers who hold a portion of their retirement assets in the stock market, CalPERS’ activism means that some of their money will be used to support a political agenda that hurts their investment returns.

CalPERS has played an increasing role in politicizing annual shareholder meetings in recent years. These elections are on the horizon—a majority of U.S. public companies hold the mandated meetings between March and July—and CalPERS is already planning to force votes on proposals on environmental and social issues.

Traditionally, these proxy votes have been about improving corporate governance with one goal in mind: improving shareholders’ returns. But CalPERS and other activist investors have aggressively pushed proposals irrelevant to companies’ missions that could have a harmful impact on shareholder value.

CalPERS has prioritized relatively poor-performing environmental, social and governance (ESG) investments at the expense of other options more likely to optimize beneficiary returns. As a recent study by the American Council for Capital Formation shows, four of CalPERS’ nine worst performing funds were ESG-focused.

CalPERS responded to the criticism by noting that the plan’s private equity portfolio, which includes the funds, has performed well overall. But CalPERS would serve its beneficiaries—and taxpayers—better if it focused on investment returns and not politics.

Making investment decisions based on social issues has real consequences. Last year CalPERS’ board expanded its ban on investing in companies that produce tobacco products, against recommendations by its professional staff. In an analysis of the cost of divestment produced for CalPERS, Wilshire Consulting placed the system’s total foregone investment gains at more than $3.6 billion.

CalPERS is facing a serious, long-term crisis that could cripple school districts and local governments while forcing tax increases to pay for the pension system. Getting the fund out of politics won’t alone fix the system’s fiscal woes. But it would be a good first step.

California pension funds likely to face new pressure to divest from fossil-fuel companies

Calpers headquarters is seen in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s call for his state’s biggest government pension fund to stop new investments in fossil-fuel companies and phase out existing investments is likely to lead to renewed calls for the Golden State’s two massive pension funds – the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System – to do the same.

The Common Fund – New York’s pension fund for state and local public sector employees – has $200 billion in holdings. Cuomo, a Democrat who is expected to run for president in 2020, said it was time to craft a “de-carbonization roadmap” for the fund, which “remains heavily invested in the energy economy of the past.”

New York City Comptroller Scott Stinger agreed with Cuomo and called for changes in the investment policies of the city’s five pension funds, with holdings of about $190 billion.

The announcements were hailed on social media as a reflection of the mission statement of the 2015 Paris Accord outlining international efforts to address global warming.

It’s possible Brown could use his State of the State speech later this month to reveal his call for CalPERS and CalSTRS climate-change divestment. The pension giants have already been forced to end investments in coal companies because of a 2015 law signed by the governor, selling off shares worth less than $250 million, a tiny fraction of their overall portfolios.

But selling off stakes in energy companies would be a much more impactful event. Giant firms like ExxonMobil are among the most common holdings of pension funds around the world.

Some unions worry divestment will hurt CalPERS finances

And while the California Democratic Party has been largely unified behind Brown’s and the state Legislature’s efforts dating back to 2006 to have California lead the fight against global warming, such unanimity is unlikely should Brown follow Cuomo’s lead because some public employee unions are worried about divestment damaging the finances of CalPERS and CalSTRS.

As of July, CalPERS had $323 billion in assets and said it was 68 percent funded – meaning it had about $150 billion in unfunded liabilities. As of March, CalSTRS had $202 billion in assets and said it was 64 percent funded, leaving unfunded liabilities of about $100 billion.

CalPERS’ steady increase in rates it charges local agencies to provide pensions and the heavy costs facing school districts because of the Legislature’s 2014 CalSTRS’ bailout have taken a heavy toll on government budgets.

Corona Police Lt. Jim Auck, treasurer of the Corona Police Officers Association, has testified to the CalPERS board on several occasions, imploring members to focus on making money with investments, not making political statements.

According to a July account in the Sacramento Bee, Auck said public safety is hurt when police departments must spend ever-more money on pensions.

“The CalPERS board has a fiduciary responsibility to the membership to deliver the best returns possible,” Auck testified. “Whatever is delivering the return they need, that’s where they need to put our money.”

