The Underrecognized, Undervalued, Underpaid, Unfunded Pension Liabilities

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)

“It’s the economy, stupid.”
–  Campaign slogan, Clinton campaign, 1992

To paraphrase America’s 42nd president, when it comes to public sector pensions – their financial health and the policies that govern them – it’s the unfunded liability, stupid.

The misunderstood, obfuscated, unaccountable, underrecognized, undervalued, underpaid, unfunded pension liabilities.

According to CalPERS own data, California’s cities that are part of the CalPERS system will make “normal” contributions this year totaling $1.3 billion. Their “unfunded” contributions will be 41% greater, $1.8 billion. As for counties that participate in CalPERS, this year their “normal” contributions will total $586 million, and their “unfunded” contributions will be 36% greater at $607 million.

That’s nothing, however. Again using CalPERS own estimates, in just six years the unfunded contribution for cities will more than double, from $1.8 billion today, to $3.9 billion in 2024. The unfunded contribution for counties will nearly triple, from $607 million today to $1.5 billion in 2024 (download spreadsheet summary for all CalPERS cities and counties).

Put another way, by 2024, “normal contribution” payments by cities and counties to CalPERS are estimated to total $2.8 billion, and the “unfunded contribution” payments are estimated to total almost exactly twice as much, $5.5 billion.

So what?

For starters, every pension reform that has ever made it through the state legislature, including the Public Employee Pension Reform Act of 2013(PEPRA), does NOT require public employees to share in the cost to pay the unfunded liability. The implications are profound. As public agency press releases crow over the phasing in of a “50% employee share” of the costs of pensions, not mentioned is the fact that this 50% only applies to 1/3 of what’s being paid. Public employees are only required to share, via payroll withholding, in the “normal cost” of the pension.

Now if the “normal cost” were ever estimated at anywhere near the actual cost to fund a pension, this wouldn’t matter. But CalPERS, according to their own most recent financial report, is only 68% funded. That is, they have investments totaling $326 billion, and liabilities totaling $477 billion. This gap, $151 billion, is how much more CalPERS needs to have invested in order for their pension system to be fully funded.

A pension system’s “liability” refers to the present value of every future pension payment that every current participant – active or retired – has earned so far. In a 100% funded system, if every active employee retired tomorrowand no more payments ever went into the system, if the invested assets were equal to that liability, those assets plus the estimated future earnings on those invested assets would be enough to pay 100% of the estimated pension payments in the future, until every individual beneficiary died.

A pension system’s “normal payment” refers to the amount of money that has to be paid into a fully funded system each year to fund the present value of additional pension benefits earned by active employees in that year. When the normal payment isn’t enough, the unfunded liability grows.

And wow, has it grown.

CalPERS is $151 billion in the hole. All of California’s state and local pension systems combined, CalPERS, CalSTRS, and the many city and county independent systems, are estimated to be $326 billion in the hole. And that’s extrapolated from estimates recognized by the pension funds themselves. Scenarios that employ more conservative earnings assumptions calculate total unfunded liabilities that are easily double that amount.

With respect to CalPERS, how did this unfunded liability get so big?

An earlier CPC analysis released earlier this year attempts to answer this. Theories include the following: (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.

One final alarming point.

CalPERS recently announced that for any future increases to the unfunded liability, the unfunded payment will have to be calculated based on a 20 year, straight-line amortization. This is a positive development, since the more aggressively participants pay down the unfunded liability, the less likely it is that these pension systems will experience a financial collapse if there is a sustained downturn in investment performance. But it begs the question – why, if only increases to the unfunded liability have to be paid down more aggressively, is the unfunded payment nonetheless predicted to double within the next six years?

CalPERS information officer Tara Gallegos, when presented with this question, offered the following answers:

(1) The discount rate (equal to the projected rate-of-return on invested assets) is being lowered from 7.5% to 7.0% per year. But this lowering is being phased in over five years, so it will not impact the 2018 unfunded contribution. Whenever the return-on-investment assumption is lowered, the amount of the unfunded liability goes up. By 2024, the full impact of the lowered discount rate will have been applied, significantly increasing the required unfunded contribution.

(2) Investment returns were lower than the projected rate of return for the years ending 6/30/2015 (2.4%) and 6/30/2016 (0.6%). Lower than projected actual returns also increases the unfunded liability, and hence the amount of the unfunded payment, but this too is being phased-in over five years. Therefore it will not impact the unfunded payment in 2018, but will be fully impacting the unfunded payment by 2024.

(3) The unfunded payment automatically increases by 3% per year to reflect the payroll growth assumption of 3% per year. This alone accounts, over six years, for 20% of the increase to the unfunded payment. The reason for this is because most current unfunded payments are calculated by cities and counties using the so-called “percent of payroll” method, where payments are structured to increase each year. CalPERS is going to require new unfunded payments to not only be on a 20 year payback schedule, but to use a “level payment” structure which prevents negative amortization in the early years of the term. Unfortunately, up to now, cities and counties were permitted to backload their payments on the unfunded liability, and hence each year have built in increases to their unfunded payments.

The real reason the unfunded liability has gotten so big is because nobody wanted to make conservative estimates. Everybody wanted the normal payments to be as small as possible. The public sector unions wanted to minimize how much their members would have to contribute via withholding. CalPERS and the politicians – both heavily influenced by the public sector unions – wanted to sell generous new pension enhancements to voters, and to do that they needed to make the costs appear minimal.

As a result, taxpayers are now paying 100% of an “unfunded contribution” that is already a bigger payment than the normal contribution, and within a few years is destined, best case, to be twice as much as the normal contribution.

Camouflaged by its conceptual intricacy, the cleverly obfuscated, deliberately underrecognized, creatively undervalued, chronically underpaid, belatedly rising unfunded pension liabilities payments are poised to gobble up every extra dime of California’s tax revenue. And that’s not all…

Sitting on the blistering thin skin of a debt bubble, a housing bubble, and a stock market bubble, amid rising global economic uncertainty, just one bursting jiggle will cause pension fund assets to plummet as unfunded liabilities soar.

And when that happens, cities and counties have to pay these new unfunded balances down on honest, 20 year straight-line terms. They’ll be selling the parks and libraries, starving the seniors, releasing the criminals, firing cops and firefighters, and enacting emergency, confiscatory new taxes.

Whatever it takes to feed additional billions into the maw of the pension systems.

Budget surplus? Dream on.

*   *   *

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development.


How to Restore Financial Sustainability to Public Pensions, February 14, 2018

How to Assess Impact of a Market Correction on Pension Payments, February 7, 2018

California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – Best Case, January 31, 2018

Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?, January 24, 2018

How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?, January 10, 2018

If You Think the Bull Market Rescued Pensions, Think Again, December 7, 2017

Did CalPERS Fail to Disclose Costs of Historic Bump in Pension Benefits?, October 26, 2017

Coping With the Pension Albatross, October 13, 2017

How Fraudulently Low “Normal Contributions” Wreak Havoc on Civic Finances, September 29, 2017

Pension Reform – The San Jose Model, September 6, 2017

Pension Reform – The San Diego Model, August 23, 2017

A Post-Janus Agenda for California’s Public Sector Unions

School education“If you do not prevail in this case, the unions will have less political influence; yes or no?” Kennedy asked. “Yes, they will have less political influence,” Frederick answered.
–  an excerpt from the Janus vs. AFSCME trial, quoted in the Washington Post, February 26, 2018

This past week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Janus vs. AFSCME case. Mark Janus, a public employee in Illinois, is challenging the right of unions to charge “fair share” fees, because he disagrees with the political agenda which he claims his fees help pay for.

What if government unions were accountable to their members? What if the politics of these unions mirrored the politics of the members? Would Mark Janus still want out?

It’s already possible for public employees to “opt-out” of paying that portion of their dues that fund explicitly political activity, although in practice the unions typically make that opt-out process very difficult. But Mark Janus is arguing that all dues paid to public sector unions are political, because the consequences of collective bargaining in the public sector impact taxes, government debt, budgets and spending priorities. He is arguing that the agenda of public sector unions, including collective bargaining, is inherently political.

In reality, saying all public sector union activity is inherently political is itself an understatement. In California, public sector unions spend about $300 million per year on explicitly political activity – funding political campaigns, political action committees, and lobbyists. But they spend at least another $700 million every year not just on collective bargaining – which for government workers is inherently political – but on education campaigns that attempt to influence voters on countless political topics.

Equally important is the influence California’s public sector unions wield that doesn’t derive its power from how much money they can spend, but from the fact that elected officials come and go, but the union hierarchy is permanent. Public employees who want to advance in their careers do not cross these unions.

Government unions are so powerful that only a very aggressive outcome in the Janus ruling will suffice to significantly undermine their power in California. The court must rule that union membership must be renewed annually via a transparent opt-in process. Only then will these unions become accountable to their members.

If there is an aggressive ruling in the Janus case that truly forces public sector unions to become accountable, imagine how it may affect the political agenda of these unions. One may hope it would ignite a civil war within these unions. Even in California, for example, about 40% of public school teachers identify as conservatives. Among public safety employees, a majority identify as conservative. Yet these unions are the power behind a state legislature ran by the most liberal politicians in the history of the United States.

Just for a moment, consider what these unions could do, if their leadership was committed to making California a land of opportunity again:

(if they actually cared about ALL of California’s working families)

1 – Restore the balance in California’s colleges and universities so that the ratio of faculty to administrators is 2 to 1, instead the current ratio wherein administrators often outnumber teachers.

2 – End all discrimination and base college admissions purely on merit. Expand STEM curricula so it represents 50% of college majors instead of the current 20%.

3 – Enforce the Vergara reforms so it is easier to retain quality public school teachers and easier to fire the incompetent ones. Eliminate barriers to charter schools.

4 – Restructure the penal system to make it easier for prisoners to perform useful public services. For example. along with working the fire lines during fire season, they could work all year clearing dead trees out of California’s forests. Use high-tech monitoring devices to reduce costs. Reserve current prisons only for the truly incorrigible.

5 – Scrap the High-Speed Rail project and instead use the proceeds to add one lane to every major interstate highway in California.

6 – Use additional High-Speed Rail funds to complete plant upgrades so that 100% of California’s sewage is reused, even treated to potable quality.

7 – Pass legislation to streamline approval of the proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach, and fast-track applications for additional desalination plants, especially in the Los Angeles basin.

8 – Spend the entire proceeds of the $7 billion water bond, passed overwhelmingly by Californians in 2014, on storage. Build the Los Banos Grandes, Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs, adding over 5 million acre feet of storage to the California Water Project. Pass aggressive legislation and fund aggressive legal actions and counter-actions, to lower costs and enable completion of these projects in under five years.

9 – Permit slant drilling to access 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas deposits from land-based rigs along the Southern California coast. Build an LNG terminal off the coast in Ventura County to export California’s natural gas to foreign markets. Permit development of the Monterey Shale formation to extract oil and gas.

10 – Permit construction of “generation 3+” nuclear power plants in geologically stable areas of California’s interior. Permit construction of new natural gas power plants.

11 – Repeal AB32 and SB375 and make it easy for developers to build homes on the suburban and exurban fringes, instead of just “in-fill” that destroys existing neighborhoods.

12 – Require California’s public employee pension funds to invest a minimum of 10% of their assets in infrastructure projects as noted above. They could issue fixed rate bonds or take equity positions in the revenue producing projects, or a combination of both. This would immediately unlock approximately $80 billion in construction financing to rebuild California’s infrastructure. At the same time, save the pension systems by striking down the “California Rule” that prevents meaningful pension reform.

These reforms would lower the cost of living in California, at the same time as they would create resource abundance and hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs.