The International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents 12,000 state maintenance workers, has taken the same position, according to the Bee.

In New York, Gov. Cuomo also is not assured of success. The sole trustee of the Common Fund is State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. While he agreed to work with Cuomo in establishing a committee to consider possible changes in its investment strategies, his statement pointedly emphasized that there were no present plans to change the fund’s approach to energy stocks.

While DiNapoli cited his support for reducing global warming and the Paris Accord, his statement concluded with a sentence emphasizing his priorities: “I will continue to manage the pension fund in the long-term best interests of our members, retirees and the state’s taxpayers.”

City services slashed to fund pensions, but your taxes are still going up

PensionsIn the coming months and years, California voters can expect to see a variety of tax increases pop up on their local election ballots. They will be called “public safety” taxes to hire more police or firefighters or “parks” or “library” taxes to pay for those popular public services. But don’t be fooled. Any new tax proposal is in reality a “pension tax” designed to help the California Public Employees’ Retirement System make up for shortfalls in its investment strategy.

In fact, liberal interest groups are getting ready to circulate a statewide ballot initiative that will gut Proposition 13 – the 1978 initiative that has limited property tax increases to 1 percent of a property’s sales price. It also limits property tax increases to 2 percent a year. The new initiative would remove those protections from many commercial property owners, thus raising taxes by another $11 billion a year. Money is fungible, so this is partly about paying for pensions, too.

California has an enormous problem with pension costs. Many observers see it as a crisis that threatens the economic health of the state. A recent study from the well-respected Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, run by former Democratic Assemblyman Joe Nation, details how pension costs already are “crowding out” public services, especially at the local level. Cities pay so much for retired employees that they are cutting spending on everything else.

“California public pension plans are funded on the basis of policies and assumptions that can delay recognition of their true cost,” according to the report. Yet pension costs still are rising and “are certain to continue their rise over the next one to two decades, even under assumptions that critics regard as optimistic.” So they are cutting “core services, including higher education, social services, public assistance, welfare, recreation and libraries, health, public works, and in some cases, public safety.”

Aside from cutting public services and running up and hiding debt levels, there’s only one other way that localities can come up with the cash to pay for these overly generous pensions, especially as pension costs consume 15 percent or more of their general-fund revenue. They will raise taxes. Meanwhile, the state government has to backfill pension costs as well, which leads to constant pressure for legislators to promote additional state-level tax increases. It’s a “heads they win, tails you lose” situation, as Californians pay more to get less.

Much of the problem goes back to 1999, when the Legislature rammed through a law to provide 50-percent pension increases to the California Highway Patrol. Backers knew that once CHP received these overly generous deals (including retroactivity, which is a pure giveaway that hikes pensions back to each employee’s starting date), pension increases would spread across the state. Indeed, they did. CalPERS said it wouldn’t cost taxpayers a “dime” because of stock-market growth, but then the market crashed.

Under the current defined-benefit system, public employees are promised an irrevocable level of pension benefits based on a formula. For instance, most California “public safety” workers (police, fire, billboard inspectors, prison guards, etc.) receive “3 percent at 50.” If they work 30 years, they get 90 percent of their final three years’ pay (often higher, because of pension-spiking gimmicks) until they die. They can retire with full benefits at age 50. Non-safety workers often receive a pension formula that lets them retire with 81 percent of their final pay beginning at age 57. These are very generous benefits given their typically high final salaries.

CalPERS invests the money in the stock market. It calculates the “unfunded pension liabilities” (i.e., debt) based on a projected rate of return for their investments. Higher expectations enable the pension funds and cities to go along their merry way, not worrying about their ability to pay for all the promises and avoiding pressure to pare back pay levels. CalPERS just lowered its rate of return from 7.5 percent to 7 percent, which is still overly optimistic.

But the lowered assumed rates mean that cities have to pay the pension fund additional fees to cover the difference. This is cutting into their operating budgets. In fact, cities have faced four rate increases in the past five years and are expecting a fifth one. A recent article tells the stories of El Segundo and Arcadia, two Los Angeles County cities that are considering hiking their sales taxes to maintain their current level of service.

El Segundo’s mayor pro tem said that in five years “the payment to CalPERS is expected to be $18 million and 25 percent of general fund revenue as the employer rate for safety employees increases from 50 percent of pay to 80 percent of pay,” reported Calpensions’ Ed Mendel. He noted that cities face a statewide cap on the size of their sales tax, but that Gov. Jerry Brown in October signed a law that allows some localities to bust through that cap.

You can see what’s coming: A push by unions to eliminate the sales-tax cap across the state, and a torrent of sales tax increases to pay for soaring pension costs. The other thing to expect: Continuing efforts to hide the size of the pension debt.

“The nation’s largest pension system is expected to adopt a funding plan … that anticipates shortfalls during the next decade and then banks on exceptional investment returns over the following half century to make up the difference,” wrote Contra Costa Times columnist Dan Borenstein this week. “It’s an absurd strategy designed to placate labor unions, who want more public money available now for raises, and local government officials who are struggling to make annual installment payments on past debt CalPERS has rung up.”

The only other hope beyond debt and taxes is if the California Supreme Court guts the so-called California Rule, which forbids governments from reducing pension benefits even going forward unless they are provided with something of equal or greater value. That “rule” has made it nearly impossible to reduce costs for current employees. But there’s no guarantee the court will roll back the rule in a case it will soon consider –  or that the state and localities will bother to cut back benefit levels even if they are allowed to do so given union political power.

In the meantime, expect not only more of the same of hidden debt and reduced government services – but tax increases at every turn.

Steven Greenhut is a contributing editor for the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This article was originally published by the California Policy Center

California cities look at tax hikes to pay rising pension costs

El Segundo and Arcadia were among two dozen cities urging the CalPERS board last month to avoid another employer rate increase, the fifth in the last five years, when adjusting its $344 billion investment portfolio this month.

Last week, the two well-funded cities, both with currently balanced budgets and high service levels, considered sales tax increases. Despite cutting costs, the cities now face deficits from a steep rise in CalPERS rates scheduled for the next seven years.

El Segundo’s mayor pro tem, Drew Boyles, told the California Public Employees Retirement System board last month the city’s required pension contribution this year is $11 million or 16 percent of general fund revenue.

In five years, Boyles said, the payment to CalPERS is expected to be $18 million and 25 percent of general fund revenue as the employer rate for safety employees increases from 50 percent of pay to 80 percent of pay.

“These increases are not sustainable and may result in the reduction or elimination of service to our community,” he said, “such as a hiring freeze, furloughs or even potential layoffs, reduction in parks and recreation services, library services, public safety, deferred maintenance on city infrastructure, and reduction to overall infrastructure.”

Steps already taken to “address the immminent financial crisis,” said Boyles, include a pension trust fund, advance payments of pension debt, no pay raises for some employee groups for the last five years, and deferring $2.3 million per year in facility repairs and maintenance.

The El Segundo city council considered a sales tax proposal last week (see video 1:26) for an unusual reason beyond maintaining the “exceptional level of municipal services” expected by residents and the business community.

A 3/4-cent sales tax or 0.75 percent is all that remains available for El Segundo under state law that caps the Los Angeles County sales tax at 10.25 percent. So, the city wants to get the 3/4 cent sales tax before the county takes it.

“It’s like the earthquake,” Mayor Suzanne Fuentes told the council last week. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s when the county puts the next tax item on the ballot. And it will pass, because every county tax ballot issue gets passed.”

Voters approved a 1/4-cent county sales tax increase in March to help the homeless, Measure H, and a 1/2-cent county sales tax in November last year to fund transportation projects, Measure M.

The original El Segundo proposal would ask city voters in April to approve a 3/4-cent sales tax generating $9 million a year that would not take effect until the county approved a new sales tax. If the county measure is rejected, the city tax would be suspended.

As a better defense against a legal challenge, the council told staff to prepare another option for consideration at its next meeting. The city tax would be triggered when the county places a measure on the ballot or on a date several years after the April vote, whichever comes first.