It is encouraging to think that the Janus ruling will reduce the political influence of public sector unions. But another possibility is equally tantalizing, that Janus will force unions to become accountable to their members. This, in turn, could be reflected in these unions fighting, for a change, to help all Californians.

To expect public sector unions to pursue the agenda outlined above is fanciful. But if California’s public sector unions were as committed to that pro-growth agenda as they are to their current agenda which is bankrupting California’s cities and counties at the same time as it obsesses over race, gender, and environmentalist extremism, they could probably get all of it done. And no other special interest could do this.

Only California’s public sector unions have enough power to successfully take on their current allies; the environmentalist lobby, the trial lawyers, and their puppet masters, the leftist oligarchy. No other special interest could take on these profiteers who have gotten filthy rich spouting leftist tripe, while they impoverished a generation of Californians.

Post Janus, it is time for a civil war within public sector unions. Using, hopefully, their option to not opt-in, it is time for public servants who care about ordinary Californians to make their voices heard.

Edward Ring is an analyst with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2010. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development, and has been interviewed, published or quoted by the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Economist,  Die Zeit, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, and other media outlets.

Innovative Incarceration Could Result in Lower Costs and Safer Citizens

PrisonThe average annual cost to house a prisoner in California is $71,000, and according to the California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, the cost has risen 45% since just 2011. And as costs have soared, California’s policymakers have resorted to creative ways to release inmates from California’s overcrowded prisons. But what if that Californian creativity could be harnessed to lower the cost of incarceration?

This process began in 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California must reduce its state prison population to no more than 137% of its design capacity within two years. In an attempt to comply, the state Legislature passed Assembly Bill 109, which required non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders with sentences of longer than one year to be housed in county jail facilities rather than state prisons.

Because AB109, the so-called prison “realignment,” merely shifted costs for incarceration from the state to the counties, two additional measures of significance were passed in an attempt to reduce the overall inmate population. These were sold to voters as reform initiatives, and both of them passed with substantial majorities. Prop. 47, passed in 2014, reclassified several felonies as misdemeanors, which had the effect of reducing prison sentences in new cases, and earlier release for prisoners sentenced for crimes no longer classified as felonies. Prop. 57, passed in 2016, granted early release opportunities to inmates with good behavior who had committed non-violent crimes.

These measures resulted in the early release of tens of thousands of inmates onto California’s streets. Since enactment, violent crime has increased in California, although the data is mixed. For example, according to the FBI, while violent crime in California increased in 2015 and 2016, it increased across most of the U.S. in those years. As stated in a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California, “California’s violent crime rate increased by 3.7% in 2016 to 444 per 100,000 residents. There have been other recent upticks in 2012 and 2015, but the statewide rate is still comparable to levels in the late 1960s.”

More recently – most crime statistics for 2017 are not yet available – the L.A. Times reports that in 2017 “in Los Angeles, homicides are down, but violent crime is up.” A big picture perspective on crime trends in California can be seen in this graphic produced by using data from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office:

California Crime Trends – Crime Rates per 100,000 Residents

California Crime Trends

As can be seen, rates of crime in California rose throughout the 60s and 70s, reaching a high plateau that lasted right up until around 1994, when California passed the three strikes law. After that, crime rates fell precipitously for years, reaching historic lows. Since 2014, rates of crime have been rising, even though they remain relatively low from a historical perspective.

But why should we be happy with a 0.4% rate of violent crime? Why should 4% of Californians be victimized by a violent criminal in any given decade? And who’s to say that crime rates would not have continued to decline, if it weren’t for the passage of Props. 47 and 57?

More to the point, whether or not Californians should or should not incarcerate more criminals, or impose longer sentences on criminals, Californians don’t have that option. Because it costs too much to house prisoners in California. How can California house more inmates without building more conventional prisons, which are staggeringly expensive?

An excellent resource prepared by shows the costs per prisoner in other states. Nevada, our neighbor to the east, only spends $17,851 per year per prisoner. Alabama has the lowest cost, at $14,780 per prisoner. Arizona, $25,397. Even Oregon and Washington, California’s left coast comrades in bloated inefficient government excess, manage to spend far less than California does, paying per prisoner costs of $44,021 and $37,841, respectively.


When you read up on costs per prisoner in other states, the results are somewhat amusing. Because in those states, the conventional wisdom is that costs are out of control. Alabama’s costs per prisoner have “doubled since 2003.” In Nevada, “overtime costs continue to mount.” Imagine that. But in all states, the same factors contribute to rising costs to house prisoners. California just spends more, in every category. Here is a table from California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office showing details of the cost per prisoner.

California’s Costs per Prisoner – Itemized Costs

Costs per prisoner

It’s likely these costs are understated. Does “Security” include the additional amounts that will be necessary to properly fund the pensions that are due our correctional officers? Does “Facility Operations” include the payments on the billions that have been borrowed by the state to construct California’s 34 state prisons?

In the recently approved California state budget for 2017-18, $11.4 billion is allocated to the Department of Corrections, up another $286 million (2.6%) from last year. But again, this doesn’t begin to represent the true cost to taxpayers. A recent UCLA study estimated the cost of incarceration for just the County of Los Angeles at nearly $1.0 billion last year.

It’s likely the total cost to California’s taxpayers to incarcerate criminals – taking into account state and local expenses – is easily twice the $11.4 billion budgeted by the state. And these inflated costs can be attributed to two causes. First, the excessive costs caused by unionized government – pensions in particular, and excessive costs to build state prisons, caused by a union controlled state legislature requiring needlessly expensive project labor agreements. Second, and arguably even more significant, the overall excessive cost-of-living in California – also a byproduct of policies enacted by California’s union controlled state legislature – which makes everything more expensive.

The burden of realignment – foisting responsibility for state prisoners back onto the counties where they were convicted – is also an opportunity. Because counties, like states in our federal system, are laboratories of democracy, laboratories of policy. Why can’t California’s counties experiment with new modes of incarceration. If inmates are sequestered to Cal Fire to work the fire lines, why can’t they do other tasks throughout the rural regions of California? Why not use inmates to improve rural access roads, remove dead trees from our drought-stressed forests, or even work in agriculture?