At the request of Boyles, who pointed to a pension debt of more than $100 million, the staff also was told to prepare a proposal to close a $400,000 budget deficit expected to open next October as a growing budget gap begins.

“I want to start with the mindset now because taxing is not going to get us there,” Boyles said. “There is no way we are going to continue to tax our way out of this hole we are in right now.”

Legislation can lift the state sales tax cap for local governments. Gov. Brown signed legislation (SB 703) in October that allows Alameda and Santa Clara counties and the city of Santa Fe Springs to impose limited sales tax increases outside of the state cap.

arcadia

“In every way we are the envy of everybody in the San Gabriel Valley,” the Arcadia city manager, Dominic Lazzaretto told the CalPERS board last month.

He said Arcadia has sales tax revenue from a thriving regional mall, increased property tax revenue from a luxury housing boom, and revenue streams not available to other cities from the Santa Anita Park thoroughbred racetrack.

“And still, in all, I cannot afford the flight path we are on,” Lazzaretto said, urging the board to avoid another employer rate increase. He said the city’s required CalPERS contribution, $11.6 million this year, is expected to increase to $17 million in five years.

Arcadia already has done “right-sizing,” negotiated “takebacks and pensions reforms,” maintained strong reserves that can cover a funding gap for a short time, and may like other cities ask voters to approve a sales tax increase, Lazzaretto said.

Last week, the Arcadia city council was told (see video 1:06) that a survey done by a consultant hired to explore a sales tax found residents are “extremely satisfied” with city services but “looming fiscal challenges are not well understood.”

The city council decided to shelve a tax proposal and extend the contract of the consultant, the Lew Edwards Group, to conduct a campaign to educate the public about the fiscal challenge and explore possible solutions.

“We should not be promoting one thing over another,” said council member April Verlato. “We should not be promoting that we are looking for a tax increase.”

Council members mentioned a state Fair Political Practices Committion probe into county television ads and social media posts appearing to support Measure H. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association complained that campaign law had been violated.

Council member Roger Chandler reminded the council that Measure H used up some of the remaining sales tax allowed in Los Angeles County under the 10.25 cents state cap.

“Any new tax that is passed by the county will go against the city of Arcadia’s tax,” Chandler said. “We still have something left because our city has never used a sales tax to finance anything.”

More than a half dozen cities in Los Angeles County have approved sales taxes that, with the state’s 7.5-cent share and the county taxes, total 10.25 cents: Compton, La Mirada, Long Beach, Lynwood, Pico Rivera, Santa Monica, and South Gate.

Pension costs for cities are rising mainly because the CalPERS board lowered the investment earnings forecast used to discount future pension obligations from an annual average of 7.5 percent to 7 percent.

More money from employers is needed to fill the funding gap created by the lower investment earnings forecast. Rate increases for cities begin next year and are scheduled to continue until 2024.

The sharp drop in the discount rate last December was irregular, prompted by a 10-year forecast of lower investment earnings and the failure of CalPERS funding to recover from huge investment losses a decade ago.

Now as part of a regular four-year process, the CalPERS board is expected to choose one of four investment allocation options next week. One would leave the earnings forecast at 7 percent, requiring no additional change in employer rates.

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. 

This article was originally published by CalPensions.com

California Cities Spiking Taxes to Pay Spiking Pension Costs

Calpers headquarters is seen in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

California cities are being forced to spike taxes to pay for spiking public employee pension funding costs.

California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) has just reported that its $344.4 billion defined benefit pension plan, which covers most state and local government employees, has fallen from a $2.9 billion surplus in 2007 to a $138.6 billion deficit as of June 2016. The rate of funding decline accelerated over the prior year by $27.3 billion.

With the pension plan’s funded ratio — equal to the value of plan assets divided by present pension obligations — having fallen to 68 percent, far below what actuaries call the 80 percent minimum for adequate fund, CalPERS is demanding that cities increase payments.

A recent report warned that CalPERS’ poor investment return of just 4.4 percent over the last decade could be further reduced by large and politically motivated “environment, social and governance” investment strategies. These so-called ESG strategies have drastically underperformed other pension plan returns, which explains why CalPERS is “in the midst of a plan to lower its investment return assumptions to 7% from 7.5% by July 1, 2019.”

CalPERS will pay out $21.4 billion in benefits to retirees and beneficiaries in 2017, a 5.5 percent increase from 2016 and more than double the $10.3 billion in 2007. But most of the 1.93 million retirement system members and 1.4 million health care participants who receive administration services from CalPERS are associated with local governments that are directly responsible for paying spiking benefit costs.

At the September CalPERS meeting in Sacramento, eight cities told the pension plan’s trustees that they are experiencing spiking pension funding costs. Representatives from the largest local governments in the Sacramento area claimed that pension funding costs are set to spike by 14 percent next fiscal year.

The city manager of Vallejo, which recently emerged from bankruptcy, said that the city’s police pension funding costs are expected to jump from about 50 percent to 98 percent of payroll over the next decade. Both Lodi and Oroville officials stated that they have had to cut a third of their staff over the last decade.

El Segundo mayor pro tem Drew Boyles told the CalPERS board last month that his city’s CalPERS required pension contribution will be $11 million next year, or about 16 percent of the general fund’s revenue. But the cost in five years is expected to hit $18 million, or 25 percent of general fund revenue. He blamed the increase on funding for police and fire pension costs that are set to spike from 50 percent to 80 percent of payroll.

The California legislature passed SB 703, which will allow Alameda County and its local cities to raise about $148.9 million by exceeding the 2 percent local sales and use tax rate cap. The City Council of El Segundo plans to spike the local sales tax by an additional 3/4-cent to 10.25 percent to generate $9 million to pay for spiking pension funding costs.

All the local government representatives that have been addressing CalPERS’ monthly meetings complain that even after eliminating of services, slashing infrastructure spending, and planning for layoffs, they will still be forced to raise taxes to fund pension costs.

Despite California already being the highest-taxed state in the nation, the California Tax Foundation warned in June that Sacramento politicians were proposing another $16.9 billion in “targeted taxes and fees.” If passed, much of that tsunami of new cash could end up at CalPERS to fund pension shortfalls.

This article was originally published by Breitbart.com/California

Cities reeling under the burden of growing pension debt

pension-2The California Public Employees’ Retirement System’s union defenders feign shock whenever pension reformers accuse it of “kicking the can down the road” in dealing with the state’s mounting pension debt. It’s like the scene from Casablanca, when Captain Louis Renault is absolutely shocked to find gambling going on in a gambling house.

CalPERS is never going to state the obvious: “We know these massive, underfunded pensions are not sustainable, but we’re going to do everything possible to push the problem into the future and blame everyone else for the problem.” But the pension fund’s board might as well have said as much after two actions it took at last week’s Sacramento meeting.

In one case, it decided to seek a legislative sponsor for a bill that would enable it to shift the blame to local agencies whenever such agencies decide to stop making their payments to the fund and retiree pensions are cut as a result. In the second case, at the urging of cities CalPERS decided to delay a vote on a more actuarially sound means of paying off pension debt – rather than risk a fifth rate hike to local governments, and risk a mutiny among hard-pressed local governments.

Both of these actions maintain the status quo and – you got it – kick the can down the road.

The first action involved the fate of two local agencies that have exited the pension fund because they couldn’t afford to keep making their payments. As California Policy Center previously reported, the tiny Sierra Nevada town of Loyalton in 2013 decided to exit the plan, but then was hammered with a $1.66 million termination fee that it couldn’t possibly afford. The town’s entire annual budget is $1 million and it couldn’t even make its $3,500 month payments to the fund.

Furthermore, the East San Gabriel Valley Human Resources Consortium, known as LA Works, shut its doors in 2014, but was likewise penalized by CalPERS for stopping its payments. The end result: Loyalton’s four retirees have their pension benefits sliced by 60 percent, and LA Works’ retirees lost as much as 63 percent of their pension checks.