While many inmates may be too dangerous to do this sort of work, with new technologies to monitor and control prisoners, it is possible that prisoners who would not be viable candidates for these programs in the past would be qualified today. Electronic monitoring devices are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Why not use these devices to monitor not only location, but heart rate or, who knows, even brain waves or other physical indicators of imminent fight or flight? Wouldn’t adding additional capabilities to these devices allow more effective means to deter escape and even prevent violence? Why not use swarms of inexpensive drones to hover in the vicinity of inmates, reducing the number of guards required, and replacing some or all layers of expensive security fencing? Why not equip these drones with nonlethal means to prevent escape or violence?

Law enforcement has stayed abreast of new technologies and that is one of the reasons rates of crime are down sharply across America. While the impact of new technologies must be constantly scrutinized, and some of them may be problematic, there is no reason not to extend these tools beyond law enforcement into the corrections industry. It’s reasonable to assume most inmates would prefer a virtual prison to the penitentiary. One that afforded them mobility, equal or greater safety, a mission, a chance to engage in a vocation, and fresh air. Such innovation might also bring welcome relief to taxpayers.

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.

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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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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The Hidden Agenda of Extreme Environmentalism

We live in the most expensive state in America, and it is completely the result of political choices made by the California legislature. Across all sectors – oil, gas, electricity, water and housing – environmentalist arguments prevail. But there is a hidden agenda that most sincere environmentalists still don’t recognize. An agenda that pursues profit and power, instead of practical environmentalism that balances the interests of the planet with the interests of the people.

Even Gov. Brown has refused to support a ban on fracking in California. Moreover, there are reserves of oil and gas in California that don’t require fracking. Using slant drilling, for example (a technology that didn’t exist back in the 1970’s when offshore oil drilling was banned), you can access natural gas reserves in the Santa Barbara Channel from land based rigs. But fossil fuel development is only one issue that ought to be up for debate.

San OnofreWhat about nuclear power? The technology has come a long way in the last fifty years. Even if coastal reactors are considered too dangerous, why not build some in geologically stable areas inland? There’s plenty of land in the Mojave Desert where nuclear power plants could be sited. And what about desalination? It’s only too costly if you consider California prices – artificially inflated – they build desalination plants in Israel for one quarter the price per output. Why can’t we?

What about water storage – what about the proposed Sites and Temperance Flats reservoirs? What about sewage reuse? Californians produce about 3 million acre feet of sewage each year, much of which is cleaned and poured into the ocean, when if we cleaned it a bit more we could reuse it.

What about housing? California’s a supposed sanctuary state, inviting millions of people in. Where are they going to live? Why do you think, even in the inland valleys, homes are priced at $400,000 or more (usually much more)? Do you actually think homes need to cost this much?

All of this is contrived, artificial, politically created scarcity. And it is making a lot of people filthy rich, while it makes life very difficult for 90%+ of California’s residents – old and young, regardless of ethnicity or immigration status.

Environmentalists in California act like they have all the answers. They are arrogant and selective in the facts they use. What about all the embodied energy in wind and solar installations? Do we ever hear about the payback periods for all the energy it took to build that stuff? What about the impact when taking into account the need for natural gas peaking plants that have to spin into action every time the sun goes behind a cloud or the wind dies down? What about the difficulty in storing intermittent energy, or the fact that sourcing rare earth metals for electric car batteries is causing environmental havoc all over the planet?

One might assume that of someone holds these positions they must not care about the environment, but if so they’d be wrong. We need an honest discussion about these issues, without ceding the discussion to environmentalist trial lawyers, phony “green” entrepreneurs, and oligarchs who control the artificially scarce supplies of entitled land, housing, electricity, gas, and water. Because they just want to keep things the way they are so they can continue to make money.

There’s two sides to this story.

How to Reduce the California State Budget by $40 Billion

BudgetAs of a few days ago, high-wage earners have a new reason to leave California: their state income taxes are no longer deductible on their federal income tax returns.

Can California’s union-controlled state legislature adapt? Can they lower the top marginal tax rates to keep wealthy people from leaving California?

The short answer is, no, they cannot. They cannot conceive of the possibility that California’s current economic success is not because of their confiscatory policies, but in spite of them.

Earlier this year California’s union controlled legislature approved a gas tax increase that will increase state tax revenue by about $5.0 billion per year. Next in their sights is changing property taxes to a “split roll” system, whereby all commercial properties will no longer be protected from steep tax rate increases. Also under consideration is extending sales taxes to services, along with taxes on watermarijuana, and, who knows, maybe even robots.

These new taxes have attracted a lot of attention, but in reality California’s state government derives most of its tax revenue, 58%, from personal income tax. In recent years personal income taxes have contributed as much as 65% of the California state government’s total tax revenue. California’s top marginal income tax rate of 13.3% is by far the highest in the U.S. Oregon has the 2nd highest rate, at a much lower 9.9%. The impact of this can be seen on the chart depicted below, which is taken from the State Controller’s most recent annual financial report for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2016. As can be seen, state income taxes accounted for 58% of all tax revenue in the most recent fiscal year for which we have data. Nothing else even came close.

California Tax Revenue By Source – 2015 and 2016

Taxes graphic

When around 60% (or more) of all state tax collections depend on how much money individual residents make each year, revenue can be volatile. A recent analysis by the Franchise Tax Board, as reported in the Sacramento Bee, showed that the top 1% of California taxpayers by income paid 45% of the total income taxes collected. This means that in the last fiscal year, the top 1% paid 26% of ALL taxes collected in the State of California. If you extend that comparison to the top fifth – those Californians who earned on average over $237K in 2013, it can be seen they paid nearly 90% of the total income taxes collected, or 51% of ALL taxes from all sources.