In making an example of these small agencies, CalPERS revealed an ugly truth. The pension fund assumes a rate of return of 7 percent to 7.5 percent on its investments. The higher the assumed rate, of course, the less debt on its books. It’s in the union-controlled fund’s interests to assume the highest-possible rates and maintain the status quo – even if that means that taxpayers ultimately will have to pick up any slack.

When agencies decide to leave the fund, however, CalPERS puts them in a Terminated Agency Pool, where CalPERS assumes a rate of return of a measly 2 percent. Upon departure, these agencies can no longer expect future earnings or taxpayers to pick up the shortfall, so the 2 percent rate is the actual risk-free rate that CalPERS expects from its investments.

The legislation the fund seeks, facetiously referred to as the Anti-Loyalton Bill, would “require a terminating agency to notify past and present employees of its intention to terminate,” according to the language approved by the full CalPERS board last Wednesday. Bottom line: CalPERS wants local agencies to provide the bad news to employees and retirees so that they, rather than the massive pension fund, receive the brickbats.

The proposed bill is not a big deal per se, but it’s yet another example of how CalPERS is more interested in hiding – rather than dealing with – its pension debt. Basically, this is a public-relations strategy designed to discourage agencies from leaving the fund. It’s a way to tighten the golden handcuffs and punish agencies that want to exit the fund.

In reality, if 2 percent is the earning rate that CalPERS can safely expect on its long-term investments, then that should be the rate that it assumes for all of its investments. But lowering the assumed earnings to such a realistic number would cause mass panic, as municipalities would need to come up with dramatically increased payments. They already are struggling with their current payments.

Under that scenario, the state’s pension debt would be around $1.3 trillion, according to some estimates – and it would become implausible to push the problem down the road. Even with the current high assumption rates and even after a great year of earnings of 11.2 percent, CalPERS is only funded at a troubling 68 percent. (The California State Teachers’ Retirement System had even better returns last year, but is funded only at 64 percent.)

In its second major action last week, “CalPERS delayed action … on the chief actuary’s proposal to shorten the period for paying off new pension debt from 30 years to 20 years, a cost-cutting reform that would end the current policy not recommended by professional groups,” explained Ed Mendel, on his respected Calpensions blog.

Localities already have faced four major rate increases since 2012. CalPERS assesses the increases to make up for the unfunded liabilities, and recent studies suggest that local governments are slashing public services to come up with the cash. Had CalPERS decided to pay off new debt in a shorter time frame, it would have meant a fifth increase, according to Mendel. He quoted the League of California Cities’ official Dane Hutchings with these words of warning: “The well is running dry.”

It’s a mess. If CalPERS does the right thing, it exacerbates local governments’ current problems. But maintaining the status quo will make them worse down the road. As Mendel explained, under CalPERS’ current payment approach, “the debt continues to grow for the first nine years” with the payment not even covering the interest. “(T)he payments do not begin reducing the original debt until year 18, more than halfway through the period.”

In other words, I have a great 30-year plan for paying off your credit-card debt: You make minimum payments for the next 18 years and then worry about it then. Isn’t that the very definition of kicking the can down the road?

It’s hard to feel too sorry for these struggling cities. Do you remember when they warned about the impending disaster if the state Legislature passed a 1999 bill, promoted by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, that would retroactively raised pensions across the state by 50 percent? Do you remember when city managers angrily resisted union-backed efforts to raise pensions at their city councils? Neither do I.

Unfortunately, their efforts to avoid another rate hike only helps CalPERS do what it likes to do most – remind us that all is well and that the stock market will pay for all the pension promises. It might, but then again it might not. If the market slows, there will be a lot of California officials shocked to find a dead end up ahead.

Steven Greenhut is contributing editor for the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This article was originally published by the California Policy Center

California Dems Push Pension Funds to Divest from Guns, Oil Pipeline

PensionsSACRAMENTO – California’s two major pension funds, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), control more than $500 billion in total assets, making them two of Wall Street’s most influential investors. They also are government entities, and some California leaders want to use their investment muscle to achieve public-policy outcomes.