California Income Tax Burden by Income Group – 2013 vs 1994

Income tax burden

When you have the top fifth of your wage earners paying more than half of ALL taxes collected in your state, you definitely don’t want those folks moving to other states. California has really great weather, but there are a lot of reasons to leave: An inhospitable business climate, a global economy with burgeoning new opportunities in many low tax regions, and an increasingly virtual work environment which means you don’t have to live within 50 miles of the California coast in order to attract venture capital or find business partners.

Just for the sake of argument, here are ways to cut expenses in the state budget, in order to keep California’s state government solvent without punishing the wealthy, or, worse, losing them to other states and nations.


(1) Reduce Costs for Prisons – $2.0 billion or more:  California now spends over $75,000 per year per prisoner, a cost that has doubled since 2005. In Alabama, it costs less than $15,000 per year per prisoner. If California contracted with the State of Alabama to have them house its 130,000 prisoners, that would save California taxpayers $7.8 billion per year. If doing business with Alabama is unpalatable, how about right across the border in Nevada? The State of Nevada spends under $18,000 per year to house their prisoners – sending California’s prisoners across the Sierras to Nevada could save taxpayers $7.4 billion. Obviously relocating California’s prisoners to other states is an extreme solution. But there are many other less extreme, bipartisan solutions to lower prison costs, including alternatives to incarceration.

(2) Cut Ratio of Administrators to Faculty in Public Universities – $2.0 billion or more: In 2000 California’s UC System employed around 4,000 administrators and 7,000 faculty. Only 15 years later, in 2015, the UC System employed 10,500 administrators and 9,000 faculty. Just assuming for a moment that the administrative overhead in the UC System wasn’t already bloated in 2000, the UC System could reduce their administrative headcount by over 5,000 administrators, and save at least $500 million per year. Do the same thing in California’s much larger Cal State and Community College systems, and you can probably achieve total savings of around $2.0 billion per year

(3) Outsource CalTrans Work and Eliminate Redundant Positions – $2.5 billion or more: CalTrans is set to consume $12.8 billion of the State 2017-18 budget. As recommended by State Senator John Moorlach after an audit of the agency, just eliminating 3,500 redundant positions would save $500 million. But competitive outsourcing of roadwork contracts could save much more. CalTrans only outsources 10% of its roadwork, whereas, for example, Arizona outsources 80% of their roadwork. It is common to take competitive bids from private contractors to do public road maintenance and upgrades – CalTrans is the exception. A very expensive exception.

(4) Fund all CalTrans Work With Proceeds from Bullet Train Financing – another $10 billion per year for ten years: Ok, this isn’t entirely fair. Bonds are deferred taxes. But just imagine if instead of paying for a train that will never make any meaningful contribution whatsoever to relieving the congestion on California’s roads and freeways, all that money was used to improve the roads? Redirecting Bullet Train funds – which are destined to total well in excess of $100 billion – into CalTrans projects would save taxpayers nearly 100% of CalTrans budget for a decade or more.

(5) Slash State Agency Headcount and Pay/Benefits by 20% – $6.5 billion: In 2015 the average pay and benefits for the 154,000 full time employees of state agencies was $116,887. Eliminating 20% of these jobs would save taxpayers $3.6 billion per year. Reducing pay and benefits for the 123,000 remaining state employees by 20% would save another $2.9 billion – their average pay package would “only” be $93,500 per year after this reduction. Is this feasible? Recent history proves that it is. In 2009, cash-strapped California state agencies implemented “Furlough Fridays,” which functionally achieved both objectives described here – there was a 20% reduction in work being performed, and state workers collected 20% less in pay. And guess what? The state government continued to function.

(6) Reform Pensions – $2.1 billion: When you talk about pensions, it is understating the problem to restrict the discussion to state agencies. Local cities, counties and school district pensions combine with state agencies to produce an unfunded liability that – depending on who you ask – ranges between $200 and $700 billion. Moreover, pension reform might be subsumed under the preceding Option #5. Nonetheless, here are the numbers for state agencies: Taxpayers contribute, on average, $21,900 towards each state workers pension, representing 26% of their pay. Just lowering that to a contributory 401K equivalent to 10% of pay would save at least $2.1 billion per year. In reality, because these pensions are so underfunded, getting control of pension benefits would actually save much more than this estimate.

(7) Face Reality and End the “Sanctuary State” – around $20 billion: According to the United Nations, there are now over 250 million displaced refugees in the world. Right behind them are another 1.2 billion individuals living in extreme poverty. America, with only $330 million residents, is not nearly capable of absorbing even a fraction of these multitudes, much less California with not quite 40 million residents. Yet California has thrown open the doors and foots the bill, betting that the tech boom and asset bubble will last forever. A study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform estimated the cost of undocumented immigrants to California taxpayers at over $25 billion per year – $14.4 billion for education, $4.0 billion for health care, $4.4 billion for justice and law enforcement, $0.8 billion for public assistance, and $1.6 billion for general government services. This scrupulously footnoted study, published in Sept. 2017, got virtually no coverage in the media. What did receive extensive media coverage was a study promoted by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy that estimated the total state and local taxes paid by California’s illegal immigrants to equal nearly $3.0 billion per year. Net cost and potential savings: $22 billion. At the least, California should stop being a magnet state for undocumented immigrants, and instead should help craft then adhere to a realistic national policy.

The most powerful special interest in California, government unions, wants nothing to change. They are hostile towards corporations and individual wealth. They have strong incentives to want inefficient, expensive prisons, universities, and infrastructure projects. They have strong incentives to expand all government services to accommodate destitute immigrants. Why? Because the more government workers are hired and the more taxpayers’ money is wasted, the more dues paying government union members they acquire.

Joining these government unions are California’s powerful Latino Legislative Caucus and their allies in the identity politics industry, who recognize a huge political opportunity by spewing separatist demagoguery, nurturing a bleak, tribal paranoia in the collective minds of recently arrived immigrants. Also joining these government unions are left-wing oligarchs and the monopolistic businesses they control, who see in an expanded government and a hostile business climate a chance to prosper through legislated scarcity and mandated product choices. And, of course, the asset bubbles produced by contrived shortages add precarious value to the pension funds and increase property taxes.

So these solutions, while eminently practical, may never see the light of day. But California’s voters should understand that around $40 billion could be cut from the state budget if California’s government was ran in the interests of the people, instead of in the interests of government unions and their elitist allies. If $40 billion were cut from California’s state budget, not only could the new gas tax be repealed, but the top marginal tax rate could be dropped to under 10%. And as any student of the Laffer Curve knows, that might actually keep California’s wealthy from leaving; it might even cause income tax revenue to go UP, as fewer high income individuals feel the need to shelter or defer their taxable earnings.

The Laffer Curve
Depending on where you are on the curve, lowering taxes can raise tax revenue.

Laffer curve

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Edward Ring is a contributing editor for the California Policy Center.


After Janus, Will Union Grassroots Members Assert their Political Voice?    

School union protestThe looming Janus vs. AFSCME decision, expected by Spring 2018, is probably going to validate the contention that ALL public sector union activity is inherently political. Once this landmark case is decided, members will not only have the right, already existing, to opt-out of paying political dues. After Janus, they may also have the right to opt-out of paying ALL dues, including “agency fees.”

The scope of this ruling is uncertain, but it’s reasonable to assume that public sector unions are going to become more accountable to their membership than ever before. How will members respond? Will they put California first, or continue to condone the destructive policies their unions promote as long as they benefit?

There are already resources available for unionized government workers and contractors who want to opt-out of paying dues that are used for politics, even though they still have to pay “agency fees.” Resources for most of California’s public employees, including teachers, can be found here. Resources for home health care workers can be found here. After the Janus ruling, those resources will be strengthened and expanded in scope.

But what sort of platforms will emerge for government workers who wish to remain union members, but want to challenge the political agenda of their unions? Will these dissidents, who often constitute a majority of the membership, have a way to influence the political agenda of their biased leadership? In the wake of Janus, innovative ways to facilitate this internal revolution within government unions should be a priority for anyone trying to bring real reform to California politics.

For decades, public sector unions have been the quiet, gargantuan impetus behind the growth of government at all levels, especially at the state and local level where 60% of all taxes are collected and spent. There are obvious consequences of a political agenda that wants to expand government without any regard to the cost or benefits, such as relentlessly increasing taxes at the same time as services are diminished. But there are two even more profound consequences that elude casual scrutiny. Both are extremely expensive for ordinary Californians.

The first is California’s status as a magnet state for welfare recipients and destitute, unskilled immigrants. Many of these immigrants come from cultures that devalue education, accept corruption as normal, and are hostile to American values and traditions. Apart from the staggering cost to taxpayers to provide these newcomers direct benefits, this policy necessarily requires more police, more prisons, more translators, more multi-lingual educators, more public housing and subsidized housing, more subsidized health care, more welfare and government aid of all types. Other indirect costs must include more public university majors in identity politics so less qualified students can get a “degree,” more quotas in hiring and college admissions so less qualified applicants can avoid being victims of “discrimination,” and more bureaucrats, social workers and college “administrators.” A gold mine for government unions.

The second is California’s embrace of an extreme environmentalist agenda. These policies create artificial scarcity not only for public services, but more significantly, for housing, water and energy. While ordinary private citizens suffer, and unionized public employees get cost-of-living recompense, demand driven asset bubbles inflate investment portfolios, most particularly the $1.0+ trillion in California’s state and local public employee pension fund assets. Artificial scarcity also requires expensive, expanded enforcement apparatus – more code inspectors, mass transit workers, higher fees for any sort of construction. And of course, artificial scarcity creates a housing price bubble that translates directly into massive increases in property tax revenue. Again, for government unions, extreme environmentalism is the gift that keeps on giving.

California’s government unions control the state legislature and nearly every city and county. Their policy is to invite in millions of dependent people, costing taxpayers hundreds of billions, while at the same time making it unaffordable for middle class taxpayers to live here through policy-driven artificial scarcity. This is more than just self-serving madness, it is oppression.

Public servants have hard choices to make. They may consider the following:

(1) As public servants your loyalty is to California’s citizens first.

(2) If you are public safety employees, your sworn duty is to keep California’s citizens safe.

(3) As union members, your priority should be the welfare of all of California’s workers, not just government workers.

What should public servants do? When the Janus ruling forces government unions to be more accountable, how will their members raise their collective voice? Will they understand that their unions should be fighting for policies that (1) welcome skilled workers who are encouraged to assimilate, and (2) support enactment of sensible environmentalist laws?

The hard fact is this: The more cultural upheaval there is, and the higher the cost-of-living gets, the more government expands and the more government unions benefit. And the more government expands to address these self-inflicted problems, the less government resources are left to complete infrastructure projects and provide other basic services to taxpayers. This is why there is an inherent conflict between the interests of public sector unions and the public interest. This is why public sector unions should be outlawed.

But so long as public sector unions exist, to condone their destructive political agenda in exchange for personal gain, even via sins of omission, is unforgivable.

Government Unions Wage War on Meritocracy

How can you persuasively counter arguments for diversity quotas, when implacable fanatics purporting to represent every identifiable group whose aggregate achievements fall short of the mean will argue it is discrimination, not merit, that determine outcomes? Expect no help from government unions. Resentment gives them passion, restitution gives them power. Undermining the meritocracy is key to their survival.

Imagine a public school system where the excellence of teachers was the only institutional criteria for their job security and prospects for career advancement. Imagine government bureaucracies where innovative, more effective practices were adopted even if it meant smaller budgets and fewer employees. Imagine law enforcement agencies that had zero tolerance for officers that abused their authority. Are we there yet? Not if government unions have anything to say about it.