This often comes in the form of divestment, by which the funds are encouraged – or even required – to sell their assets in industries that are viewed negatively by the people who push these efforts. These efforts tend to work against the goals of the funds’ professional investment staff, which are charged with getting high investment returns to fund pensions for the systems’ retirees. Both funds have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize their return on taxpayer dollars.

Yet estimates from a consulting firm suggest that CalPERS has lost approximately $8 billion in returns because of previous efforts to divest from coal-related and tobacco industries. That’s become a particularly contentious issue as funding levels have fallen to 68 percent for CalPERS and 64 percent for CalSTRS. That means they have only around two-thirds of the assets needed to make good on all the current and future pension promises made to government retirees.

Despite the troubling numbers, there’s a new push for divestment from some politicians. Following the October massacre in Las Vegas, by which a gunman murdered 59 people at a country music concert, state Treasurer John Chiang has called for the teachers’ fund to sell its assets in weapons firms and sporting-goods companies that sell any guns that are illegal in California.

“Neither taxpayer funds nor the pension contributions of any of the teachers we represent, including the three California teachers slain in Las Vegas should be invested in the purveyors of military-style assault weapons,” said Chiang, a 2018 candidate for governor and member of both pension boards. Chiang also told the Sacramento Bee that he plans on making a similar request to the CalPERS board.

The newspaper also noted that both funds “this year have faced calls to divest from companies that do business with the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline,” which would transport oil underground from North Dakota oilfields to Illinois. It has prompted protests from a variety of environmental and Native American activists.

Critics of these proposals say they are largely symbolic and would do little to influence gun sales or the pipelines. Divestment from these relatively small industries wouldn’t have much impact on the massive funds’ financial returns, either.

On Oct. 30, 12 members of California’s Democratic congressional delegation sent a letter to CalPERS chief executive officer Marcie Frost urging the pension fund to divest from a fund that has acquired a hotel owned by Donald Trump’s organization. This move is more directly political than many divestment efforts, which tend to focus on the social implications of investing in the pipeline, weapons manufacturers, coal-related industries and tobacco companies.

Divestment advocates sometimes argue that these controversial products may be poor long-term investments. For instance, the Public Divestiture of Thermal Coal Companies Act of 2015 and similar efforts by the state insurance commissioner were based in part on the notion that these coal-related companies may face diminishing values as the world shifts away from carbon-based fuels – a point rebutted by those who note that the current price of the stocks already reflects that risk.

But the Trump-related divestment call, led by U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu of Torrance, is designed to target the president. The members of Congress expressed their disappointment that CalPERS “has not divested its interest” in that fund “nor has taken any actions to ensure that its fees are not being transferred to President Trump,” according to their letter. They criticized CalPERS for taking a “wait-and-see” approach toward the matter.

These members of Congress claim that this CalPERS investment could be in violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” This would be an unusual interpretation of an arcane clause.

Meanwhile, the pension funds have been expanding other divestment and socially motivated investment efforts. Last December, the CalPERS investment staff “recommended that the board remove its 16-year ban on tobacco investments in light of an increasing demand to improve investment returns and pay benefits,” according to a Reuters report. But instead of removing the ban, the board “voted to remain divested and to expand the ban to externally managed portfolios and affiliated funds.”

And last year CalPERS adopted a five year Environmental, Social and Governance plan that focuses on socially responsible investing. The fund has long used its financial clout to push companies it invests in to promote, for instance, board diversity and other social goals.

Whatever their chances for approval, the latest efforts are not out of the ordinary. But they will rekindle the long-running debate between political and financial goals, and whether the former imperils the latter given both funds’ large unfunded liabilities.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Study confirms the California pension crisis is hitting now

Debates about California’s pension crisis almost always focus on the big numbers – the hundreds of billions of dollars (and, by some estimates, more than $1 trillion) in unfunded liabilities that plague the public-pension funds. For instance, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System is only 68 percent funded – meaning it only has about two-thirds of the money needed to pay for the pension promises made to current and future retirees.