But the government union war on the meritocracy goes well beyond protecting bad employees. Government unions representing K-12 teachers and college faculty have been overran by “social justice warriors” who preach identity politics as the new religious gospel and the new academic canon. They have taken their war on the meritocracy into the classrooms and lecture halls, saturating the curricula from kindergarten to graduate school. Their message? Unless you are a heterosexual white male, you are a victim of discrimination by heterosexual white males. You live in an unjust society. Merit, according to this doctrine, is a smokescreen. It is discrimination in disguise.

What do you do if you believe in meritocracy? What do you do about this?


If you want to earn more money in a merit-based, productive market economy, quantitative reasoning skills are required. The more of these skills you’ve got, the more money you’ll earn. So what happens when you have far, far higher percentages of highly qualified individuals in some groups than in other groups?

When it comes to college admissions and college curricula, the solution of the social justice warriors, and the faculty unions who nurture them, is many faceted. Here are some of their mitigating strategies:

  • Invent “holistic” admission criteria that diminishes the importance of quantitative aptitude.
  • Concoct theories of cognition that claim math itself is an arbitrary and subjective expression of white power (yes, this really happened).
  • Create entire college departments that are academically weak but instead offer separatist political indoctrination.
  • Blame most if not all of the gap in aptitude on systemic discrimination by the “white patriarchy.”
  • Demand race-driven quotas of ever-expanding scope; in hiring, promotions, housing, wealth, political office, whatever.

The problem with these solutions, if you want to call them that, are their actual consequences. In pursuit of quota driven diversity, colleges are turning away qualified applicants at the same time as colleges are failing to produce anywhere near the number of STEM graduates that American industry demands. Meanwhile, the students that are waved in despite being marginally qualified to pursue higher education are being trained to ascribe any failures they may encounter to racism, and any successes they may encounter to fortuitous state intervention. And not least, there is the consequence of bitterness and cynicism being bred into the psyche of all those more qualified students and future employees who are passed over in favor of meeting diversity quotas.

How does one challenge the doctrine of equality over merit? How do you challenge allegations of systemic racism? How do you do it persuasively, with hard facts, but also with compassion and empathy? It’s not easy. College youth need passion, they need a cause, they need clarifying polarities. The teachers unions offer them a good one: A rich and wealthy white patriarchy that has exploited people of color for centuries, one that must be resisted, uprooted, and replaced.

Tough love arguments should be part of any campaign of persuasion. Reality therapy. Why are people with lower test scores admitted to college if they’re being discriminated against? That’s ridiculous. And why do they think taking classes that replace difficult coursework with political indoctrination – fomenting resentment and advocating separatism – are going to give them marketable skills? Do they really believe they need on-campus “cultural safe spaces”? Aren’t those just a 21st century version of Jim Crow laws? Where does this end? And why do Asians perform so well on college aptitude tests? Why are Asians so successful economically? Aren’t they also “people of color”? Could it be because they study so diligently, and that a meritocracy is colorblind?

Along with tough love, opponents of quotas should offer understanding. It is our individuality that defines our abilities and challenges much more than the groups we’re a part of. All ethnic groups are collections of individuals with infinite diversity; short and tall, thin and obese, weak and strong, plain and beautiful, slow and smart, timid and assertive, surly and charming, lucky and unlucky, good and bad. As individuals we succeed and we fail. We endure crushing disappointments and spectacular success. Life is not always easy or fair – for anyone. We are joined by our common humanity, no matter what color we are. And nothing overcomes prejudice, should it ever exist, better than a smile.

Despite occasional rhetorical acknowledgments, government unions don’t like the message of individual accountability. But that is the message that must prevail, if we are to avoid the tyranny of quota-driven equality of outcome.

This article was originally published by the California Policy Center


Race gaps in SAT math scores are as big as ever – Brookings Institution (source for chart)

Without Government Unions, there Would be No Gas Tax Increase

LA-Freeway-Xchange-110-105Nobody argues that California’s roads need huge upgrades. But the solution didn’t require the $0.12 per gallon tax hike that went into effect Nov. 1. The root cause of these neglected roads – and the reason even more taxes will never be enough to fix them – is the power of public sector unions, whose agenda is consistently at odds with the public interest. Let us count the ways.

1 – CalTrans mismanagement:

CalTrans could have done a much better job of maintaining California’s roads. One of the most diligent critics (and auditors) of CalTrans is state Senator John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa), the only CPA in California’s state legislature. Last year, Moorlach released a report on CalTrans which he summarized in “7-Step Fix for ‘Mismanaged’ Caltrans,” an article on his official website. Just a few highlights include the following:

  • In May 2014 the Legislative Analyst Office determined that CalTrans was overstaffed by 3,500 architects and engineers, costing over $500 million per year.
  • While to an average state transportation agency outsources over 50% of its work, CalTrans outsources only 10% of its work. Arizona and Florida outsource more than 80%.
  • 54% of CalTrans staff is at or near retirement age, so a hiring freeze would reduce staff merely through attrition, without requiring layoffs.

But Moorlach didn’t make explicit the reason CalTrans is mismanaged. It’s because the unions that run Sacramento don’t want to outsource CalTrans work. The unions don’t want to reduce CalTrans headcount, or hold CalTrans management accountable. Those actions might help Californians, but they would undermine union power.

2 – Bullet train boondoggle:

Money that could have been allocated to maintain and improve California’s roads is being squandered on a train that will do nothing to ameliorate California’s transportation challenges. A LOT of money. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, California’s freeways can be resurfaced and have a lane added in each direction at a cost of roughly $5.0 million per mile in rural areas, about twice that in urban areas.

Meanwhile, the latest estimate for California’s “bullet train,” is $98 billion (that’s $245 million per mile), thanks to construction delays, and design challenges including nearly 50 miles of tunnels through seismically active mountains to the north and south. And hardly anyone is going to ride it. Ridership won’t even pay operating costs. But Sacramento pushes ahead with this monstrous waste when that same money could (at the urban price of $10 million per mile) resurface and add a lane in each direction to 10,000 miles of California’s freeways. Imagine smooth, unclogged roads. It’s not impossible. It’s just policy priorities.