Calpers headquarters is seen in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

CalPERS and its union backers insist that there’s nothing to worry about, that future bull markets will provide enough returns to cover this taxpayer-backed debt. Pension reformers warn that cities will go bankrupt as pension payments consume larger chunks of municipal budgets. They also warn that pensioners are at risk if the shortfalls become too great. The fears are serious, but they mainly involve predictions about what will happen a decade or more into the future.

What about the here and now? California municipalities and school districts are facing larger bills from CalPERS and from the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) to pay for sharply rising retirement costs. Most of them can come up with the money right now, but that money is coming directly out of their operating budgets. That means that California taxpayers are paying more to fund the pension system, and getting fewer services in return.

The “bankruptcy” word garners attention. This column recently reported on Oroville, where the city’s finance director warned about possible bankruptcy during a recent hearing in Sacramento. The Salinas mayor also has been waving the bankruptcy flag. The b-word understandably gets news headlines, especially after the cities of Stockton, Vallejo and San Bernardino emerged from bankruptcies caused in large part by their pension situation.

But there’s a huge, current problem even for the bulk of California cities that are unlikely to face actual insolvency. They are instead facing something called “service insolvency.” It means they have enough money to pay their bills, but are not able to provide an adequate level of public service. Even the most financially fit cities are dealing with service cutbacks, layoffs and reductions in salaries to make up for the growing costs for retirees.

A new study from Stanford University’s prestigious Institute for Economic Policy Research has detailed the depth of this ongoing problem. For instance, the institute found that over the past 15 years, employer pension contributions have increased an incredible 400 percent. Over the same time, operating expenditures have grown by only 46 percent – and pensions now consume more than 11 percent of those budgets. That’s a tripling of pension costs since 2002. Contributions are expected to continue their dramatic increases.

“As pension funding amounts have increased, governments have reduced social, welfare and educational services, as well as ‘softer’ services, including libraries, recreation and community services,” according to the study, “Pension Math: Public Pension Spending and Service Crowd Out in California, 2003-2030” by former Democratic Assemblyman Joe Nation. In addition, “governments have reduced total salaries paid, which likely includes personnel reductions.”

These are not future projections but real-world consequences. The problem is particularly pronounced because “many state and local expenditures are mandated, protected by statute, or reflect essential services,” thus “leaving few options other than reductions in services that have traditionally been considered part of government’s core mission.” Many jurisdictions have raised taxes – although they never are referred to as “pension taxes” – to help make ends meet, but localities have a limited ability to grab revenue from residents.

The report’s case studies are particularly shocking. The Democratic-controlled Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown often talk about the need to help the state’s poorest citizens.Yet, the Stanford report makes the following point regarding Alameda County (home of Oakland): Pension costs now consume 13.4 percent of the county’s operating budget, up from 5.1 percent 15 years ago. These increases have “shifted up to $214 million in 2017-18 funds from other county expenditures to pensions,” which “has come mostly at the expense of public assistance, which declined from a 33.6 percent share of expenditures in 2002-03 to a 27 percent share in 2017-18.”

The problems are even more stark in Los Angeles County. As the study noted, pension costs have shifted approximately $1 billion from public-assistance programs including “in-home support services, cash assistance for immigrants, foster care, children and family services, workforce development and military and veterans’ affairs.”

It’s the same, basic story in all of the counties and cities analyzed by the report. For instance, “the pension share of Sacramento’s operating expenditures has increased over time, from 3.2 percent in 2002-03 to 12.5 percent in the current year.” That percentage has gone from 3 percent to 12 percent in Stockton, and from 3.1 percent to 15.2 percent in Vallejo.

These are current problems, not future projections. But the future isn’t looking any brighter. “The case studies demonstrate a marked increase in both employer pension contributions and unfunded pension liabilities over the past 15 years, and they reveal that in almost all cases that costs will continue to increase at least through 2030, even under the assumptions used by the plans’ governing bodies – assumptions that critics regard as optimistic,” Nation explained.

So, yes, the public-sector unions and pension reformers will continue to argue about when – or even if – the pension crisis will cause a wave of California bankruptcies. But overly generous pension promises are destroying public services and harming the poor right now.

Steven Greenhut is a contributing editor for the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This piece was originally published by the California Policy Center.