But while bad roads destroy the chassis of millions of cars and trucks, and commuters endure stop-and-go traffic year after year, the California High Speed Rail Authority dutifully pushes on. Why?

Because that’s what the government employee unions want. They don’t want roads, with all the flexibility and autonomy that roads offer. They want to create a gigantic high-speed rail empire, with tens of thousands of new public employees to drive the trains, maintain the trains, maintain the tracks, and provide security, running up staggering annual deficits. But all of them will be members of public sector unions.

3 – All rapid transit boondoggles:

In a handful of very dense urban areas around the U.S., fast intercity trains make economic sense. But most light rail schemes, along with laughably absurd “streetcar” schemes that actually block urban lanes sorely needed by vehicles, do not achieve levels of ridership that even begin to justify their construction when the alternative is using that money for better, wider connector roads and freeways. The impact of ride sharing apps, the advent of non-polluting cars, and the option of using buses to accomplish mass transit goals all speak to the superior versatility of roads over rail for urban transportation.

So why do California’s cities continue to poor billions into light rail and streetcars, when that money could be used to unclog the roads?

To reiterate: The public sector unions that run California want tens of thousands of new public employees to operate the trains and streetcars, maintain them, maintain the tracks, and provide security, running up staggering annual deficits. But doing this means that public sector union membership – hence public sector union power – will increase.

4 – CEQA reform so people can live closer to the jobs:

The median home value in the United States today is $202,700. The median home value in California today is $509,600, 2.5 times as much! There is no shortage of land in California, and the alleged shortages of energy and water are self-inflicted as the result of policies enacted by California’s state legislature. But instead of reforming California’s Environmental Quality ActSB 375AB 32, and countless other laws that have made building homes in California nearly impossible, California’s legislature is doubling down on more government solutions – primarily to subsidize either extremely high density housing, or subsidized housing for the economically disadvantaged, or both.

None of this is necessary. Outside of California’s major urban centers, there is no reason homes cannot be profitably built and sold at a median price of $202,700, and there is no reason the people living in those homes cannot drive or ride share to work on fast, unclogged freeways.

But California’s public sector unions want more regulations on home building, and they want more subsidized public housing. Because those solutions, even though inadequate and coercive, enable them to hire vast new bureaucracies to enforce the many regulations and administer the public assets. Unleashing the private sector to build affordable homes in a competitive market would rob these unions of their opportunity to acquire more power. It’s that simple.

5 – Insatiable appetite for pension fund contributions:

According to a California Policy Center study, taking barely adequate annual employer pension contributions into account, the average unionized state/local government worker in California makes over $120,000 per year in pay and benefits. But to adequately fund their promised pension benefits, employers will need to pay at least another $20,000 per employee to the pension funds. This funding gap, which equates to over $20 billion per year, is the additional amount that is required to cover the difference between how much California’s public employee pension funds currently collect from taxpayers, and how much they need to collect to keep the promises that union controlled politicians have made to the government unions they “negotiate” with. That is a best-case scenario.

It could be much worse. A 2016 California Policy Center analysis (ref. table 2-C) estimated that under a worst-case scenario, the annual costs to fund California’s public employee pension funds could cost taxpayers nearly $70 billion more per year than they are currently paying.

And by the way, California’s pension funds are themselves almost entirely under the control of public sector unions – research the background of CalPERS and CalSTRS board directors to verify the degree of influence they have. Absent significant reform, funding California’s public employee pensions is going to continue to consume every dollar in new taxes for the next several decades. The cumulative financial impact of funding these pensions is easily triple that of the bullet train’s $100 billion fiasco, probably much more.

Let’s not mince words. Government unions control California. They collect and spend over $1.0 billion every year, and spend most of that money on either explicit political campaigning and lobbying, or soft advocacy via expensive public relations campaigns and sponsored academic studies. Their presence is felt everywhere, from local transit districts to the governor’s office. They make or break politicians at will, by outspending or outlasting their opponents. At best, California’s most powerful corporate players do not cross these unions, often they collude with them.

California’s public sector unions operate as senior partners in a coalition that includes left-wing oligarchs especially in the Silicon Valley, extreme environmentalists and their powerful trial lawyer cohorts, and the Latino Legislative Caucus – usurped by leftist radicals – and their many allies in the social justice/identity politics industry. The power of this government union led coalition is nearly absolute, and the consequences to California’s private sector working class have been nothing short of devastating.

Government unions force California’s agencies to over-hire, overpay, and mismanage, because that benefits their members even as it harms the public. These unions enforce absurd policy priorities that further harm the public in order to increase their power. They are the reason California has increased its gas tax.

This article was originally published by the California Policy Center


Pump bump: California drivers to pay 12 cents more per gallon starting Wednesday – San Jose Mercury, Oct. 31, 2017

California’s gas tax increases Wednesday – Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2017

How much you’ll REALLY pay in gasoline tax in California – San Diego Union Tribune, Apr. 23, 2017

What Californians Could Build Using the $64 Billion Bullet Train Budget – California Policy Center, Mar. 21, 2017

American Road and Transportation Builders Association – FAQs, ref. “How much does it cost to build a mile of road?

High-Speed Rail Delay More than Triples Planned Cost to San Jose – San Jose Inside, Oct. 2, 2017

A 13.5-mile tunnel will make or break California’s bullet train – Los Angeles Times, Oct. 21, 2017

California Environmental Quality Act – Wikipedia

State Senate bills aim to make homes more affordable, but they won’t spur nearly enough construction – Los Angeles Times, Aug. 11, 2017

California’s Public Sector Compensation Trends – California Policy Center, Jan. 2017

What is the Average Pension for a Retired Government Worker in California? – California Policy Center, Mar. 2017

The Coming Public Pension Apocalypse, and What to Do About It – California Policy Center, May 2016